Jean Paul Ordinaire
This morning, the express train is not as crowded as usual, so I got a seat.
I study the middle-aged man sitting across from me. He's about my age, maybe a little older. Yes, definitely older than me. I may have gray hair, but his is more gray. He's wearing a plain dark suit and subdued tie, like me, but his suit is showing it's age. Too many years of wearing it to work every day. Too many dry cleanings.
Is my suit looking a little dowdy like that? I check my sleeves, my pants legs. Not too bad. A few good years left in this old suit.
I go back to looking at the man. I study his face. It's blank, turned inward. He's thinking about something. What could it be? Maybe he's thinking about a dream he had last night. Yes, I bet that's it. He's deep in thought, chewing at the inside of his cheek. Must mean he's worried about something. Do I do that? I hope not. Chew at the inside of your cheeks and people can tell you are nervous. In this day and age, you've got to look confident.
The dream must have disturbed the guy. What could it have been about? Probably something about when he was younger. Men that age tend to dream about the past: better days, fun times - like when you were a kid. Maybe his dream was about a girl he used to know. Maybe about the first time he saw a girl naked. That would have been when he was . . . oh, maybe about four or five. At that age, kids play doctor. They check each other out. Maybe he was dreaming about hiding in the bushes out by the alley with a little girl about his own age. It could have been a hot day, steamy hot, so they agreed to take off all their clothes. Clothes off, they looked at each other's parts.
Powerful memories, those kinds of experiences. Things you dream about as you get older. How can such memories be so vivid after so many years?
That day in the bushes was no big deal, so why would he dream about it now? They were just checking each other out. Something little kids do. Nothing bad about it. Kids being kids. Being curious. Nothing wrong with that.
If that's what the guy's dream was about, he's probably wondering what ever happened to that little girl? He's wondering if she grew up to be beautiful? Little kids are all cute, but not all of us can grow up to be beautiful. Some of us grow up ordinary. Lose our hair, or it turns gray. Nothing we can do about it. Genetics.
The little girl probably had blonde hair. Lots of little kids have blonde hair. Why does it grow darker as we age? Why does it have to eventually turn gray?
But that hot day in the bushes, he wasn't noticing her hair. He was staring at her little crevice. You know, down there between her legs. He couldn't figure out why girls had something like that. Why was it for? He didn't have anything like that. Instead, he had his little thing. That's what she called it, his little thing. She giggled and pointed. For some reason, that bothered him. Why? It was a little thing. So why did his face turn red? She pointed that out too. Why was she making fun of him? It wasn't his fault that his face turned red. He didn't do it on purpose. It just turned red on its own.
Now the guy is looking around the subway car. He's trying to shake off the memory of that dream. He glances at me and sees me staring. He quickly looks away. Does he suspect I know what he was dreaming about? He's chewing at the inside of his cheek again, and he won't look at me. He's turned inward again. He's telling himself the dream means nothing. Just a silly dream about two little kids hiding in the bushes. They were just being curious. Nothing wrong with that. Like kids are curious, that's all.
The guy shakes his head and looks down at his hands. His hands are the hands of an old man, wrinkled around the knuckles, veins standing out. He rubs at a dark spot on the back of his hand. Frowns. Crosses his arms to hide his hands from himself.
He stares across the car as if he's looking out the windows, but he's not seeing anything: he's still thinking about the dream. He's telling himself such dreams don't mean a damn thing. He's telling himself dredging up such memories are a waste of time. The here and now is what's important. Like what is going on at work. That's what he should be thinking about. He probably works in an office like I do. Doesn't have many friends left there. They've all retired. Forced to retire, actually. Almost the same as being laid off. The ones that are left don't know him. Don't understand him. How could they? They're too young to know what it was like in the old days. So he keeps to himself. Just does his job.
Yesterday, at my office, some of the younger guys were in the coffee room talking about something called the Higgs boson. Some kind of science thing. All over the TV news. The "God particle, they called it. They talked as if they knew what that mean, and I didn't. Ridiculous. They didn't know what it means any more than I do.
I stay out of those kinds of conversations. I bet he does too. Focuses on his work. Why should men who work at an insurance company care about the damn Higg Boson anyway?
