Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Kasumi Parker
Category: Flash Fiction
The M Train
No one notices a woman jerking herself off on the train. It’s far more inconspicuous. Discreet. And if done right, a secret. She looks me in the eyes, perhaps intentional, perhaps not. And one woman to another, I know. She knows I know. But she doesn’t stop.
Getting on the train was a hassle. After a 20-minute wait, a flicker of hope appeared in the form of a distant light. As the subway pulls into the station filled with exasperated, sweaty, yet determined citizens, it’s easy to distinguish the sagacious from the optimistic fools. While the newbies, not yet having given up hope for the decency of their fellow New Yorkers, wait their turn, the true manhattanites charge forward toward the doors like bulls; their congenital realism yet again winning them spots on the subway, leaving the wide-eyed rookies stranded on the platform. These tendencies would be considered despicable anywhere else, but never in New York City. Chaos is an unspoken rule of the subway, especially on a hot June afternoon when the M train is delayed.
I’m one of the lucky few to have snagged a seat on said train. As a seasoned subway rider, I’m well versed in the viciousness of my peers under such pressure, and know how to play the game just right. I know what the rules are, when they apply—when they don’t. I know how far to place my hand on the pole so I’m not uncomfortably close to another, know to put my bag between my feet or on my lap (never in front), know not to strike up conversation, know never to make eye contact for more than a few seconds, know to switch cars when it smells like pee, because if it smells like it, it’s probably there. The rules keep me safe. The rules keep me sane. I know when to get off, when to get on. What car to enter so I’m perfectly aligned with the turnstiles upon exit. What playlist to listen to. Everything is meticulously planned. I would usually slide my headphones on and sink into my priceless seat, preparing myself for the seemingly infinite number of stops until I get off, but today, my headphones are sitting at home, where I left them this morning. My first, albeit accidental, rebellion. When I have them, I always try to properly time my playlist—so that when the train goes above ground I can listen to “Stairway to Heaven” and pretend I’m flying. Pretend I’m soaring so high that I ascend past the realms of men. But today, I’m not the one who’s flying. Maybe I’ve never been. She is. And I don’t know that if I had my headphones I wouldn’t still rebel and skip straight past “Stairway to Heaven” in favor of “Highway to Hell.”
It’s easy to picture her as some ragged delinquent, like the men you so often see pleasuring themselves on the train. But she’s beautiful. She’s just left something important, her pinstripe jacket draped across her lap, crinkling just slightly, but enough to provide me a clue: a mistake. She’s vicious, too. I know it. She managed to finagle her way into a seat on a June train. She’s not sweating, even in the heat, and the mild dew she has across her skin only lends her an ethereal quality. Her curls battle to escape the tight bun of a 9-5 worker, and the few victors lay themselves across her crisp white button down. She has a couple piercings lining her ears, and as the train goes above ground they catch the sunshine in their gold. A halo.
Here, right now, there’s no guidebook for me to follow. I’m faced with a dilemma. If she was a man, I know I would report her, or at the very least switch cars. That’s what you do. What you’re supposed to do. If she were more disheveled I know I wouldn’t hesitate to get up and move. Switch seats—or trade sitting for standing. Maybe I should call the cops or perform a citizens’ arrest. But as I move to drag the phone out of my pocket, our eyes catch once again and there’s no returning to Ithaca. Now, she’s made me a rulebreaker.
There’s something about her, something that draws you in. Something about finding deviancy in perfection. A crack in a Greek statue. She lures you to the waves and leaves your ship stranded with a crooked smile. I have no headphones, no book to read, no movie. I can’t look away.
The light shifts when she swings her jacket back to her shoulders and crosses her legs. In the sun, a shadow casts wings behind her back that flutter against the subway wall. The rational part of my brain screams, telling me she’s fucked up and that’s fucked up and I’m fucked up for not seeing that she’s fucked up. Fuck. She sits there glowing, debauched, perfect like the Madonna seconds after giving birth and I’m stuck. Stuck in my seat, stuck in the rocks, stuck in my head, stuck in purgatory, stuck on her. I hardly notice when she moves her coat from her shoulders to properly adorn her and swings her bag onto her lap. The train calls Fresh-Pond Road and she disappears, another taking her place. I’m on the ground. I’m sitting on the train. The sun is just sun. The light is just light. The train’s just a train. And I’ve missed my stop.