Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Black Metallic

I have decided to finally post the first of the five old MAX (commuter) stories.  As mentioned previously, these were all written quickly post-occurance originally as part of intended correspondence, so really for an audience of one.  But here we are: another story filled with self-doubting inner dialogue - most of which is pretty funny in this case - as we look at the awkwardness of pretty much any moment I spend in public places.

MAX Part I

Another endless day at work is finally over. It’s not yet Daylight Savings and I’m already going to and from work in the dark. I am completely worn out. I’m so drained that it’s difficult to move my limbs. Tonight, I’ll swing by the Post Office and check the PO Box and then simply head straight home. No energy for anything else.

Finally, the weather has come around to my liking. I was able to pull out the old overcoat this morning for the first time since early March. With the weather turning a little cool, rainy and windy, generally I’d be getting a rush of energy following the dead hot air of the oppressive summer.

At the Post Office, I make eye contact with an older woman and I smile. She returns my smile with a look of horror and disgust as she quickens her pace out the door I just came through.

“What’s up with that?” I mumble to myself, confused at why I seem to bother so many people by trying to be friendly.

No mail in the box. No surprise, but still a disappointment. At least there are no bills, but I still am left with a feeling that there’s nothing out there for me. I’m feeling disconnected.

The rain picks up its intensity as I meander the ten or so blocks down toward the Max stop at Pioneer Place. Not long from now I will be able to take a shower and relax and prepare myself for another long week of work.

I wonder what that lady’s problem with me was. Am I really that terrifying? Though unplanned, my only intention was to be a nice guy. I frequently hold doors open for people and offer a friendly greeting, which is generally met with a cold shoulder, or worse: sheer terror! It’s no wonder my self-esteem is so low.

A block shy of my MAX stop at the downtown mall, I notice that I just missed a train. Great. A long wait could be in the works. I shrug and take a deep breath and accept my fate and try my best to take shelter and soak in the refreshing wash of wind and rain.

The city feels extraordinarily dead this early evening. There is almost no one in sight with only an occasional car splashing by. This actually is nice. Just last week I was standing in this spot sweating from the extreme heat surrounded by what must have been the entire population of Portland waiting for the next train. This triggers my memory of how annoyed I get with so many people in those types of crowds that force themselves onto the train with desperate urgency. It’s as if they will perish if they don’t smash themselves into this particular train immediately. Maybe I’m bitter because I am always the last one to board the train, no matter how well I position myself on the platform. Luckily, this won’t be an issue this evening, because it’s just me here, alone.

Scratch that. That pretty woman I’ve been seeing around this stop and on the train the last week or so has just appeared from the mall’s exit. I think she works for that fancy BCBG store, but I cannot be sure. She is always dressed very finely. This evening she is clad in classic black. Her outfit sets off her short, almost black hair and her smooth fair skin. She is wearing a knee length skirt and a business style jacket that is form fitting at her hips. Every time I’ve seen her I am forced to stare with my mouth hanging open, completely hypnotized. I would love to talk with her and find out what her story is. She walks within a few feet of me, carefully staying close to the building and out of the rain and she glances at me as she nears my position. She looks very stern. I try out my smile again, which does not phase her fixed glare. She parks herself against the building underneath the awning a few feet off of my right shoulder. I’ve seen this beauty so many times over the last week that I feel like I should at least acknowledge her existence. In an obtuse way, we are learning about each other by pure circumstance. At least that’s what I tell myself. There’s still no one else around. The only sound is from the distant traffic, the patter of rain on the awning above us and the indeterminate buzz of a city. We both face the tracks and the street in front of us. The Max will be arriving from our right side and I keep glancing in that direction every couple of moments out of nerves. It’s as if my glances will urge the train to show sooner. These glances also allow me quick view of the stunning stranger next to me. Her hair is so dark and smooth and soft.

Oops! She just caught me looking at her! Why did she have to show up now? I am clearly not ready for her. I am never ready for this, no matter how much I want to be. She shivers a bit as a gust of wind sweeps through the block. I see her eyes moisten and her jaw quiver slightly as she fights back a yawn.

“I never see you when you’re smiling,” I blurt suddenly, surprising myself. What kind of opening line is that? Why am I using a Catherine Wheel lyric to start a conversation with one of the prettiest women I have ever seen?

