Like me, the woman next to me is wearing earbuds, though she’s also reading a book. When the train lurches, she reaches her hand out and touches the metal handrail that we’re both standing beside, and I am repeatedly stricken by her perfect pink manicure. I don’t stand on the commuter train that often, so I’m taking my cues from her, perching on the short stairway of the double-decker train. It’s a good spot I’ve snagged: second step from the top, affording me the ability to look out the train window to my left, or take in all the other standees in what I like to think of as the train-car foyer to the right below.
The woman is close enough to me that, even with my music on, I’d be able to tell if she were talking. And she wasn’t. Not for the whole 40-minute trip. Until the very end.
“It’s an aphrodisiac,” she says. Not to me, but to the guy standing on the other side of her. He seems small, probably because he’s in the “foyer.” His slick black hair makes him look more Queens than Jersey – though admittedly, that distinction is often a fine one.
She hasn’t said a word to this guy the whole trip. She hasn’t glanced in his direction. Does she even know him?
He says something and then she says something and I can’t hear enough of any of it for my liking, but I’m sure the topic is aphrodisiacal in nature.
I pull out one of my earbuds, half of “Uncle John’s Band” now dangling at my chest.
“Who is this man?” I want to say. “What aphrodisiac?”
I am very good at eavesdropping, but now the woman’s back is to me and I can pick up nothing. I pull out my second earbud. They’re voices are too low. The train pulls into the station and they walk onto the platform.
I cannot bear the thought of going through my day not knowing whether they know each other. I cannot comprehend the possibility that they don’t, but the commuter train is a world, the way a dance floor is a world, and the dog park is a world, and I want to understand the culture of this world in a way that right now feels extremely urgent.
I catch up and ride behind them up the escalator (we’re three in a row), trialing them like Harriet the Spy for the 30 seconds it takes for the two to fall into a comfortable step beside each other and for me to become satisfied that he was not a stranger.
Phone calls on a park bench, waiting for the light to change, talking to the butcher, on line at the bank. Are we all always listening to each other? Or is it just me?