He’d put it to a girl like this, “Name somebody. Anybody. I’ve got ‘em.” Greg’s record collection was usually the clincher. His record collection took the date from subway platform to bedroom floor, before an altar of milk crate stacks. Nearer the endpoint, his bed, closer proximity translated to better odds. Greg had hundreds of records, at least that many. It was unfailing.
But Cheryl’s northbound train had arrived ahead of schedule.
A multicolored sea of toothpick legs in skinny jeans, stout women in trash bag parkas, bodies in hoodies and pantsuits off boarded. Cheryl smiled at Greg, started to extend her hand then withdrew it, laughing a little at herself, her own discomfort. Her uncertainty. A handshake felt sterile, a hug too intimate. She shuffled with the crowd towards the open doors.
“Give me a call,” Greg said, “when you get in. Or text. Whichever. Just so I know you got home okay.” The doors closed, he watched her take a seat by the window, her palm pressed against the glass, then she was gone.
Cheryl dreamed the city inverted.
In these dreams she hangs by her toes from the railing of a trolley car. A bat; bald-blind-leather-night mouse. Cheryl is happy, loose, swinging her arms in the light and pleasant breeze. The trolley floats, unattached. A truce between ground-turned-sky and sky-turned-ground. The trolley, because of this agreement, cannot stop. Cheryl instinctively understands this. Hangers-on accumulate. Insectoid strangers, limbs without faces, scuttle from the ground-turned-sky. They fasten themselves by tooth or claw onto the railings. Cheryl becomes afraid they’ll weigh the whole thing down. That they’ll somehow break the unspoken gravitational agreement and she will topple, head first, to a ground that is just sky. Everlasting falling into nothing on top of intolerably blue nothing. Forever and ever, amen.
They started with drinks and a playful argument over territory.
“You don’t live in the city,” Cheryl said. The bar was dim, cavernous. Though the bartender had not asked for their ID’s, Greg had left his new California license on the counter and Cheryl had swiped it, tapped his zip code with her chewed-down nail and tsk-ed. “94112? Boy, please, that’s Daly City.” She affected that Bayview speech, an east side almost-aggression, to cover up her Chinatown roots.
“No, it isn’t, not really,” Greg said, and smiled.
Greg was mild mannered and had a kind of boyish appeal. He was not unattractive but just, what was the word, tame. She would have to ask her sister Kim later why she kept setting Cheryl up with white boys.
“It’s almost not the city but it’s still technically the city.”
“Sure,” Cheryl said, “okay.” She traced the lip of her highball with her finger, shuffling her ice until it clinked. “You drive, though, huh? You’re not a real San Franciscan if you drive. If you drive then it’s settled.”
Greg threw up his hands. He wasn’t sure this was true; the everyday scramble for available street parking in his neighborhood directly contradicted this. And sure he took the BART, when he had to. When, like tonight, he knew parking would prove more trouble than it was worth.
Besides he liked his car, couldn’t imagine not having it. Even in the city, yeah, it was a hassle but most of the time it was worth it. For the freedom of movement. That was America, right? The open road? That he could get into his car and drive as far as his tank or his wallet would take him?
Cheryl was smirking in a slightly unpleasant way, and Greg noticed now she had finished her drink in two awfully unladylike swallows. He had about half a pint to go and still they had an hour to burn before their reservation. Would she order another? If she ordered another would she pick up the tab? Would it be weird of him to ask?
“I’m only teasing you,” Cheryl said. Greg noticed her shoulder go slack as she leaned back, the tumble of it, like air getting let out of it.
Cheryl watched herself against the rush of steel and wire, her outline barely perceptible. She imagined her mother in another seat somehow able to see Cheryl. See the way she could fold into herself, how in her reflection her cheeks seemed less wide, the fleshy pouch under her chin tucked itself away. See her looking so very much like a woman.
By 16th the pair of women she’d been casually watching, a pair of salt and pepper shakers, were comparing methods for at home pubic hair removal.
“I slipped once straddling the lip of the bathtub – ”
Another woman, or what sounded like a woman, somewhere behind Cheryl, shouted, “Is nothing sacred?” The shakers tittered. “Is nothing sacred?”
