I left work a couple hours later than usual. My boss asked me to stay to finish a project that he, in his round about ways, blamed me for the inconsistencies. I blamed him. He stayed late to avoid his kids and wife, and he dragged me into it. They paid me well and I rarely stayed past five, but I was too tired to look at it in a positive way.
My coworkers left for the day so I resigned to take the Chicago “L” train. A cab would have been about twenty dollars, too expensive. Three of us took turns driving to work to avoid the dirty underground train filled with various loony and business commuters. The train had been my transportation up until this year, but now I felt spoiled that I didn’t have to ride it. No more lousy sitting on the tracks, pushing back my arrival time, or men in dingy clothes preaching the gospel shaking a tin cup. No more fart smells or overbearing lemony clean scents. No more catching colds from those sneezing and coughing on or around me.
“Come out tonight,” my coworker Jessica, pleaded with me. She wanted me to meet her new boyfriend. A group of her friends met at the same bar every Thursday night. Jessica was introduced to the guy on one of those nights. I used to go out with them all the time. All I wanted to do lately was to sit in front of my television and let a movie take me away. My boyfriend and I had been broken up for six months. “Maybe, depends on how late I’m stuck at work,” I told her.
Mike, my ex-boyfriend and I dated for over three years. He was the one I was going to marry. Things had not gone well from spring until Thanksgiving. We were pulling apart. I denied it, putting on a happy face at his parents’ for Thanksgiving. After that weekend, he said, “We should split up, see where we end up.” I shouted at him that if he didn’t want to buy me a Christmas gift, that was okay, but we didn’t have to break up. I had already purchased an iPad for him. I gave him the gift at Christmas thinking that maybe we’d still end up together. I was wrong. He gave me nothing. He offered to give the iPad back, but I stormed out. I cried to him for two months and then stopped calling. He called me a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t pick up and hadn’t called him back. I had no idea what I would say.
The pressure from my parents started. “Sweetheart, you’re running out of time,” my mother hounded me about my biological clock. She wanted me to come back home to live. In twenty years of living away from my parents, brothers and their families, I had always thought that one day I would end up back home. At least I had moved closer in the past seven years. Now it was only a three-hour drive versus a three-hour plane ride.
I stepped outside, into the fading light of the day. The stress of work started to lift when I breathed in the cool air. My mind circled around that project. Hopefully I fixed what needed to be. Too late to worry about it, my boss had sent it to the client as I walked out the door. I buttoned up my light suede jacket, it felt colder leaving later that day. Spring had a hard time coming around. I slammed my hands in my pockets, big leather bag dangling from my shoulder and head down on the way to the subway.
I dug deep into my bag in front of the turnstile at the train station, swearing I would purchase a bag with pockets instead of an endless pit. I felt the rectangle card and swiped it over the turnstile card reader. It beeped at me, my card had a buck fifty on it and the machine wanted a two twenty-five. I grumbled and pulled back, bumping into the people piled up behind me. Huffs and puffs rolled out of their mouths as I had added about three seconds to their commute. To add money, I swiped the card over the vending machine. I once again, dug to the bottom of my bag trying to find the quarters I touched a moment before.
I made it to the bottom of the steps only moments before the train arrived. I had no desire to stand in the cavernous underground for too long. The advertisements pleaded with me from across the tracks as the train screeched up and blocked the view. I was tired and just wanted to get home. My television grew cold without me.
A set of train doors opened in front of me and I hunkered on, looking for a seat. I couldn’t believe that all the seats were taken at that time of night. Maybe everyone got stuck at work late. What a relief, no foul smells, I thought to myself. I walked forward from the door and stood by the opposite door, hanging onto a pole as we pulled away. There weren’t many people standing.
The train swayed back and forth. Various scraps of paper scattered the floor up the aisle. I turned to look at a guy who stood a few feet from me towards the back of the train car. He had a pile of newspapers on the seat beside him. What a hog, taking an extra seat and not offering it up.
The guy wore jeans, a button down shirt that hung below his gray wool sweater and trendy sneakers with diagonal lines on them. I kept looking at him from the corner of my eye because he was nice looking with his crew cut brown hair and bright blue eyes. He looked around at everyone, bright and cheery and caught me looking at him. He reached down and grabbed a couple pages of newspaper, standing with his legs shoulder width apart to hold his stance in the train’s rocking.
Uneasiness moved through me, I felt like moving to the other side of the train car because I thought the guy unpredictable. Who makes eye contact? What was he going to do with the newspapers? He’s not going to involve me, is he? I looked at the girl who leaned against the pole by me and raised my eyebrows. She had noticed the newspaper guy too and I saw her rock from one foot to the other and pull her bag closer. A guy in a dark suit carrying an expensive briefcase stood nearby and glanced our way with a furrowed brow. It was as if we were in this together if the guy decided to go crazy. The people sitting nearest him completely ignored his actions, except for one girl who wore a long flouncy skirt and big hoop earrings. She stared mesmerized by what he would do next. The headline, Reality TV Not Real? glared from the page that he held up and then folded. He creased the newspapers in precise movements.
