March 19, 2024

Drinks on a Wednesday night
Fiction by Greta Rainbow

Wedged in the last resort middle seat of a subway car, I am reading an article on my phone while I am at war with my neighbors. I can feel the leg of the man to my left, against mine. It’s a delicate touch and there’s a sliver of space, maybe, but only because I am clenching so tight as to not make the touch a press. I look at his thighs, spread wide and out, his navy dress pants straining against the obtuse angle. Polyester imitating wool. I look at my thighs, which are bare and look especially fleshy and girlish as I squeeze them. I have one mole on one leg and another on the other. I make them kiss. 

 I remember my bag at my feet — real lambskin getting scuffed; I shouldn’t have nice things — and haul it onto my trembling lap so it finds a resting place between my leg and his. I understand that he’s noticed, is staring down at the hulking load that contains my life. (Red notebook that has lists; black notebook that would be worse to lose; lozenges coated in loose tobacco; loose coins, which are bad luck.) I almost shift the bag back toward me but I stop and wait for him to move his leg. He keeps looking at it, at the meeting point of us. I am frozen. I keep reading. The words: “Tonic immobility is a survival strategy that has been identified across many classes of animals and is usually triggered by the perception of inescapability or restraint, like the moment a prey finds itself in a predator’s jaws.” The article is about why some rape victims freeze.

 I cross my legs to narrow my berth even more. Though pretzeling is my most comfortable position and has been since crisscross applesauce, I’ve trained myself to sit back straight, shoulders down, fix the crook in the neck symptomatic of a life lived head down that is not unique to me. I saw the 3D render of ‘Mindy,’ the average woman in the year 3000, and got scared. Her limbs are molded to better claw a phone but her scariest feature is milky white irises peeking from under an extra-heavy lid, designed to block excessive waves of blue light. 

The other man on my right side settles into this newfound room. His breath is heavy and the image of his belly pulsing in and out I see in the corner of my eye reminds me to breathe. Relax, manicurists always say, slapping my hands. I laugh in a way of, “Oh I forgot that’s something I can do!” All this squeezing reminds me of the contractions I’m supposed to practice to make my pelvis stronger, that are supposed to help with the infection, which makes me ask, “Please cum on my face instead.”

Suddenly my seatmates stand up, synchronized. I am below them and I panic — do they know each other? Am I the victim of a routine prank performed wordlessly, confirmed with a brow raise when they got on and saw me there so obviously alone? I picture one hairy hand around each bony ankle of mine. When I grab my ankles and roll myself back and forth I can’t encircle it all the way but I’m sure they could.

They stand there quietly, looking nowhere. They wait for the doors to open so they can go home. They’re tired after work. They’re just men.

At Prince Street, I slip my phone into the pocket of my skirt, which is short, shapeless, and plaid, and is, in my heart, 2011 Teen Vogue Tokyo street style. I’m not wearing underwear; too itchy, right now. One weekend at the beginning of college, in that period of embarking on big outings with too many people because you haven’t yet decided on your favorite few, a girl I didn’t know made a confession in a suburban thrift store changing room. “I hate clothes, I hate thinking about them. Everything in here is so gross, this kind of actually makes me sick, being here.” She was pulling her huge t-shirt back on. I was fingering some mesh top that I put back. By Thanksgiving she was totally ostracized after her roommates complained that she slept naked, kicking the covers off in her sleep so they woke up to her mooning them every morning. A picture went around. I’m sure things were said about her hips but she looked like an angel. My life could have been so different if I hadn’t lied and told my parents the only dorm option was a single. 

When the doors open they face the turnstiles, my chosen car perfectly aligned. After seven years I’ve mastered the geography of my most-used lines. Up the stairs and in the world, I’m slapped with the horrible disorientation that comes from going underground when it’s light out and emerging when it’s dark. It’s like I lost something in the changeover. I was robbed of a sunset and I won’t know if it was the kind of sunset so spectacular everyone feels the need to post a picture. It was compulsory in the early days of following friends and celebrities to pay homage to the sublime, and now the prevailing aesthetic is the ugly: shattered sidewalk mirrors, chain link fencing, objects so much closer than the sun. This is when but not why I left. It’s too late for me but an immense purple twilight is happening for someone else, somewhere else, right now, west of this island. Romanticize that.

