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In The Next Train to Gallery Place, Michelle meets a man on the metrorail who wears headphones the colors of the Jamaican flag, listens to Katy Perry, and may or may not be a spy.
About the Author
Nikki Igbo serves as the Features Editor for Radiant Health Magazine, Nigeria’s first women’s health magazine and Africa’s leading health magazine.
Nikki also offers writing and editing services to help you achieve your career and business goals. Learn more at Nikki’s website: thewritinggoddess.com
The Next Train to Gallery Place by Nikki Igbo
Tuesday, 5:24 pm
The first time you and I saw each other, I had just picked my nose. It itched, and I didn’t think anyone on the Metrorail noticed. You did. My eyes caught yours, my pinky finger paused inches from my face. You wore headphones the colors of the Jamaican flag. I slammed my hand into my lap and looked away. Then I looked back. You nodded to an eight count. Your eyes on me, you shrugged as if to say, “It happens.” Then you put your right index finger in your nose, dug around, and shrugged again. I wanted to giggle but instead looked away.
I fought the urge to look at you for the rest of the ride. You reminded me of someone I’d known before, a familiar face with a forgotten name. Did I know you from another planet? There was something about you that made me both afraid and curious. I was intrigued, but with the nose-pick incident between us, I could not face you.
I arrived at my stop, relieved to exit on H Street and go to work. All that day, I wondered about you.
Thursday, 4:55 pm
You stood on the platform fifteen feet away from where I leaned on a pillar. I recognized your headphones before I recognized you. I was struck by how short you were. Not that your height mattered. When I saw you before, you seemed larger than life. You appeared as a Technicolor feature in a grey world. I know that sounds super sappy like love at first sight or the stuff that happens in romantic comedies starring Hugh Grant.
On this day, you wore a Zoo York tee, Lucky Brand jeans, and army green Converse. You looked like military. The way you stood there with your legs shoulder-width apart and your arms crossed, either you were a marine or a superhero. Or a spy. According to an exhibit at my job, there are more spies in DC than any other city in the world.
You nodded to a faster song this time. I imagined you on a dance floor, moving like water, flowing from one groove into the next. And you smiled as you danced. I pictured myself moving next to you right there on the train’s platform. A disco ball emerged from a HumaneWatch billboard and Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon blared over hidden loudspeakers as you whisked me around. I had to stop my body from swaying in real life.
I wanted you to look my way, but I didn’t want you to see me. I was without makeup. I wasn’t dressed in some carefree summer frock. I still hoped you’d look my way. I wanted some sign that you’d thought about me after you’d last gotten off the train. The train came and you got in another car. Something slumped inside of me as I sat and stared out the window.
Friday, 5:03 pm
A yellow-shirted man in a wheelchair spoke on his cell phone. He cursed. He was very upset that the person on the other end had not met him at the Silver Springs stop yesterday at 3:15 as promised. If he still had the use of his legs, he would have kicked that person’s so-and-so all the way down Colesville Road.
Caught in the paraplegic’s tirade, I didn’t notice when you sat next to me. I noticed when I checked the marquee to see there were another eight minutes until the next train to Gallery Place. One of your headphones fed music to your left ear as the other hung from the top of your shirt. You looked at me and smiled.
You said, “I wouldn’t meet that guy anywhere at 3:15.”
I said, “Me neither.”
I liked your voice. Perfect for radio. I wondered if you could do an impression of Al Pacino or DMX. I liked your lips. I wanted to watch your mouth form words beginning with “w.”
Seated beside you, I fantasized a first date in which we sampled all the dim sum at Café Asia on I Street. I drank a lychee martini, and you had Grand Marnier with pineapple juice as we enjoyed a view of the White House and exchanged theories on the midterms.
I said, “Do you like Grand Marnier?”
You said, “I don’t like Grand Marnier, but I do like scotch or bourbon.”
That was weird. I never knew a black guy who didn’t like cognac. You didn’t ask me what I liked to drink, and I felt that was rude until you asked my name. But I didn’t feel comfortable telling you before you told me yours. If you were indeed a spy, then I had to be sensitive about information.
You said, “I’m Nicholas.” I suspected Nicholas was a code name.
I said, “I’m Chelle.” This was only half true.
I extended my hand to shake, and you grasped it as if on a job interview. I would not have minded you kissing the back of my hand, but I guess men don’t do that anymore. Plus, there were mouth germs to consider.
You said, “You have a firm grasp.”
I said, “I hate limp handshakes.”
“I hate when people give half a hand to shake,” you said. “I never trust those people.”
Still holding your hand, I gave it a squeeze because I felt we understood each other. Your hand was warm, not clammy. Smooth without calluses, but not too soft.
We faced the rails and fell silent. I wanted to ask you why you were on the train every day at this same time, what music you were listening to, and if you thought it was odd that Vladimir Putin didn’t have a wife. I didn’t ask, however, because I didn’t want to seem too . . . you know.
