art by Melissa Mead
by Matthue Roth
We were sitting across from each other on the subway car. I wouldn't have been looking at her--there, I mean--except it was the first thing I noticed. Sometimes your body reacts in a certain way, whether you want it to or not, or even before you know you're doing it. Face, chest, face. Sometimes I hate myself for being so hormonally driven. Which doesn't stop me from being that way.
Once I'd seen, it was too late. I mean, I couldn't stop looking, wondering if it was real. I studied her face. I knew it was her. The stripes, those colors, that metal-studded bra strap--all peeking out from beneath the collar of her cotton sundress. And I knew it had to be real. I mean, the rest of it could be fake or a joke or themed underwear (themed underwear?). But a metal bra strap? It had to be her.
I caught her eye without quite meaning to. She was looking back at me. She'd noticed.
My face began to burn.
I cleared my throat. I signaled with my eyes down to her chin, her neck. Her collar.
She grinned at me, missing my warning completely. Her grin was overt. Daring, even. I am a hopeless people watcher, and this was not my first time getting caught. Usually I flush and look away, and by the time I've worked up the nerve to glance back, the other person is studiously perfecting several interpretations of pretending I don't exist. I glanced down, cleared my throat, tugged at the collar of my own shirt (green with blue checked stripes--a very superheroey color combination, if I'm even allowed to think that).
When I looked back, she still hadn't adjusted her shirt. I didn't know if I should come out and say anything, partly because I didn't want to offend her but also partly because I was feeling more disgusted with myself with every passing moment, first because I'd noticed at all, and now because I was unable to stop thinking about it. I was perving on Spacegirl. There was Spacegirl, sitting across from me on the uptown F train, and I had found out her secret identity, and now I was perving on her.
There were doubts in my mind--so many that it was almost like I didn't want it to be her--but none of them held water. Mostly, it was her face. Spacegirl had these pronounced features, that sharp jaw, those overripe shoulders, the kinds of minor touches that you'd never notice without the uniform but as soon as the suggestion was made in your head, something deliberate enough so that you'd say to yourself, "Hey, isn't that Spacegirl?" there was no way you could argue against it.
Not only that, but she was still looking at me. She arched one eyebrow meaningfully in my direction. I wondered what she wanted me to do with it. I seemed to recall she had some sort of laser-eye-power--she'd used it on Dr. Memento a few months ago, I thought, and resolved to Google it when I got home.
We could have lasted like this forever, riding back and forth on a train, but she had her stop and I had mine. I worked at the next-to-last station stop in the city, sitting at a little desk and asking people where their late payments had gone. They're coming. They're coming. There was only one stop after mine, in the middle of the shopping district, the train station that led directly into the basement of Filene's. Really? I thought, giving her wardrobe one last once-over before I left the train. Superheroes shop wholesale? She followed my eyes, misunderstood my intention, offered me one last throat-parching smile. I raised my eyebrows, conveying (hopefully) appreciation. I wouldn't be able to think of anything else for the rest of the day.
My life is not that super. I work at my job and earn money. I give to Sierra Club and the March of Dimes, and I volunteer at a soup kitchen twice a month. I have a lot of friends, and you probably wouldn't call any of them close or best, though I'm usually the guy that friends call when they're upset or depressed or their girlfriend kicked them out in the middle of the night and they've got nowhere else to go. I don't mind. I don't really have that much going on, no wife or kids to wake up, and if I can be that guy, I'm okay with being it.
I moved to the city about a year ago. No specific reason. I just wanted to feel a bit more important in the world. Why does anyone do anything? I found a really cheap apartment right away, and wasn't suspicious at all. I made my down payment over the phone. I know how hard it is to find an apartment. Turns out, it was on the top floor of an abandoned warehouse. I take an elevator made of spare lumber to bed every night. It's okay, though. Like I said: I don't have much going on.
Every second Friday I get my paycheck, and I like to take it to the bank to deposit in person. The city bank is grandiose, opulent, stunning like a museum, with Roman columns and architecture that soars. Waiting in line is a social activity. And it makes me feel like my check is more than just a piece of paper.
This Friday is no exception. The bank hums with activity, and there's enough of a crowd that I take a breath at the door, settle into my shoes. I take my place in line, holding my folded-up paycheck with both hands, wondering whether I should talk to the gentleman in front of me. He's wearing a plaid shirt and vest, and his face looks so much like a dog that he has to own one. He looks like he's got stories inside him.
The first screams come from behind me. The crackle of gunpowder going off. A cold, round imprint of something metal sticking into my cheek. The only thing I can think of is the bank tellers. What are they thinking? Are they going to hit the alarm?
There are three of them. Three robbers. Two at the front, guns pulled, handing out bags to the teller windows. One at the back, just pacing back and forth and looking dangerous. And the people in line. Most of us are stoic, but one or two are beginning to shake, to cry. The tellers look just like the rest of us do, surprised and tired. It's a summer Friday. It's been long for everyone.
"Bank customers, DOWN!" one of the robbers yells. His hand shoots into the air and his gun cracks again.
We go down.
"Not you." The guy next to me smiles, and he links his arm around mine. The gun digs into my cheek so far I can taste it. "You're our escape clause."
The strangest feeling I am having about this guy is revulsion. Nice shirt, a close-cropped beard--the kind of shave one gets in a barbershop--sunglasses, bad breath. You stupid hipster, I want to tell him. You can afford $200 shades and you still need to rob a bank?