She Likes Graduations
The girl walks up the aisle. She smiles at everyone who stumbles on her gaze, her thin shoulders are hunched forward beneath the weight of a worn backpack. She is scanning the crowded subway for a place to sit, and her eyes rest on the seat beside Lydia.
Staunchly settled, Lydia is staring out into the tiled station beyond the scratched window. She is guarding her leather briefcase on the seat beside her with a hand. Lydia now sees the girl’s faint reflection, a hovering apparition on the dirty glass.
“Are you saving this seat?” asks the girl with a friendly nasal voice.
Without a word Lydia slides the leather case onto her lap and wraps her arms around it as the girl drops her dusty backpack into the aisle and sits beside her. The doors slide shut and the train lurches forward.
Lydia watches the brightly lit station pass by her window. She sighs. It’s not that the day has been long or fatiguing or wrought with any of the usual confrontations. After all, she has been doing to the same job for almost two decades, in the accounting firm of her fiancé Frank. Her job runs like clockwork, she has it down to a science. Any of the petty office dramas ceased to affect her long ago. It’s just that the prospect of a long weekend away from Frank was not what she had expected. When he announced to her yet another one of his “conferences” out of town she began to seethe, wondering out loud why she couldn’t go too. “Wives not allowed, he had said—and nodded to her hand, indicating the engagement ring he had given her years ago. No, she thinks, not married yet. Frank–still handsome at fifty-five, from a different time when men referred their fiancé’s as a “ladyfriend.” He held open doors, was amusing when she was feeling bereft, charmed her when she was angry at him. Frank who stiffed her out of a weekend out of town and is now, she imagines, in his shiny black Cutlass gliding over the bridge taking him beyond the city, away from Lydia and her disappointment, like an eel sliding through water. Conference my ass, she thinks.
Suddenly Lydia is aware of an unfamiliar scent in the train car. The spicy odor, unlike urine or sweat, is floating over from someplace close to her. A deep musky, earthy, scent, which is offensive to her at first, yet somehow permeates her senses and resolves into something “nice.” As Frank would say, “Unusual, but nice.” The thought of Frank perturbs her again and the earthy scent begins to sicken her. Lydia shifts on the hard seat. She has become so uncomfortable that when she rocks her head from side to side all the bones in her neck crack like twigs on a campfire. She exhales sharply and coughs twice to clear her throat; gestures that indicate she is displeased. Indeed, she is displeased, though if one were to ask her why, in that moment, she was so suddenly out of sorts she would not be able to say why.
Metal is scraping over metal and the train compartment lists sideways into the first bend in the tracks. Lydia feels the girl’s arm against her own. At once she tightens. The girl is unaware or simply does not care and makes no attempt to withdraw from Lydia’s safe cushion of space: in fact, it seems to Lydia her arm is deliberately resting against her own. Lydia reaches up to her tired eyes and plucks at the edges of her thickened lashes with the tips of her two polished fingernails. She yawns, then turns toward the window where the girl’s reflected profile floats in the dark glass. She studies her face.
The girl has a narrow chin, which is slightly raised. High forehead. Her thin lips slope into an innocent smile, a smile Lydia has seen a thousand times. It is the profile of youth. She becomes aware of her own reflection in the glass. Her penciled eyebrows sloping beneath her wrinkled forehead and the corners of her mouth curving down in an unpleasant frown. Soft skin beneath her chin shakes with the rhythm of the train’s vibration. Lydia tilts her head up, tightens her jaw, constricts the muscles in her neck hoping the softness will disappear, but it’s no use. When did I begin to grow old? Lydia reaches up to fix a renegade curl standing out from her dyed hair and is startled to notice the girl is watching her in the scarred window.
“Back to the burbs?”
Lydia looks over her shoulder casually indifferent. “What?”
“The suburbs. You know. So much nicer than the city.”
The girl’s oily brown hair hangs limply on her shoulders and her moist eyes glint beneath the fluorescent lights. Lydia remains silent.
“I’ve been traveling on a bus for days.” The girl sweeps her hand up from her lap and traces a slender finger across each eyebrow.
Lydia watches this garish, exaggerated gesture unamused and indifferently. She turns back to the dark window glass. The train rattles through the tunnel. There is the tinny drone that rises from the speaker announcing the approaching stop. Lydia’s lips are tight, her mouth a thin pink crescent incising the lower half of her soft face. She stares into the girls encroaching face in the glass.
“Days? Is that right?” She says, but Lydia doesn’t turn, does not care that the girl might not hear her over the drone of the train as it plunges toward the next station. Lydia tightens her arms surrounding the leather case on her lap. Her fingers are intertwined, and she has begun to rotate the gold band on her finger. The ring that Frank gave her on the day he proposed––how long has it been? The tip of her thumb polishes the gemstone set into its mount like a tiny trophy. She holds out her hand and looks down at it. The stone appears glassy and dull. Duller than she has ever noticed before. Needs to be cleaned, she thought. Diamonds never look good in this light, she reasoned. Lydia’s mauve nails glint gray beneath the train’s fluorescent lighting. She becomes aware of her hands. Faint brown spots floating beneath the surface of her translucent skin like patches of dust. Has she become too old for Frank? His last-minute cancellations have become more frequent. She could have, if she wanted, uncover the truth about all these weekend conferences he claims to be attending. But she never does. She feels nauseas. She slides her briefcase to the floor and rests it against her legs.
