01 Feb Sound of the New York Subway Spirit
New York is a complicated city to live in. Here, the only way to fit in is to be different. I’ve tried being that girl who minds her own business, but keeping out of trouble has only ever invited others to start trouble with me. That’s why I’m done being quiet and submissive. If you allow yourself to be constrained by social norms, you’re never going to win a race against someone who isn’t similarly burdened. And to me, there’s nothing quite so liberating as singing.
At the bakery while I cook, through the streaming rivers of huddled faces outside, even on the subway; I’ll just start singing whatever comes to mind. Not that self-conscious mumbling to echo music from my headphones either – I throw my shoulders back, open my chest, and really belt it out. People don’t care as much as you’d think. Most of them don’t even notice. Compared to the guy with a boa constrictor around his neck, or the pair of homeless people having sex against a wall, singing is a pretty harmless quirk. It gives me what I need to feel like I belong.
There was one time when my singing really caught someone’s attention though. There were about a dozen other people on the subway, so I started off with a soft song (Hide and Seek by Imogen Heap) to make sure I wasn’t bothering anyone. No-one even looked up, except for one guy wearing a black hoodie. I like matching the beat to the steady th-THUMP of the car on its tracks, and I gradually let the song build in volume until I was able to transition to a Celine Dion power house.
They all just sat there. Reading their papers, staring at their phones or their feet – too awkward or self-absorbed to even look my way. Maybe they thought I was a crazy person and didn’t want to mess with me. The chemically radiant sunset of my hair probably didn’t help with that, but I didn’t need their approval.
The guy in the hoodie though – he wouldn’t take his eyes off me. I started to give him a little smile, but then a square-potato masquerading as a human being shoved his way between us. By the time he passed, the guy in the hoodie was gone. Whatever, this was my stop anyway.
The next day I saw that black hoodie again though. His back was turned, and he was spray painting something around a concrete drain pipe. It wasn’t the vandalism that bothered me – Hell, I like to make my mark as much as the next – it was what he was painting. My face was blazoned across the pipe, all the way down to my shock of flame hair and the nose-ring I always wore. It was absolutely surreal staring into my own giant eyes which might have been beautiful if it wasn’t so damn unnerving.
Maybe I should just be flattered that I made such an impression on him. I sat down about a dozen feet away and watched him expertly apply a light drizzle of shadow to define my cheekbones. It was a triumphant pose: a Queen surveying her adoring Kingdom on the night of her inauguration. What was this guy’s deal, anyway? I hadn’t even gotten a clear look at his face. Did he paint all the pretty strangers he sees, or was it just me? I was about to go ask him when I noticed the caption he was now writing below my portrait.
Well what do you know, look at the time. As laudable as New York’s diversity is, that unfortunately includes a large population of absolute maniacs. I quietly stood and backed away from the artist. He must have heard me though, because he immediately spun my way.
“Wait! I need you!” He was running after me now, but I wasn’t about to stick around for pleasant conversation. I hightailed for the next three blocks until I reached the subway. For a moment I thought I was overreacting, but the two other paintings I passed along the way told a different story.
Death – written under the first one. It was another painting of me, this time from another angle. steal her – the words were splashed right across my face on the next painting. I just wanted to be another invisible face in the crowd now. It was a relief to see the people piling up outside the station. I couldn’t hide my red hair, but I don’t think my stalker would try something here. Now that there were so many people, I was safe again.
I managed to put it out of my mind for the rest of the day, but I began to get worried when it was time to ride the subway home. I have a defense against fear though, and there’s never been a night so black that I couldn’t lighten with a song. I sat down at the end of the subway car and just began singing. People filed in and out, odd looks occasionally cast my way, but there wasn’t anything they could do to make me stop. As long as I was singing – as long as I was me – somehow that made me safe.
But I didn’t make it home before the words choked in my throat. There I was – then another, and another – face after face spray painted along the subway walls. I caught a flash of the words never grow old, but I couldn’t force myself to look out the window after that.
I turned away, and there he was. He’d just gotten on board and was staring right at me. There were a lot of people getting off now too. Two more stops until I got home – I didn’t dare ride with him the whole way. I started shoving my way out with the rest of them, but right before I made it past the door, I felt a hand land on my shoulder.