My mother mentioned that my ex-boyfriend from high school, Doug, had a surprise birthday party planned for him the next weekend. Doug had been my first love. We dated for two years, until we graduated high school and moved off to college. He picked a college a couple states away that specialized in engineering. I chose a nearby state school because it was cheaper and I didn’t know what I wanted to study. Our relationship basically ended when we parted ways to college. We said things like, “I’ll love you forever” and “One day we’ll be together.” But we shifted our focus and grew apart.
We saw each other throughout college only on breaks from school. Both of us dated others and then I moved to the west coast after graduation with a couple of my girlfriends to seek adventure. Doug moved home and worked for his father’s engineering firm. My mother constantly monitored his movements and kept me up on his life. My parents and his parents frequented the same social circle. Then one day she told me he had gotten engaged. My momentary sock in the stomach passed, not that I wanted him. I was supposed to get married first.
The most recent news came cheerfully my way only a month ago. “Doug is getting divorced,” she chirped. She told me that we were meant to be together and this was my opportunity to finally settle down. My thoughts went back to that previous Christmas when he cornered me near the bathroom of the local brewery. He confessed that he and his wife were having problems and then kissed me hard on the lips. I took it in at first to perk my spirits of my recent lost love, then pushed him away. I left the brewery without saying goodbye that night.
“He has three kids. I’m not crazy about becoming an instant mom,” I explained to my mom. But that wasn’t the half of it. We took completely different paths in life and I felt there was even more to experience. He seemed the steady, safe husband who could potentially slow my growth. I needed an adventurer like my Mike. We had traveled together all the time, sharing new cultures, languages and challenges.
“Yes, but this may be your only chance to experience motherhood,” she advised. In a way, she was right. I couldn’t believe that I had gotten this far in life and hadn’t had kids, yet. Of all the uncertainties in my life, the one thing I knew for sure was that I wanted a family. I tasted it with Mike . Our relationship took the right path only to veer off when my attention wasn’t on the road. I had just completed graduate school. Maybe it was time to move home now.
I promised my mother that I’d be home for Doug’s surprise birthday party. She could hardly contain her excitement. It was as if, after all these years, she had taken my life back into her hands. I found myself too tired to fight anymore. I trusted her judgment more than my own for the moment. Everything I had planned in my life had fallen off course. I needed to find happiness.
More people put down their books and pulled their headphones out of their ears to spy on the weird guy with the newspapers on the train. In a matter of minutes he created a paper pirate hat. With a grin on his face he handed the hat to the young serious girl in the seat next to the pile of newspapers. He motioned for her to put it on her head. Her face tightened up and her eyes widened like he had insulted her. She waved her hands over each other in front of her chest motioning, no way.
He turned to a man in jeans and tennis shoes sitting in the next row of seats and offered the hat, once again motioning to put it on his head. The man smiled, took the hat and put it on the few white wisps on his head. The people who pretended not to stare were now staring forthright at the man with the paper pirate hat on his head. The pirate hat maker grabbed more sheets of newspaper and whipped up another hat with the same precise movements as the first.
At this point, the girl in the flouncy skirt with the hoop earrings nearly grabbed the new hat out of his hands. He chuckled and put it on her head. Her wide mouth opened up giggling as she touched the hat on her head. I realized that my jaw was hanging open so I quickly closed my mouth and glanced around. Even if I tried, I wouldn’t have been able to take my eyes off the impromptu performance.
The pirate hat maker went to work once again and offered the hat to the man in the dark suit. The man tightened the grip on his expensive briefcase and mouthed “No thank you”. The train car sat in silence except for the rhythmic rocking on the tracks and the frequent messages over the intercom announcing the stops. As new people boarded the train, they stopped to watch the show and even groups of people would stop talking to see what was going on.
I was offered the hat declined by the suit guy. My smile spread over my whole face and my eyes lit up as I took the hat from the man. He winked at me and went back to work on more sheets of newspaper. This continued the whole ride. I actually missed my stop, going one too far because of his performance.
I stepped off the train and looked back. Over half the train car wore newspaper pirate hats on their heads. Young, old, blue collar, white collar, no collar, and a variety of folks smiled eagerly and for a moment everyone looked the same age. I turned to the surprised faces of people entering that train car. I even saw some avoid the car and run to the next train car door before the doors closed.
The bar that Jessica and her friends frequented happened to be near that train stop. I walked down the steps to the street, head held high, careful not to disturb the pirate hat. People gave me sideways glances as I walked past them feeling like a princess. I stepped onto the sidewalk and pulled my phone out of my bag. My cheeks hurt from smiling.
“Hi mom, something’s come up and I won’t be able to come home this weekend.”
“Why, what about Doug’s . . .”
“Love you, gotta go,” I hung up.
I dialed another number, one that I had memorized probably forever. Mike answered and after a brief catch up, he asked me to dinner. He explained that he had missed me. He wanted to talk things over. “About what?” I asked. About mending our relationship, he replied. I took a deep breath.
“Sorry, I don’t have time for dinner,” I reached my hand to steady my pirate hat. “I was actually calling to see if I could get that iPad back, the one I gave you for Christmas.”