Garbled static announces the upcoming station. She wants to be alone, a funny thing to crave, she thought to herself, on a crowded train car. But the girl’s presence felt too intimate, too close. Lydia felt exposed. The train slows, and Lydia has a fantasy that the girl will depart into the station. But when the train stops and the doors hiss open, a wave of people ripple to and from the station, yet the girl sits calmly and stares forward. There is a moment of stasis, almost silent equilibrium, then at once the doors clamber shut and the station’s lights whirl past as if a sudden storm was blowing through. One more stop, Lydia assures herself, and her feeling of sickness diminishes.
The girl’s voice rises from the stale air. Lydia tries to avert her by turning away. But she sees the girl’s reflection in the glass again, and she is looking directly at Lydia. Gray eyes––no––they are green, but she avoids them. It is then that she realizes it is the girl’s clothes that are infused with that odor, a scent so natural that it is exotic to the Lydia.
“I like to go to graduations,” announces the girl to Lydia’s back.
Lydia flushes. She feels the warmth of embarrassment spread across her neck and breasts.
“First I pick a place I’ve never been. Then I check out their commencement calendars. I only travel by bus or train, stopping at schools along the way. Everything is timed perfectly.”
Lydia slowly turns her head towards the young girl. How old was she, really? She studies the face, trying to seem disinterested when she was deeply incredulous by what she had just heard. “You do what?” she asks.
“I watch. I like graduations”
Lydia’s voice rises. “Why?” There is a pause. “That’s––” pathetic is what she wanted to say, but Lydia composes herself.
The girl’s steady and amused gaze locks onto Lydia’s. “Exciting. It’s exciting.” Subtle mocking shades the girl’s tone. “I’ve been to hundreds.”
“Hundreds?” Lydia’s response comes less as a question than as a dismissal, as if waving the words away with her hand. She doubted any of it. The absurdity was too great. What was it Frank would say? “That’s a whole lot of bullshit coming from a little girl like you.” Suddenly, she sees herself changing seats. It would be rude, but no less than this girl’s encroachment has been. And besides, Lydia knows she will never see the girl again. But hers is just one more train stop away.
The girl continues. “There is something very dignified about the ceremony.” She rolls her eyes toward the roof of the train as if in fugue, miles away, in a spell of grandeur contemplating what she has perhaps witnessed time and again. “Except for those ugly hats.” Her head tips sideways toward Lydia.
The train whirs and speeds forward and Lydia feels somewhat relieved knowing she will soon be home.
“I like to pick out one face in the crowd,” the girl’s grin widens, “and follow them from the moment they stand up to the moment they grab that piece of paper.”
Lydia stares forward.
“One time when I was at a graduation a girl got up and not a single soul clapped. Not a soul,” the girl paused waiting for Lydia to react, but the woman remained impassive and silent. “So, I clapped for her.”
Lydia is twisting the gold band around her finger. She looks down at the dull stone and she begins to feel sick again. She wants to stand. She covers the ring with her free hand and swallows, craving something liquid.
“Did your husband give it to you?”
Lydia turns to the girl, her ashen pallor suddenly sanguinous and alive. The skin beneath Lydia’s collar constricts and grows hot, and her spine tingles as if a ghost had just walked through her and touched her dreaded center. Motionless, tense, Lydia’s breathing becomes deep and slow. You will be gone, she reminds herself, yet it is all she can do to keep herself from lashing her fingernails into the girl’s slender throat.
“My fiancé,” she states tersely.
The girl continues as if the exchange had not occurred. “Mostly there are good feelings going around on those days. Someone says something sentimental and wishes all the graduates ‘good luck.’ There’s the big cheer. Then those ugly hats––oh! Mortar boards!–they go flying!”
The train’s horn explodes and suddenly all the lights go out. The electric hum of the distant engine winds down as if out of breath and the train coasts to a stop in the dark tunnel. After a few seconds Lydia notices that the girl’s scent is gone. She reaches down to check for her briefcase, though she can feel the smooth leather against her stockinged calf. She slowly leans sideways to the seat beside her. It is empty.
But only seconds pass. The lights cough on in pale white sputters like eyelids fluttering awake as the train winds up like a toy and lurches back on its way. The girl is there beside her.
Lydia is astonished. “But I thought…”
The girl appears to not notice Lydia’s shock “Then I’m off. Off to the next graduation. Off to something new. I like that. I like that very much.”
The train speeds through the last length of tunnel approaching Lydia’s stop. Confused and shaken, the woman is eager to disembark and disengage with the odd creature beside her. She gropes for the handle of her briefcase and lifts it to her lap guarding it. When the train is almost still the girl leans over and whispers into Lydia’s ear.
“The gauntlets we walk are what keep us alive.”
Lydia is instantly enraged. “What does a girl like you know about anything?” Lydia’s words are tightly wound around her vocal cords. She is impatient and cannot wait for this journey to end, for the girl’s insipid face to disappear. She stands as the train shrieks to a halt and looks down admonishingly into the young girl’s face, which now glows back at her with sheer indifference. “Do you mind?” Lydia is compelling the girl to allow her to move past. But the girl remains still even as the train’s doors slide open. A tide of bodies begins to ebb from the compartment.
“My guess is that you don’t have time for such things.” The girl’s accusation comes as a dismissal.
Lydia is about to kick the girl’s legs aside, but she has tipped to let the woman pass just seconds before the doors clamp shut. Her youngish, sweet voice trailing softly after Lydia.
“You really ought to get that ring appraised.”
Lydia glances back. The young girl is smiling, her narrow face almost vanishing.