Joe boarded the train with the usual cadence of a drunk, leaning forward as if he was trying to ram in a door, feet moving a little too fast, before easing up and stumbling back. The orange juice and god-knows-what in his Gatorade bottle sloshed in full circle. After taking a moment to survey the car he dashed for the two-seater on the side. Unfortunately, so did she. They danced at each other, trying to be polite and selfless, before she chirped, “There’s room for two you know.”
She didn’t know he was a drunk, otherwise she probably would have stood all the way back to Queens. She was too distracted by his thick, silky hair and affectionate smile, which cloaked him as just another eccentric New Yorker. She told herself there was no reason he couldn’t be both, and his pink windbreaker made him seem too harmless to worry about. She got to reading her comic book while something non-distracting played in her earphones.
“Phew, just spent all day in the Medicaid office,” Joe said in her general direction. He wanted to talk, but the earphones made it hard to know if she was even paying attention, or just nodding in acknowledgement that he still had working vocal chords.
“Really? What happened?” she asked.
So she does want to talk? he thought. He told her he turned 53 yesterday, and that he lost his Medicaid card, and that he gets $200 a month in food stamps. Is that impressive? he asked himself. He told her how he spent, “37 years on the books,” but made sure not to specify where. “Last one fell out of my pocket when I was 15 stories up. I can’t lose it this time,” he said, punctuating the thought with a large swig and a grunt.
He doesn’t look 53 she thought. Where the hell would he have started working at 16? She thought maybe the MTA at some point. He had the demeanor of a friend’s dad who worked testing the controls. She romantically pictured him walking the elevated lines at night, picking up nickels that had been left on the tracks. She liked to make up stories about strangers, even if their actions were just what she would do in the hypothetical situations.
Joe backtracked, and reminded her that even though he gets food stamps, he worked for it. Not like those guys who never worked a day in their life and get Social Security. Not like Kim’s millionaire mom. He had long forgotten what his ex’s mother had done to even make her fortune. He forgot most of their relationship, save for the laughing. “She could always take a joke,” he told her. “This one time she was taking a shower, and I came into the bathroom and poured a bucket of ice water over it. Boy was she mad! But she could take it. I’d joke her and she’d get me right back.”
He took a drink, remembering watching a lot of movies. Remembering the day she stopped believing him. Remembering climbing out the window and never going back.
She couldn’t tell which parts of his story were real or not. He may or may not have been born in Southern Italy. He could have lived in Richmond Hill, and had five cars and three girlfriends at one point. He could have drank through Kim’s miscarriage, and spent two months crying on a park bench. He could have found the secret to how Spiderman scales those walls.
She focused on the words. He said things like “I says to her.” He said, “I’ll take the train to Ditmars and ride it back. I got nowhere to be, as long as I got a drink.” He said, “I miss him. He was crazy but I miss him.” He said his best friend drank himself to death, and he promised him that he’d take care of his wife, even though he hates her. She told him he was a good person. She was convinced she meant it.
Joe took her hand as the train approached her stop. It was cold, and he kissed it as she stood up. “It was nice meeting you,” she said. “You take care of yourself.” No one took her seat when she left. He got off at the end of the line after an MTA worker pushed him awake and escorted him down to the street.
And then he waited.
He waited until the stores closed and the people went home, and the lights in the windows had shut off. Then he put his hands to the side of the staircase and lifted himself up, clinging with his fingertips and toes as he scrambled up and over the wall, landing back on the platform. Lousy MTA, he thought. If I’m riding this train all night I sure as hell ain’t paying twice.
Jaya Saxena is a born and raised New Yorker. This is probably the most important thing to know about her. Her writing has appeared in The Faster Times, The Hairpin and Entertainment Weekly. Jaya is a staff writer for The Inclusive.