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What Is and What Will Never Be


Jeremy didn’t notice her when he boarded the subway. He was too focused on getting a seat, scanning the cars for any spaces not yet filled by commuters heading into the city. He saw a free spot on the third car and when the doors opened he headed straight for the empty seat and snagged it, leaving the rest of the boarding passengers to cling to the overhead bars that ran the length of the car. He knew his mother would disapprove. He was young and in good physical shape. Why not leave the seat for an elderly person, or someone else more in need? Yet Jeremy felt no guilt. On weekends when he rode into the city, he always stood if the train was full. But during rush hour Jeremy believed that it was every man for himself. Anyone who traveled at the peak of the day did so at his or her own risk—if he didn’t take a seat, who’s to say some other young and able-bodied person wouldn’t grab it instead?

It wasn’t so much the standing that Jeremy minded—it was the jostling, the shifting of position required every time more passengers streamed through the doors. Seated, Jeremy could open the newspaper and check the baseball scores from the night before, tuning out the world for at least a few more minutes before being thrust into the workday.

But today as Jeremy fished out the sports section from the middle of the paper, he noticed a girl sitting across the aisle from him, a few seats to his right. Her long black hair was dyed with streaks of red, and she wore jeans, bright white running shoes, and a powder-blue top, making her stand out amongst all the suits on their way to work. Her glasses, with their rectangular black frames, gave her an intellectual look, which her multicolored hair somehow seemed to both complement and contradict at the same time.

She was attractive—slim body and an alluring face. She could compete any day of the week with the sharply dressed women at the firm where he worked. Yet it was clear that she wasn’t trying to compete with them—she was dressed casually enough to imply that she didn’t care that much about how she looked, but yet carefully enough so that, if you looked closely, it was obvious that she had a shapely body. Her clothes didn’t seek to reveal, but they weren’t attempting to hide either.

Jeremy was careful not to stare, but he glanced up regularly from his newspaper to check her out. She was reading a book that rested on her lap; there was a backpack down by her side. He guessed she was a student.

He wanted to say something to her—but the distance between them was too far to casually start up a conversation. And, in any case, what would he say? She seemed engrossed in her book. The morning commute was a solitary journey, filled with dour faces on their way to another day at the office, the only conversations coming from those who barked into cell phones, hurrying to relay their missives before the train disappeared underground and calls were lost.

She reminded Jeremy of the girls from design school. He missed them—there were a few “artsy” women who worked at his company, but they all had serious boyfriends (or girlfriends), if not husbands. Most of the single women at the firm were business types: attractive, maybe good for a one-night stand—if they’d ever hook up with him—but they bored him with their constant talk of profit models, marketing plans, and best practices.

Jeremy was ready to move on. He had been out of college for four years and was making a decent salary—at least for someone with an art degree, though still a pittance compared to the commissions made by the salesmen gabbing away on their phones in the offices down the hall from his cube. Yet he was tired of the work, tired of applying his creative abilities to sell beer and toothpaste and toilet paper, tired of seeing his designs destroyed by marketing types who had no sense of aesthetics. But he was scared—his rent was high and destined to keep rising, and he had car payments to make each month on the Saab he leased. Somehow as his income had grown, he’d allowed his expenses to rise along with it.

Jeremy tried to focus on his newspaper, but there wasn’t much interesting in it—there’d only been a couple of games the previous night, and the sports section was merely eight pages long. As the train pulled into another stop, the girl reached her arms up over her head and stretched out her back, her shirt pulling tight against her skin, briefly giving Jeremy a better look at her chest as she let out a yawn. Lowering her arms, she picked up her book and held it out in front of her.

The book, Jeremy was surprised to see, was Comics and Sequential Art. Jeremy owned it and had read it more than once. It was a seminal text on the comics medium, written by the legendary Will Eisner. As a child Jeremy had aspired to become a comic book artist—a dream that had faded but never quite died, rearing its head whenever he was disgruntled with his current line of employment. He had been eight years old when he bought his first comic book—pulling an issue of Spiderman out of the revolving rack at the local mini-mart and paying for it with some spare change his father had given him. It was that comic that had initially inspired him to pick up a pencil and draw. If he’d never made that purchase—if he had spent the money on baseball cards, as his friend had urged—would he ever have ended up where he was today: an art school graduate and a graphic designer?

