The still very young man took the staircase. There was nothing fanciful, it didn’t arc down with a grand flourish or bore in the way a submarine’s stairs do; it just fed down into the surface predictably and deliberately, one step at a time, carrying him closer to the sound of the train. A witness might have wondered why such a slight young man would trouble himself with this large suitcase on the subway when his spine was no thicker than a garter snake’s. Too poor for a taxi, they might have thought. Something important, maybe. But the thought couldn’t weather the passage of more than a few moments; this was New York and there were, perhaps, greater mysteries. Regard him now (as deep down that would have pleased him). That day he brought with him his mother’s eyes—all the time dry and brown like the soil that archaeologists dig for bones through in ancient places. He wore a simple off white tunic, one that by looking at it was not hard to suppose that it had come from a live plant. Under pants of the same raw material, he wore the same undergarments as you or I. His beard, shiny, black, was just starting to fill in. Although the suitcase had wheels, he carried it underground, sweeping his head from left to right as if he were constantly crossing a busy road.
The young man flicks his wrist. The magnetic strip on the yellow card is read. The turnstile welcomes him with a mechanical grunt, but he doesn’t pass. There is an old Bangladeshi attendant in the booth watching either an inner or local horizon; news here or coming. Looking at the man in the protected glass case, the young man suddenly feels dangerous, something like he imagines the way an artist or lion might feel. He tries to meet his eyes, but without warning the metal door next to the turnstiles buzzes and he realizes he is carrying his suitcase through it.
In the station’s interior, light from outside can no longer be seen. It would be easy to turn around now, the young man thinks. No, I’m wrong, he corrects, and presses deeper into the station. Three Korean girls float past him; desserts in confectioner’s powder, cherry sauce dripping at their lips. Even their laughter is a metal spoon coming to rest in a glass ice cream chalice. At home a crawl of mildew up their shower curtains, things bundled in toilet tissue in the wastebaskets. At the young man’s right, a business man has just left a sculpture studio. His face is grey, amateurish—clay tumors, halved cocktail toothpicks for eyelashes. He chirps! A text message? Bathed in photons, the artwork doesn’t even have the dignity of being primitive. It outstrips him, its messenger bag swinging, empty.
Certainly there had been other options, the young man thinks looking down at the suitcase without stopping. Law, Medicine. This path. This path, he thinks, working his jaw woodenly while he does. But there was still time. Yes, I’ll get some peanuts from that man over there, he thinks. I’ve always liked peanuts. At the newspaper stand he lays a dollar on the counter and walks away with the peanuts. In two handfuls they’re gone and he is still himself. He pauses by a pillar to rest for a moment. A young white woman in a skirt overtakes him. The lines on the back of her stockings, beginning, crinkling at her ankles, must rise all the way to the softened caves of heaven, he thinks, licking a crust of salt off his fingers.
There is music: a young Croatian fellow with a guitar that looked like some concussive detonation had loosed him from a mold the shape of him in his hometown and deposited him here flaming. His clothing was torn and there were bits of shrapnel in his nose, lips, eyebrow and ears. He lives here now and has since learned the trick of calling them jewelry with a straight face. In front of him the guitar’s case was splayed open like a black moth. I can stay down here all day and then do it, the young man thinks listening to the echo of the explosion. I won’t rush it. An out of towner in sneakers dropped a dollar coin into the deep blue gore of the case. His wife, fat, also in sneakers, beamed. The young man sees a table with two Jehovah’s Witnesses. They say nothing in Spanish to each other as he passes. The suitcase was beginning to get heavy. One gains strength not only from drinking the milk, but also from lifting the jug, he thought, heading toward the sound of the train.
Two police officers slouch at the mouth of the staircase down to the platform. Always so much saber rattling, the young man thinks. The young man quit swinging the suitcase altogether now. He pretends to study the names on a movie poster peeling at the top edge. He runs his finger along the surface of the Hollywood dream. Do they look at him suspiciously? No, they don’t. Today is payday. Today the Yankees play. Today the Captain bought their sandwiches. Today someone in both of their families is dying of cancer. The young man, satisfied, carries the suitcase past them. On the way down the stairs he brushes shoulders with a medicated college kid, Irish-white, holding a soiled pillow naked without a case under his arm. In New York two people can fuck and never make eye contact.
