The Literature Student (2/10 – “The Other: A Collection of Doubt”)

I slowly struggled with my bags through the compartment quickly losing hope that my usual and coveted southbound window seat was still vacant.  As I approached the familiar row of seats I spied an opening, a seat on the window, but, unfortunately, a hurdle across a studious young lad on the aisle.

The train suddenly lurched forward and frankly I don’t recall which struck the poor lad first; was it my laptop bag, my workout bag, my triple-shot short latte or me.  But all at once I found myself face first splayed across his chest and lap, atop the physics or astronomy or bio-medical text like a filleted tuna.  My arms hung over the back of the seat like a marionette, and my full combined weight crushed his small frame.  Before I could begin to stammer an apology I felt two small hands worm their way between our bodies and onto my chest and push me upright as though I were a multi-colored beach ball.  I felt the muscles of his chest expand as he lifted me to an awkward, semi-straight position.  With this help I was able to tuck my hand under his arm and assist in him in the lift.

He pressed me higher and with a gymnast’s dexterity he leveraged my body between himself and the seat back in front and lowered me into my southbound side window seat next to him as though I were his favorite stuffed animal.  Bags, triple-shot short latte and I landed with a thump which caused my fellow passengers to careen their necks to our side of the train convinced they would witness the deer or elk or moose bounce off the train and back into the brush from whence it came.

I sat rigidly still for a moment afraid to draw in even a single breath for fear of losing any semblance of balance.  When I finally dared to turn my head in his direction, he had already straightened the crushed pages of his book and quietly resumed his private study.  At the same moment the conductor with whom I had become routinely familiar appeared like an aberration soliciting our tickets.  My hands had become bound like a criminal by the numerous straps of my assorted bags and I desperately tried to work them free like a trapped illusionist.  Seeing my predicament, the lad reached across his lap and took swift hold of my triple-shot short latte instantly understanding its critical importance.  Even with his quick help I still could not free my hands and I asked if he would reach into my hip jacket pocket and extract my ticket.  He looked at me, quickly turned to look at the conductor who by now had smelled the blood of a stowaway, and reached his small hand into my hip pocket.

Instantly I wondered what else I had packed into that pocket this morning or last night or nights before.  Instantly I tried to recall when last I had worn this jacket.  When last had I tucked something into this pocket.  The moment his hand touched my hip I felt a very unfamiliar sensation.  A sensation which immediately catapulted me back years: back to a time when ignorant, curious, hurried hands explored my clothed body: back to a time when eager hands explored the various folds, searching for flesh or muscle or hair: back to a time when familiar hands probed, searching for intimacies.

In a moment his fingers plucked the ticket from its warm pocket and presented it to the disappointed conductor.  The conductor quickly scanned its validity and then pivoted and scurried down the aisle.  The lad sat stoically for a moment, my ticket in one hand and my triple-shot shot latte in the other, a frail, youthful, poised representation of myself.  He slowly turned towards me and began to laugh, quietly at first, then louder.  I saw the humor but couldn’t myself laugh.  I was terribly embarrassed and in desperate need of the sudden jolt of caffeine.  With my free hand I reached across and took hold of the triple-shot short latte and in one quick motion threw the cup back and swallowed its entire contents.  By the time I emptied the cup the giddy lad had regained some semblance of composure, turned to look at me, and slowly returned the ticket to its rightful place.  However, this time the hand lad paused a moment on my hip.  It hovered there, on the bone, warmly, slowly moving as the fingers and their tips dug softly into my flesh.  Fingertips kneaded my flesh as though they were kneading sand.

In the meantime I had been able to untie my hands from the baggage straps and quickly moved my hand on top of his, and held his hand for a moment.

“I think we’re okay now,” I said quietly, “I think everything is right where it belongs.”

He slowly withdrew his hand, trailing his thin fingers over my hip, down my thigh, and across the narrow strip of vinyl seat cushion which separated us.  It finally retreated onto the crushed pages of his book.  He continued to look at me, and then slowly returned to his book.

