Above ground, I’m human.
I say “excuse me” when I need to squeeze by. “Sorry” when I err. “Please” always and “thank you” until I sicken myself. “How can I help? How can I help?” I never gawk. Men, women, and children are my confidantes, my countrymen, and my heart beats well with each untroubled step they take.
Below ground, I’m an animal.
I descend the uneven steps, slick with gum and urine and spit—humanity’s unrelenting afterbirth. The rain makes it worse. I almost fall and shutter at the thought of getting it on me, but then I remember it’s different down here. To survive, I’ll need to welcome the filth. Eyes straight ahead, I put on my crazy face. I can’t see the light anymore. All taxicab considerations leave with my frigid breath.
My card swipes and I’m through. It’s easy. Why can’t the family beside me figure it out? “You just swipe it!” I wonder how much they’ve got on their cards. Mine’s a monthly and will never run out, ever. Until the first of next month. I feel cleaner and more prepared than them, and my pocket Purell makes it official.
A thin-haired man in a windbreaker won’t stop staring at me. Above ground, I’d be self-conscious. I’d look away. Here, I welcome the tension. “Look at me. I’ll beat you, almost certainly.” I hope the train never arrives. I want to look through him like he’s nothing, until that’s what he becomes. I smile while I stare, and he looks away. He must not know about the rules down here. My crazy face is good.
Overhead: “There is an uptown 4 train 7 minutes away.”
I’m enveloped by mildew as I watch a rat make his way across the tracks. He knows to stay away from the third rail, even though the old Nesquik bottle’s there and it might have some left. It’s dangerous. Wait, he found a way to get it after all. It’s dangerous. He knows the rules and I’m glad.
A new man brushes up against me. I’m careful to turn my head slow, because I’m not scared, I’m curious. Down here. Upstairs, I’d be scared. His older eyes are safe behind new-fashioned glasses and his cheeks are rosy from the cold. He raises his hand in apology. I nod and give up nothing else. A crowd is beginning to form, so I take a step closer to the tracks. On the yellow edge, and I’ll make sure I’m on first.
The family from before made it through. Finally. The little girl puts her backpack on the ground and her mother snaps it up. “The ground is filthy!” It is, and thank God. I see the train’s lights, and widen my elbows out so the man who bumped me will be left behind.
When the glowing red 4 is upon me, I step back off the yellow. Just in case. The rat’s gone now, but the doors are lined up perfectly with my face. Lucky. I stare at everything that’s inside and I see her, with beautiful everything that I’d like to make mine.
Then, they’re open and everyone’s pushing. In or out. It’s a mess. I want to push the hardest. I don’t care about faces or feelings or my clothes touching a stranger’s. I’m powerful and they’ll feel it. It’s a big game.
No seats as usual, so I decide to stand. The man who bumped me is the last one in. Even the family beat him.
She hasn’t left and I continue to examine all the things about her that I can see. She notices and I don’t care at all. Nothing’s off limits.
She smiles. I forget all about the rules and look away.
Dammit. I lost.