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ON MARCH 20, AT 6:37 P.M., Emer Gunnels sat on the Lexington Avenue IRT line subway deep below Manhattan hurtling toward the future, hopefully making a stop at Ninety-sixth Street as well. She tried to avert her gaze from any man. She didn’t consider herself beautiful, but she had something some men sometimes liked. Some thing. Some times. Some men. Like she was in on the big joke. A blue-green refraction in her eyes of some charismatic, universal, lighthearted melancholy, like she saw things at a distance, a gently ironic remove. She dabbled in yoga; she could sometimes be found on a Stairmaster or a stationary bike; she was a New Yorker.
Here in the simulated captivity of a subway car, it seemed that the male imperative to gaze unapologetically at the female was a creepy game of chicken. The manspreading, lip licking, eye fucking—exhausting. These were men who would never act this way up in the disinfecting light of the street, but down in the subway, confined, these same males reverted to a kind of primal, almost prison-like dominance-testing behavior. It’s like a big-game reserve underground, she thought. Every day down here was like a new Stanford experiment. Thanks be to Jobs for the iPhone, which seduced a good number of the underworld travelers into a zombified and harmless solipsistic reverie, though it also seemed to embolden others by adding a propulsive soundtrack to their passive ogling. It was as if they thought, like children, if they couldn’t hear you, then you couldn’t see them.
She laughed lightly at that thought, making inadvertent eye contact with a pin-striped homunculus across from her, who, taking this as a sign that Emer was into him, manspread his open lap over not one, not two, but almost three seats. This antisocial act of opening wide your legs to cover multiple seats, presumably to air out your impressive package, was a true urban media obsession for a couple months back in 2014 that had spawned its own word and six-day culture war.
She felt a cold bead of sweat liberate itself from her right armpit and track down her ribs to a latitude even with her belly button. The Manafort-looking manspreader in the pin-striped suit—could be a Wall Streeter, possibly a top one or ten percenter—arched his eyebrows and tilted his pelvis ever so slightly, subtly enough to maintain the wiggle room of plausible public deniability. He ran his tongue across his lips. Gross. And clichéd. Double whammy. She involuntarily winced and made a gagging motion, as one might wave a cross in front of Dracula.
It was rare that she was without a book—she favored nineteenth-century novelists: George Eliot, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens—but this was one of those times she lacked printed matter. She found that looking down at her smartphone or tablet as the train was moving made her dizzy and nauseated, and while she realized that some vomit might clear valuable space in this crowded car, she chose to pass the time by reading the signs and advertisements that lined the tops of the walls all around her. Ever since she could read, Emer had felt the compulsion to read and even reread—cereal boxes, toothpaste tubes, subway ads. She was a reader. It defined her. She fixed her gaze well above the lap of the manspreader and made out what she could.
The first ad that caught her eye was for the ambulance-chaser law firm of Washington, Liebowitz, and Gonzalez, offering lottery-type rewards for heartbreaking diagnoses—$5.3 million for lead poisoning, $6.3 million for rubella, $11.3 million for mesothelioma, and so on. The repetition of the .3 was slightly suspect. How could all the crappy tragedies that might befall you be worth a fortune point three hundred thousand? Emer did the dread math in her head that she was convinced we all do when faced with these types of Faustian lawsuit scenarios. 11.3 million for mesothelioma … uh, no, nope, pass, but 6.3 mill for a little rubella? Maybe, maybe. Beats working. What was rubella anyway?
Next to Washington, Liebowitz, and Gonzalez was a placard from a series the MTA had instituted called Trains of Thought, in which quotations from great literature and philosophy were randomly posted to entertain the masses in the midst of mass transit.
One morning as Gregor Samsa was waking from an anxious dream, he discovered that in his bed, he had been changed into a monstrous, verminous bug.
“The Metamorphosis” was one of her favorite stories. She’d read somewhere that Kafka couldn’t get through a reading of his own work without collapsing into fits of laughter. A deadpan humor born of incomprehensible horror. The literary equivalent of her favorite comedian/actor—Buster Keaton. Kafka was a dark fantasist whose unadorned prose read like newspaper accounts from hell on earth. She wondered at the wisdom of bringing the specter of the cockroach, which was really the official anti-mascot of New York City, into the minds of subway riders trapped belowground, a place arguably more hospitable to vermin than people. She had seen roaches the size of New Jersey and rats you could throw a saddle on play on the tracks like they owned the place, like a postapocalyptic Disney movie.