“Why did you come back for me?” he asked.
“I didn’t. I ride the subway every day,” I answered.
“Did you see my tribute to you?” he asked. “Is that why you came back?”
I didn’t answer. I just pulled away and pushed out the door. I looked back, but I didn’t see him get off. Good, maybe he took the hint.
“You know why I did it, don’t you?”
I spun. He was right behind me again. The train grinded to life, and the crowds were beginning to thin on the platform as the people flooded up the stairs.
“Get away from me,” I replied. “Hey! Somebody help me.” The uncaring crowd kept moving about their business. Couldn’t they see this guy was a creep?
“I just don’t think you should be forgotten after you die,” he said.
The hand gripped at my shoulder again, but I shook him off. I started walking after the people, but insistent, kneading hands kept clutching onto me.
“Help! Security!” I shouted.
There was a guard barely a dozen feet away. He glanced distractedly in my direction before turning back to his phone. What was wrong with this society? Why didn’t anyone care?
“Why are you making this so hard on me?” the man in the hoodie asked. I actually shoved him this time. Hard. He staggered back a half-dozen paces, but then barreled right after me again.
“Hey, cool it over there.” The security guard looked up again for a moment, but he didn’t make the slightest move to help.
“Can’t you see that I love you?” the man in the hoodie howled. “Why won’t you stay with me?”
He was there with me every step I took. I couldn’t shake him. Another subway car was rumbling into place, and I tried to make my way toward it to get away. Hands were on my back, so I spun and shoved him again. This time he didn’t catch himself in time. He dropped his pack as he back-peddled – trying to find his balance, tripping over his own feet. His familiar eyes pleaded an agonizing moment while he seemed to hang in the air before tumbling off the platform – straight onto the tracks.
The train roared into place. I couldn’t look – but I couldn’t look away. I saw a pair of hands reaching up over the side before a hideous crack rent the air. I covered my ears and ran, but I couldn’t block out the anguished scream. It just kept going and going – rising and falling like a car alarm. I’d thought the train would have killed him on impact, but maybe it just caught one of his legs or something.
Finally. Finally people were starting to notice. The crowd surged to the edge of the platform to watch. Shouting – the security guard trying in vain to hold them all back. Then the train started backing up, and the screaming surged up again. It didn’t last long this time though. He must have died as it rolled back over him.
The noise was deafening. The only sign that the man in the hoodie had been there was his backpack still lying on the ground. I should have just left it alone and run, but as long as everyone was distracted, why not? Maybe I wanted a clue as to his obsession, or maybe it was my guilt that begged for closure closure. Whatever the case was, I couldn’t stop myself from opening it and looking inside.
Photographs spilled out. Dozens of them. All of me, although some still showed my unaltered brown hair. He must have been following me for years. I sat on the ground in disbelief while the chaos churned around me.
More photos – these the paintings of my face. Many more than the one’s I’d seen – the whole city must be filled with them. So far I must have encountered a random selection, but here they were all assembled in order. As I flipped through the photos, I could clearly read the captions in the sequence they were intended.
Life couldn’t kill her spirit.
Death couldn’t steal her soul.
She’s still singing, can you hear it?
From lips that will never grow old.
Then papers – news-paper clippings: the obituary of my death standing most prominently on the top. Two years ago in this very subway. I died when a man slipped his knife between my ribs and ran off with my purse, leaving me to bleed out on the ground while people walked past me and did nothing.
But did I know this man? Why couldn’t I remember him? Then again, why had he been the only one to notice me? Of all the careless faces that pass me every day, why didn’t any of them seem to look my way?
I was so overwhelmed and terrified – I just did the only thing I knew to calm down. I started singing, but no-one noticed me over the riotous commotion. And every time I can’t make sense of where I am or where I’m going, I’ll just start singing again. Sometimes I’ll catch an odd glance or two, but more often I can be as loud as I want and no-one will even know I’m there.
I keep forgetting things, and places, and people. But I’m writing this because I don’t want to forget that he loved me, and that maybe I even once loved him. Now that he’s dead, I hope he’ll be able to look at my face painted all over the city and remember me. Until then, I’ll keep riding the subway where he found me last, singing until he finds me again.