Another cool breeze floats down the roadside, pushing her velvety hair partially across her face, as she turns and fixes her gaze onto mine. I look down to the ground immediately out of shame, but only for a moment. I am able to reattach my eyes to hers.

A small smirk pushes the corners of her mouth upward slightly, before stopping. She continues to look right at me and then gasps in a deep breath. Her expanded chest pushes her coat open a bit and I cannot help but peak. I am certain she notices my shifting eyes. She looks so elegant – so way out of my league.

“I’m sorry,” she quietly replies after what seems like an eternity. She exhales as she says this and tilts her head against the breeze.

Over the last couple of days I’ve had a cold slowly defeating my immune system and I begin to feel a trickle of something slide out from inside my left nostril. I sniff, but it’s no use, because that side of my nose is too stuffed up and the trickle has escaped too far. If I were to sniff harder a second time, it could only be characterized as a snort and that seems like it would be bad. I fight off the instinct to wipe my nose with my sleeve. I can only hope that nothing is visible, or try and pretend it’s a raindrop.

Why did I have to say such a freaky thing to her? Maybe it could’ve been worse. I could’ve crooned the song lyric to her as it repeats often in my head. I had put the pressure on myself and I broke. Even if she wasn’t a wet dream come true, I would have that uncomfortable feeling that I should try and start a conversation considering that we are the only two people on the entire block and we’re standing only a few feet apart. She’s still looking at me and in this light her eyes look nearly obsidian. I realize that she just spoke to me.

“Don’t be sorry.” This statement is followed by what seems to be another unending pause. “Why?” Another pause, as I gulp down a sudden need to cough. “Why, uh, no, um…smile?” Oh dear. Could I be any more of a dumbass?

She looks down, purses her lips as if trying to force her mouth into a smile, but her eyes are stones. If I were in her position, I’m sure I’d find this stupid clown pretty hard not to laugh at.

“Things have been rough lately, but that’s no excuse,” she says hesitantly. She looks back to me and partially averts her gaze for a beat before reasserting her focus on me. I begin to wonder what she sees. When I look at her, I see probably the most attractive woman I have ever been in the presence of. She is bold and pristine. She radiates a class that feels far above any level I can ever imagine. What must she see when she looks at me? She can only possibly see a slob wearing a tattered T-shirt and jeans and my old overcoat. I have never made an effort to be anything but the rumpled, portly and shaggy waste that I resigned myself to be years ago. At this moment, I regret this decision.

“I suppose.” My entire body begins to itch intensely, as if tiny insects are skittering all over me in rapid motion. I cannot believe that she is actually engaging me in any manner at all.

My coat smells putrid. I really need to get it cleaned. Its odor is especially foul when it gets damp, which unfortunately, it is. Maybe I could piss myself right now to round out the perfect first impression.

“You looked tired,” she says, incredibly with what seems to be an attempt to keep this faltering conversation alive. My esteem might be higher in general, if this wasn’t about the most positive comment about my appearance that I ever get. My other favorites are the classic: “You look sick!” or the common: “You look terrible!” or the new one I heard this morning at work: “What the hell happened to you?”

“Yeah,” I begin to drawl with an unplanned completely wasted voice. “So I’ve been told.” Insert another long pause here. “You, uh, on the other hand, look stunning.”

“Now I feel bad, but thank you. That is very kind of you,” she says sheepishly, as she shrugs her shoulders for a moment and shifts her attention towards her feet.

“Heh heh heh heh!” What the hell was that?!

The MAX mercifully slides into place at our block, along with some sort of urgent gas bubble just below my gut. It feels like someone has stabbed me, while I’ve been distracted by this amazing looking woman next to me. And really, I deserve to be stabbed for what a mess it has become. The sudden gas pressure is making it difficult to stand up straight, let alone lift my legs up the tall stairs onto the train. Too bad I can’t request the wheelchair lift to help me out.

“Hey, the train is finally here! Where are you heading?” I ask. Great question. Maybe I can follow you home! Can I get any creepier?

“I’m heading home. It’s been a long day,” she replies quickly and efficiently.

The doors open on the train and I step aside for her to climb in first, both to be gentlemanly and so she doesn’t have to witness my struggle with the emerging gas bubble. I bet it’s from the chocolate milk I drank with my lunch. That stuff always forms a kind of impenetrable orb inside my stomach.