I turned my attention to the window and tried to watch recognize the blur of landscape which flew past.  This was new to me, this embarrassment, this excitement.  It dawned on me as the forest blew by that I was not really embarrassed but titillated.  Had I imagined his hand on my hip?  Had I been projecting some sort of flirtation?  He was a youth, and as a youth he couldn’t be so certain of his motivation as I imagined.  He was a student, buried in his text until I stumbled into him this hurried morning.  What motivation besides accommodation could he possibly have? I was simply an errant traveler in need of assistance.  Wasn’t he simply being a good Samaritan?  Could someone his age be so certain of himself as to actually grope a complete stranger?

I slowly pulled my attention from the window to see him foraging in his backpack.  He withdrew a yellow highlighter and placed it in his mouth.  He continued to dig through his backpack and withdrew a pen which, when he attempted to also place in his mouth.  When he realized that his mouth was already holding the highlighter he looked confused.  I reached across and took hold of the highlighter.  His jaw loosened and I extracted the highlighter remembering a time not long ago, in Rome, when I had taken hold of a newly lit, slightly moistened cigarette from the lips of Antonio.  I held the highlighter as though it were on fire and watched as he deposited the ballpoint in his mouth, smiling slightly.  He slowly stowed his backpack beneath his seat and withdrew the ballpoint.

“Are you studying medicine?” I asked.

“Chaucer” he replied quietly.

“Chaucer?  I wouldn’t have taken you for a lit major” I responded, immediately regretting my profiling.

“You expected me to be studying medicine or physics or astronomy maybe?” he said, acutely aware of my gaff.

“I guess so,” I stammered, feeling caught, “but I guess there’s time for that given your age.”

“Or given I’m interested in it regardless of my age,” he said turning his attention back to his text.

I quietly handed him his highlighter and turned my attention back to the window wishing I had sipped my triple-shot short latte so I’d have something to occupy myself.  Now all I had to think about was how old or silly or short-sighted he must think I am.  What an old fool he must think I am.  I turned back to him.

“Thanks for helping me out there.  I don’t normally behave like that.”

“Neither do I,” he said without looking up.

“Of course not,” I said wondering if he meant being helpful or forward.

“You don’t seem the type,” he said as he was highlighting text “to be so rushed in the morning,” and then looking up from his book “you seem to be the more organized, routine type,” and then turned back to his book.

All this, I thought, from one interaction?  Could he possibly be so perceptive?  Or was I blatantly disheveled?

“You’re right” I admitted, “this morning was terrible.”

“But it’s gotten better, right?” he asked.

“Yes it has, especially now since I’ve had my coffee,” I replied.  “My name is Tom,” I offered and extended my hand.

“Scott,” he said and extended the hand which moments before had found its way into my pocket.   His hand appeared small yet strong.  A confident hand, smooth, marbled with bluish veins which mapped its top.  I studied the crisscrossing veins like a road map thinking they would take me somewhere new.  They converged into one main artery which disappeared into the thick flesh of his forearm.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

“I wish it could’ve been under different circumstances,” I admitted, hoping I didn’t sound too interested.

Going back to Chaucer he said, “under what kind of different circumstance?”

“Well, not so bumbling to start,” I answered, “I’d like to think that first impressions play an important role in how we are perceived.”

“And what’s wrong with being perceived as bumbling?”

“I don’t think bumbling is particularly attractive,” I replied, laughing slightly.

“I think bumbling is very attractive.  It shows that you’re not perfect.  It shows that you need help every now and then,” and then Scott turned to look me straight in the eye, “and I think that that is very attractive.”

“Oh,” I said quietly.  Very attractive he said.  Me, in state of total disarray is something that he finds very attractive.  I turned back towards the window and remembered in painful clarity the number of hours I have primped and preened myself into a dizzying fervor trying to look my absolute best before hitting the bars at night.  Selecting just the right jeans and just the right t-shirt, or just the right tie and suit.  And here Scott finds embarrassment attractive.  “Well, I think helping a teetering stranger says plenty about your character.” I said turning back to him.

“Like what?”

Cornered like a child about to be caught in a lie, Scott pauses for a moment reflecting on how this happenstance began.  Turning in his seat to face Scott he said, “Helping someone in need is an act of kindness.  Kindness is a quality we all share, yet few ever display it and even fewer have the chance to feel it.  Your kindness felt strong, careful, and conscientious; important qualities to share with those close to you.”