Author’s note: I wrote this a long time ago, for a small literary magazine called Buzzwords, which is no longer in print (I think). They had a hole in an issue, and asked if I could write something to spec. It had to be no more than 1,750 words. I think it came in at 1,749. I wrote it in about an hour, and it was in print less than two weeks later, with virtually no changes. Either I was good, or they were desperate. Or maybe a little from Column A, a little from Column B. I’ve changed a little bit of it, but not much. Enjoy.
The Girl on the Blue Line
By Bobby Mathews
We were both waiting for the blue-line Metro at King’s Street Station, shivering on the elevated platform in the cold light of a January morning in Washington. The collar of her ratty burnt-orange overcoat was tattered, and her black shoes were run down at heel and toe. Still, her hair was flipped out playfully, and her eyes were a mischievous green. I boarded before her, but she sat down facing me across the narrow aisle.
We looked at one another, but neither of us spoke. She pulled a paperback copy of The Great Gatsby out of a leather knapsack that looked more expensive than all of her clothes. A bent and wrinkled paper coin tube marked her place. She opened the book and began to read. The reading gave me a chance to look her over. Clean, with high cheekbones that showed even in the rattling light of a Metro car. She was in her early twenties, most likely a student at one of the colleges around the capitol. She wore funky socks, black with bright green four-leaf clovers that matched nothing else she wore. As she read, she bit nervously at the tip of her overcoat collar.
I had to raise my voice for her to hear above the rattle and clank of the metro car.
“‘And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’”
She put the book down, face-open, on her lap, and looked at me.
“That’s cheating,” she said. “I never read the last line of a book before I get there.”
“Then how do you know it’s the last line?”
“I’ve read it before.” She closed the book and tucked it back into her backpack. Her nails were professionally shaped and glossy with polish. “Second time through. First time was in high school, and I didn’t understand any of it.”
“What about now?”
“It’s better now. I’m older, and I guess I know what the writer was talking about now.”
The train shuddered to a stop, and we were quiet while other passengers got on and off. Once everyone had settled into their seats, the train was off again, speeding underground now, heading toward the Pentagon.
“Something about lost dreams, wasn’t it?” I said, once we were underway again.
“Something like that. You’ve read the whole thing, right? It’s not just a pickup line?”
“If it is, it never works.” We both laughed at that.
“Gatsby’s the kind of book a girl is supposed to like, I think. You know, Gatsby loves the girl, Daisy. And she loves him, too, although she realizes that he no longer fits into her life. But him, oh boy. Hopeless romantic. He waits for her, and once he’s found her, he thinks he’s found the dream he’s been holding onto for five years.”
“But he hasn’t.”
She looked at me strangely, as if really seeing me for the first time: a strange goateed man in jeans and a navy pea jacket and watch cap. Was there anything particularly untrustworthy about me? For that matter, was there anything particularly trustworthy?
“You really have read it, haven’t you?”
“Sure,” I said. I quoted again. “‘Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or on the wet marshes.’ Reading that probably saved my life a couple of times.”
“Really,” she said. It wasn’t a question, but permission for me to continue. Maybe even a permission to come closer. I rose from my seat across the aisle. There was a moment, when I stood in the middle of the train and saw myself as she must have – looming over her, coming inexorably forward, that she might have screamed. Instead she moved her knapsack to the floor between her feet, and I took its place in the seat.
“This is,” she said, and I saw her try to catch at her breath. “This is unreal. I don’t know a thing about you.”
“I’m Donovan Turley,” I said, taking off my watch cap. Her eyes widened when she saw the uncertain metro light gleam against my shaved head. “I was a Marine. I’m visiting D.C. I read a lot, and I like to talk. Am I making you uncomfortable?”
“No,” she said, but her eyes said something different.
“It’s all right,” I said, gathering myself for the one-step walk of shame back across the aisle. “I can go back to my seat. I didn’t mean to overstep my bounds.”
She put a hand on my knee.
“It’s all right,” she said, and this time when she looked at me I could tell she meant it. Embarrassed, she took her hand off my knee.
