A pairing of flash fiction stories where human interaction is laden with tension, eagerness, and a yearning for authentic affection…
by: Nik Perring1
The Woman On The Train
I did not see her coming though I should have. If I close my eyes now, and hold my breath, I’d see her drift along the train’s aisle like a slow tide, like a swan at dusk, her footsteps as gentle as a ghost’s.
But I did not see her move along the train. I did not see her approach. I was too busy watching other things. Those moments must instead live in my mind.
We met by the doors, our hands on the rails on either side of it. When I looked up, she was in front of me.
I tried to meet her eye but she was shy. When she tried to meet mine, we missed each other again. I was reading the sticker in the window telling me what to do in an emergency: Break Glass.
I liked her eyes. They were clear and open in ways I don’t think I had seen before. I liked her mouth, its shape like two wings held together by a soft “u” as if they could glide on the breeze of a breath. They were narrow and they were plump and they seemed both too big and too small for her face all at the same time. They seemed ready for a straw, or ready to whistle, or whisper.
There was a lash in my eye which was sharp and I was squinting because of it. The bag in my hand was heavy and my grip on the rail was firm so I could do nothing about it. I could do nothing but squint, or close my eyes and roll them, to try and shift it. I squinted often, all while I was trying to watch her face, to read her eyes, to translate those lips.
Our eyes did meet then, and they did not lock like I’d hoped they would. She glanced up and she was too quick for me, too quick even to see a smile. Then again, only this time the lash in my eye caught once more and I squinted a wink at her, an unintentional wink that made me think of gentlemen’s evenings, and that made me think of embarrassment and my cheeks, I knew, were reddened.
I would have apologized, clumsily no doubt. Only she looked at me again and I needed to be quick this time so I managed to say, “something in my eye,” before she looked away, and before the next ugly wink arrived.
She took a step forward and she did not rock with the train and I would like to remember that she smiled at me, that those lips parted a little, that I saw teeth and tongue, but I don’t think that happened.
“Let me see,” she said and I could do nothing, say nothing, because she was there, close, pushing herself inside that invisible shell of me. I gripped the rail tighter and I allowed my bag to touch the floor.
She reached to my face and her fingers were as gentle as her eyes were, and she was close now — so close I saw make-up flakes on her eyelids. She pushed my lids apart with her fingers and I remember swallowing hard as the train wobbled and I remember gripping the rail more tightly and I tried to hold the panic in my stomach as she worked. She was so balanced. So gentle. So slow. Her fingertips were warm.
I watched her eyes flit like sparrows and I watched her mouth and I thought of all the ways it had been kissed, and her shoulders were bare and pale and fine, and I wanted to rest my chin on her skin. I was glad that she was too close to see.
Her breath was warm and she smelled of citrus perfume and cheap, train soap. I had been eating peanuts so I held my breath in.
The space we shared then, I knew, was a space that could only exist for those moments and at that time, and that was okay because those moments were ours and they did not tumble out, did not stumble to us half-formed and screaming, half-drunk and giggling, half-dressed and clumsy. No. Those moments were more than that, they were heavier. They were precise and gentle like her fingers and eyes, and like those lips I tasted on the air.
A face appeared in my morning coffee, right near the brim of my mug, and it was smiling at me.
“Morning,” it said. I was still not properly awake and my mind was slow, but I managed a hello anyway.
I recognized the face. It was Jenny’s. I hadn’t seen her in ten years maybe, and she hadn’t aged a day.
“How are you, sweetie?” Jenny asked and I said I was fine. “It’s been a while,” she continued.
“Yeah,” I said. “Been a long time.” I put down my toast, and then I asked her, “This is you, right?”
Jenny nodded, smiling with pretty, but brown, teeth, and said, “Of course it’s me, silly!”
I stood and moved away from the table.
“Hey! Where are you going?” she called, so I sat back down.
“I was going to the kettle,” I told her. “I can’t drink you.”
“Quite right,” she said and she punctuated the words with an emphatic nod.
