Desmond rode the Red Line to and from work five days a week for the last ten years. Like most commuters on the train he sat there in that subterranean world under the city streets as it burrowed along tracks toward the outskirts of the city like a metallic mole. Out the opaque, scratched windows, subway tile blurred by in the dimly lit tunnel. Platforms swarmed with disinterested commuters came into view, and vanished in mere minutes as the train moved to keep schedule.
Keeping to himself, Desmond averted his gaze when eye contact was made with others. Occasionally, if his absentminded stare was caught as he had drifted into some imaginary world, he would politely smile and scrunch his eyes, slowly turning away.
The best strategy was to mind your own business, but he loved to observe, and curiosity always got the better of him. After all, when he left the office and work was a far removed thought from his mind, he morphed back into his real self, the writer desperate for characters, plots, and settings. The train provided a whole sea of opportunities, and one character always stood out.
Always choosing the same car no matter how full it was, Desmond would find a seat or stand with his fingers grasping the grab rail as the car moved to and fro. While there were many riders he did not recognize, a few rode the train with enough frequency allowing repeat viewings that bordered on comfort.
Inventing stories for these people they became part of his mind’s menagerie. There was the man in the grey flannel suit and handlebar mustache. He was tall, handsome, with hair slicked back and shaved on the sides, and wore dark rimmed glasses that made his blue eyes almost pop. He had an air of confidence that made Desmond envious of his life. His story was written in Desmond’s mind. The executive of an advertising firm specializing in new and upcoming liquors and craft beers, at night he wandered the city with a boombox on one shoulder and cardboard under the opposite arm. Clad in Adidas jumpsuits of different colors, large gold chains, and Adidas Sambas, he would find other gangs of break dancing legends around the city and they would throw down for the title of Break Dance King or Queen. After pulling an all nighter, he would throw himself down on a threadbare couch and get two hours of sleep before pulling himself together and riding the train. In Desmond’s mind, he was the Bruce Wayne of the break dance world, the Dark Knight in street kicks.
Each frequent rider had their back story. There was Darla the secret agent who was undercover, protecting the city’s rail systems. Johnny the plumber turned DJ who spun electro rave till all hours of the night. And then there was Henry, the absent minded professor. This man in all tweed stood out the most to Desmond. In fact, Henry had provided Desmond’s imagination with the most comprehensive backstory of any of his characters on that train. Due to the frequency Desmond saw him, the story evolved and morphed every ride to work.
Henry sat in the same uncomfortable plastic seat at the end of the car on that downtown train during his quotidian commute. He lingered on that car with all the strange odors that culminate into one miasma of humanity; an odor that exists in environments over saturated with people. He wore the same outfit never changing; a grey birdseye tweed suit with a vest and navy blue tie. He always had a rose in hand, one single rose. You could tell it was a fresh, clean, crisp flower. He held it erect with the flower right below his chin, never uttering a word to the people on that cattle-car clacking down the tracks with brakes squealing at each stop. Riders around him would glance over and turn their gaze away as all did to each other in this stifling environment. Some would exchange a smile with him before looking away.
In all those years of Desmond’s commute never was he absent. Come rain or shine or the most foul weather imaginable, he was there repeating this trip. Desmond always tried to sit close to see if there had been a change, but the routine never adjusted, it was always the same. In the quick pace of this environment you never connect, and Desmond was left to wonder and invent his story.
After ten years of riding that train Desmond’s time had come. He had quit his job, and had signed a book deal. He was already writing his second manuscript, which had been picked up with an advance from the same publishing house. He was exhilarated and thrilled. Holding a shoebox in his lap, it contained all the belongings from his cubicle that he had felt necessary to retain. Not thinking about his daily ritual, he stepped onto that same train car and found himself sitting next to Henry, a fresh rose in hand.
Fiddling with the belongings in his shoebox, Henry turned to look down into the small container as well, taking his gaze off the rest of the car. Having caught his attention Desmond took this opportunity and spoke.
“Desmond,” thrusting his hand out for a shake.
“Guy,” placing his hand in Desmond’s and shaking with slow deliberate movements.
His skin was pallid, paper thin, and smooth. Desmond was electrified to shake hands, as if he were finally meeting a celebrity he followed his whole life.
“Yes, like Guy Montag. My father’s favorite book was Fahrenheit 451. A slight obsession of his.”
His eyes were blue and pierced Desmond’s gaze as if reaching deep into his mind and capturing his thoughts.
“I have a burning question to ask you. One that has plagued me for ten years. What do you do? I mean riding the train everyday? The rose?” Desmond noticed the anxiousness in his voice and he caught himself stammering a little.
A silence filled the air between the two, as if all sound had faded away and it was just two of them on that busy train. Guy looked around the compartment, as if he might miss something by speaking to Desmond, and turning back sighed and looked down at the rose.
“I met her here. It was only a brief time. The briefest of moments. But this is where it all started. It was the beginning of something beautiful. I remember my hand sliding into hers, the feeling of her skin on mine, that skip in my chest. Until I had met her, I never realized I had not truly loved. But like all things wonderful and glorious it had to end, and it did much to my disappointment and dismay. I hope to catch a glimpse of her on here. So I ride, searching for her.”
Desmond looked down at the rose and then up to him. Tears had formed in Guy’s eyes and began to stream down his face.
“I’m sorry,” Guy said, “you’re the only person who has taken the time to ask. It brings it all back.”
“Don’t be. I’m sorry it took ten years for me to ask. I won’t be riding anymore since I no longer work downtown. I would love to hear more. Tell me about her?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t. That’s for me to keep. It makes it that special if I keep her to myself.”
The train crawled to a stop with a lurch and screech and Desmond looked up.
“This is my stop. It was nice to finally talk to you. And, good luck. I guess.”
Guy continued to clutch the rose in his hands and his eyes seemed to plead with Desmond, but for what he did not know. As Desmond waved goodbye he heard Guy’s voice, fragile yet raised over the cacophony of other riders, a quiver to his words.
“Her eyes. They were beautiful and glowed when she smiled as if the corners of her mouth extended upward and encircled them in joy as well.”
Desmond stopped in the door, he could feel the crowd push past him, some cursing him. He sat back down next to Guy.
“I don’t have anywhere to be.”