Alicia can handle the rain. She can handle the weatherman getting it wrong. She will not give up because she got caught without an umbrella. She can deal with the smell of old urine in the subway tunnel, stale, renewed by the water other commuters drip in. In some perverse way, the smell takes her back to the farmhouse where she grew up. An old tomcat used to prowl around, and the rain always brought out his musk. This was like that, except the musk did not come from a vagrant cat but from vagrant people. But she can deal with that. She can deal with rush hour. She can deal with having to be the jerk who takes the empty seat. Nobody wants to look like a jerk so everyone stands around, looking at the seat and looking at each other. Their eyes invite you to sit down but they resent you for it if you do. But somebody needs to sit down, because the subway car is crowded, and the more seats that get filled the more standing room there will be. So Alicia can handle being the jerk. Alicia can handle sitting down.
Alicia can handle being damp. It does not damage her self-esteem to be the only one not dressed for the weather. In the future she will find a more reliable source of meteorological information. She does not mind feeling a little silly with runny mascara. In weather like this it does not seem likely that anyone will suspect her of crying. Last week she saw a younger girl crying on the subway, on a dry and balmy day. It occurred to Alicia then that crying on public transportation might be the worst kind of hell. It would amount to the final failure: the dam of composure breaking and everything on the inside pouring outside in a hot wet mess, with dozens of witnesses to the gory scene and no means of escape. You might as well be skinned alive. But on this day the other commuters will assume Alicia’s face is wet from rain. They will not suspect she is in any particular kind of hell.
She could handle their suspicions, anyway, if it was necessary, and it is not. There are lots of things Alicia knows that she can handle now. She can deal with locksmiths at three o’clock in the morning. She can deal with knowing that for every roach she sees in her kitchen, there are about three hundred she doesn’t. She can deal with the countless petty insults, like paper cuts, that she collects day in day out. Such as the man standing in front of her, grasping the ceiling strap. He has neglected to shake out his umbrella before collapsing it, and it is saturated. He is holding it under his arm like a prop sword that has impaled him. Its silver tip is suspended half a foot in the air above Alicia’s leg, and water is dripping off it. She can deal with this man’s lack of consideration. She can deal with the cold water trickling down her thigh. She can even deal with staying silent about it for the twenty minutes left on the ride.
What she cannot abide is the man with the microphone.
The first question ought to be how he got the microphone, not to mention the electric loudspeaker clenched between his legs. This is, after all, not a person with disposable income. This is not a person with clean clothes, or a shaved face, or mental health. He probably does not have a home. But he does have a microphone, and a loudspeaker, and it doesn’t occur to Alicia to ask where he got them, because he is using them. He is using them to talk to her. From the opposite end of the car, on the other side of nine or ten standing passengers, he has seen her and is addressing her. Out of the half dozen or so young women in this car, a few of them prettier than Alicia, he has chosen to speak to her. He has chosen to speak to her about her breasts. He thinks they have a lovely shape, but they might be too large for his tastes; when he is holding a breast, he likes to be able to cup it one hand.
Alicia looks around the car, to make sure it is really her he is speaking to. She is the only woman not wearing a raincoat, only a soaking wet blouse. The fabric is clinging to her lewdly. The man with the microphone is still talking. He is now imagining her nipples. He speculates that they are only slightly pink, and a little bit warmer than the rest of her. He explains this is because they are a part of the body that becomes full of blood when aroused. He bets he could get her blood flowing.
In some sense he is correct. Alicia feels a warming in her chest that is rising up to her face. Her veins are scalding with memory: she is twelve again, behind the farmhouse. It is summer, the Fourth of July. Everyone is sitting on folding chairs around the beer cooler, watching Alicia’s brother drench her with the garden hose. Up until that moment no one in her family had seemed to notice that she was “developing.” Now everyone has noticed. But nobody has stopped her brother. Nobody turned off the hose.
Nobody is unplugging the microphone. No one will look at Alicia. They all find the advertisements on the wall fascinating—more interesting, at least, than the man with the microphone, even though he has a vivid imagination. He is now imagining the consistency of Alicia’s buttocks. Firm, he believes, but not un-tender. Alicia wants to speak up but does not know what to say. It could be that acknowledging him will only encourage him. It could be that eventually he will become bored and leave her be, all on his own.
The man with the umbrella—the one that’s dripping on Alicia’s leg—cannot suppress his smirk. He thinks he is being surreptitious when he glances at Alicia out of the corner of his eye, but Alicia sees his pupils darting up and down, like a reptile’s. The umbrella man’s eyes are taking cues from the man with the microphone. They rush with greedy speed to every part of her that the microphone man cares to mention. They finally turn away after imbibing her totally. Now the man with the umbrella has a photograph inside his head—a panoramic view of Alicia’s every hill and valley.
The microphone man has been talking at Alicia for six stops now, and the other passengers have become emboldened. Everyone sneaks their own quick looks at Alicia. Some dread her predicament. Others are secretly savoring the struggle they’ve stumbled upon. None of them speak. The man with the microphone is the main event in that subway car, and while some polite commuters pretend that nothing is happening, there is no one there not rapt in the microphone man’s observations.
With brakes screeching, the car pulls up to a station where two subway lines intersect. It is one of the busiest stops in the system. A little more than half of the car’s passengers file out, including the man with the umbrella. They move toward the exit a little faster than usual, but one of the doors fails to open. There is a desperate congestion. For the briefest minute, the bustle obscures the microphone man’s line of sight. Alicia’s view of him is sliced into the spaces between passersby. Even with the loudspeaker, the man with the microphone can’t compete with the sound of the train’s brakes or the din of voices coming from the platform. Alicia breathes, and realizes she hadn’t been breathing before. Along with that pent-up breath arrives the first tear, hot as fire. By now her face has been dry; there is no mistaking the tears for anything but what they are. Alicia sees the new passengers filling in through the car doors: a fresh audience.
This station is still two stops away from her apartment, but it is also her chance. She leaps from her seat and pushes her way to the door, against the stream of people. Normally this is not allowed, but there is authority in distress. The ones who see her face move out of the way.
She emerges from the station, into the rain, which strikes her face in thick sheets. She finds her way to a bench and sits, uncaring, directly into a puddle. Alicia the person has vanished. What remains is a nervous system, overflowing with burning and chill, no thoughts, just hyper-reaction. Her fingers twitch at the demand of every disconsolate nerve. A stranger stops – “Are you all right?” She yammers something. The stranger passes on. Not everyone can be helped. The rain slams Alicia’s shoulders as it rips the leaves from the sidewalk trees: objects exposed to the weather, all that they are.
Thanks Evelyn Saenz for the photo: Overtaken by Wind on a Rainy Day, 1882.
Mike is a Boston-area native who writes fiction and drama with increasing frequency. He is the co-host of "History Lessons With Caleb, Mike & Terry," a podcast for the ill-informed.
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