Commute

The red-and-green highly visible headphones are my protective shield as I walk past barely-shuffling heroin user and the teenage runaways. The song changes to "Lady in Black" and there’s a spring in my step. I descend the marble stairs – instead of taking the escalator with its "everyone knows you’re high" stickers and the luggage-lugging tourists – and sing along under my breath, a 21st century chorus to an immortalized 1971 version of Uriah Heep.

A short walk on this connecting platform, also marble, and a swipe of the fare card sounds a familiar beep, an announcement to the whole station that I’ve paid my way, nothing to see here folks. I fly down the stairs, the soles of my shoes barely making contact with the steps. After two or three of these, my feet lift off and I’m leaping, descending past a dozen hard hard marble outcroppings. A voice screams inside my scull, a few beats too late.

I’m falling, the ground is coming up awfully fast, there’s a gasp from above but I can’t look up, can’t look away from the nondescript spot on the floor where I anticipate to make my painful landing.

But I don’t fall. The ground isn’t flying up to smack me in the face. It was, but then rethought, changed its mind, and receded from me instead.

I looked around at the sea of eyes below me, mouths agape in awe and… something else. The platform was quiet.

There were no buses in the tunnel at this moment, no trains, but even in such a situation it was still loud, a constant thrum of conversation, echoes of a cavalcade of wheels crossing hundreds of cracks and grooves in the tile as travelers pulled their overstuffed travel bags to and fro, and who themselves droned into cell phones and at their exhausted travel companions. All of this ceased as I failed to make my inevitable fall, and a hundred strangers considered my predicament in silence.

Did they want to acknowledge me? Could they? Would their worldview survive such an outside-context problem? (Pre-colonization Native Americans paddling their canoes away from the suddenly-surfacing nuclear submarine, that’s a fucking outside-context problem.)

Through a force of will, a determination to maintain a grip on reality, the hundred pairs of eyes blinked all at once, as a single multi-ton fly eye, and looked away. Buses showed up, then a train, and the city moved on.

I hung over the staircase and considered my predicament.

I looked around. A pair of talons held me. They were dark in color, but a bit shiny, like worn leather. I looked down and saw sharp nails, so I stopped looking.

What was happening above me I ignored with the willful ignorance matching that of the commuters, seconds earlier. I was aware that something was holding me up above the station floor, something that perched up above and somehow held onto the rafters below the subway roof. Perhaps, I considered once in a bar after a few pints, you can imagine being held aloft by a crane, one that utilizes fake talons in place of the hook, or you could just picture going on a carnival ride. The sober version of myself would like to punch that drunk in the face. That imagery would be lovely, but somehow I am having trouble keeping the truth out of my mind.

I shut my eyes and think.

I reach for my phone and dial my wife’s number. It rings once, twice–

"Felicity, I’m gonna be late. I got picked up by-" Dare I verbalize it? Name it? And over phone? Would the NSA be happy about that? Would the battery explode and shred my arm into a bloody mess? "-I got picked up by a friend, we’re going for a pint."

"Andrew. Did you forget about dinner? With my parents? Six PM?"

Fuuuuuudge. I squeezed the phone hard enough that something snapped inside its surprisingly hardy body.

"He’s dropping me off at the restaurant," I lied. I started to raise my head toward the horror above, as if to ask if the living nightmare would mind dropping me off, if they were heading that way already that is, at this lovely Italian spot. But then I thought better of it and returned my attention to the phone.

"That. Sounds. Good." Felicity hung up the phone.

Nothing was good. It was 5:30, I had half an hour to get to dinner.

I looked down and tried to catch someone’s eye. Anyone. The platform was full just moments earlier, when I’d made my debut, but now there were fewer than a dozen people left, and these looked down and away.

"Hey! Help me!" I yelled. One man flinched, I saw his shoulders shudder and he started walking faster away. "Somebody! Please!"

In a minute, I was alone in the station.

Almost alone.

"I’m married," I say, and wait.