In the moments that followed it became more and more unclear whether this outburst was actually directed at the pair with the carrying voices. Was this other woman talking to herself? This seemed possible. To someone unseen? Also a possibility. It was almost dark on the Millbrae bound train, after all. The shakers’ shoulders softened then they resumed, albeit more quietly, their previous discussion. The kid beside Cheryl had closed his eyes, he was drumming his index and ring fingers against his flank.
The car doors opened, three consecutive beeps, then closed again.
Cheryl turned Greg’s business card in her palm.
“Next stop, 24th Street Station.”
Cheryl propped the phone between shoulder and ear, where the crook of her neck met the dip of her collarbone, a marriage of mind to body, spirit to flesh.
“Just don’t wear the blue thing,” Kim said, “It washes you out.”
Cheryl was turning over the card Kim had given her. Gregory Patrick Sobol. Floor manager. Sears. Cheryl knew she was supposed to be impressed.
“What about the purple top? You look so nice in jewel tones.”
“Have you ever loved anybody?”
Her sister clucked her tongue on the other line.
“Don’t be stupid,” Kim said.
Cheryl tore a thin line, as straight as she could, between Greg’s first name and his last, severing the Pat from the rick.
“Do you think she loved us? Really loved –?”
“Don’t start in.”
“I’m serious, do you think Mama –?”
Kim said, “Don’t wear the blue thing, meimei, okay? Okay? Are you listening? Walk me over to the closet. I want to hear what you pick. Pick something that swishes.”
Cheryl was lost in her own two eyes, twin black holes, so was surprised when the garbled voice over the intercom said, “Next stop, Montgomery”, her station. Sometime when she had been trying to unbleed pupil from the dark mechanical sheen of iris a man had sat down next to her. She shifted, her knee grazed his thigh, and smiled when he met her eyes.
“That’s me,” she said. Cheryl thought the man’s head looked something like an arrow. She gathered herself up. When the train stopped, she stood.
“This is me,” again. “This is my stop.”
Around her the shuffling of bodies. Everything moved in fits and starts.
“Please, excuse me,” Cheryl said, “This is my stop.”
The man stared. He said nothing.
Did he expect her to climb over him? To hike up her skirt and climb over the back of the seat in front, land into the laps of the elderly Filipino women seated there, examining their hands? Did he need her to say it again?
“Please, excuse me,” she said. She didn’t want to keep looking down at him looking back up at her, glassy eyed.
“Please,” she said, the intercom beeped, once loud and long, then twice, shorter and brighter, birdsong. The car doors closed. Cheryl had missed her stop. She remained standing but let herself fall back into her seat when the car pitched forward.
“Please,” she said.
The man seemed to jolt into sudden recognition. He hooked his arm around her shoulder. “My girl,” he said, breathy, low, “My girl.”
Is nothing sacred?
Kim was not wrong, Greg thought. Cheryl was pretty, even despite her slightly matronly glasses. He wondered if it was the glasses that gave her a more, what was the word, ethnic look than her sister. Cheryl had a firm body and those exotic eyes. Eyes that, despite their downward tilt, were maybe too wide for her face, really, and eyelashes thick enough to be fake. He wondered if they were fake. Glued on. He decided this was not the right moment to ask, but maybe later, he would ask her, “Were you wearing false eyelashes on our first date?” and she would say, “Wow, you noticed? I love you best for your fine attention to detail,” and then they might make out a little, but tastefully, because in this scenario they would be outside, on his front stoop, in full view of the neighbors and all, and it wouldn’t be dark quite yet.
Cheryl shifted her weight and waited to cross the street. This part of the Mission smelled like stale coffee and pomade, a sort of tarry smell, which depending on the breeze was tinged with either agave or rotted fruit. The high palms towered over the streetlights just waking up. It was dusk, speckled pavement awash in a shallow bath of neon. She kept a hand in her pocket, ran a finger over the tiny tears she’d already made at the edges of Greg’s card, some lines thin and long, others jagged and short. She took its corner in her thumb and ripped.
“Young lady,” a woman’s husky voice on the corner, “Excuse me, miss, young lady.”