Jeremy had been spending much of his spare time of late working on a satirical horror comic that he was hoping to submit to publishers in the near future. But his job was keeping him busy—he’d been working six days a week for the past few months, coming home from the office exhausted. Home to his studio apartment, where he lived alone.

And here was this girl, interested in comics as well. Female comics fans were a rare species. Attractive ones were even rarer. What a joy it would be to have someone who supported him in his endeavors, who had the same interests—perhaps even the same goals—as himself.

Jeremy leaned to one side and craned his neck, trying to see past the bodies that stood between him and the girl, hoping to make eye contact; he managed only glimpses of her. He wanted to go over and talk with her—but approach a stranger on the subway? Invade someone’s personal space? If only he could get some sort of sign from her—if nothing more than a smile or an inviting look—first.

But she was reading a book he had read and enjoyed immensely—what was so out of the ordinary or imposing about getting up, going over to her, and commenting on how much he’d liked the book? The conversation would lead to their interest in comics and go from there. Perhaps she’d talk about school, and he could tell her about the “real world” and warn her to avoid the mistakes he’d made. If all went well, he’d ask her for her phone number. It would all be so easy to start—just walk up to her and ask, “Like the book?”

Should he get up then and there and make his way across the train to her? Or would that be too blatant? He wanted to be smooth, not to appear to be some kind of stalker. He decided to wait until the train pulled into the next station, taking advantage of the passengers boarding and exiting to maneuver closer to her.

Jeremy was on his feet as soon as he felt the train slowing. In front of him another passenger rose from his seat and made his way through the crowd toward the doors. Jeremy followed, slipping through the path created as other riders moved aside to let the exiting man through. He was almost to the girl when the train came to a complete stop. But when Jeremy looked over at her, he saw that she was sliding her book into her backpack, and when the doors opened she stood up, smiling, and said, “Excuse me” to the woman standing in front of her.

She was getting off the train. Jeremy could reach out, touch her on the shoulder, get her attention. But what good would that do? She wasn’t going to miss her stop to talk to some random guy about the book she was reading.

She stepped onto the platform and headed for the exit. Jeremy stopped in front of the doors and stared out at the station. He could follow her, catch up to her on the escalator, and politely mention that he couldn’t help but notice the book she was reading. He’d have the escalator ride to talk with her and hopefully by the time they reached the street they’d naturally walk together and continue their conversation.

But what would be his excuse for getting off at that stop? Did it matter—did he even need one? Probably not. But it had all become too forced now. Any element of spontaneity had been lost. The subway doors slid closed. As the train pulled out of the station, Jeremy watched the girl ride up the escalator to the street, alone.

Having lost his seat, Jeremy stood for the remaining three stops, pondering what might have been—what if she hadn’t gotten off when she did, or if he had followed her? He could have told her why he found the comics medium so appealing: the mixing of visual images with written narration in a way that could be done neither in prose nor film. The ability to tell long-running epics in serial form via monthly comics, to create vast worlds and lands in which to set stories that commented on the world today. The niche market of comics—which, while making it harder to make a living, allowed for greater freedom of expression than the big-budget world of film, where dozens of people collaborated on every project and studio heads had the last word on creative decisions.

He’d get her phone number. They’d meet up for coffee and continue their discussion. He’d talk about his story ideas and she’d listen excitedly, perhaps even throwing in some suggestions of her own. He’d be motivated to work on his comics project—knowing that, if nothing else, he’d have an audience of one for his work. He’d finally get to leave the singles scene behind. No more Friday dinners wasting money on yet another girl he didn’t connect with. He’d have a girlfriend who would be supportive of his dreams. After a year or two, she could move into his place—or, better yet, they could find a cheaper apartment further outside of the city. He’d quit his job and get some part-time work, devoting a large chunk of his time to pursuing his comics aspirations. Money would be tight—but it would be okay, because they’d have each other. They could make meals for two instead of cooking individually, reducing the cost of groceries. He’d have someone he could rely on, which would allow him to be more frugal: if his car broke down, they could share hers while he shopped around for the cheapest mechanic, instead of being at the mercy of the overpriced garage across the street from his apartment. If only he had approached her earlier, what would have transpired?

