National Guardsmen Roamed the Subway

We boarded an elevator and, as it was closing, a uniformed guard slipped in behind us.

Ginny caught my eye in the door’s smoky reflection and winked; then, looking at the security guy, said (to me or him, it wasn’t clear), “You strike me as a someone who’s enjoyed giving another man a blowjob.”
The guard’s eyes went to us, and then to his hands, which were folded over his groin.

“Let me sa
y, though” she continued, “in all sincerity, I mean it as a compliment. Guys and guys is hot and hot, don’t you think?”

“You’re insane,” I said, looking up at the floor numbers.

“That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

Trying to keep the smile out of my voice and looking at the guard’s reflection, I said, “Sure. I’ve had my share of cock.” It was true, though. I’d never told anyone! “What about you?”

She said, “Women? I wish.”

We headed down a curving aisle with racks of satiny dresses. Great windows along the opposite wall blazed opaquely with sunlight. At the end of this aisle we found ourselves in a kind of foyer. Ginny disappeared through a swinging door plaqued “Ladies.”

I looked around at the baroque tchotchke housed in glass display cupboards. At a nearby register, a lady with bird-boned hands was polishing a group of crystal figurines collected in front of her.

Ginny poked her head out and motioned me forward. “All clear.”

The floor was carpeted. They had managed to take the bathroomness out of this place. There was a table beneath a large window. On it was a deep copper bowl surrounded by bath products and a vase of fresh cut flowers. It felt like an antechamber to some grander space—the facing door easily could have led to either a toilet stall or a chandeliered ballroom. Ginny, who was staring out the window, now turned to look at me fully, it seemed for the first time, in the face. Her eye contact was frank, intimate. “Well?”

I felt flushed, embarrassed—of my nervousness, of my desire. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant, or how to respond. If there was some secret word or phrase that might initiate this sort of quasi-anonymous sex act in a public restroom, for the life of me I couldn’t think of what it might be. I was tensed, readying to close the distance; great eternities of silence passed between us. Finally, I said, “I don’t think I can do this.”

She looked puzzled. “This?”

Hearing this word repeated back to me broke the spell. This. Whatever writhings my libido had been churning beneath our small talk suddenly went still. For one, she couldn’t have been a day over fifteen. Was she a runaway? It seemed clear to me now that she was. And if so, was it my duty now to shepherd her back to her parents? Further, I recognized that she shared none of the fantasies I’d had of where this afternoon was headed—that “this,” so freighted for me with sex and betrayal and everything else, on her lips, was all but a foreign word.

Ginny said, “I know it would be cooler to be like, ‘I discovered this’ but to be honest with you, I read about it in Time Out.” I followed her gaze out the window. “Isn’t it rad, though?”

The park lay before us as a camouflage blanket—wooly trees and quilted patches of lawn. A stitch of slowly moving traffic trimmed its borders. I could see the spot where we’d stopped to tie Ginny’s shoe. From up here, the pigeons were a single, dense shadow that every few seconds exploded then swept itself back together. The view revealed the city, breathing, in a way that could only be observed from an eighth-story window—high enough to see the greater swell, the pulse a crowd will make with a changing traffic light, but not so high that you couldn’t pick out what color hat someone happened to be wearing.
Although at the time, standing there, all I could think of to say was,

“Oh.”

Which was about the time security came barging in.

A guy with a walrus mustache said to me, “You need to leave.” He wore a badge on a chain around his neck. “Ma’am, I’ll need to have a word with you if you don’t mind.”

I backed out. My body was humming.

The woman by the register eyed me primly, and the guard from the elevator stood nearby, hands still folded over his groin. I watched the Ladies’ Room door for a good two minutes before realizing there was something serious going on inside. I hovered on the edge of going back in until some lady came by and pushed open the door.

“You have no right,” came Ginny’s voice.

I heard the guy with the badge say to the woman who’d just entered, “I’m sorry, ma’am, there’s a situation here.” Ginny said, “Why don’t you search her pockets? You know this is totally, totally illegal and I’m not going to stand here, you know? Fine, get the cops! I know my rights!”

This was my cue.

I re-traced my way through the store, the uniformed guard (“Sir, we need you to stay where you are!”) on my heels, and back onto the street, the broad pale pavement of Fifth Avenue firm and flat before me. I walked a few blocks, allowing the confluence of bodies to direct me—past the expensive chain boutiques and amusement-park stores—downtown. Tourists were wearing their ash marks ironically, self-consciously, as though they were sampling a curious local custom. This was the year of ashes, it seemed. It was in our lungs, on storefront awnings, on the foreheads of our visitors. They came by the thousands to Lower Manhattan and stared into the mile square pit under which the subways wouldn’t run. It was a new, morbid sort of tourism. I passed the statue of Atlas by Rockefeller Center. I’d never noticed before that the world he held on his back was really only a sketch, a few curved bands describing a sphere. I looked through it at the stormhead rolling in over the tops of the buildings. I took out my hat and gloves.

People flocked the steps of St. Patty’s. I entered an atmosphere of festive chattering and flash-popping. Entire clans of Italian tourists roamed the aisles and transepts, carrying on full-volume, matching up the salient details of the place to their open guidebooks. Wasn’t this supposed to be a solemn day? As if in confirmation, a bishop, who I could only make out as a shimmering scrap of scarlet and ivory, boomed through a loudspeaker above my head, “We wear this mark as a symbol of our renunciation to thee, Lord, and in recognition of thy sacrifice. Please rise to receive the sacrament.”

A rumble that I could feel in my chest bore the crowd to its feet. I was in the main vessel now, and found myself trapped in on either side. Feeling somewhat desperate I shuffled—step by intermittent step—altar-ward, racking my brain to recover some lost train of thought or other. It seemed as though I’d understood everything perfectly yesterday and today, for the life of me, that understanding was gone.

I sat inside my neighbor’s empty apartment awhile. Empty isn’t the word, perhaps. There were remnants. A mug on the counter, a sponge in the sink. Bare hooks, like idle flies, dotted the walls. A plaid couch was situated off-center of the room, as if someone had decided mid-haul to just leave the damn thing. I lay sprawled across its pebbly surface, nursing a beer and listening to a paint-splattered radio blare indeterminate music. There were empty boxes and crumpled wads of months-old newspaper. I had, I think, been holding onto the romantic notion that I was going to find Darius “Mies” Mieskowicz’s face one day among the Xerox faces of the dead, posted to a bus shelter, or a chain link fence—age 33, Tower One, 98th floor—but it seemed that he’d found a somewhat mundaner fortune. Darius had simply moved out. It was the kind of thing that happened every day to people, disappearing from one part of the city and showing up in another.

There was a noise in the hallway.

I got up to investigate. Through the peephole I caught a fisheye view of the second-floor landing—at the far end of which stood Jenny, her back to me, ringing the doorbell to my apartment.

Maybe, I thought, it was time for me to disappear as well.

 

Chris Hacker graduated from the Columbia University’s MFA program in
creative writing. He lives in Connecticut and working on a novel.

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