The woman wore an obscenely purple coat. Under her arms she cradled copies of the Street Sheet but held, in her hands, a plastic bucket brimming with magnets she was selling for five dollars apiece. Cheryl recognized the magnets first. She couldn’t remember the woman’s name, which was Josie, or where she’d seen her before but she knew she knew her and for some reason this knowing made her feel ashamed.
Cheryl dreamed labyrinthine dreams.
In these dreams she stands in a line behind and in front of strangers whose faces are obscured from her. In these dreams they march, Cheryl and this horde, single file, twisting and turning, the knotted hedges growing taller, blocking out the sun, until everything becomes verdant, close. Faster and faster the line moves until the hedges begin to spread in. An invasion.
Sometimes Cheryl woke from these dreams scratching herself at the base of her throat; unable to untangle an outstretched vine coiling around her neck, convinced she is suffocating.
By the time their dinner had cooled enough to start eating they had exhausted several strands of conversation – it was established where each had grown up, had gone to college, their favorite colors, and the number of their siblings.
Here, Raleigh. UCSF, Emory & Henry. Green, also green. One, none.
Things began to take a more philosophical bent.
“You can rename a cat,” Greg said, “but you can’t rename a dog. Not one that’s a few years old, that’s learned to respond to a certain name.”
They’d been talking about a stray kitten that had shot into Cheryl’s lobby. She’d wanted to keep it but her downstairs neighbor had seen it first and shooed it out with a broom.
“I think what you’re saying is dogs have a stronger attachment to their first identity?” Cheryl said, her inflections making it sound like a question. Since they’d left the bar she’d felt less sure. “Like, they’re more invested in how we see them than cats are?”
Two women sat next to one another on the handicap accessible bench closest to the train car doors. The brunette from head to toe in ivory, the blonde in soft shades of black. They looked, Cheryl thought, like a pair of salt and pepper shakers. Perfectly matched. Complementary. A kind of yin and yang.
“Dressed to kill,” the dark haired woman said to the blonde, “When I go out I really go all out. And it’s not for Harry, it’s for me.”
Cheryl leaned against her window. This was the view she liked best; the occasional bright flash of tile as the train sped out of or into another station, the rest a not-even blur of blackness, grit, grime. Her city’s underside. Not soft, but hard. Mechanical. Cheryl liked the way she looked in this reflection, her shadow self. Here, she looked like the kind of woman her mother would have liked to have been seen with uptown. The kind of woman her mother used to point at, tug at Cheryl’s ponytail, and say in her perfectly imperfect English, “That’s a woman.”
The blonde scoffed at and to the brunette, “the blisters, the tweezing, the salon fumes, the cracked heels, the eyebrow threading, the waxing. Yep, all for you.” The women’s laughter was drowned out by the clack of train to track, by the sheer speed of forward motion.
It felt good to tear along the edges of Greg’s business card. Felt good to gnaw with careful fingers away at the heavy cardstock. Floor manager. Sears.
Someone had taped a poster for the annual Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Easter Sunday in the Park over the bottom half of the BART map. As usual was scheduled the Hunky Jesus contest with cash prize—though no cash prize, it should be noted, would be awarded for the foxiest of the Foxy Mary’s—accompanied by the traditional trashcan marching band parade. But new this year a midmorning egg hunt with Sister Betty. For the children. Fun for the whole family. Cheryl crossed and uncrossed her legs in her seat.
At the next stop a kid wearing an A’s cap settled himself in next to her. She could hear the heartbeat, the war drums, playing in his headphones.
Cheryl was enjoying her food more than Greg. Meaning, she liked her food more than Greg did his, and also was enjoying her food more than Greg’s company.
The set up had come together like this: Greg worked with Kim, in appliances at Sears in San Bruno. Although he was Kim’s floor manager he still worked the sales floor. Moved among the little guys. He specialized in refrigerators. Kim seemed to think that this would make them a good match.
Josie didn’t need to keep trying to get Cheryl’s attention although now she had it she was not sure what to do with it. Josie had also forgotten Cheryl’s name but remembered her round pale face and long eyelashes. She remembered Cheryl stopping for her on a Saturday in the not-too-distant past, maybe late winter, an early afternoon after the fog had burned off. Stopping on a Saturday in Noe Valley, a kind of miracle. Stopping in a sea of people rushing past Josie, eager to avert their eyes, taking up sudden conversation as they began to move towards and then away from her as if Josie were stupid, as if she wouldn’t notice, as if they couldn’t hear her saying, “Street Sheets, Street Sheets” or “Anything helps.”