Inside the train, she doesn’t sit down. Instead she holds onto the rail and lets me pass by her. The train is nearly empty; much like the downtown streets had been, so now I am left to decide how to proceed. Do I stand near her and try and cling to this terrible thread of a conversation as desperately as I want to, or do I find a seat and hope that she follows me down that road. She should sprint to the opposite end of the long train car and leave me stranded with my bowel issues. I decide to be bold and take an uneasy seat by the seats closest to where she’s standing. Amazingly, she sits next to me, and my senses are overwhelmed. I take a deep breath and exhale slowly in an effort to compose myself. My nose begins a new trickle again and I quickly wipe at it with my left hand without thought. Damn!

“I’m so happy that you smiled. You have an amazing one.” Where am I going with this? “I’m sorry that you’ve had a rough time,” I finish satisfactorily.

She thanks me again and smiles weakly. Sitting next to her, I realize how good she smells, despite the reek of my coat. She takes in a quick breath and tugs at the bottom of her form-fitting jacket, before easing back in the seat. She begins to tell me her story. Within the last year, her parents had divorced, and then her father passed away shortly thereafter from a cancer diagnosed too late. She then split up with her longtime boyfriend, dropped out of college and to escape her hell moved away from all of her friends and family from San Francisco to Portland. Since moving, she’s only found work that she doesn’t like, after a long stretch of unemployment, and is uncertain that she can trust her roommate. She tells me she’s at a loss about what to do. I listen attentively and nod my head and express sympathy and I notice that my stop is nearing and that my gas discomfort is increasing while sitting down. The sad face I present is easy to achieve both from the tragic story of her past year and from the pain emanating from my gut. She seems nervous about having told me this laundry list of her problems and she apologizes for having told me.

Outside the windows of the train is almost complete blackness in contrast to the blinding fluorescent lights inside. I can tell that the rain is stepping up its intensity, because the windows are getting blasted. I look around the train as I carefully stand up and am amazed at the lack of passengers. I tell her that my stop is coming up.

“I am so sorry, you must think I’m a disaster,” she says, forcing another smile.

“No, not at all. I am sorry for your struggles. I know you can turn this around,” I say uselessly, as I offer my hand for a shake. Not knowing what else to do. She places her hand lightly into mine and I grasp it for a moment. I gently squeeze her hand reassuringly and let go before it starts to feel creepy, especially since I am towering over her trapped next to the window, while she is sitting. Luckily, she finally stands up in order to allow me to leave, by using my hand for leverage.

“Please take care,” I turn back to her just as the MAX comes to a sudden jolting stop and the doors violently slap open.

“I will do my best. Thank you for listening,” she smiles again and I see that her eyes look tired.

“Anytime,” I respond, and then point aimlessly into different directions with my index fingers, like I always do, before hopping down the three steep stairs and into the downpour. I hunch my head into the wind and begin to move quickly with my hands buried deep into my coat. As the train pulls away, I see the girl inside and begin to realize that I have no idea who she is. I learned a bit about her recent troubles, and yet I didn’t learn her name, what she likes, maybe her phone number, or anything that would help me talk to her again without random chance being a factor. I had been hoping to learn all of these things from the first moment I saw her by the train the week or so prior. At least find out her name! She does not look out the window toward me as the train speeds away. Maybe I’ll see her during the next commute, I decide.

The rain engulfs me as I stomp through the vast expanse of the Lloyd Cinemas parking lot. The bottom of my coat whips around my legs from the wind and I squint to keep the rain from flooding my eyes, while I hum to myself and fall into a deep sadness. I still can’t believe what I said to her and more importantly, what I didn’t say.

“I never see you when you’re smiling

It really gets under my skin”

And so on….

The other MAX stories can be found here:


  1. i'm not sure i've seen this one before. it's a good one. i like it.

  2. This is, as usual, amazing writing. I can't help but shake with laughter through the middle, the initial approach. It sounds just like speaking with you. By the end I see you walking through the inner eastside night, a grimy, be-mopped angel. I have always thought the Max series was special, even for your writing. I still want to publish it someday, hopefully soon.

  3. I love your pure honesty and self-awareness. I know you think these stories make you look silly or sad, but I'm here to tell you they only make you look human - perfectly human.