The 2 train wasn't crowded, and I must have looked more approachable than usual, seeing as how I had gone five or six months away from the city and my “what-the-fuck-are-you-looking-at” stare reserved for subway cars and all other public venues was severely out of practice, because the man started talking to me right away.
“You lookin' good, young man,” he crooned across the train. He started making smacking noises with his lips like he had just bitten into something tasty. His mouth shuddered as he spoke, and his teeth looked like loose piano keys that could drop out at any moment. He was sitting at the far edge of a short gray bench—the kind that fold up against the wall when no one is using them—with a paper bag set horizontally across his lap.
“Thank you,” I replied, shedding my habit of humility. I had just finished seeing an old friend for lunch and was wearing a button-down shirt and a clean pair of jeans. I glanced quickly up and down the subway car to see if anyone else was watching.
The man leaned over and grinned at a dark-skinned woman seated to his left at the other end of the bench. She looked a little too skinny, like she could have been an actor in a diet pill infomercial on TV. Her hair was long and dread-locked and took on the grainy, ashen color of aluminum.
“He does, don't he?” the man said, eying the thin woman in the short crop top and hitched-up blue jeans.
“Yeah, he ain't half-bad,” she replied back, never once looking up from the floor. For a minute I thought that they were friends, but I realized that he had roped her into conversation the same way he had with me. His eyes danced over her body like pruning shears over a topiary.
“Let me ask you something, son. Do you work for a living?”
It was 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon. I had a sinking feeling that he was going to ask me for money if I said yes. But if nothing else, I thought that he would at least be sympathetic to the plight of the city's jobless, so I wanted to level with him.
“No sir,” I told him with as much conviction as a door-to-door knife salesman.
We had just gone to a diner for lunch, my old friend and I. I had a spinach-and-cheese omelet and she had a plate of Belgian waffles. Were I to do it over, I would have offered to share part of my dish, but at the time it didn't quite feel right—like we weren't fully acquainted yet. In the three years since I'd seen her last, she had moved halfway across the world and back, and had driven 42 hours from Calgary to live in Brooklyn. And she was married.
“Because Jesus says that whoever don't work for a living don't deserve to live on this here earth,” the man said, fixing me with a toothy grin. I rocked back and forth against the door, as if that might preempt a conversation on the merits of God's word. The friend I had lunched with was Christian, though her new husband was Jewish. I fished in my bag for my book of Raymond Carver stories and stared absently at the sliding doors.
“You know what, though,” the man said, seemingly impervious to my reaction. “You probably wouldn't do so bad as a pimp.” He laughed and slapped his knee hard with the palm of his hand. I lowered the book from my face and stared back at the man on the bench.
“A pimp?” the woman next to him squealed, as if she found the appraisal patently ridiculous. “Well, I'm sure he don't have no trouble attracting girls at least.”
“Ain't no trouble at all,” the man crowed back. They were looking at each other across the bench and smiling these wide-toothed grins.
I asked my friend at lunch if it bothered her that her husband wasn't Christian. Or if it made her change her beliefs at all. I think I said something about cultural Jewishness and about how my dad was also Jewish so I kind of understood where her husband was coming from. I don't know why I said it. I guess I must have been nervous. It's strange not to see someone for a couple years and then find out that they'd gotten married. I thought it would be this inviolable wall between us, but it didn't actually feel that different.
“How about that, son?” the man turned to face me again, grabbing the paper bag with his right hand. “You goin' around attracting ladies or what?”
My friend said that her husband didn't change her beliefs so much as her friends and family. Her mom threatened not to show up for the wedding when she found out the news. Some of her old classmates were militant, telling her things like, “I hope you burn in hell for what you did” or “marrying a non-believer is a sin.” She said she didn't expect that from other Christians. She said that that made more of an impact on her than anything her husband could have said.
I was staring up at my book when he asked me again.
“Well, come on now. Are you attracting ladies or what?” He was wearing that big toothy grin again, like he was trying to imagine me in a velor jump suit and a striped cane. I thumbed the page and lowered the book to my chest.
“Sure, but no one's paying me for it or anything,” I shouted back over the rumble of the train. Nothing about it was true, but I guess I was trying to be funny or something. The man looked me up and down and then at the skinny woman to his left.
“Maybe that's not what you're really after then,” he said. He scooted up in his seat and tightened his hands around the paper bag. “Now excuse me while I drink.” The paper bag on the man's lap contained a bottle of rosé. I watched him as he tipped the pink liquid down his throat, illuminating his sunken cheeks.
The doors shot open at Eastern Parkway and the conductor's voice came in over the PA system.
“This is my stop,” the woman next to him said, rubbing her hands against her bare legs as she stood to get up. “You have a good day now.” She brushed past the man and slipped in between the doors. The whole time I watched her leave but her eyes never turned back to meet mine.
The man on the bench didn't say a word. He looked queerly at the bottle, then at me, and then gulped the remaining liquid down until there was nothing left. I squinted above the words to my book. I saw an empty seat at the other end of the car and I planned to walk over to it. I wanted to at least signal the man, but he was not looking at me anymore. His eyes were fixed to the reflective glass of the window, to the bottle in his hand and the peculiar pink hue that clung to his lips even after he finished his drink.
The train rumbled out of the station. My life is going to change. I just know it.