Oh. It’s Puke.
by Victoria Comella
There’s puke all over the seat across from me on the subway. Well, not directly across from me, but a few seats down. People keep getting on the train and go to sit, and the guy who is brave enough to sit with only one empty seat between him and the puke keeps having to wave his hands and be like, “Hey, stop! There’s puke!” I’ve never puked on the train before, or anywhere in public for that matter, but it seems almost like a rite of passage when you’re young and living in New York.
I keep looking at the guy who is one seat removed from the puke. Why did he think that was an acceptable buffer? I’d have said at least two seats, maybe three, what with the smell. That compounded by the fact that the very thought of being in such close proximity to anyone’s puke to begin with generally makes people want to run very far away. But not this guy. He’s sitting there with his ear buds, slowly nodding his head back and forth to some unheard beat with the puke, like, right there! I guess that’s the thing about New York (or maybe life even), there comes a point when you have to give certain things up because that’s just the way it is. You have to compromise, look the other way, step outside of your comfort zone, lower your standards, become desensitized. Above all you have to learn to seek alternative routes to your happiness.
You have to step on to the train and shrug and just be like, oh right. Puke.
But it’s about two-thirty in the morning now, so maybe that means everyone is more accepting of puke than they would be, say, during the 9AM rush. When it’s after 2AM our walls drop that much further. We care less about things (or not at all), and settle for and are willing to put up with, a lot.
The man sitting next to the guy near the puke is wearing socks with flip-flops (not to be put up with at any hour). The way his big toe and second toe are separated by the flip flop through the sock makes me want to say: Don’t you see that? I mean, don’t you see how wrong that is? He’s older, over 50, so maybe that makes it okay. Maybe that makes it more acceptable than, say, seeing it on a 25-year-old who should probably know better.
The subway doors open and two girls step on, (Hey, stop. There’s puke!) and they grab hold of the bar near where I’m sitting. They’re wearing white face masks a la “Phantom of the Opera,” which doesn’t make any sense to me at all, but I’m sure they have a reason. They’re dressed up in pretty dresses and giggling, and as I look at them I want to say: I feel as though you probably know something I don’t, and I just want you to know I’m totally okay with that.
The guy sitting next to the man with the socks and flip flops is directly across from me. He’s about my age and he keeps looking at me when he doesn’t think I notice. This happens all the time. I don’t really understand why we all just sit there and stare at each other like that’s somehow going to lead to something. Like if you just stare at me long enough I’m going to get up and give you my phone number. He’s holding a clothbound hardcover book. I can’t make out the title on the spine. The pages are faded and worn and he flips aimlessly through them. As he does, I want to lean across the train and say: Are you even really reading that thing? But then I figure holding a book like that somehow makes him a bit less creepy than he would be without it and were, say, just sitting there with nothing to do but stare.
Then I see the New York Public Library stamped across the top pages of his book. Since we’re both heading in the same direction I wonder if we’ve ever crossed paths before on our way to the 81st and Amsterdam branch. Maybe we’ve even taken out the same book and never known. I wonder if it would matter.
We stop at 72nd Street, and the guy who was sitting one seat removed from the puke, exits. I stare at his vacant seat and start to panic. Who will guard the puke!? But just as easily as he left, another person takes his place. He’s an older gentleman running his index finger across his iPad screen. He looks to the puke, and then up at us, and smiles reassuringly in a very don’t-worry-I-got-this sort of way. I relax. There’s always some other person just as disposable as the last, always there, always just on the other side of the sliding doors that say “Careful, do not lean on doors,” but everybody does.
I’m almost home.
As the 1 train continues to drift uptown, I realize that the girls with the face masks and the man with the flip flops have disappeared. They left, and I didn’t even realize. I look at the guy with the book, still sitting there, still staring at the pages. If we ever crossed paths on our way to the library it wouldn’t matter, because we see things all the time and we hardly notice or particularly care. Even if we do we never say anything. We just sit, stare, wait, ignore, compromise and forget as we count on, plan on, live for whatever will come next. And something always will.
Things are just what they are. Someone is just someone else, nothing more.
I can see us one day, book guy and me, him on his way out of the library, me on my way in, say, both of us holding the same Bukowski or something. We’ll make eye contact and maybe smile at each other, and right before we walk away forever we’ll shrug, and both just be like, oh right. You.
Victoria Comella is a Senior Publicist at Penguin. She has written for Slate, Freerange Nonfiction and been a finalist in Glimmer Train’s “Family Matters” contest. She is currently working on her first novel, and blogs at mightymanhattan.blogspot.com.
Art by Margarita Korol.