It was Wednesday, the 5:26 stop at Jefferson St. She focused on her book, tried not to notice when he stepped into the train, took his usual spot by the door, set the black briefcase between his feet, nodded at the passenger next to him, reached for the bar to steady himself when the train lurched forward again. The long coat he wore was unbuttoned and hung open, underneath it she could see he’d worn the navy blue trousers again, the pale blue shirt with the pinstripe. She caught his eye and he smiled at her, held her gaze. She could feel herself blushing and ducked her head again, let her hair fall around her face. They’d been doing this same thing for two weeks – one or the other of them looking up, their eyes catching, his wide smile, her ridiculous blush. She could almost never bring herself to look up at him again after the first smile, but she could feel him glancing over at her. Annalise, she wanted to say. My name is Annalise. And for the twentieth time in the last two weeks, she wished she looked like her name – willowy and dark, with delicate hands, big eyes, a smile as wide as his. She pushed a lank of brown hair behind her ear, sat up straighter, tried not to hate her legs, the soft curve of her belly.
A horn blared outside and the train lurched to a stop. People were always trying to beat the light at Morrisey and Park, darting over the tracks so they wouldn’t be stuck waiting while the train passed. This time there were voices in the street, people yelling. She leaned forward to look out the window but she couldn’t see anything. The intercom crackled and the driver’s voice leapt into the car, loud, but obscured. She heard only, “delay” and “tracks,” that was enough. She stole a glance at him. He was watching her; he smiled again, raised his eyebrows, nodded his head toward the empty seat next to him. She hadn’t imagined it; it was a clear invitation. She tried to picture herself standing up, gathering her things, walking down the aisle and sitting next to him. She put her head back down, tears stinging her eyelids. Was it some kind of game he was playing? Some kind of sick, frat boy thing? Would he tell his friends later over drinks, laughing at the absurdity of it: I just nodded my head at a chair and she stood up and waddled over like a pet dog. She looked again. He was still smiling, but he shrugged, looked almost embarrassed.
The intercom shouted again and this time she made out enough to know that there was a car on the tracks, they were going to be awhile. The woman next to her groaned and the doors slid open as if on cue. People began zipping up coats, packing up bags, leaving. The handful who stayed talked loudly, raising their voices above the sound of the road outside, whatever activity was going on at the front of the train. She pulled her sweater closer around her.
“I hope no one’s hurt out there,” a voice said. She looked up. It was him. He pointed to the empty seat in front of her. “Is this…? Do you mind?”
She shook her head, felt the back of her throat tightening. He was reaching a hand over the seat. “I’m Wes.”
“Annalise,” she said, so softly he had to ask her again. His hand was warm and dry and she didn’t want him to pull it away, but he did.
“Annalise,” he repeated, and she had a sudden urge to be home, to close herself away from the crack opening up in her chest, this bright little hope that was making her mouth turn up, making her want to ask him a thousand questions, learn all his secrets. But he was talking now, telling her that he was glad for the chance to finally say hello since they’d been riding the same train for weeks.
“Yes,” was all she said, and she looked out the window. There were red and blue lights reflected in the glass, but she hadn’t heard the sirens. What made someone reckless enough to dart in front of the train? Were they so anxious to get somewhere they couldn’t wait five more minutes? Was it really worth risking everything? She stole a look at Wes, who had turned slightly away, was looking out the window himself, a small dejection in his shoulders. Maybe not a game then. Maybe she was being foolish.
“Do you like Thai food?” she asked before she could stop herself.
“Yes?” he said, and the smile was back.
“I eat lunch there at the place on the corner sometimes. I don’t know how long we’re going to be stuck here…”
He stood, picked up the briefcase. “I’m starving.” His hair was red-gold and he had freckles across the backs of his hands and she sat for a moment, felt something break loose inside her that made her laugh out loud.
His face registered no surprise when she stood. He waited in the aisle, reaching out his hand to hold her bag while she shrugged into her coat, almost as if he already knew she’d need time to steady herself, as if he’d already seen the limp and taken it as part of her. When they exited the train, he went first, waited on the bottom step so she could grab his arm and use it for balance. A cool evening wind greeted them out on the street and the sidewalk glittered with an earlier rain. A block ahead they could see the knot of fire trucks and police officers, bystanders huddled in groups, pointing, shaking heads. They turned and went the other way, to the little restaurant with the pink and white neon in its dingy window, sat at a table by a poster of a Thai goddess, admitted to each other they couldn’t use chopsticks, ordered curry and green tea, the little salad rolls which they dipped into a common cup. He worked for the city planner’s office as a consultant, she worked as a paralegal for immigration attorneys. He loved to hike and climb and was a high school swimming champion. She made a face and gestured at her leg. She’d always wanted to play competitive sports, but… He said he liked movies too, and staying in. She said she should get out again, start with an easy hike.
When the bill came he tried to pay, but she reached out and put her hand on his arm, said, “Let’s share it,” and this was important to her, that she not be someone who had to be taken care of, but someone who was his equal, right from the start, and he watched her, seemed to understand that this was what she needed and took her card, slipped it into the black book with his, told the waitress to split it evenly.
Outside, the tangle of the accident had been cleared and the train was already gone. They stood on the sidewalk and laughed and he called rides for them both.
When hers came he leaned in and said, “Can I see you tomorrow?” And she asked herself, how had this happened? She was lit up inside, wound like a fully charged engine. She was racing the light, watching the upcoming tracks, her eyes forward; maybe a train was coming, but maybe not.
“Yes,” she said. “5:26,” and he grinned and shut the car door and when she looked behind her he had lifted his hand to wave and she lifted her own and everything inside her was saying, “Now!”