Now that he’s been alone long enough to have exhausted the notion that cohabitation is overrated, Nathaniel returns occasionally to that woman on the bus. Standing room only after another soul-sapping day in the exorbitant city. She was squeezed into a seat near the front and Nathaniel clasping a black strap above her. Her coat was a beautiful green, like the forest primeval. Her shoes were another matter, what used to be called sensible. Addressing the ignoramus beside her, whose head was bowed to the god Wi-Fi, she spoke softly, the way one would in bed. I need more in my day-to-day life than just going to work and eating and sleeping. The man was awash in his data stream. She twisted the ring on her right hand, a yellow gemstone, topaz or citrine. Do you know what I’m saying? she asked. Yes, Nathaniel answered silently, I know exactly what you’re saying. Uh huh, the man said without lifting his head. That’s when she raised her lovely eyes to Nathaniel. Hazelwood, he thought. He wanted to acknowledge her lament without degrading it by flirting and smiled as subtly as he could, mostly with his eyes, the way the wedding photographer had instructed. When she smiled back, Nathaniel looked down at her clueless boyfriend/fiancé/whatever the hell he was, and suffered three thoughts. The first was: What kind of ignorant dick are you? The second was: She deserves way better. And the third was: If only I had the cojones to give her my card.
His stop was coming up. Just one more look from her, some kind of sign… But she was studying the ring with the yellow stone, turning it and turning it.
Thousands of times he has ridden this bus to work and back and has noted a number of too-familiar faces. But none of them hers. That’s how it is here. You intersect with someone, you have your moment, however big or small, and you never see them again, even when the odds say you should. In this city, apparently, a memorable encounter is like Heraclitus’s river. You can never step into the same one twice.
But for Nathaniel, ferrying his beat-down carcass to work every morning and back to his solitary apartment every night feels like nothing but the same river. It’s persistently shallow, on the polluted side, and icy enough to numb the warmest inclination. Not a pretty river. There are pretty faces, but none with hazel eyes and the look of somebody-please-save-me. The pretty faces tend to be spellbound by the devices in their hands. Or, ignoring the fellow creatures beside them, they look out the window and chatter away. Like this one, prattling on about how much she loves her new dog. He’s such a cutie. He practically has an orgasm when she walks through the door. Ridiculous kisser. Sleeps with her every night. And he’s totally easy to care for. All he needs is a little attention and affection.
Thomas Centolella is the author of four collections of poetry. The latest, Almost Human (2017), won the Dorset Prize from Tupelo Press. His other honors include the Lannan Literary Award and the American Book Award. He teaches creative writing in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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