The Metro approaches Catalunya, the busiest stop on the red line at any time of day. A peripheral look around the car shows me a full line-up of tired faces. Mine is one of them, I’m sure. Most passengers are heading home from work, eager to fall asleep for an hour or two before the night starts.
The train slows to a halt and I look out to the platform. Among the rush of others, I see my friend Silvana run down the concourse steps, pleased with herself that she’ll catch this train. She wears a green dress. It’s bright, like a spotlight found her in the crowd. And she wields a smile, her favorite weapon, brandishing it up and down the platform as she puzzles over the concerned rider’s dilemma: the choice of one particular car over another. It’s a choice about fitting into the same current, anticipating the next migratory wave, whether one should position herself to make an optimal switch or reduce the time it takes to walk to a station exit.
The crowd is powerful, chatty, alive; their voices anchored to the comings and goings of the great underground trains, different but reminiscent of the thresher’s din back home in Nebraska where great mechanical whirrings creep from wheatfields adjacent to the county roads. When the train stops, the wordless shuffle commences, people stepping in and out in turn in a tuneless dance. A beggar tries to angle into the outflow, hand extended forth, emptying his stock of phrases for guileless tourists to ingest. As I watch Silvana eye the adjacent cars, I see the beggar behind her making his own choice. What he sees must be different. We’re cattle on his stand. He chooses because it is the only meaningful act he can make at the time.
Silvana enters my car on the opposite end. I dare to study her, the direction she angles her legs as she sits, how she looks through the aisle doors into the next car. She doesn’t see me yet but I know she will. I know how she works: she can’t rein in her curiosity. She’ll offer a tentative look down the train car, unable to hide that smile. I know I have to talk to her when she sees me. I’ll wave, but that won’t be enough. She’ll mouth something silent to me, wave again, and I’ll be forced to get up, push through and make my way over and talk to her up close. I wonder if my breath smells like cigarettes. I know it does. Will she see my blocked pores that dot my forehead like stops on the Metro map? I take my compact from my purse and examine my face in a hurry.
I don’t know her too well, but she and I both live at the same stop. We met on the platform months before, when I first got here. Sometimes we’ll go see American movies together, or local theater. We saw this one play last week, a new one by Joan Brossa, about a writer whose family doesn’t respect him. The director did a great job at fitting seven people on a stage the size of a farmstand, if you can imagine that. The lead–a young writer–tried to finish his novel, but his family, curious about his work, kept interrupting him, asking him what was going to happen next. They argued a lot, mostly about love and politics. But what I remembered most was the way the actors introduced themselves into the story: they crept out into the aisles from behind, then jumped up on stage or even snuck onto it from the pit. One scene cast the real audience as a fictional audience to one of the writer’s monologues. It was up to us to applaud or jeer. After the performance was over, Brossa himself came out and read some of his poetry. Silvana and I loved it. She said he was so handsome, she could feel the audience’s attention on him, listening to his deep voice.
After Brossa finished reading, he thanked us all for coming despite the looming Metro strike. He had plenty of his own thoughts about the Metro, most of which I didn’t understand. We try to spy an open seat that we can get to before anyone else, he said, or we choose the train that might have more room to stand. Or the one with that particularly attractive man fate is about to position next to you.
Silvana told me about one time she was waiting for the Metro long after midnight. The platform was empty except for a man in a black coat standing at the far end. She said she thought he might be a separatist with a bomb. Why would a separatist set a bomb off with no bystanders, I asked her. She laughed it off. But it’s possible, I said; that kind of man might be around. The sinister also ride these trains. The sisters at the convent warned me of this the first day I got here. They said it’s people like this–troublemakers–who stand out in your memory.
Every other rider, I imagine, is returning home from work, hungry and very tired, like me. They stare with passive fixation above each others’ heads, or they close their eyes and invent scenes in their minds like Brossa’s writer. Sometimes the trains go dark for a second, switching wires or tracks, I suppose. When this occurs, the riders are treated to a void where nothing draws their attention except the train’s forward momentum. They can relax. But then the lights return and you’re jarred into action, your eyes are commanded, and you have to refocus on nothing in particular.
I see that Silvana continues to look straight ahead even while we make the next stop. I hear the wheels screech to a slow halt and the air brakes hiss. The doors open and Silvana and most of the riders on her end all notice a young gypsy and her two kids, small and dirty, board the train. They’re delighted, alive, dressed in bright and dark reds. The train lurches forward and the kids scream, run up and down the aisle, forcing people to move their feet or get stepped on, hiding behind passengers like they’re trees. Their mother sits and stares like the other riders, hoping to forget for just a moment that they are her own.
That night last week, after we walked home from the theater, Silvana was saying something about the last poem Brossa read aloud. It was about words on a page, we recalled. They exist somewhere–in the future, I think he said–until you encounter them. I barely remember the poem’s point–it was circuitous–but I do remember staring at him when he said this, though. He kept a confident stature on the edge of the stage.
I watch the gypsy mother reach into her shawl and take out a closed fist. The girl hugs her leg and looks up. The mother unwraps something–candy, I guess–and drops it in the girl’s outstretched hands. I look around and see malice in the riders’ narrowed eyes. Some of them scowl, offer terse words, hold their bags closer, away from the gypsies. Those who know each other turn and exchange knowing glances. I look to Silvana and her smile is gone, replaced with a gaze of casual, bored annoyance.
The girl calls her brother over and he runs up the aisle, and she takes the gum out of her mouth and places it on his expectant, wagging tongue. He tastes it and hugs her. The passengers hate it, I can see; the way he found something new, how they both did. None of them can stomach his epiphany; the way his face beams and how his laughs ride over the Metro’s growl.
Our stop comes next. Silvana stands, leaves the train ahead of me and walks toward the exit. I hurry and catch up to her and she’s all smiles again. I love your dress, and where are you going tonight, we say to each other. Then I feel it: a hand on my leg, grabbing at my thigh, sliding up to my rear. I spin around with an indignant huff, eager to swat away its owner, and I see her down at my waist: the young gypsy girl, the gum gifter. She stretches her other hand toward me, closed like it was before. I put my hand out, ignoring the consequences, expecting a nauseating wad, and I feel it land in my palm. But I know this object: my black-shelled compact. It fell, she explains, at my feet. She says she saw me drop it and not even notice. I take it with grace and say thank you to her and her mother behind her. They stare at me. I dig out a few coins from my purse and hand them over.
I watch them go while Silvana continues uninterrupted as we walk up the stairs. She tells me she had a long day, but she thought of Joan Brossa and wants to see another play by another handsome writer, this time on the other side of town. I grab the end of her sentence and swing off it, say something about how every play still exists in the past after we see it. I think it impresses her. I’m pretty good at that, coming up with something fast when I need to.
Sandro Braidotti lives in Philadelphia and claims several career paths that have braided themselves into a throbbing umbilicus of activity and spite. Ptoo! To offset such vagrancy, he devotes some enthusiasm, pants cuffed and hubcaps scraped, to several different habitual applications: eating, writing, revising, forgetting, fixing some things, breaking others.