I couldn’t be sure, but I think my cheek was already swelling up when I got to the subway platform.
I admit that I picked the fight, but still. I know what I saw. He was such a flirt, and I was just sick of it. Besides, this was more than flirting. I saw him touch her knee. He had let her take my bar stool—”Just ’til you came back!”—and I saw him touch her knee. He probably bought her drink, too, which was why he had no cash and stuck me with the cab fare on the way back to his place.
And, of course, we had to decide to go back to his place, so now here I was, at two a.m., alone on the 1 train.
“I am so tired of having this same fight, over and over again!” I’d screamed at him.
“You’re sick of it?! I’m fucking sick of it. I didn’t fucking do anything!” He threw his arms out on the word “do,” and caught the right side of my face with the back of his hand. Do I think he hit me on purpose? No. But for a second, short enough that no one else would have even seen it, I saw a look of satisfaction in his eyes. I knew him well enough to know every expression he had, and this one was pure accomplishment. And then it was gone. The time it takes to blink: that’s how long it lasted. But I know what I saw.
“Oh, god. God. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.” He wrapped me up in his arms, and I let him. I stood there letting him hug me long enough that the shock began to fade and the pain started to emerge.
“I have to go.” I pushed him away.
“You’re not mad at me, are you? I didn’t mean to.” He did look genuinely sorry, I’ll give him that. But my face was throbbing, and I couldn’t forget that look on his face.
“You don’t have any ice.” Nick’s studio was small—the kitchen was so tiny it barely qualified as a room. My childhood closet had been twice the size. All he had was a half-sized fridge with freezer that froze absolutely nothing but that stupid freezer frost. It had grown so thick that all he could fit in the freezer any more were a few mini bottles of vodka.
I stepped into my flip-flops and grabbed my purse before he could say anything else; I just couldn’t stand there with him any more. I couldn’t be near him. So I ran through the unseasonable heat to the closest subway, my toes clenched around the flip-flop thongs the whole time so they wouldn’t fly off. The platform was packed; no train had come through for a while. My night’s luck was turning, though; I could see headlights in the distance of the tunnel. I put the tips of my fingers to my cheek. My face hurt most right below my eye; it was warm to the touch.
The train was surprisingly full for the hour. It stopped with a set of doors right in front of me, and I nabbed one of the few empty seats. Most people who got on the train behind me stood, hanging onto the overhead bar and swaying, drunk and tired. I was nauseous and glad to be sitting. I sat on the end of a long bench between the filthy metal armrest and a preppy looking guy in khakis. I fumbled with my wallet, trying to get my Metro card back under my driver’s license. My photo stared up at me through the clear plastic window—I wished I could go back in time to the person I was in that photo. The one who had just met Nick and still thought he was perfect.
I stared at the filthy floor. The Vans on one of the guys standing near me had a big yellow spot on it, like he’d dripped mustard while eating a hot dog from one of the roach coaches on the corner. All I really wanted was to be alone right then. I couldn’t actually get away from everyone, but I could look at the ground and pretend I was alone. So I wasn’t looking when I felt his left leg pressing against my right one. I couldn’t believe my luck; I was sitting next to one of those guys—a fucking manspreader. Your dick really isn’t that big, I wanted to remind him. I pushed up against the bar to my left and tried to make myself as small as I could, but the further I shifted, the further he followed me. I stared at the floor. I kept staring, pretending his knee wasn’t against mine. I’m just alone on the train, I told myself. I’ll be home soon.
I clung to that thought through three stops. It was between the third and fourth that the train shuddered to a stop. The intercom crackled something about a train in front of us.
I felt his hand. I jumped and looked to the right for the first time since sitting down. I had to turn my head all the way and look at him through my left eye—my right one was swelling shut; my skin felt stretched, taut. He wasn’t looking at me but had put his hand on his thigh, and the backs of his fingers touched my bare leg. Fucking Indian summer and fucking short skirts. I squeezed my legs as far over as I could go, but they were already pushed up against the bar. He moved his index finger back and forth across the side of my leg. My cheek throbbed.
“Stop,” I moaned. I don’t know why I said it quietly like that. I don’t know why I didn’t yell and jump up. I could fight, couldn’t I? I could leave a bad situation—that’s why I was on the subway in the first place. I wasn’t someone who got hit by her boyfriend and stuck around, so I couldn’t be someone who gets harassed on the subway and doesn’t even move, could I? I said it quietly, but he heard me. He didn’t take his hand away from my leg, but he stopped moving it. Now he looked at me.
“Quite a bruise.”
I sat mute. Live in New York long enough and some things become second nature. No eye contact or conversation with the crazies. Pretend they aren’t there. In the night’s events—the screaming match with Nick, the backhand to my cheek—I had forgotten myself for a second. Now I reverted to time-tested NYC survival mode and ignored this guy and his comment. But I couldn’t stop myself from putting my hand to my face again.
“No, no,” he whispered. “Leave it.” He reached up and took my hand, moving it away from my face. I snatched my hand out of his.
“Stop!” I said, louder this time. The people standing closest to us looked down, pulled out of their private worlds of iPhones and paperbacks. I was crying silently, tears leaking out of my shuttered eye, so swollen now that I couldn’t open it at all. The subway sat still and motionless, and my nausea thickened. I needed to get out of here. Simultaneously, the train finally started to move and the car’s lights flickered and went out. The train trundled along, slowly. So. Slowly. We passed a light in the tunnel, yellow and florescent. Everyone in the car looked jaundiced and piss-colored.
“Vivian.” I choked on my own breath and turned to face him. How could he have known my name? In the yellow light he looked twenty years older, with deep circles under his eyes and a ghoulish complexion. We passed out of the circle of the tunnel’s light and back into darkness, the train slowly picking up speed. He grabbed my leg, hard, his hand making a slapping sound as it closed over my thigh. I tried to yell or say something, tell him to get the fuck off me, but all that came out was a gurgling sound. Under another yellow tunnel light now, and he moved his hand off my leg and instead held fast to the bar beside me, blocking me in. I looked at him again; his eyes looked sunken, and he leaned over me smiling, breathing on me. His breath was terrible, like the compost pile my mother kept when I was a child. It smelled like the earth, and trash, and time, and decay. His teeth looked almost black. I looked desperately at the woman standing right above me. I caught her eye and held her gaze for a second. She looked back down at her Us Weekly.
Again, into darkness. He kept his one fist clenched against the bar to my left. With his other hand, he reached up to my face. He put his thumb on my cheek, right where Nick had caught me. At first his touch was soft, almost gentle. As the train sped up, though, he began to push, push, push, hurting me more with each increase of pressure. Finally, I screamed and jumped up. I pushed his arm forward with all my weight and stumbled through the people blocking my way to the door. The lights flickered back on.
I got to the door about five seconds before it pulled into the station—long enough to see my reflection in the glass. My right eye wasn’t swollen shut. It was a little puffy, maybe, but definitely open. It didn’t look that bruised, either. I looked back over to where I’d been sitting. The man was just a preppy looking guy again. In the full light, he no longer looked half dead. He saw me looking at him and smiled with brilliantly white teeth.
Even crowded as it was, the woman with Us Weekly didn’t sit down next to him.
Victoria Fullard has over fifteen years experience as a professional writer and editor. She is currently revising her first novel, a publishing company–set mystery, inspired by her years working as an editor in the industry. She lives in New York City with her partner and their dog, and she hasn’t left the apartment without a book in over a decade. Learn more about her at www.victoriafullard.com and connect with her on Twitter at @victoriareads.