I’m not picky so much as I am a specific person. But not in the boring way, I should hope; as in, I love reading, but only on the subway. Reading at night before I go to sleep merely reduces the book to the interpretation of my inferior, sleep-deprived mind, and does not do the author nor my enjoyment of the book justice.
So naturally, when a stranger on the subway asked me, “What are you reading?,” as if we were casual friends in a typical after-school situation, I looked up at him with a hot flicker of annoyance.
“Nine Stories,” I replied, infusing a detached flatness into my tone. A stereotype of female readers was their naive spaciness, their general sense of delusion about the world, born of a pathetic need for escapism; and while I conceded to myself that this may have been very true about me, the stranger didn’t need to know that.
Not that he seemed dangerous; he seemed to be about 5’10” as he stood in front of me, holding the rail line above my head while he had been talking to his friends. He had curly light brown hair that made him sweet and innocent for someone who looked about eighteen, with big eyes of a milky amber-chocolate color that made them seem friendly, which I guessed was reflected by his random question.
“Never heard of it.” He half-smiled at me and pulled on a strap of his backpack, which was all black but for a yellow streak on its side pocket.
“It’s… obscure. I don’t know.” What I really didn’t know was why I was speaking to him. I had prided myself on being somewhat street-smart from taking the subway everyday since the seventh grade- but this conversation was with a fellow high schooler, and the book wasn’t even that interesting (anymore), and he was cute.
He glanced at his friends, who were smirking at him from beside him. “You want a munchkin?”
I froze; the neurotic side of me told me that the munchkin was definitely poisoned, and I would be read about for decades as that naive white girl who took munchkins from strangers and died. I slightly opened my lips to take a deep breath, hoping he wouldn’t notice. Part of personal self-development was self-eradication: of the parts that needed to dissipate, at least.
“Yeah, thanks.” His friend held out the box of munchkins that they were eating out of to me. Though powdered munchkins were my favorite, I quickly took a chocolate one; it was the least messy to eat in front of them. I momentarily debated whether to eat smaller bites so I could talk to him throughout or finish in one. I took two bites, refused to think about how the decision seemed to actually matter.
“What grade are you in?”
“Ninth- freshman.” It was only November, and while I had quickly realized that saying “ninth grade” was an immediate indicator of being new to high school, it took time to craft myself.
“We’re juniors.” I wondered if his “we’re” was his way of conveying that he and his friends were all being friendly, which meant this really meant nothing.
I smiled, not knowing what to say next. Mentally I started counting in my head how long the silence lapsed for: I had read online that it took five seconds for a conversation to get awkward.
“Do you listen to music?” As we approached the next station, the woman next to me stood up and he quickly took the seat beside her. Our knees were about an inch apart, and I focused on staying still against the motion of the subway.
“Yeah… but you definitely don’t know it.”
“I mostly listen to Italian music.” I looked straight ahead at the chest of the man sitting across from me rather than at him. “I’m, like, Italian.”
“When’d you move here?” He had so far maintained an adorable half-smile during our conversation, so much that it seemed like part of his facial features. I quickly realized that I would always remember him as if he were posing for a graduation photo, his characteristic endearing half-smile.
“I moved here two years ago. It’s still weird to be in NYC, to be honest.”
“That’s crazy! I’ve never met a high school immigrant.” His half-smile grew a little bit wider. I found my cheeks subconsciously expanding to smile back, and I subtly moved my hair to cover them. But this was going oddly well: maybe this was part of my long-awaited introduction to high school.
“Yeah, but no one ever understands my music!” I made a half-hearted attempt to roll my eyes, and we smiled at each other.
“Listen to some of mine, if you want.” I liked how he added the last part shyly, giving me a newfound sense of power. I held out my hand so he could give me the right side of his earphones. He plopped it onto my hand gently; I found myself disappointed that his fingers didn’t briefly touch my palm.
The next half-hour consisted of me mocking him for his music. Though my dislike was genuine, with each song he explained the context behind his choice as if to validate it, occasionally describing an associated memory or excitedly notifying me ten seconds before his favorite part.
“Oh, this is my stop.” I quickly took the earphone out and let it fall onto his lap, not wanting to look as if I were clinging to it more than necessary. I got up; a faint chill on a sliver of my right leg made me realize that our knees had been touching.
“Wait, I thought you said you would get off in a few more stops?”
I paused. I didn’t remember saying that; he had probably misunderstood me. I shrugged at him half-heartedly, giving him one of my own watered-down, significantly less charming half-smiles.
“No, this is where I get off. Nice meeting you! Good music taste.” I smiled tightly and slid past people to leave the cart as soon as the doors opened, without looking back at him.
You’re such an ice-queen, I bitterly thought to myself. I gripped my phone to check the time: 4:53. That definitely gave me enough time to finish homework and study for my biology test the next day. I had decided that no matter how chaotic my personal life became, school was what mattered in terms of objective relevance to my life. Having good grades would set my path; whether I was a happy person getting them or not did not materialize to anyone but myself. Having this cold-set mentality was what kept me sane, grounded: a personal checkpoint for when there was too much feeling.
Because in reality, I had been born in NYC to American parents; the furthest place I had travelled to was during Thanksgivings to Wheeler, Oregon, where my grandma had lived before she died of dementia (my other three grandparents had died before I was born). But I had been reading a book about genuinely interesting characters, he was older and beautiful, and I, despite my generally banal self, was a beautifully good actress.
More importantly, he now would never have to know who I really was; I could, for all intents and purposes, enjoy my alternate reality for the time being in a contented fashion that was nothing but harmless. I was a drifting foreigner, I was from an intricate past, I was a shadow longing for where I belonged. And no matter how tedious I looked or seemed (which was actually who I was), my fabricated identity would always leap back to make me interesting.
And even if I hadn’t lied to him, the reality would have doggedly remained. He seemed to be smart based on how he spoke, the articulation of his memories and self-perception; he was very undeniably attractive; he took the subway with his friends as if it were routine. I was a freshman still learning how to study; I preferred to find whatever excuse to stay after school because it often felt too exhausting to socialize on the subway ride home (not that I was snobby, I hoped). And worst of all, I still looked like an eighth grader, whether it be my long hair that bordered on looking Amish, my clear braces, or my inflated cheeks which had maliciously refused to diminish in size since I was a baby.
I may have been an ice-queen, but it was for my own good; I had saved myself from a relationship to which I had already read, seen, and would hopefully have to never live the heartbroken end to. As such, I was my ultimate savior; it was very feminist and self-loving, quite frankly.
Regardless, I resolved that next time, I may as well change my name for the sheer fun of it; but in the meanwhile, I would buy myself a powdered munchkin.