She sat on a cement bench with no back. Her feet, masked in shiny boots of leather, were touching, the proper position, her mother had always told her, for a young lady to sit. Her knees pressed together tightly, though now, with years and training, she hardly felt the pressure on the inside of both knees. Small pinkish white hands were folded in her lap, like a simple cloth napkin on a dinner table.
She was refined and cosmopolitan, like the crisp red wines she would sometimes sip in warmly lit bars that held soft laughter. Towering buildings stood behind her, all shiny and glittering with the bright sun. They whispered at her back, telling tales of newly-scented clothes, filling her ears with the familiar sputtering noise of a credit card machine.
She was this city’s Woman. She was the product of careful breeding, of clever advertising; the result of meetings in high offices around wooden tables. A fashionable wool sweater draped artfully over her shoulders, her thick legs were covered in thin black cotton that did not leave her shape to the imagination.
She was solid, but soft, a modern Amazon covered in expensive fabric. The strap of a sleek black leather handbag rested on her right shoulder, within were the contents of her world: a makeup bag filled with lipsticks and lotions and eye pencils. A tube of lotion, a tube of hand sanitizer, her cell phone, a little plastic bag of clean tissues, her red wallet, stuffed with plastic cards and yellow receipts.
She was the woman of the city, the pretty picture of Female, Wealth, and Urban. She was the photo, the living vision.
And there, on the other side of the train tracks, filling her world with the pungent stench of decay, was a man. He was not what they had envisioned. Not there in the board rooms or the executive meetings. He was the one that had fallen through the cracks, whether by sickness, luck, or habit, he was not what they wanted to see. No one wanted to see this.
He was a man fit for hospitals and drugs and white-walled rooms. But there were no hospitals now, no women in clean uniforms that cared. There was nothing for this man but the streets and the whims of his madness. In one body, he was the product of a rotting culture, a civilization in decay. He was a man with no home, no bathroom, no razor, nothing but voices and filth.
She had watched him for fifteen minutes, the entire time she had been waiting for the L train. She looked at the overhead sign again, blinking with the times for in-bound trains. Another six minutes to go. She judged the man to be about 40, but he was weathered by time, like a badly battered shell that had lost all its shine in the ocean’s tumbling surf.
Gray hair along the side of his temples merged into the black matted mess that was the rest of his hair. A scruffy salt and pepper beard looked like it had last been trimmed with a pair of rusty scissors. His feet were dark brown with soot and the street’s mess. She wondered what had become of his shoes, how long it had been since he had had any. The stained jeans he wore hung on his hips by a piece of string as thin as a shoe lace, maybe that is it was. She pictured him stealing the lace from another man in the middle of the night, someone just as dirty and forgotten.
He sat on the brick floor of the station, his back pressed to the wall. Beside him, on the glossy brick wall, was a telephone. It was a phone to be used by train-system employees, not one that could access the outside world.
Every few minutes, the man would rise, pick up the phone’s receiver and speak into it. Sometimes he would speak calmly, the next time he would yell, the next he would cry. She watched him from afar, watching the loop. She was a little afraid of his erratic behavior, but slightly intrigued and unable to look away, even when she tried.
He didn’t seem to notice her. He shouted into the receiver:
“I told you I’m coming! I’ve got all my stuff. I’m coming right now! Stop bothering me!”
It was the loudest he had been, a few other people in the station turned to look. She felt thankful for the train tracks between them, somehow feeling safer with the distance and metal rails.
The man sat back down on the ground. Looking agitated and worried. She wondered what he heard, what he thought, what he would do.
Her hair started to blow slightly and she heard the swishing sound of a train arriving. The metal doors opened and she got in, taking a seat by the window and looking out, to the man that she would soon forget.
He got up once again and grabbed the receiver, shouting into it. She watched him talking as the doors closed and the train took her away from his madness, from the telephone, from the glimpse of what she might one day become.