A mysterious girl on the train has a way of enticing men into her thrall.
So here I am, going around and around in circles like the trains I can feel every few minutes as they rumble through the Loop. I have so much time now to think about how I got here, since I’ve given up trying to work out how to get out. But I don’t have to stretch my mind too far to find the cause. It all started when I first saw her — the girl on the train.
It was her hair that first caught my attention. It was long, straight and fine, and so pale as to be almost white. It fell down her back like a veil so that all I could see of the rest of her were long slim legs in a short skirt.
I had never seen her before on the 7:38 to the city. The train ran express through the station after she got on, so I had her all to myself for a good five minutes. I refolded my newspaper and held it up high, but all along I was watching her over the top of the page as she stood with her back to me in the doorway.
As we approached the next stop she turned to the door and I got my first glimpse of her face — fine, angelic features and piercing blue eyes. Even before the train stopped, she was tugging at the doors. I was already mourning the loss of her, but she didn’t get out. She was looking for someone and, having found him, waved madly. He jumped into the carriage just as the buzzer sounded and the doors closed. She threw her arms around him and they went into a passionate embrace that lasted right through the express run through the suburbs until we hit the city outskirts. From what I could see of him, he was no older than her, and tall, dark and handsome — as my wife used to call me before I started losing my hair and putting on weight.
This touching little scene was played out every morning for the next few weeks. They hardly spoke to each other, until, ever so reluctantly, they would begin to come up for air as the train slowed down for the boy’s stop. Then they would whisper urgently, saying their goodbyes no doubt, and making arrangements for their next meeting. Once she had waved him goodbye, the girl would get out a textbook and pretend to study, as though trying to convince us all she was not just a sex kitten. As the train plunged underground into the city loop, she would put her book away. I would watch her get off the train and go up the escalator and away as we were pulling out of the station.
I would watch them day after day as they played out their routine, wondering if their passion would last through a lifetime of routine — through leaving the same arguments at the same time every morning, through catching the same train every day to the same job, through the monthly struggle to cover the mortgage and the bills, through having babies and sleepless nights when such long leisurely, passionate embraces were a thing of the past.
Then one day, something new was added to the scene. Just as the girl was seeing her boyfriend off with one last lingering kiss, another student, just as young, dark and handsome as the other, was at the door waiting to get on. Even before the boyfriend left, I could see this new boy’s eyes on her and they stayed on her as he got on the train. He was with a mate who talked incessantly and though the boy nodded and made all the right noises, his eyes never left the girl. The girl assiduously pretended not to notice and got out her book, but she didn’t sit down as she usually did if there was a free seat. Instead she stood where he could see her. When she put her book away, the boy realised she was getting off at the next station and stood up. His friend protested that this wasn’t their stop, but the boy didn’t hear him. I watched him as he followed her off the train and go up the escalator just a couple of steps behind her, then the train left.
For the rest of the week, I watched out for the new boy as the train pulled into the station. I could see him standing alone on the platform scanning the train, looking for her. Finding her he would come to the door and wait patiently, gazing at her while she kissed her boyfriend goodbye. It was as though the boyfriend was invisible to him. He never looked at him, never registered any pain or jealousy. He saw only her. On the train he would stand near her, though not too close to spook her. She never moved away, sitting only if the seat was within his line of vision. She would open her book, but never turn a page. And then he would follow her off the train and up the escalator. I never saw him approach her or try to speak to her.
They all disappeared for a couple of weeks. Mid-semester break, I presumed. Then, on a Monday morning, the two of them got on at her station. We were halfway through the trip before I realised that she was with the new boy, not the old one, they were so much alike.
As the two of them stood in the doorway in another long, breath-defying clincher, I tried to imagine the scenes that had transpired during those missing two weeks. When had the new boy got up the courage to speak to her? How did he seduce her? How did he persuade her to leave her last boyfriend? How did she break the news to him and how did he take it? And was the new boy living with her now or had he just spent the night? Had that been the problem with the last boyfriend, a reluctance to give up whatever life he was living to give himself entirely over to her? I could still remember my own university days — all those fraught relationships, all that hurting each other, the break-ups, the jealousies, the emotional scenes. Ridiculous scenes that must have repeated themselves countless times in the past and would keep repeating themselves for as long as young people thought with their hormones.
Over the next few weeks, I amused myself by going through various scenarios as I watched them settle into their own routine, so little different from the last. They would get on together, kiss for most of the ride, then he would get off two stations before her and she would stand at the door waving him goodbye for as long as she could until the doors closed again. There was no time to get out the textbook this time, and she would stand by the door for the last few minutes until the train came to her stop.
Now, however, much to my initial delight, she took to facing the back of the carriage where I always sat. I found it hard to keep my eyes off her, and often my paper sat unread in my lap, until one day I found myself looking straight into her eyes. At first she didn’t see me but was just staring blindly in my direction, then with a start she saw me looking back. I blushed and ducked behind my paper. When I peeked back over it, she was watching me with a pensive look. She never caught my eye again after that incident, but neither did she turn her back on me.
As the academic year drew to a close, I began to notice another boy quietly enter the picture, a well-dressed young man carrying a briefcase. Coincidentally, if coincidence applies at all to this story, this one was also tall, dark and handsome. He would get on the train at the stop before the new boyfriend got off, but by the next door up. As the train hurtled through the next few stations, he would watch them and after the boyfriend got off he would slowly move closer to her until, by the time her stop came, he was close enough to get off right behind her and follow her up the escalator. Their eyes never met, but again she made no move to avoid his gaze.
