The subway was already crowded when it pulled into Union Square to absorb even more grumpy and impatient zombies.
I was mushed between a guy lost in a game of Candy Crush and another watching wrestling videos when, as the subway doors closed behind her, a young woman shimmied through the crowd and managed to make room beside me. She was only about five foot two and could barely reach the bar above our heads. She was wearing short shorts, knee-high socks, and an oversized sweatshirt. Lots of jewelry, too. I counted the rings—ten on the hand holding the pole. Beneath a tangle of bracelets, a swirly calligraphic tattoo circled her wrist. Despite a few people standing between them, she began muttering to a guy who had boarded the train behind her—a big black guy, with a goatee and long leather coat who stood against the doors stoically like a bouncer, as if he was waiting to check the guest list at the next stop. When he didn't respond, the girl mumbled louder—if there is such a thing as a loud mumble, maybe slurred and sloppy is a better way to put it. The guy looked at her, put a finger to his lips, and let out a slow and calming shhh.
The girl spun around on her tiptoes and began mumbling over her shoulder to someone behind her—it was hard to tell who, precisely since everyone was ignoring her. When she turned around again, I caught the smell of alcohol-infused sweat wafting from her pores. She got quiet and pulled the hood of her sweatshirt up and over her head, stretching it as far as the fabric would allow. Head down, barely holding the bar with her fingertips, she bumped and leaned into me as the train lurched into and away from each station stop. After the last stop in Manhattan, the train picked up speed, careening under the East River toward Brooklyn.
The train soon settled into a steady rhythm like a Johnny Cash song, and the girl weaved and bumped, slightly out of sync with it. My arm was raised, holding the pole, and the girl began to nuzzle her head into space just below my armpit. I shuffled away as much as could, though there was very little room to move. She straightened up, but only momentarily. Soon she tried to nuzzle again, and again I leaned away. "Ladies and gentlemen, a crowded subway train is no excuse for sexual misconduct . . ." as the public service announcement on the P.A. system had just announced.
Finally, she looked up at me through a set of false eyelashes hanging on for dear life. "Can I lean on you?" she said.
"You already are," I wanted to say, but just gave her an awkward smile, instead.
"I'm so wasted," she said through lipstick stained teeth.
She certainly was.
"Are you on your way home?" I asked. I was only 6 P.M., but she had the look of someone who'd been out since the night before and was caught taking a subway ride of shame.
"No, I'm going to Bushwick," she said.
I had a lot of questions: What's in Bushwick? Was she going alone? Didn't she think she'd be better off going home to bed?
"I'll be okay," she said. "I just need to lie down. Can I lean on you?"
Although I felt sorry for her and didn't really see the harm, the train pulled into the next station before I could give her an answer.
"This is my stop," I said. She tugged on the sleeve of my coat as I squeezed around her—a soft and comfortable fiberfill coat that makes an excellent pillow. I use it that way myself from time to time.
"Bye," I said. "Be careful out there."
She looked sad to see her pillow go.
Stepping out the door and onto the platform, I passed a guy boarding the train wearing a puffy down coat. Like mine only puffier. A veritable man in a pillow suit.
I was tempted to get back on the train and watch what happened next, but I waste enough time as it is.