But this girl, Cheryl, had slowed and stopped and smiled and, after minimal coaxing, had lost her delicate hand in the deep well of magnets Josie was selling. She had pulled out and examined several as Josie explained to the girl how she knew a guy who helped her take the photos from offline at the library and print them out, all laminated and nice, and repurpose plainer magnets she’d find, for a price.
“That’s why they’re five a pop, baby girl,” Josie said, a kind of apology.
The girl deliberated, decided finally to buy two: one a black and white picture of a fire breathing Angela Davis, the other, a profile of John Coltrane and his sax.
Sometimes Cheryl didn’t dream at all.
Greg bit into his penne. It was a little undercooked. He would lodge a complaint as they were leaving, making sure Cheryl was already outside. Maybe he’d say he’d forgotten his coat. Maybe he’d actually leave his coat at the table. But would it be worse if she let him do that, let him walk out without it? He got so wrapped up in his scheming to complain to someone without seeming like an asshole to Cheryl, who, remember, he had only just met, that he never responded to her perhaps astute observation about cats, dogs and attachment, identity.
“My girl” he had called her, “My girl.”
He had made her his girl. He had named her, claimed her.
He was saying something else, now, with the breath of the ocean, a tidal hiss, saying something Cheryl was straining to hear. He was sitting close to her, she could feel the heat of his body where their legs met through her sheer stockings, could feel the rhythm of his breathing as he pulled her body closer into his, his soldering of ribcage to ribcage, armpit to shoulder. Still, she could scarcely hear him. What was he muttering?
“Pretty,” she thought she heard, or maybe “Fine”, or maybe he was saying something about the city, or the line, or the lights. “Bright lights,” he was maybe saying.
“Next stop, Embarcadero,” the voice over the speakers rasped, “This is a Richmond bound train. Last San Francisco stop, Embarcadero, this is a Richmond bound train.” Static.
Should she say please, again? Should she ask again, say excuse me, should she pretend that whatever had happened at Montgomery had been a kind of glitch, a mistake? Something she could laugh about when she got home, when she called Kim, if she texted Greg? You’ll never believe the mishap I got myself into on the train or, if to Greg, Next time we’re out, please put me in an Uber. Though Greg’s card was a wound knot of shredded paper she had been worrying all night in her skirt pocket she hadn’t deleted his number just yet. She could still chastise him if she wanted to. Would she want to when she got home?
Would she get home?
Cheryl cleared her throat. The man with his arm around her shoulder did not like this. He seemed to have shaken off whatever had frozen him before, his eyes were no longer glassy, his fingers clutched greedily, he did not like her noises, her stiffness. No, he did not like it. Not at all.
“Cunt,” he said, this time, loudly enough for her to hear him, “stupid, you stupid dog bitch, stupid.” Cheryl shut her eyes with every crash of fricative-s to t.
She lifted her chin, scanned the car between bursts of consonance, in the downbeats of the stranger’s noise. A body here, a body there. Everywhere cell phone glare. No one was watching. No one was paying attention. Not, at least, to her.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he was still saying it. He shifted his emphasis from the front to back half of the word, gnawing on the sounds. Spitting them back out before swallowing.
Across the aisle, a bearded man cupped his hands over his child’s ears. The father shushed his sleeping baby, kissed the crown of his child’s head.
“Embarcadero.” The car doors opened. No offboarders, a spattering of on.
The father’s visual assessment: Man in the aisle seat, wiry. Girl in the window seat, slight, Asian. The father wished the man and the girl would settle down, would handle their business at home, not make such a scene.
Three beeps, the car doors closed. “Next stop, West Oakland.”
The train shot beneath the Bay.