Come November both the girl and her admirers disappeared for the summer break. At first I was relieved, but then I found I was counting the days to the beginning of the academic year, wondering if she would again grace the 7:38. But it wasn’t just on the long, dull trip to the city that I missed her. Her image haunted me. The unanswered questions invaded my dreams.
Why was it always the darkly handsome boys who were attracted to her? Was it something to do with the contrast with her pale, golden beauty? And what kind of girl was she to be able to so passionately embrace one boy, while inviting the attentions of another? Was she a femme fatale or a hopeless romantic? But she fitted neither of those stereotypes. She wasn’t callous enough for the first, but was too calculating for the second. Or did she draw some kind of life force from them, and then discarded them when she was done?
At the end of February she appeared again. And again she and her boyfriend stood with their arms around each other, whispering and kissing, until he stooped to pick up his briefcase, and I suddenly realised this was the third boy. Thereafter, I found myself watching, fascinated and appalled, as they stood, so entwined as to seem like a single weird organism, until he got off and she continued the journey alone.
One morning I got on the 7:38 as usual only to find the seats where I usually sat occupied by a school group going to the city on an excursion. The only empty seats were the ones close to the door where she usually stood. With the addition of the school group, the carriage was more crowded than usual. The girl and her boyfriend were only able to occupy their usual place until the next stop when they were forced away from the door and towards the narrow aisle between the seats. As she approached closer and closer to me, I held my breath. Finding my eyes level with her slender waist, I dared not look up.
Then as the train suddenly braked, she would have fallen straight into my lap had her boyfriend not thrown an arm around her in time. She turned and apologised to me, smiling knowingly as she recognised me. I felt my face burn, mumbled a polite reply and went back to my paper. For the rest of the trip they stood right next to my seat. I tried to concentrate on the page in front of me, but it was impossible. Even in that press of people I was aware only of her. I even fancied that I could smell her perfume. Whenever the train lurched I could feel her brush against me. I could even feel her hand gripping the handle behind my head. When the train came to her boyfriend’s station, he had to fight his way out and she couldn’t get to the door to see him off. At the next station the school group got off, as did a lot of the regulars, and suddenly the carriage seemed to empty.
I was both relieved and regretful that now she would move away from me and I could breathe again, until I saw her sit down in the seat opposite me. She didn’t meet my eye, she didn’t even seem to see me, but I could feel her invitation. I swallowed hard, telling myself it was only my own fevered imagination, that she couldn’t possibly be interested in a dull bureaucrat who wouldn’t be seeing thirty again. But her perfume, like some rainforest flower, seemed to sprout tendrils that infiltrated my mind.
As her station approached, she bent to return her book to her bag, which was so close to my feet I felt her hand brush my trousers. I folded my newspaper. She gathered her bag onto her lap, getting ready to get up. I picked up my briefcase. She stood up as the train burst out of the dark of the tunnel and into the light of the station. I was only steps behind.
As the doors opened, I followed her onto the station, keeping her in sight despite all the people rushing about between us. I kept my eyes on her as I stood half a dozen steps below her on the escalator. We came to another long gallery. I kept right behind her. She turned off the main gallery into a narrower tunnel. I followed. The crowd slipped away. I wondered if she could hear my footsteps dogging her. She came to another staircase and went down a flight. I stayed behind her but then I realised I didn’t know where we were going. I had never got off at this station before.
For a moment I hesitated and looked around me. I heard her footsteps speed up to a run and when I turned back all I saw of her was a glimpse of her hair as she disappeared around a corner. I ran after her, but I couldn’t see her anywhere. A trace of her perfume seemed to linger. I followed where it led me.
Further and further I went, down one corridor, into another and another. I found myself running, looking for her in every tunnel I crossed, but I saw nothing of her. Only her perfume seemed to linger. I concentrated on the scent, following it deeper and deeper, until, exhausted and breathless, I stopped at last.
Leaning against a damp wall, I breathed deeply and tried to orient myself. Somehow I seemed to have left the station itself and come into a network of service tunnels. Every tunnel looked the same and at regular intervals each tunnel intersected with another. Codes of letters and numbers were painted on the walls at each intersection, but they meant nothing to me.
I was lost, deliberately and completely. I almost laughed at myself. Had I really been idiot enough to think that somehow she would want me to join her strange game? What a fool I had been. It was time to give up this silly fantasy and go back to reality, to find an exit, go up into the city and make my way back to my office, to my mundane job, to my mundane life.
I wondered how to begin, which way to turn. Every direction looked the same. I listened, hoping to find an orientation from some sound of life, of people, of traffic perhaps, but all I could make out was the distant rumbling of the trains all around me. If I could not rely on sound, then I would try sight and common sense. The tunnels were regularly if dimly lit as though they must be in constant use. Health and safety regulations must ensure some method of escape. I walked up and down looking for exit signs, but there were none. I examined the codes on the walls, but could make out no pattern.
All they could tell me was that I was walking around in circles, and there was no escape. There was only that distant rumbling, like the beat of a giant heart, and the lingering scent of her perfume.
© Pauline Montagna 2013
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