As he sat down, his trousers creased and called his attention to a rather insidious wrinkle in the brown cotton fabric. It had crawled over his thigh, and, as he followed its trajectory, he discovered that it had in fact branched out into three others toward the back of his leg.
Scaling back his perspective, it became evident that the pants were wrinkled to hell all over.
“Hmph,” he thought, “I’ll probably have to hear about that later.”
The people at work were insufferable about this kind of thing. Not since the advent of “Casual Friday” at the office had such fervor arisen as when he first arrived on the cubicle, never bothering to press his slacks or straighten his tie, prompting the head of HR to send many a not-so-subtle email regarding proper workplace attire. Subject title: “Just a *gentle* FYI : )”
Immune to sentiments conveyed via emoji, he had mostly ignored the messages until she began placing signs in the bathroom: “Everything all buttoned, pressed, and zipped in a snip!” These were simply untenable. The kind of skillful retaliation he might have planned in the past, however, conflicted with his need for continued gainful employment. And, so, he instead grasped the sign off the door to the bathroom stall with one hand, all the while smoothing the tail of his shirt under his belt with the other.
It had been such a positive streak of wrinkle-free clothing for over a week now, but today would end all of that.
At least he wasn’t wearing flip-flops like that one time.
Resigned to his fate, he settled into his seat, placing his briefcase beside him and pulling out the day’s paper.
Scanning the headlines for something useful to read, he was disappointed to find that it had been a slow news day. Stock prices, a brief blurb about the President’s latest gaffe at the UN, and a string of robberies that were scandalizing the suburban set: “They took our probiotics!”
Fishing around in his tattered bag for the latest copy of The New Yorker, it suddenly occurred to him that he had in fact left it strewn at the binding on the floor of his studio apartment after attempting to read it in a drunken stupor. Now that he thought about it, drunken stupor seemed to be the only time he ever really attempted to read anything.
Just in time for his daily train-induced boredom and despair to set in, a woman flounced on the train while on her cell phone. She also juggled a bag, a pair of sunglasses, and a cloth grocery bag full of what probably weren’t groceries, still managing to clutch her phone precariously between shoulder and ear with whatever that muscle was. He perked up right away, eager to become overly involved in whatever she might say next!
“I’m just not happy with any of my house plant options.”
“Yes I tried there.”
“No I don’t want to buy seeds.”
“Can you be serious?”
As she sat down a few seats ahead, he could tell that this was not going to be satisfactory fodder for a morning commute and lowered his head, crestfallen.
There was little time to extrapolate from the random entrance of his flora-focused train mate as three more commuters had sauntered down the aisle, and, ever so lucky for him, sat in the seats ahead of him.
Directly in front of him were two young women deep in conversation over an apparent reading assignment. He couldn’t quite see either of them, just the shards of brown and blonde hair that darted in and out of the frame that comprised his narrow view through the crack of the seats.
“Did you look at the part for next week?”
“No, but I heard it’s way worse.”
“It totally is. Twice as long and half the footnotes.”
“The footnotes are terrible anyway. What good does it do me that half these phrases derive from some Latin saying?”
“I love that kind of stuff!”
A moment of unexpected dissonance!
“What are you thinking of doing your paper on?”
He furrowed his brow in grave disapproval. Had this mysterious, and apparently esoteric, reading assignment done nothing to clarify the proper place of prepositions within a sentence??
The response wasn’t much better:
“Hell if I know.”
Before the yellow-haired one could answer, another voice resounded from across the aisle. The silent third commuter, who he had forgotten about entirely, now made his grand entrance into the conversation.
“Excuse me, are you ladies students of literature of some kind? I’d love to get your input on a project I’m crafting”
Oh, he hated him already. “Crafting”?
Run! he thought. Except that they were on a train.
“Yeah, we are.”
“Oh great. I was really hoping to get a feminine perspective on my characters. You know, the female experience. It’s really crucial to me that I always try to experience what I’m writing. Before the writing experiences you, or me, I should say, that’s my motto. I don’t know about you guys.”
A short pause, and what he liked to imagine were blank stares, then the speaker continued.