I said, “How’s your day going?”
You said, “Eh. These ongoing salmonella outbreaks worry me.”
I thought that was a good sign. You paid attention to news that had nothing to do with Beyoncé.
“I don’t have salmonella,” I said. Either you didn’t feel like laughing, or you didn’t get the joke.
The train approached, the usual crowd huddled in front of the doors, and I walked onto the nearest car thinking you’d follow me to continue our conversation. Maybe you thought I’d follow you. You sat in a seat facing the back of the train—which I could not abide. I had to face the direction we were going. I had to look ahead to the future. I sat my bag on the seat beside me, the seat I would’ve given you. I pretended to ignore you. If you happened to look my way, I didn’t notice.
I rose early to get my monthly mani/pedi at Nails Nails Nails. I told my aesthetician to paint my toes green and put yellow and red flowers on my big toes. I walked over to the Wheaton Westfield where I purchased Zoo York t-shirts for my nephews at the JC Penney back-to-school sale. They were a steal at $10 each. I bought a blue-striped blazer at H&M and black underwear at Victoria’s Secret before I walked over to the San Salvador Festival. I didn’t stay long. There were too many families in the park, too many animated couples with their broods of toothless children.
I saw a few of my neighbors there—the Ethiopian sisters who always wear their hair in the same ponytail and the young Mexican guy with his screaming three-year-old. I didn’t bother to stay for the Mariachi band or Mayan dancers. Outside of Safeway, a homeless man complimented my afro and warned me to keep the Sabbath holy by not making any more purchases after 6:00pm. Inside the grocery store, I picked up everything I needed to make a casserole for Sunday dinner at my brother’s house: bow tie pasta, artichoke hearts, dried tomatoes in oil, and Parmesan cheese.
I had an urge for popcorn. I went over to the snack aisle and saw you there in front of the nut section. You wore cargo shorts and sneakers without socks. I admired the athletic curve of your calves. You didn’t have your headphones, and I wanted to make some witty remark about how a world without music isn’t worthwhile, but the words got caught in my back teeth. I watched you select a bag of unsalted almonds and turn in the other direction without a glance my way. Before I could let out a weak “Nicholas,” or tell you that macadamias are the king of nuts, you left the aisle.
I stood there holding my red basket.
My brother’s wife managed not to gain any weight after birthing twin eight-pound sons. While I spent my days supplementing my oil painting sales by giving interactive tours at the Spy Museum to incredulous tourists, she frolicked from estate sale to estate sale buying and selling antique furnishings. My brother lived in a storybook home with hardwood floors, a big screen, and a Stack-o-matic turntable. He had Nat King Cole albums and a chaise lounge. His two sons looked as if Adonis had spat them out.
Each Sunday dinner at my brother’s, my parents gushed at the latest thing he and his wife had done to their house. Oh, the peonies planted in the front yard and the turquoise area rug in the basement. Look at the sleek wine cooler. How lovely it is with that baker’s rack in the dining room.
No matter how much love or care I’d put into cooking a casserole or lemon cake, they had one comment for me: It’s time you get married and settle down, Michelle. As if I was taking my sweet time finding a husband, buying a house, and getting knocked up. In their minds, I held all the control in my hands. I was somehow in charge of how and where I would meet someone, fall in love, and have a traditional Catholic wedding at Resurrection Church in Burtonsville.
It was entirely up to me to bump into some multi-degreed man with a Christian upbringing who didn’t rape, molest or totally perv out. One who loved children and jazz on Sundays and seasoned his scrambled eggs with Zatarain’s. One who loved rainy day picnics and impromptu pillow fights. One who noticed home décor in Swedish films and knew how to replace a faulty toilet flush valve. As if that exact guy advertised in the Washington Informer or walked his black Lab past the Spy Museum every day.
I gave my usual non-confrontational answer: a shrug paired with an earnest “I’m working on it.”
You possibly lived somewhere on the Maryland side, perhaps right here in Wheaton. Maybe you lived close enough for us to walk to each other’s homes. I thought of us drinking Red Stripes while listening to the bass lines in Curtis Mayfield songs. We could discuss the possibility of optimistic nihilism. We could debate the merits of the American military presence in the Middle East. We could agree to disagree and then enjoy cups of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Then you and I could fall asleep to a George Romero flick, before waking up to make slow, cleansing love that ends all conflict.
I would make a move tomorrow if I saw you.
If you sat anywhere with an open seat beside you, I would pop an Altoid and smile at you. I would ask you what your last name was and whether you drank tea, the last movie you saw, the last time you’d been surprised. I’d ask you about the music you loved and if you’d been to any good concerts lately. I would invite you to meet CIA Counterintelligence Officer Christopher Lynch at the Spy Museum. And I’d wear scented oil and put a lily in my hair.
