Manhattan-bound E train

Illustration: Forsyth Harmon

You were sitting next to me, all of us packed tight and untalking on this E train, but I only noticed you when the handle of my umbrella got caught in your bag. It was that sort of day, a day of encumbrances, barometric headaches, chafings. A day that smelled like petrol puddles up there, and wet dog down here where bits of ourselves kept getting caught in bits of each other: big damp backpacks in faces, unsheathed umbrellas dripping down trouser legs, wet ponytails flipping against cheeks. You and I apologized to each other in unison, gave the quick smile in unison.

You had long, very red hair, and you were wearing a very purple top. This chromatic discord was striking. A bold choice, this bold color — and it was clear you were anything but: awkwardness emanated from your shoulders, elbows, knees. I had a feeling, in other words, that the color clash thing was an accident rather than a choice.

Shyly, while I pretended not to look, you began pulling from your bag something plastic-wrapped, something that made that delicious, secretive sound. My friend had just been telling me about the YouTube world of ASMR. I had rabbitholed, briefly, in this realm of women posting high-sound quality videos of themselves whispering, crinkling, rustling, and gently tapping things. Rabbitholed even longer, in the world of comments below, where people divulge their delightful tingles, sudden sleepiness, massive boners, or sudden urge “to touch everything in the most fragile manner.”

When I heard the soft rustle of the thing in your bag I have none of these urges. Instead, I realized this is how dogs must feel when they see a squirrel: for half a second, I’m nothing but a limbic system barking the monosyllable, snacks? Honestly, what could be more interesting than a stranger’s subway treat, slowly drawn from a bag? I couldn’t take my eyes away. When I saw it I wanted to shout or shake you. Your snack was an endive. One, chilly sad pale spear of an endive, withdrawn slowly from its baggie, like some miserable bit of evidence. Worse, you didn’t even chomp it. Instead, over the course of three or four stops, you plucked off one stiff petal at a time, and nibbled furtively. You were touching it, I realize, in the most fragile manner.

By the time you got off, hastily packing away your half-eaten vegetable, I no longer wanted to shake you. I think, instead, that I wanted to hug your awkward bones and give you a donut, something fat and glazed and luscious that you could eat in three big bites.