“So who’s your favorite writer? Read any Tolstoy? Dostoevsky? Poe? Maybe some Marx? Hopefully these names are recognizable, you know, if you guys are saying you’re students of literature.”
Egads, he thought, hunched in his seat, maybe just throw yourselves off the train.
He then caught a response coming from the seat directly in front of him:
“We were just talking about a course on medieval literature. But we’ve read some of those too.”
A delicate, polite remark that denied him the pleasure of seeing his foe diminished to nothing. No barking response to this obvious challenge to their archive?
“Oh really? Medieval literature? What’s that, like, the Canterbury Tales? I read that, way back in the day. You know it was cool because it’s actually totally shocking and relevant, you know? That’s what I’m hoping to craft myself with this piece I’m working on right now. I mean you’ve got to get it there, right? You know what I mean?”
Oh, the pleading desperation, he thought.
“What’s your book about?” the one closest to the aisle asked, inflecting a feigned interest only ever so detectable from one seat back.
“I wouldn’t call it a book exactly, it’s more a series of vignettes, totally disconnected from one another in space and time and purpose, but thematically, I’d say, really on the same wavelength with one another. I’m getting at all the themes of art and truth and courage, just really trying to get it out there. Just, thematically, you know, more than anything.”
If there had been one substantive thing in that description other than that the “vignettes” were most likely a total clusterfuck of butchered words vaguely resembling the English language, he hadn’t caught it from the seat behind them.
Again they engaged him with remarkable restraint:
“Oh okay. How far along are you?”
He felt a headache coming on, and with firm resolution he began to regret that sixth drink from the night before, as well as the rocking movement of the train, and, above all, his proximity to this verbal devastation.
“Well, I don’t know if you can really just measure it using the typical—
“It’s a process,” the brunette one offered.
“A total process, something in the works, on its way, germinating. I wouldn’t say ‘birthing’ or anything! You guys get it. Just like school is a process. Just like you’re working on this medieval literature course, one piece of the puzzle you know, piece by piece, that’s how it builds. That’s how it goes on. Sparks and flares. That’s how we go on, and it all builds to something greater, that’s the truth. That’s the heat of it, man, the life. That’s it.”
He liked to imagine that the diatribe had ended with its composer rocking himself into a deep sleep by way of the repetition of this series of rolling thoughts, each emptier than, yet still indistinguishable from, the next. But in fact, he couldn’t know that, or at least, not until he heard the voice drone on just a tad further:
“You two don’t really strike me as the literary type.”
Why these comments had not yet prompted some physical manifestation of outrage served as a grave signal that he truly lacked a fundamental understanding of the exact humanity involved in this exchange.
How could they let him just go on like this? Why had no insults been hurled? Intelligence defended? Pedantry and pompousness exposed? There was no excuse! The blonde one was perfectly capable of the vilest of language, as she had proved not five minutes prior to this embarrassment of an exchange.
“Oh, well, we are—
“But I mean, either way, I need to get a view of things from the woman’s perspective. Like, that’s just something I can’t do on my own, you know, I’ve got to find out how you guys see things, what you’re reading, like this medieval literature class, that’s really good to know, that’s not what I would have expected and like that’s exactly the kind of thing I want to be sure doesn’t happen for this project, right? It’s so, so crucial—“
“This is our stop” the blonde one interrupted, gathering her bag from the ground as the brunette rose behind her.
He lifted his gaze, trying for stealth, to catch a glance, finally, at the two girls who had been sitting ahead of him for all of this. These two creatures who, maddeningly, refused to thrash or spar in any way with their new friend, the antithesis to his being, from across the aisle.
As he caught sight of the brunette’s face, he felt a slight sting of disappointment as her eyes turned out to be brown and not blue, her chin pointier than he had envisioned, her hair shorter and a bit frizzier than was to his liking.
Without realizing it, his simple glance had turned into a gawk, and his subject was beginning to notice.
“If you’re going to stare for that long, why don’t you take a picture, asshole?” she snapped.
And with that, the two of them stalked off through the now-open double doors, muttering on their way out.
As the doors closed, he could hear his sworn enemy chuckling up ahead as the train sped on to its next stop.