She told me her name, and from there, other things came out. She was in a relationship with another student, but that hadn’t worked out. She was a junior majoring in literature, and she hoped to teach college herself one day. She took the metro to class every morning, but today she’d just felt like going in early for some reason.
“I’m glad you did,” I said.
“This is my stop,” she said when the conductor called out George Washington University over the loudspeaker. She bent over to get her bag, but I put my hand on her arm. My fingertips tingled where I touched her.
“Why don’t we go get some coffee?” I asked. “There’s a nice shop in Foggy Bottom. Next stop.”
“It’s public,” I said. “Lots of people. Just coffee and conversation, I swear.”
The train was slowing to its stop, and she had to make up her mind quickly. Her hands loosened on the straps to the backpack, and she settled back into her seat, a smile breaking over her face like a sunrise breaking over the horizon.
“You know what? I’d love some coffee.” But when the train doors slid closed with a pneumatic rush, she looked at them almost longingly.
We never stopped at Foggy Bottom. The stops sped past while we were deep in conversation, our eyes locked on each other like old lovers who have spent a lifetime apart. The train sped on, and we finally wound up in L’Enfant Plaza and had coffee in the warmth of a small chain shop. I heard more about her unhappy love affair, and about the classes she was taking. Once she warmed up, she was a good talker. I listened for a long time to the unconscious melody of her voice and watched people go by in the blistering cold weather outside the shop.
“You don’t say much, do you?” She finally said.
“Not when I don’t feel the need.” I drank some more coffee, felt the jolt of it as the caffeine hit my system.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I’m perfectly comfortable. You’re intelligent and funny, and I like to listen to you.”
She smiled and put her hand a little closer to mine on the small glass-topped table. I touched her fingers lightly. She snaked her fingers through mine, and we held hands that way for a little while. Her eyes shone in the dim sunlight that filtered its way through the polarized glass windows of the coffee shop.
Afterward, we went back to the subway station, and I put her on the blue line again, this time headed in the opposite direction, back toward the university. We stood close together outside the turnstiles that led into the metro.
“This was amazing,” she said. “I feel like I could talk to you all day. This was—well—I never expected this. I needed it.”
“Maybe we should do it again,” I said. She gave me her phone number, and I gave her my e-mail address, since I didn’t know what the number to my hotel.
“Would you meet me tonight?” she asked. “I take the metro home, too. You could … you could come in. We could make dinner.”
“I’d like that,” I said, and pulled her to me. Her mouth opened against mine. She tasted faintly of Columbian coffee and raspberry lipstick. Her mouth moved tenderly against mine, like a small, eager butterfly. I kissed her back in the same way. It started off gently, but ended with her body pressing hard against me. I could feel the heat of her through her clothing and mine. I wanted her like a drowning man wants air.
When we finally pulled apart, it was hard to breathe. Her lipstick was smeared, and I was wearing some of it.
“I take the five-thirty blue line,” she said. “Be here. Please. You’ll be here, won’t you?”
“I will,” I said. Then, again, as if to reassure myself I’d spoken. “I will.”
At five-fifteen that afternoon I stepped off the metro tired from a day of touring the museums and memorials and monuments. I had three more days in Washington, but what I was looking forward to most was kissing her again. I hadn’t expected things to work out that way. I was just lonely, ready for a little companionship, and things had worked out better than I’d hoped.
I looked for her on the platform, waiting to see her flipped-out hair and bright green eyes. But she never came. She didn’t make it to the five-thirty blue line, but I wasn’t in a panic. Anyone can be late. I waited for nearly an hour, cheeks freezing and cracking red. And then I waited some more. Finally, I took the blue line back to King’s Station, and walked the six blocks back to my hotel. When I made it, shivering all the while, into my room, I tried the number that she had given me.
It connected me to a recording that gave the time, date, and temperature. I couldn’t tell if my cheeks were burning from the cold, or from embarrassment.
I sat down on the full-sized bed in a cookie-cutter hotel room, one of thousands across the country, and finally realized that, whatever her real name was, she had understood Gatsby pretty damned well.
But she’d understood Daisy even better.