 At the bar I’m early so I get water and finish reading while swiveling on the stool. I keep my eye on the clock, noting when the hour will no longer be happy. I don’t want to order yet because I don’t want to have to put my card down because I always put my card down. 

The article ends badly, I think, with a quote from a former police officer who spent years handling sexual assault cases. “He shook his head and closed his eyes. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘I teach from my mistakes.’” It might be frustrating to me because I had a punishing journalism advisor who scolded harshly if I ever ended on words that weren’t mine. Obviously this writing’s good. The font is Georgia.

My date comes rushing in, disturbing the low and slow jazz that brings out the chintz in the place. I basically avoid establishments with “The” in the name that also opened in the last five years, but it’s not my turn to choose.

 “Hey! I was about to say sorry then I was like, I’m not even late,” the boy says as he whips off his scarf and hat and drags a seat right next to me. He rubs his hands together. They’re so big; he’s so tall. At a certain point you can’t tell if someone’s handsome or if it’s just the optical illusion of their towering. I don’t want him to touch me but I’m mad he isn’t trying.

“Yeah no, I’m weirdly early for the first time in my life.” I’m looking away, toward the tiny bartender who’s on her phone at the other end, and feeling guilty for it though I so rarely look anyone right in the eyes. “I think I needed to get out of my house.”

“Winter’s coming. Ha.”

“I like winter, though? It’s got nothing to do with that. I get the same way in the summer. I’m just—”

“You’re by yourself all day. Totally. You and your thoughts. But you’re Buddhist like that. Did you ever get more furniture since the last time I was there?” 

The last time he was there I had a pull-out couch and now I have a bed with linen sheets. I have a bookshelf and a cast-iron skillet. I don’t think I even had my laptop because I remember laughing at him when he asked if I had HBO. But I definitely had my phone. I was working so much. I know I had an empty terracotta pot and I rested the phone on the ridge and sat in front of the window and talked to people. I devised manifestation guides, delivered customized messages strangers had already written but wanted to hear in my voice, and looked into the eye of the camera and made silent prayers that were always all about me.

“It looks better,” I admit. “But I’ve actually made a choice not to have anyone over right now.” Christ. I didn’t mean to be so weird, saying this so immediately. Declaring it, like I have a problem. The bartender still hasn’t looked up. He still hasn’t gotten a water. I’ve drained mine. I don’t think to drink fluids unless they are put down in front of me and then I am greedy.  

“Oh, like, you’re not dating? That’s — okay, yeah, I was surprised when you reached out again in the first place. It’s so okay.” He’s frowning but it’s not unkind. I don’t believe this matters so much to him.

I don’t correct the words. Not dating. Not seeing anyone in the literal sense. The bartender decides to notice us, starts to drift over. She’s wearing a cream, low-cut apron and her hair is in braids. I have an image of a fantasy tavern styled in the modern day conception of the Middle Ages.

“Sorry, I think we’ll actually go?” I say this to the bartender and to the boy. I’m already hoisting my bag up on my shoulder. She shrugs and does a quick scan of us; she has purple contacts in. 

 Out on the street, under fairy lights, I’m breathing. Another couple is nearby, smoking, and it’s just close enough to smell and feel without it lasting on me. No need for more space, nor less. 

 He’s looking down. “Don’t feel any pressure to say yes, but you know I live right by here,” he starts. “Because we didn’t drink, I’d like to — do you want me to drive you home?”

I do not feel guilty for not speaking as we walk the ten minutes to the garage where he keeps his small and clean, city-appropriate sedan. I ask to take a piece of gum from the cup holder and to change the radio from the sermon on the news to the station broadcasting out of East Orange, New Jersey. The signal is mostly clear, apart from in the tunnel. The show is Sinner’s Crossroads, and the DJ says nothing. All the way to mine, muddy recordings of rock 45s play. I roll down the window and my skirt flies up. I tap my foot to the beat and the sound is swallowed by the carpet and the whoosh. I don’t know the words to any of the songs and I’ll never hear them again.

Greta Rainbow is a Seattle girl living in New York. Her essays and reporting on arts and culture have appeared in the Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books, SSENSE, and Editorial Magazine, among others.