BY LAUREN GREEN
I met my first husband on the Northeast Regional from Boston to New York. He was seated in the aisle seat, I in the window. A little girl in pigtails lay sprawled opposite us, playing a game on an iPad that dinged at erratic intervals. Unprompted, my husband, then a stranger, told me he was off to visit his younger sister, whom he’d not seen in several years. I said I lived in New York, and that it was a good place to live, all things considered.
The train seats were navy blue. Though it was morning, the entire cabin appeared dim. A subterranean light filtered in through the cheap blinds. My husband asked me what business I’d had in Boston, and I told him I was coming from my best friend’s baby shower. I must have scowled when I said this, because he said, “What? You don’t like babies, or you don’t like your friend?”
“Neither,” I said. “I don’t like my friend’s husband.”
A partial truth—I didn’t like the woman my friend’s husband had transformed her into. He was a man of considerable wealth. The two of them lived in a gentrified neighborhood in one of the hideous luxury rentals my friend used to decry. She frequently invited me out to fancy restaurants and girls’ weekends at exclusive spas, with little regard to the fact that the rest of us still needed to work for our means.
The stranger nodded sympathetically, like I’d just divulged some massive secret, and we were now fully acquainted. He smiled, showing a row of clean white teeth, and settled further into his chair. “Then I don’t like him either.”
I should have known by this remark that my husband was a garden-variety conformist, though it would take me years to deduce this, because when asked, he’d swear that his greatest desire had always been to stand out. The second eldest of five siblings, he’d spent his boyhood in hopeless search of a way to distinguish himself and win his parents’ approbation, bouncing from baseball to chess team to Model U.N. When I married him, he’d secured a job as an accountant for a prestigious law firm. At night, he sometimes wondered aloud if his entire childhood had been gearing him up for a life of subordination.
On the train I knew none of this, knew only that a man was flirting with me, and that I was endeared to him in spite of myself. He kicked out his legs, crossing them at the ankle. A piece of gum clung to the dark sole of one of his shoes. I said that if my bag was in the way, I could move it overhead. “It’s no bother,” he said, a hint of amusement lighting his voice.
By nature, I am not the type who engages strangers in conversation, but there was something about the liminal environment of the train car that emboldened me. It’s possible I was a bit desperate too, having come from the baby shower where everybody was celebrating the fruits of love.
“Why are you visiting your sister?” I asked.
“She’s sick,” he said. “Cancer.”
“My God. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right. It’s not that serious.”
I wondered if cancer could ever be deemed unserious, or if his saying so was merely an attempt to ward off pity. I nodded solicitously, suddenly concerned that we still had several hours remaining on our journey, and that any further conversation would now be tainted with the shadow of his sister’s ailment.
“She’s a sex worker,” he continued, dropping his voice to a whisper so that the little girl across from us wouldn’t hear. He measured my face for a reaction.
“That’s interesting,” I said.
“Sure. I’ve never met a sex worker before.”
“Well, maybe you’ll meet her.”
In retrospect, he probably intended this comment as a throwaway, a polite filler, rather than the fortune it became. But I did meet his sister in fact, and I came to like her a great deal—more than I liked any of my husband’s other siblings. I was sad to lose her friendship when he and I divorced. Her name was Lucy. She shared her brother’s green eyes, his thin-as-a-blade build. Both of their faces radiated a coldness that stirred in me a sense of unease.
Lucy had a candid way of speaking, a singular attention that made her subject feel special. I assumed her chosen profession had trained her in such a skill. She once told me the sex work was better than what I might envision. What the patrons paid for, she said, had very little to do with sex. One customer who frequented the club every Thursday evening wished only to slow dance with her in a private room.
“What are you reading?” I asked, gesturing to the magazine that lay open on his lap.
He held it up. It was an inflight magazine from a Colombian airline. The overhead air conditioner circulated with such force that it riffled the cover, revealing several dog-eared pages inside.
I think it’s important to pause here to mention what I saw—or rather did not see—when I considered the man who would later become my husband. Pleasant wrinkles sprouted from the corners of his eyes, and I noticed that beneath his khakis, his socks were the same shade of blue as his collar. He struck me as the sort who might own a dog, and the dog would have some ironically senatorial name, like Rodolpho or Charles. He did not seem in the least unkind, nor did I believe he possessed even the possibility of cruelty. But then, I’d always been naïve when it came to strangers.
“And what do you do?” he asked.
“I work for a publishing house,” I said. “Also, I’m a writer.”
He nodded, as if this detail—or the slightly self-deprecating tone with which I’d conveyed it—tracked with whatever narrative he’d been composing about me in his head. “Are you working on anything now?”
“A novel,” I said.
“Of what sort?”
“About a man and a woman. It’s set abroad.”
“Italy. On the coast.”
“Will it be a happy story?”
“Maybe,” I said, though in truth, I’d never written any story that ended well. A friend who frequently read my early drafts informed me that this was a problem—no one wanted to read bleak stories, she said. I told her of course they did, just look at Tolstoy or Saramago. She said these men were the exception because one, they were men, and two, they were foreigners; in America, people love hope in the dumbest way.
“You’ll have to give me your name,” my husband said, “so that when you become famous, I can tell people that you and I once shared a train car.”
I laughed. I realized I had not asked what he did for work, nor did I particularly care. And isn’t it odd, that this lack of care which marked the start of our relationship was ultimately the cause of its demise?
I scribbled my name and number on the back of an old receipt and handed it to him.
He looked from the paper to me. “Karpovsky—are you Russian?”
“My grandparents,” I said, the blood flowing to my cheeks. My entire childhood, I’d longed for a name like Miller or Smith—a name that revealed nothing. Strange to find this same yearning bubble inside me now, decades later.
The train accelerated. We were leaving the manicured lawns of outer Boston. I felt the carriage rumble beneath me, and I thought about how sometimes life was like this, an unexpected change in velocity jolting us to awareness.
My husband folded the receipt neatly into his pocket, as if it were a handkerchief. “Tell me something,” he said, “were there balloons at this baby shower?”
I said it was funny he should ask this, because indeed there had not been a single balloon, though my best friend had ordered three dozen of them and been distraught when none arrived.
“That’s a shame,” he said earnestly. “What happened to them?”
“The balloon company mixed up the date.”
I proceeded to tell him about the massive white truck that had rolled up into my best friend’s driveway the day after the party and deposited several boxes of pink balloons beside the gate. In my friend’s fury, she’d taken a kitchen knife and stabbed each one. Pop, pop, pop.
“People get worked up about the most inane things,” I concluded, though I’d often wished I were the type of woman to whom late balloons would seem a catastrophe.
“They do,” he agreed.
What I’m trying to say is, I could not have known then how deeply he’d come to hurt me, this man. He picked up the inflight magazine from his lap. I gave him an indulgent smile. Across the way, the little girl twirled her feet in tiny circles and started to sing. The train rattled on. We still had three and a half hours to go.
Lauren Green’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Glimmer Train, Epoch, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. She currently resides in Austin, Texas, where she is pursuing her MFA at the Michener Center for Writers.
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