The T Train
By Margaret Connor
Joe Orton makes it sound so easy, and Laud Humphreys makes it sound normal, but in the time the man’s been standing in front of the mirror, all he’s observed through the layers of graffiti is the sweat blooming under his arms and creeping along his collar. The white cotton will catch the wind and feel clammy when he walks back to his apartment.
An express train makes a horrible sound on the tracks and in his ribs. The subway bathroom smells like stale skin. He’s never been in here, not at this time of day, except on the weekends when the tide of tourists and escapees floods the system and sends the local ‘flavor’ scuttling for the shadows. He expected more people to be here—he read somewhere that the safest street in a city is the most crowded one. He remembers this is a crime. It will be, anyway, if he doesn’t leave. He has that option. But he doesn’t, and with his thumb rubs the sleepless circle under his eye.
One of the stalls opens with a weak squeal, and out steps a strong, stout man wearing denim trousers and a leather jacket that went out of style last decade. The man, who’s not bad-looking, takes his time, washing his hands in the sink longer than men usually do.
He watches from the corner of his eye, but he must not be subtle because Leather Jacket frowns at him. In this moment, both suspect each other of being a plainclothes. But nothing happens, and Leather Jacket wipes his hands dry on his jeans and goes to light a cigarette by the urinals. The room’s at half-light. Now it’s hard to say if they’re looking at each other. He’s still standing at the mirror. One graffito advises its reader not to turn their back in the lavatory. Another advocates firebombing City Hall. A big one, done in Sharpie, just says 8 inches.
In school, he’d lock himself in the stall and daydream about putting his own scrawl on the door—maybe a band logo, lines of Marx, his own name in majuscule. But it had never occurred to him to actually take up the pen and do it. It wasn’t hard, and, in retrospect, the threat of punishment had never felt especially close. He just hadn’t dared.
The door at the end of the hall opens, and the subway sounds like waves in a seashell until it swings shut. There’s a few seconds before the newcomer comes into view, but they’re the longest seconds of his life and he’s already picturing the handcuffs around his wrists when the fellow saunters into the bathroom, belt buckle gleaming in the crummy light. This one looks like he’s just gotten off a construction job, bits of plaster gumming up his soles and elbows stained with whitewash. The builder-apparent beelines for the urinal, ignoring his sweating observer, who returns to staring at himself and the graffiti like he’ll find the answer there.
He doesn’t turn to look when Leather Jacket says something in a low voice, or when the construction worker responds in kind. He feels a kind of relief, which feels like more sweat. Out-numbered and out-culpabilitied. Not the problem here. The express train pulls through his ribs again.
A voice startles him. “Hey, Charlie, got a light?”
He looks over. Leather Jacket’s staring at him. Adjacent, the construction worker—if that’s what he is—faces away, ostensibly pissing. Our ‘Charlie’ shakes his head.
Leather Jacket looks him over head-to-toe. He’s never felt so violated. “You know where you are?”
The construction worker has whitewash on the back of his vest as well. He throws a glance at Charlie and says something to Leather Jacket that’s lost under the ambience of pipes and sludge.
Leather Jacket grunts. “If you’re just here to watchqueen, go ahead.”
Charlie nods once, then slinks into a corner where he can see the door at the end of the hall. And whatever’s about to happen at the urinals. His shoes stick a little to the floor tiles.
It’s a lot of trust placed in the hands of this fledgling working stiff drowning in his own flop sweat. He concedes they probably just want him out of their way. He ruins the mood–there must be a dress code he’s missed, a shibboleth to get him into the club. But he hasn’t missed it. They seemed perfectly willing to let him join in. He was the one who crawled into the corner like a wounded animal dragging itself to safety on the highway shoulder.
Leather Jacket has turned his back to the room, huddling with the other man. Even squinting, he can’t be sure what they’re doing. They’re facing each other, and after a rustling sound, Construction Worker has his hand around the back of Leather Jacket’s neck like he means to bend it or use it for support. Maybe both.
The door opens and Charlie doesn’t have time to worry before instinct takes over and, like any good lookout, he coughs loudly and awkwardly into his hand. This intruder is a full-grown Suit, black loafers and white socks, walking like a white-collar bigman. He’s got a wide tie that looks gray in the bathroom light. He goes to the farthest urinal, puts one hand on the wall for stability, doesn’t piss right away. He radiates ignorance like his bad cologne, his presence gargantuan in their low-ceilinged bathroom. One versus three. They hold their breath and don’t move a muscle until the door shuts behind him. He doesn’t wash his hands, which comforts Charlie somewhat.
Express train, the light flickers. Coincidence? Leather Jacket and Construction Worker are back to work, but now he sees better now they’re no longer crowded up to the wall. He cranes his neck. His heart jackrabbits. This happens here every day, he tells himself, Monday to Friday. Stop acting like a tourist. Leering is not the same as voyeurism.
Construction Worker catches his eye. Ages are vague under public infrastructure lighting, but he’s probably forty-ish. He gestures for Charlie to come over.
“Come on, we can all hear the door.” The man sounds hoarse even when he isn’t whispering. His belt is undone, hanging limply on either side of his open fly. The man waves him over again. This time, the light catches on his finger, on a wedding band. Charlie’s stomach hurts.
“I have to go,” he says. His own voice surprises him, bouncing between tile walls, coming from every corner at once.
“You sure?” asks Leather Jacket.
“I have to go.”
He feels them watching him leave, their pity and confusion, the muttered pronouncement the same way you say looks like rain or Giants won. Leaving the hall is stepping into a wind tunnel. It’s only seventy-five out, but easily ninety in the subway. And the sound—deafening, all the announcements rippled and creaky. No echo.
He looks back, regret heavy inside him like roadkill. It’s the most disgusting place he’s set foot in this city, and the only place he’d ever like to be again. He could turn on his heel and go back, or leave and come back in an hour after he’s had a sandwich. But he limps back to the platform and stands in the scuffed-up spot where they had ripped out the benches.
The midday crowd leaves something to be desired. A few working men getting off dawn shifts, one or two students, a woman with permed hair and a rolling lavender suitcase. They make him feel claustrophobic. On the quay across the tracks, in the middle of the station, a woman in a black sweatshirt has passed out face-down with a bottle in one hand and her entire ass uncovered by her matching sweatpants.
It’s a Thursday. He shouldn’t be here. He regrets calling in sick. But more than that, he regrets waking up. When the train rolls in, screaming over its barely-rolling stock, he leaps in front of it, not like a deer but like a rabbit. But he doesn’t, he just gets on with the men in overalls and takes a cleanish seat between the worn-out old women and the drunks.