I’m still alive as a train speeds by. It’s not slowing down at the station at all and in another few seconds it’s a receding hum.

"I’m married and you’re making me late and my wife likes her parents but she doesn’t like her parents that much, if you know what I mean." It’s a stream of consciousness, verbal diarrhea, I’m blabbering on auto-pilot, panic rising, the blood in my ears is whooshing this way and that.

I look down and the subway staircase is gone. The talons’ grip on me hasn’t changed, but now I see that we’re outside underneath a muted gray sky typical of Seattle weather.

I scream and wail and cling to the dark leathery skin in desperation, eyes shut against this terrifying onslaught.

The next time I open them, an East Side sky-rise is below us. I can see a familiar lightning-blue SUV turn off the main road and enter the open-air parking lot next door. Familiar figures exit the vehicle and head toward the entrance.

The talons let go of me and I plummet straight toward the rooftop bar. Cherry-red stools come up rapidly and in scant seconds I plop straight on top of one. I sit upright, hands resting on the surface of the bar, phone clutched in my right hand, in my left is a pint of beer, the cold seeping through my fingers and chilling them down to the bone. I dare not move and let my eyes slowly take in the scene in front of me.

"Whoo, what a ride!", a voice speaks and breaks me out of my reverie.

I turn and look at the man who just spoke. White mutton chops, full mustache, wrinkles lining a face like something Neil Armstrong landed on, a goofy black hat. B… M….. in the flesh.

I drink half my beer as I stare at the legend, the man. He takes a sip of his drink, something dark brown in a short glass. He’s staring ahead and a bit to the side, past the bartender and the wall beyond. I follow his gaze and through the mirror, in between the bottles of liquor, I see someone familiar sitting at one of the tables in the bar area. I start to turn, but the man puts his hand on mine in a pacifying "wait, don’t do it" manner. I stop and go back to staring at her through the mirror.

"Pretty. But come on, definitely not for you," the man says. "That almost-neon dress, way too loud here, even you know it."

"I shouldn’t pursue a woman because you don’t like her fashion choices?" I ask.

"You shouldn’t pursue anyone because you’re married. But you really shouldn’t pursue your attractive coworker because she’s too young for you. It wouldn’t work out and you’d be ruining many lives learning that little fact." The man took a long sip of his drink. "It would definitely be fun, don’t get me wrong. But that cost, it wouldn’t sit well with you."

I sit and look at her for a while. Rosa was a new designer on one of the secret project teams. She’d just moved to the city a month back from the Dominican Republic. We bumped into each other at the Starbucks in the lobby and lingered for a while, chatting in the comfy lounge chairs. I worked on the 18th floor, she was on the 28th.

I never mentioned her to my wife.

Recently Rosa and I have been getting coffees on a daily basis.

"You know, I’ve watched all of your movies."

"And?" The man asked.

"Well, I like them, of course."

"Uh-huh?" He looked at me expectantly.

"Look, what do you want me to say?" I drained the rest of my beer. "Is it wrong to get a coffee with a coworker?"

"Your wife doesn’t know about your coffee friend." He said this as a fact, not a question, then turned in his seat and faced toward the hostess stand, at the far end of the roof. My wife and her parents were standing there, speaking with the hostess. "What are the odds, all of us here at the same time?" The toasted me with his drink, then downed it in one gulp. "Look, kid, let’s make this quick, I’ve got a date. Go to your wife, forget the too-young coworker, be a good person, don’t tell anyone about this little trip of ours, and I won’t have to give you any more impromptu rides."

The man the legend got up and walked to Rosa’s table. Her face exploded in a smile as she watched him approach. She grabbed her jacket and purse and the two practically ran out of the place, passing by my wife and her parents, all three of whom happened to be looking in a different direction.

My beer was empty and the man had departed, so I caught up with my wife and in-laws – Herb and Sandy, lovely couple really – and kissed my wife passionately, like that first time a decade and a lifetime ago.

"God I love you," I whispered, holding her face. There was no one else around us, nothing else existed, just the two of us.

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