But this was a morning subway cry, surely the worst kind. It wasn't a bad day at work; it wasn't a few too many drinks. It was greater. It was things being bad at home, the kind of bad that you wake up with, or things just being so bad in general that even the dull grogginess of the morning commute can't erase it. This morning was a particularly crowded commute—only three stops from the end of the line and I had to fight for space. This woman was crouched at the foot of the emergency exit between cars. She wasn't sobbing—it was the kind of cry where tears run down your cheeks and you can't help them, the occasional sputter coming out in an effort to help you catch your breath. She wasn't looking for attention.
So I did my best to shield her. I was reading Nine Stories—my copy fits nicely into my back pocket, so I reread it frequently, making one of my closest friends roll his eyes and say "Not this stage again" when he sees me carrying it—and I used it to block my face from hers while squaring my body in front of hers so that nobody else could see her. We go like this for a few stops, and at some point I turn the page, moving the book, and we meet eyes. She's bundled up in a deep red hat and scarf; I can only see her eyes and a few tendrils of her hair. She looks like a college classmate and this makes me feel especially kindly toward her. We've met eyes, and the anonymity of the subway cry has been broken. I say, "Do you need to talk?" She shakes her head and the tears keep going. I put the book back into its designated position and we go through the tunnel like that.
I feel this responsibility toward her, like now that we've made contact I need to give some sort of words of advice that will show that I understand even though I don't; it's a bullshit egotistical one-person-at-a-time idea that I have, that I can say something that will make her feel better. I know this, but since I broke the code of the subway cry by saying something in the first place, I can't let it go. I put my hand on her shoulder and say, "It will get better. It always does." She looks at me with surprise and halfway smiles—with her mouth, not her eyes—and I feel guilty because clearly she doesn't feel like smiling, and now, shit, she feels responsible for not making me feel like an asshole by breaking the code. I left the subway, not sure if I gave her comfort or a feeling of conspicuous foolishness, or nothing at all. It's not about you, I try to remind myself, but it is, because I've cried in the subway too.
* * *
So I'm having a stupid night in which I'm kicking myself for not doing things that are good for me. I'm bingeing on peanut butter and The Wire; I'm skipping yoga and writing group; my apartment is messy. My solace is that I'm not smoking. But after McNulty has been reassigned to the marine unit and I'm out of peanut butter, I decide to do something with my life and go get some cigarettes. The store on the corner is all out; I go to the store down the block I've never been, in my slip, cardigan, trench coat, and flip-flops. I get a brand I haven't bought since high school. I don't think I smoke enough to have a brand, but it seems I do.
I come back to my apartment and the couple in 1B are outside smoking. Amanda and John. She is from New Orleans; he works in film and frequently reads books in our ersatz courtyard; they seem pleasant, smart, and young. We chat about the weather; it's a nice night but we're ready for summer, but boy won't we all three be kicking ourselves come the heat. This is all said in witty young New Yorker-ese. I say good-night.
I take a few steps toward the door and she says, "Wait. Was that you on the subway?" I look at her, blank. I take the subway twice a day; it probably was me. "I was upset," she says. I see the wisps of curly hair escaping from her ponytail, notice the resemblance to my college friend from the eyes up. "You were kind to me."