The guy closes his eyes. He's back to thinking about the dream. He doesn't want to think about it, but something about that dream bothers him. After all the years, he's still trying to figure out why he was embarrassed that day in the bushes. Even now, he feels a bit embarrassed, remembering. He's telling himself he didn't do anything wrong. He didn't even touch her. Just looked. Then she made fun of his little thing and put her shorts back on and said she had to go home now. Would she tell her mother?
Did she tell her mother? Who knows? Doesn't matter. It was a long time ago.
After she left, he stayed there, hiding in the bushes. Would he get in trouble? But why? All he did was look. Nothing wrong with that. But if there was nothing wrong with looking, then why had his face turned red? It must have turned red because he didn't understand. He was embarrassed because, for the first time, he realized there were things he didn't understand. Not understanding things bothered him. Even today, not understanding things still bothers him. What the hell is a Higgs boson? Is it something he should know about?
I bet after he woke up this morning, the guy thought about what the dream meant. After all the years, he's still asking himself how he was supposed to know if looking at her had been wrong. How are you supposed to know what is right and what is wrong? Back then, nobody talked about things like that, things like why boys and girls are different. So how was I supposed to learn about it?
Now there's a question. Why doesn't anybody ever talk to kids about such things? That day, I wanted to ask mom about it, but was afraid to. Why was I afraid? Was there some unwritten rule that kids aren't supposed to talk about such things? Where do those kinds of rules come from, rules so strict that even little kids know them?
The train slows as we approach midtown. The guy opens his eyes and turns to look out the window. What is he thinking about now? He's probably thinking about work. Another miserable day at the office ahead of him.
Or maybe he's thinking about something his wife said this morning before he left for work. Actually, she probably didn't say anything. She was probably on the phone talking to her friends, making plans for the day. I bet the guy has a wife who doesn't understand him. You can tell just by looking at him. A good wife would have noticed his suit was getting worn. Told him to get a new one. She probably hardly notices him anymore. These days, wives have their own friends. They do things together without their husbands. Go to movies. To museums. No men allowed.
So when did his wife stop noticing him? Thinking back, I bet the guy can't even remember when it happened. That's because it probably happened gradually. Then one day he realized she wasn't noticing him anymore. That bothered him, and he wanted to ask her about it. But he didn't say anything. He knew that would only start another argument. Things are just the way they are. No use wishing things had turned out different. Too late to change anything now. He chews at the inside of his cheek as he thinks about it.
As we pull into the station, the guy picks up his brief case and holds it on his lap. Must be his stop. He looks worried, almost afraid. He's having trouble at work. I'm sure of it. Maybe they are finding ways to lay off the older employees like they've been doing at my work. The guy has probably been doing exactly the same job for twenty-eight years, and he knows he's doing it just as well now as he always has. He knows his job by heart. So why should his performance ratings be going down? No new ideas, that's the problem. Got a zero rating on the "New Ideas" category. What a stupid thing to add to the performance rating scale. Why should coming up with new ideas be so important when the old way of doing things has been working just fine for twenty-eight years?
The train stops and the guy gets off.
Another man gets on and takes the seat the other guy just left. I bet it still feels warm. This guy is a younger than the other guy. Quite a bit younger. He's also wearing a dark suit, but his tie is brighter. Mostly red, but with thin diagonal black stripes. Or maybe the stripes are a very dark blue. Doesn't matter. What does matter is that his suit looks in pretty good shape. Not new, but definitely not worn out yet. The guy crosses his legs, leans back, and closes his eyes. He's smiling to himself. What is he thinking about? A dream he had last night? Not likely. More likely he's thinking about the clever new idea he came up with during the night. He's going to tell his boss about it this morning. He'll probably get a high performance rating even though he doesn't know half of what a more experience man knows about the insurance business. He might even get a raise. He'll probably go to the coffee room to brag about his new idea to the other younger ones. Then they'll probably start talking about the Higgs boson.
Want to comment on this story? Click Here to go the Literary Review Discussion Forum (for the subject, enter "Comment on story That Guy on the Subway")