“His commissions are always really high,” Kim said, “and he’s got good taste in appliances. Really good. I’d kill for Sara to look at a toaster the way Greg does.” Kim and Sara had been living together for six years and though ding-dong-DOMA-was-dead, Kim was dragging her heels. This heel dragging had translated into setting Cheryl up with almost every male person Kim encountered. Kim seemed to have the idea any man might do. That straight women were somehow less picky. Cheryl was not sure where her sister had gotten this idea. Kim’s standards for her younger sister had gotten even lower, in Cheryl’s opinion, since their mother died last summer.
Cheryl, having set the phone down and put Kim on speaker while she continued to extol Greg’s virtues—he brings salads in cute little salad-specific Tupperware for lunch!—walked into her kitchen. She poured herself a glass of water and stared for a little longer than she ever had before at her microwave. She had no idea what brand it was. She wondered if she cared.
“This was interesting,” Cheryl said, her body already turning away. The bright lights from the oncoming northbound train preceded the boom of its arrival. Cheryl was saying now, although Greg couldn’t hear her, that they should get together again. Though Cheryl had made a paper nest of Greg’s card in her pocket she had saved his number in her cell phone before their date. Soon? Maybe after Easter? Maybe they could meet a little closer to her neighborhood? Maybe just for drinks?
When Cheryl was seven she’d taken a city bus, the 5, after dark for the first time without her mother. Her mother, bent over the dumpling wrappers she was wetting in the egg wash, lifted her heavy hand and shooed Cheryl out of their restaurant. “Here’s a dollar,” her mother had said, and sent Cheryl home.
It was a summer night, cool and a little wet. A man in the back seat climbed out of his open window and onto the roof of the bus. Cheryl remembered seeing him jump off, first onto the bumper, then onto the road. This was not the strangest thing she had seen on public trans. Or the strangest at night.
Approaching thirty she knew a few things for certain: not to take the 14 after nine thirty p.m. The K after ten. Never get off at Civic Center between the hours of eleven and one, or at any time of day if you’re meeting someone important and don’t want to run the risk of getting spit on, or if you’re wearing anything remotely revealing any time other than Pride weekend.
Greg didn’t know this much. When his train arrived he would take it two stops south, walk the mile from the station up a winding hill to his apartment, wearing headphones. He would feel unafraid.
The Coltrane magnet was what did it. “You like jazz?” Josie asked the girl.
“My mother did,” the girl said. She paid for the magnets with an astoundingly flat ten-dollar bill. She’d asked for Josie’s name and in return gave hers.
Now, what was it? It was soft name, wasn’t it? Something that swished?
“Your mama’s no longer with us?” Josie asked. The girl shook her head.
Josie remembered telling the girl right then and there that God was going to bless her. She said, “Chin up, baby.” She said, “Aw now, honey, don’t cry.” She said, “Your mama’s gonna bless you, she’s up there, looking down, and she’s gonna send a miracle your way, just you wait, aw now honey, don’t cry.” Josie gave her a Street Sheet, no charge.
And now, weeks later, after climbing out of 24th street station, Cheryl’s hand in her pocket on Greg’s card, she stared at Josie’s teeth, several of which on the bottom were blackened or missing. Cheryl fixed her eyes on the sidewalk. She waited for the light to change so she could move away.
“Young lady, young lady.”
Greg picked at his penne. “So what’s physical therapy like?” he asked. He had a pretty good sightline down Cheryl’s shirt and wanted her to keep looking at her food, sawing away, distracted, so that he could keep looking at the patch where she was exposed for just a moment longer.
“It’s very rewarding,” Cheryl said. She was weary of answering this question. It was, honestly, grueling work. She pushed people’s bodies and though they were grateful to her when she improved their mobility or range of motion, the process was long, strenuous, and her clients were often resentful for the small pains she caused them.
Also she was tired of being groped by elderly men who would pretend, at least when they were caught, they didn’t have control over the grasping fists opening and closing on her ass.
“One of my clients recently sent me home with a really lovely painting. Her husband was some kind of impressionist.”
“What’s the painting of?” Greg asked, a little annoyed. He knew very little about art.
“Sunflowers,” Cheryl said, “Enormous sunflowers.”
Greg was waving a hurried and hopeful see-you-later then was gone. Finally, Cheryl was on her way home. She let her palm slide off the window into her lap. In her peripheral vision she could make out a bearded man with a toddler asleep against his chest. He was rubbing the child’s back and may have been murmuring to it but Cheryl couldn’t distinguish his voice from the ambient hum. She could feel the lateness of the night, even here, underground.