She did not like to kill anything and had been an on-and-off, semi-strict, nondogmatic, occasional vegetarian since college when she’d read Diet for a New America, but she made an exception for cockroaches, flies, and mosquitoes. (And really good sushi.) Some insects deserved to die. She thought briefly of the Zika virus and its sad crop of pin-skulled, brain-damaged infants. She had no children. She was forty-one years old.
She quickly glanced down to see what el manspreader was doing, and shit goddammit, she met his eyes, and, having failed to hide a jittery and guilty flinch, she flailed around for something else to read. As she cast her eyes nervously about the car, she was surprised at the violent and vindictive fantasies of revenge that visited her. Her inner judge never had rehabilitation in mind—Hammurabian, very eye for an eye, and leaning heavily toward poetic justice. Vengeance would be taken from the man’s offending organs. A ball for an eyeball. An image flashed into her mind unbidden—of the offender’s junk stretched across the third rail as a train barreled down. She felt bad for visualizing that. A tad harsh, perhaps. Maybe the draconian Giuliani had recommended something like that. She shook her head, remembering the days of that lispy, hissy, death’s head of a mayor.
She readjusted her gaze to the next placard, which, she was warmed to see, featured a new Miss Subways competition. Miss Subways? Really? She happened to know all about that bygone “pageant.”
It was a real thing. She’d read about it in an Urban Studies program she’d taken a few years ago at Hunter College, where she’d decided to take a course every now and then, because, to paraphrase Dylan, if she wasn’t busy learning or being born, she was busy dying. The qualifications for entering the contest were both lax and touchingly parochial: she “had to be eligible, a NYC resident, and herself use the subway.” This was 1941, mind you. And yet as quaint as those strictures may seem, the contest itself was progressive, opening up to races and ethnicities that no other American pageant of the time would consider for decades. The clownish but deep former mayor Ed Koch had once said, “Even now, I can sit in the subway, and look up at the ads, and close my eyes, and there’s Miss Subways. She wasn’t the most beautiful girl in the world but she was ours.”
Thinking about a seemingly more innocent past, when the messiness of private life was no doubt the same, but the façade, how one spoke of the inside in public, was much simpler and the codes more easily figured, made her sleepy and warm. The lights flashed on and off like the staccato announcement of an epileptic seizure. “Dostoyevsky,” she muttered to herself, like an omen, another underground man. The subway itself was womblike, dark, and humming—Emer, who could have trouble falling asleep in her bed at night, often dozed sitting straight up on her commute. Sleeping amid strangers on a crowded subway car in New York City—an act of trust to make any saint weep with joy.
The train shuddered to an unscheduled stop between stations and the lights went out. Everyone groaned en masse. Perfect, Emer fretted, I’m already late. Con wants me there. He wants me there, but then he wants to ignore me. Like a child, a man-child. But that’s okay. This is his time, his time to shine, and she still had her secret wish, her secret plan within herself. A type of plan hatched in the infancy of civilization and the more primitive parts of a superstitious brain stem that lay underneath a rational modern forebrain, like water flowing under rock. A hope more than a plan, a wish she shared with no one for fear she’d be ridiculed as an old-fashioned gal.
She wouldn’t even form the words in her mind right now. She thought only of Miss Subways. July 1946 was one Enid Berkowitz, whose bio next to a fetching photo of the dark-haired Jewess read, “Art student at Hunter College—interested in advertising and costume design—plugging for B.A. but would settle for M.R.S.”
One step forward, one half step back. In April ’48, thirty-five years before the first black Miss America was crowned, meet caramel Miss Subways Thelma Porter, who “sings in a choral group and is a Gershwin devotee.” Of course she is. One step forward, and, oh well.
By the mid-’70s, the old girl, Miss Subways, quietly faded away, a necessary casualty of raised feminist consciousness, but she was nostalgically reinstituted for one year by the New York Post in 2004. And it now appeared the whole thing was making another postironic run again in 2017. Emer felt a little out of step with the times, and thought sometimes of the days of Miss Subways when it could be said without irony of a woman like Rita Rogers of March 1955 fame, “A sparkling, dark brunette, Rita was graduated cum laude last June from Notre Dame College of Staten Island. Works for a magazine. Likes fencing. Knits Argyle socks expertly.” Well, touché then, what man can resist a gal who can crochet up some Argyle? (Was it misogynistic? Was it pure nostalgia and therefore obviating questions of misogyny—like her uncle collecting Negro League baseball cards was not considered racist? But more important, was she too old to apply?)
