It was late, I was catching the subway home. The train to Brooklyn was nearly empty when it pulled up to the platform, and I slumped into one of the seats. The train pulled away, and I leaned back, looked about, and saw her.
Or, more accurately, her book.
She was reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. The same edition I had read, with the creamy beige cover and the six cloud panels on the front. I’d devoured this book in 2005, staying up late nights in my efficiency in Miami, sunk deep into that massive old red couch I still miss to this day. I burned through it, stopping only occasionally to set it down with a groan as I realized how brilliant and beyond me such writing was and always would be, or to leap up with a sudden excess of energy, delighted by a particularly harrowing or electric passage. Three nights of bliss. One of my favorite books ever.
And the girl across from me was reading it on the train.
I carefully scoped her out. Long, dark hair, slope shouldered, thick rimmed glasses perched on her snub nose, ankles crossed beneath the seat. Late 20’s. Not strikingly attractive, but there was a fierce focus on her face as she read the book, her lips a thin line of concentration, her brows drawn. Intelligent, I decided. Probably in possession of a wicked, caustic wit. A tad defensive, perhaps, but expansive after a few drinks, with a glorious laugh. Penetrating insight into the human condition.
I tried to affect nonchalance, and pulled out my own novel. It felt like unfurling a flag. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. It felt like a confident statement. Literary without being pretentious, smart, funny, eminently enjoyable.
I pretended to read. Caught her glancing in my direction. Looked up and saw that she had been gazing at my book. She looked me in the face, but a glance, and then back down to Cloud Atlas, shifting in her seat.
I read a page, two, wondered if I should say hello. I wanted to know what she thought of the book. If she was enjoying the parts that I had, if she thought it was brilliant thus far, if she was intent on reading it in one go. Instead I read Wonder Boys, feeling ridiculous. Was I projecting too much? Was I creating a fantasy based on unreliable information? Can you judge someone by the cover of their book?
Even as I wrestled with these questions, occasionally glancing across at her, making awkward eye contact once or twice more, I became curious: was she feeling the same doubt, curiosity, wondering what manner of guy I was for reading Chabon? Before I could summon the will to speak, however, the train stopped, she arose, departed. Tension flowed out from me like wine from a broken glass. The moment had past, I had failed to bring it to crisis. I felt at once disappointed and relieved, embarrassed by the strength of my curiosity and disappointed in myself for not having asked her even one question. The train pulled away, and I reluctantly returned my gaze to the pages before me.