It’s warmer down on the platform. The young man imagines the radon in the air as liquid and beautiful as the northern lights or a house fire seen through the stained glass of a church’s window. Is there a vein of skin cells in the aurora borealis or does it act as a fine screen over the entire landscape? Do our grindings, our floating grounds suppress light, the young man wonders looking at the subway map for no reason. It’s tall, taller than him, and reminds him of map one might see of a territory at war. Would Manhattan be one theater or would there be an uptown and downtown theater. He pauses to think (never taking his eye off the suitcase) and decided they would vivisect Manhattan along Broadway and there would be East and West theaters. Pleased, he took the few steps to the yellow, acned edge of the platform and craned his head over the tracks. Just space down the tunnel - still, unlit, uninterrupted by form. The next thought was drowned out by a train’s arrival on the other side, the wrong side of the platform. No, the young man thought nodding. This would be it. He stepped in and the doors shut them all inside. He took a seat next to a fussy-looking Englishman in an oversized seersucker jacket. On his lap was an outdated piece of technology. The young man was aware that the man had drawn a bit of him in, smelled the spice that clung to him. The train jerked and headed downtown. He stared down at the suitcase between his knees. Should he just do it? His friends’ voices in his head thought that he should. He could feel their hands up his back like he was a dummy. He wondered what it would feel like to finally do it. Certainly there was nothing else to do. Yes, now was the time. He took the suitcase’s zipper in his hand, but the train had pulled into the next station by then and people were piling in. The young man set his jaw. He felt something, fear maybe, and decided to wait until the car thinned out a little to do it. He chewed his nails some; his thumb in particular. The city is a rat king, he thought; what busies the tails with each other? Is it the blood drawn by the claws in the struggle to escape that runs so freely at first only to harden later like a glue to bind rats together? Every apartment dweller should be tried for conspiracy against natural order. With a few bits of his own nails in his stomach he felt ill and when he looked down at the suitcase and thought of leaving. Yes, I’ll get off at the next stop. Today is not the day, he thought, and resigned himself to it. At the next station, with the train still rocking itself still, he rose to leave—and, just by chance, the young man caught a glimpse of her stepping in between the passengers crowded around the pole.
It isn’t correct to say that he saw her so much as he saw what wasn’t her. He saw the negative space around her: the rat king of travelers bound together around her, who, despite living in the strict borders of this land disassociated themselves of it the way she, in turn, was apart from them. She was singular and alone, but despite his efforts, she wouldn’t meet his eyes. Time passed like that. Although they were on the same train, heading in the same direction, without moving a muscle, he was following her now. Five or more stops had slipped by and after crossing a bridge over a brown river, the young man found himself in a different theater of the war. Although she was still there, her thighs pressed together; it was too much for him to look at, so he didn’t. This caused sap to break out across his chiseled, bark-less forehead. On his chin: new shoots the color of cucumber.
He had taken to counting his own heartbeat, which thundered along over the tracks. An older Jewish woman in eye glasses that had taken her the better part of a workday to pick out online used them on the young man; and then, she hoped no one would notice, on the suitcase at his feet. She fidgeted with the technology in her hands—made it glow—darkened it—made it glow. Further down the row of benches, past a fault line in the plastic seats shored up with a long scar of epoxy, a Polish man, younger than her perked up, as we do when we are passing the bean bag of shared danger around. It was the young man’s tunic that made this man’s nostrils flare. This man’s eyes met the Jewish woman’s and together they glanced around the train for allies. A sun-darkened itinerant laborer with plaster streaks on his pants sat quietly in the corner. A coconspirator? The laborer’s eyes reclined in his head. For their purpose, he might as well have been bricked in a Mayan pyramid praying to the sun. The train entered a tunnel.
At the next station, the girl rose to get off, and, at the same time, the young man’s head turned to keep pace with her until she passed through the doors and was gone. He was still for a moment after she left; his cheek flushed slightly, and still bared, like an offering, to the direction she had been. The chimes sounded, and the door began sliding together—when a dark disembodied hand appeared and used the box cutter it was holding to open up the young man’s face before retracting behind the now closed doors. Blood dripped onto his tunic. The other passengers froze. There was his breath. The blood, sticky in his beard now, was already hardening to a jewel-like scab that would bind him to the owner of the knife, the crowd. A woman’s nails could be heard blindly scratching at the plastic seat looking for the strap of her purse. Suddenly he was very calm. He reached into the suitcase and carefully removed an antique ventriloquist’s dummy and set it on his lap where the blood stains were quietly radiating outward. The young man cleared its throat.