The lights came back on and the train started up again. To save time, she was going to get off at Eighty-sixth and run the six blocks to the 92nd Street Y rather than going on to Ninety-sixth. Even in these heels. Her right hand wandered up to trace a scar hidden beneath her hair, by her left ear, a remnant of surgery to remove a benign tumor from her temporal lobe almost ten years ago now. She was beginning to realize that this had become a habit, and was less and less surprised when she caught herself in a reflective surface with her hand to her head.
When she thought about the significance of this tic, she figured it was grounding, reminding her, unconsciously, of who she was, her history, bumps overcome, and of mortality. She had been having some very mild, imperceptible seizures and ever-so-fleeting hallucinations, which ended with the removal of the tumor. She was supposed to get checked at least yearly, but for the past couple of years she’d been delinquent, telling herself that she would feel with her own hand if there were any changes that needed attention. It was her secret, kept from her mother when she was alive and her father now and all her friends, even her boyfriend, that she sometimes felt under the power of hallucinatory thought, of dreamlike late-night states in the middle of the day. If she were honest with herself, she might admit she liked the hallucinations. They were infrequent and often beautiful, and afterward, she felt a spent calm that many epileptics report feeling after a seizure. But, yes, she would make an appointment with the doctor. Just not this week.
The only outward sign of anything amiss was the difference in the size of her pupils. One black circle in the green was more dilated, larger than the other, as a stroke victim will sometimes present, but Emer had never had a stroke. It was merely a consequence of the operation the doctors could not explain and Emer, after crying for a week that her symmetry had been ruined (as it turns out, no one ever even noticed), started delighting in the fact that now she looked like David Bowie, and that it represented to her a certain rebellious, schizy nonconformity—as if one eye, with the smaller pupil, was focused on the light of day, while the other, the larger, the right one, was always trained on darkness and night.
Removing her hand from the ridge on her scalp, she returned her eyes to the manspreader, and thought of Con, and how they had made love last night. She liked the phrase “making love,” as if the act itself brought something new into the world, created something—made more of love itself. Con was very good at that. They had been together years, and sometimes she did feel that the consequent steps of their lovemaking were as predictable as Christ’s stations of the cross—as they lay in bed, Con’s hand would brush up against her thigh, he would turn her to him, they would kiss for thirty seconds, while his fingers explored her and opened her up, followed by a couple minutes of obligatory but still blissful oral pleasures, and then onto ten or fifteen minutes of fairly vigorous coupling in two or three positions, culminating in simultaneous, mutually assured orgasm.
As she put these clinical words on their still nightly ritual—it felt rote in retrospect, in the telling, like a how-to-assemble-an-orgasm manual, but it never felt rote in the doing. In their bed, Con was most present through his touch, and his presence conjured her own call to a full presence. Maybe it wasn’t fireworks, but it worked. She loved making daily, end-of-day love with Con, and the sameness of their moves felt to her not as the boredom of puppets going through the motions, but like being known—known by her man, and in turn, knowing, and pleasing, that same man. She could weep at the prospect of not making love to Con anymore. So she banished that thought.
Her man, not this hedge-fund simulacrum of masculinity across from her. She decided on behalf of all former and future Miss Subways to confront the Wall Street manspreader. She resolved to mouth the words “Fuck you, asshole” at him as she left the train car in minor triumph. She would confuse the offender, stun him, divert his attention, paralyze a retort. That would show his entitled smug jerk face. The douche bag probably worked for Lehman Brothers and caused the recession. I’d like to shove the whole subprime-mortgage crisis up his ass. She started to feel righteous. She took a deep breath and leveled her eyes at Lehmanschpreader, her upper teeth already pinched on her bottom lip to form a very capital “F” …
But the man had dozed off, his mouth open dreamily, like a little boy. His once widespread lap was pulled up into a childlike fetal position. Emer’s shoulders fell. “Aw…” she heard herself say involuntarily, then recoiled and wondered, What the fuck is wrong with me? before someone who saw her not as an object, but an obstacle, pushed her from behind making for the opening subway doors.
Copyright © 2018 by David Duchovny