She could be okay she decided, in a bunker without any sun or fresh air, any lightness. There is safety in the dark. Cheryl wondered if this certainty made her, even a little, she didn’t know, animalistic. In the depth of her skirt pocket she fingered her paper nest. She side eyed her reflection, wanting to believe she would find in it freshly sprouted whiskers or feathers or a forked tongue.
What might her mother think, then?
Cheryl dreamed apocalyptic dreams.
In these dreams she climbs down a ladder.
At the top of the ladder, or as close to the top as she is ever aware of beginning, the rungs are slick, cold. As she descends, as happens in dreams, this changes. The rungs transform, become braided vines, earthen, warm to hot in places, and this, this climbing, becomes a challenge for Cheryl, a challenge to know where to place her feet and hands or how to grip or for how long.
She never touches solid ground.
But we were on the northbound train, weren’t we, headed home?
A snake of a man, arrow-headed, muscularly compact, thin, flitted on the opposite side of the car from one seat to another. He prowled the length of the car, unsatisfied. He was hungry for something he may not have had a name for. Let’s call it dream logic.
He sat down beside Cheryl. We already know this. He took the aisle seat. He was pleased.
Next stop, Montgomery.
“That’s me,” Cheryl said. She’d been preoccupied with her reflection in the glass. She noticed the man for the first time seeing he was wiry and long. She shifted her body, her knees knocked gently into his thigh, and smiled at him.
He remembered his first county fair.
The reds, yellows, whites of the lights bouncing off the smooth edges of game booths, concession stands. Everything had a little shimmer. Then, coming into soft focus, the Scrambler. Only three tickets.
He remembered the noise, the vague smell of oil.
The ticket taker said, “Keep your limbs inside if you want to keep them,” and his grown up man’s fists swallowed the yellow tickets. The ticker taker ushered him on with a backwards glance at a gaggle of girls in tank tops and short-shorts waggling off into the violet night. The snake of a man, who was then just a bright-faced boy, was barely tall enough to climb into his seat without the man’s help. He pulled down the slick, cool bar across his lap until it clicked.
The Scrambler churned to life. The boy gripped the bar, the ride moving in a semi-circle, slow at first. Then faster. Then violently. The night air lapped against his cheeks and nose and he was beaming, and watching all the people start to blur together as he passed them. In flashes and bursts he could make out, behind the wall of porta-john’s, figures in the dark, a kind of slow motion chase, wolf and sheep, a dance, one body pressed against another, in sharp focus one moment, indistinct the next.
“This is me,” Cheryl was saying, tapping him lightly on the shoulder, “this is my stop,” the doors to the car were swooshing open but he was immobile. Cheryl was standing up but he didn’t see her. Couldn’t see her. He was elsewhere. He was gone.
He was thinking about force. About being slammed into the crook of the Scrambler’s seat. About how he made a game of trying to grip the bar and inch his way back into the middle but couldn’t because he was too small and the force, the gravity, was much too strong. Gravity as strength. Gravity as taking what’s yours.
“Please, excuse me, this is my stop.”
He was moving too fast and his stomach was flipping inside of his tiny boy’s body. He was whipping back, forth, tears stung his eyes, everything blurred, but the ride cranked along, oblivious.
“Please, excuse me.”
His seat kissed the ride’s enclosure. Though he had been warned against it he wanted to reach out to touch it, see what it felt like at this speed, but he couldn’t move his arms. Couldn’t move a thing. Back and forth, weaving in and out. Joyful shrieks and high-pitched screams. A woman’s glasses flew past and were lost in the high grass. Music, on a loop, from a ride somewhere he could only hear when his body was flung towards the ticket taker. Music against the tinkling of blackbird song, tawny owl, or warbler.
It was all too much. He wanted to get off.
Aliceanna Stopher is a fast reader and slow writer, a short story evangelist, and a cardigan enthusiast. She is an MFA candidate in fiction at Colorado State University and editorial intern for the Colorado Review. Her short fiction can be found in Kindred, The Fem, Pretty Owl Poetry, and elsewhere.