“Okay,” I said. “Can you help me out here? I mean, what’s this all about? What’s going on? Are you in trouble or something?”
Jenny rolled her eyes in my mug. I used to love them, once.
“You never were a morning person,” she said. “Maybe it would have been better if I’d have caught you later on. It’s just, I know how busy you get. You might not have noticed me.”
“I’m sure I would have,” I said.
“Whatever. Anyway. So. What are you up to these days? Keeping busy?”
“Yes,” I said.
“That doesn’t surprise me,’” she replied.
I nodded. “And what about you? You in the coffee game now or something?”
Jenny laughed. “Nah, I’m still where you left me. Got a promotion though. I pretty much run the place now.” She whispered then, said, “I’ve got to say — I’ve never done this before. It’s a bit weird.”
“I’ll say!” I said. “How did you do it?”
She frowned. “I’m not so sure. It just kind of happened.”
“You’ve no idea?” I said, leaning closer, my mind a little sharper now, a little less sleepy.
I think she shrugged somewhere under the coffee’s surface because it rippled. “Nope,” she said, “not a clue. But the other day, I did think of you.”
“Okay,” I said, stretching out the word. “Go on.”
“Well. I’d been to a meeting — new clients, blah blah blah. I ended up walking back past that Japanese place. I just started remembering, I guess. Maybe that’s had something to do with it.”
I nodded, slowly, and Jenny continued.
“I remembered our sushi nights. Sushi,” she nodded in approval, “that’s what made me think of you.” She paused. “And, of course, that made me remember the fire extinguisher incident as well.”
“That was an accident,” I told her and she smiled. I noticed then that I was smiling too.
“If you say so,” she said. “And after that, other things made me remember too. It’s all a bit odd. There was a song on the radio I’d not heard in years, and then I came home and found an old top at the bottom of the wardrobe.”
“The green one?” I asked.
“How did you guess?” she said, giggling a little.
My words slipped out, as if on their own. “You looked good in that.”
“You mean I didn’t look good normally?” she said. She looked hurt and she began sinking back into the mug, disappearing under the surface.
I put my hand to it, wrapped my fingers around it. It was warm. “Wait!’ I said. ‘Don’t go!”
When Jenny reappeared her expression was happier.
“Did you like it?” I said. “Remembering, I mean.”
“Yeah,” she said, “it was nice for a while, I suppose. But, you know, then it hurt a bit.”
I knew what I wanted to say but I couldn’t find the right words to push to her. And it would have been so easy, so simple too. She was right.
I really did love you, I wanted to say.
I wanted to tell her I thought of her often, that she wasn’t the only one who remembered.
Most of all, I wanted to tell her I was sorry. She deserved to hear that.
Jenny’s expression turned stern.
“Nothing to say?” she asked after a pause, but I still couldn’t find the words. I wanted to, though. I really did.
“That’s so typical,” she said, and her words were clipped and bitter. She looked hurt again, and again she sank down deep into the mug.
This time I was not going to let her go. I rushed and I was clumsy. “Wait! Jenny!” I called, and the coffee spilled, and the mug rocked on the table before it fell. When it hit the floor it shattered.
I hurried and I saved what I could. Mopped it up with kitchen towel and dripped the lukewarm remains into a bowl.
I kept that bowl with me for days, then weeks — on my desk, on the kitchen table, by my bedside. I waited and I hoped that she’d reappear, somehow, even when the cup became moldy.
One day, a couple of months down the line I accepted, finally, that Jenny wasn’t coming back, and I accepted that I wouldn’t ever tell her what I needed to. That day, I took the bowl to the kitchen and I poured her away, again.
Nik Perring is a writer and the author of five books including Not So Perfect (RoastBooks, 2010) and Freaks! (TFP/HarperCollins, 2012). His work has appeared in many publications throughout the world, been performed on stage, and read on radio. His online home is www.nikperring.com and he tweets come from @nikperring.
- TWOTT header art by Lisa Adams. [↩]