Jeremy realized the train wasn’t moving. He looked out the window and checked the name of the station printed on the wall. It was his stop. He hadn’t been paying attention—how long had the doors been open? He scrambled for the exit.

“Watch it!” came a female voice. Jeremy looked up, but it was too late: he plowed into a young woman dressed in a suit as they both tried to exit the train. He stumbled out and fell to the ground. She managed to keep her balance, but not before dropping the black bag she was carrying, scattering the contents on the platform. The train doors closed behind them.

“I’m so sorry,” Jeremy said, getting to his feet. The woman flashed him a look of death.

“Are you okay?” Jeremy asked her. She turned away from him, saying nothing. It had been his fault, but he was doing his best to be apologetic—she didn’t need to be so cold. She must be another one of those business types. Where’d she work? Fidelity? Bank of America? John Hancock? Jeremy contemplated helping her gather her stuff—but he could tell she’d resist his assistance, so why bother offering? He brushed himself off and headed for the escalator.

*

She was already running late for her interview and now this. That stupid idiot hadn’t been watching where he was going and had almost knocked her to the ground. Another self-absorbed member of corporate America.

The woman quickly gathered up what had spilled from her bag: a pen, the newspaper, her appointment book—and the latest issue of Fell, a comic book by her favorite comics writer, Warren Ellis.

She buried the comic in the bottom of the bag; the last thing she’d want would be for the interviewer to notice it. She checked herself out. She hated the suit she was wearing. It was so stiff and formal—she felt like her father. She’d have been much more comfortable and relaxed wearing what she normally wore to class: jeans and a tee shirt. But she had a job interview for an entry-level position at a major bank, and you had to dress up for that kind of thing. She’d even dyed her hair black, hiding the blue and purple coloring that she’d had throughout college. She didn’t feel like herself anymore, and was questioning whether this interview—along with some of the others she had lined up over the coming weeks—was really worth it. Did she want a job where she had to be a different person? Or was this just part of growing up, an adaptation she’d make, like so many had before her? She remembered old pictures of her parents in their hippie clothes, contrasted to the conservative way the two of them dressed today. Was she following in their footsteps? And did she really want to?

*

The girl with the red streaks in her hair arrived early to the business seminar; she worked in human resources and her company had paid for her to attend a one-day training session on some new personnel-management software. She wasn’t looking forward to the training—it was going to be as boring as hell. But at least it was a day out of the office, a day without having to dress up in the short, tight skirts she wore to garner looks from the partners at her firm, hoping that one of them might take a liking to her: if she was lucky enough to hook one, she’d be set for life. The girl dug out her cell phone and dialed her parents’ number.

“Hey, Mom,” she said when her mother answered. “What time is dinner tonight?”

Her mother told her that they were eating at seven, and the girl said that it shouldn’t be a problem for her to make it—she’d catch a train out to the suburbs and her father could pick her up and drive her back to her parents’ house. It was her brother’s birthday, and she’d promised to come down to celebrate.

Finished making plans, she dropped her cell phone into her backpack, next to the book she’d bought her brother as a present. He was a comics fanatic and the book had been recommended to her by the dorky guy at the comic book shop down the street from her apartment. Bored on the subway, she’d taken the book out and skimmed it. She hadn’t found it very interesting.

*

Everyone else was already there when Jeremy walked into the conference room for his morning meeting. He checked his watch—he was last to arrive, but he was only a minute or two late. He looked out the 34 th -floor window at the city skyline. He said his hellos and took a seat at the oval table in the center of the room, putting the events of the morning out of his mind as he mentally prepped for the meeting.
 

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than storiesspace.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © Copyright Mark Goodrich 2019

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