I belted Sade’s Stronger than Pride in the shower. I used my shea butter soap and dotted Musk of Atlantis all over. I wore tight boot cut jeans and brown sandals to show off my toenails. I wore lip gloss, eye shadow, and Grandmother’s rosary beads. I practiced smiling in the mirror. I danced to Beatles songs. I checked both of my nostrils for debris and applied extra antiperspirant.
I completed all of that around 10am. I sat and waited until 4:30pm to walk over to the KISS & Ride to catch the 5:10 train to work. As I waited, I resisted the urge to drink coffee or consume anything that could give me gas. I watched my fluid intake. I didn’t want to miss the train or you because I had to pee. I also didn’t want to risk peeing on the back of my jeans or getting toilet paper stuck to my shoe.
To cope with the clock’s hand, I made myself reread The Stranger by Albert Camus. After working up a good contempt for all things French, I made myself watch two hours of Property Brothers reruns while I crocheted the final ten rows of a scarf for my father. I thought of crocheting a Jamaican flag-inspired scarf for you. I wondered if you preferred turtlenecks or hoodies. I imagined you letting me throw snowballs at you and making snow angels in the street. I turned off the television and stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. First, I had to discover your last name.
I changed my clothes twice only to put back on what I’d originally chosen. I went to the bathroom one last time before grabbing my purse and heading out the door. I couldn’t feel my feet as I walked down Georgia Avenue.
I slid my fare card into the turnstile slot and looked around for you. You weren’t over at the fare machines or chatting up the information officer. You weren’t seated on any benches or leaning against any pillars. You didn’t float down the escalator. I didn’t see you anywhere. Maybe you didn’t even live in Wheaton.
Perhaps you’d been at the Safeway on Georgia because you were a spy and you were buying nuts for your buxom girlfriend who worked for a lobbyist firm whose offices you wanted to break into to acquire privileged information. Maybe I’d only seen you on the train because your car was getting updated with gadgets.
The train pulled to a stop in front of me. I slouched onto the car and lowered into the closest seat. That yellow-shirted man in the wheelchair—now in a tan shirt—rolled by. He yelled into his cell phone about how the best cornbread is served at Oohhs & Aahhs on U Street.
I decided to move seats when he pulled out a big wad of dollar bills and began to count it. I stood, turned to my right, and saw you seated three rows back. The seat next to you was empty. You made eye contact and waved. I waved back and headed toward you. I ignored handrails. I fell in the middle of the train.
I’ve fallen many times in public. Down a spiral staircase in the park. Up the escalator at a mall. On the way to the bathroom at the movies. At a wedding. This time I was on the Red line traveling to work surrounded by several unknown DCers and you. The longer I remained face down, spread eagle on the floor, the more I realized that I might never marry you or birth two children. We’d never have family game nights on Thursdays and Saturday morning house cleaning. There’d only be me, two tabby cats named Berenstein and Buttercup, and a half-eaten Texas sheet cake in the refrigerator. I’d be forced to go on singles cruises with Mom’s church group. All those crushed velvet athletic suits I’d have to witness.
I rolled over on my back, closed my eyes, and laughed.
I don’t know how long I stayed there. I opened my eyes to find you standing over me with your hand out. I took it and you pulled me to my feet. You guided me to the nearest seat. I felt your hand on the small of my back. You sat next to me and our knees touched. I kept laughing. You laughed. Others laughed. By the Forest Glen stop, everyone on the car was doubled over.
We turned our faces toward each other, and I saw no judgment in your eyes. Around us, the world moved in a swoosh of brick tops, brownstones, and oak trees. The car clack, clacked as it swayed along the rail.
You said, “We should get sushi. I know a good place near Capitol Hill.”
I said, “On I Street, right?”
“No,” you said.
“What kind of music do you listen to?” I’d convert you to Café Asia later.
“A mix of things,” you said.
“Today I’m listening to Katy Perry’s Roar on repeat.”
I stifled an urge to vomit and said, “What else?”
You said, “I like J Electronica, Pink Floyd, a lot of different artists.”
I decided to give you my number.
I wanted to hold your hand, so I grabbed it. You squeezed back. We rode the rest of the way past Howard University and the murals near Rhode Island Avenue. Your last name was Abadom. You were single and liked pirate jokes. You’d just moved to Wheaton, and you were a pharmacist at a CVS near the Lincoln Memorial. You were saving to buy a house with a finished basement.
I wondered if the CVS job was a cover.
By the time we got to Judiciary Square, I had imagined creating a Pinterest page after our first date entitled “Get Me to the Church on Time.” At Gallery Place, we exited together.
You still held my hand.
About the Story
Online dating may be the new standard for meeting that special someone, but as the story reminds us, there’s no better thrill—or sweeter misery—than a potentially romantic chance encounter.
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