Maybe it's the rocking motion. With imagination (and we must assume imagination when discussing matters of the heart), that gentle sway becomes a poor man's cruise - or one of those vibrating beds, if you're into that sort of thing. Or maybe it's the lighting, the flickering fluorescents overhead, casting both of you in a forgotten film noir, with no dialogue, missing only the cigarette smoke. Maybe it's the sense of shared destination, of separate lives united, however briefly, by a two dollar fare and Fate's unfathomable, happy whim. North. South. Express and local. Going my way? Maybe. Maybe it's just the maybe. The possibility. The potential energy. The angle of the dangle equals the angle of the incline. I'm talking about science here, people. I'm also conducting an experiment to discover the maximum amount of times one can use the word "maybe" in an opening paragraph before one's eyes bleed (six), but mostly I'm talking about science. The sweet science of the Subway Romance.
I know I'm not alone. This phenomenon is well documented. I have my sources. There are thousands of them. All of them pining, yearning, sending messages in virtual bottles and blowing electronic kisses across the www, and into that bare bones dreamcatcher, Craigslist.org. Craigslist, for those of you not reading this story because you live in under a large rock, is a loosely organized online bizarre, a meeting place for buyers, sellers, renters, ranters, voyeurs and lonely hearts. You can find almost anything at Craigslist. (Full disclosure: I am not the Craig of Craiglist fame, but I did find a bargain on a Toby Keith T-shirt* there once. Put a boot in their ass, Toby! ) Think of Super Wal-Mart with a porn section and yoga classes and you'll get the idea.
There is a page on the site called Missed Connections. And Missed Connections is where the Subway Romances go to die, and to live on, like Shakespeare's Sonnets, in digital perpetuity. Never consummated, never forgotten. Forever perfect. This is their story. And mine.
The Subway Romance is waiting for you on every car, on every line. In principle, it is also waiting for you on every plane, every bus and every, I don't know ... gondola, but I'm trying to stay on point here, so let's stick with subways. She will be sitting next to the sleeping sales rep, frowning in concentration over a well loved copy of As I Lay Dying. Faulkner! Your heart will soar. She will be leaning against the car door, casually, veteran of innumerable train rides, biting her lower lip softly and staring at a Budweiser ad. The red, bitten lip, so full of longing! You will save her. She will be wedged between a uni-browed Russian lady and two chatty high school girls, clinging fiercely to the overhead bar and listening to an iPod. Music - you like music! You were meant for each other. She will be wearing glasses and a skirt. Or contacts and jeans. She will look at you demurely, like Marvel's mistress, or boldly, without shame, like a cat. And she will always be fair. And alone. And her hair shall be what color it please God.
I've learned some things after a few wistful affairs of my own. There are some requirements. The Subway Romance is pure fantasy. It is the stuff of Hollywood, of secret dreams, and really awful fiction. To that end, you and your lover must never speak to each other; it would be tantamount to pulling back the green curtain on the wizard. You may share a whirlwind courtship, marriage, regret, bitterness, and divorce all between Columbus Circle and Canal Street, but you may not speak a word.
Words, you see, are of that other world, above ground. They are signifiers of an outside existence. And they identify you both, horribly and immediately, as real people. People who say things like "Do you like Faulkner?" and "Let's get Chinese food," and "We're out of dish soap." The Subway Romance has no use for real people. They can have their real romances upstairs, under the sun and moon. Down here in the murky tunnels of the city's collective, heaving subconscious, we have departed from the real. We have been swallowed by the whale. We have descended.
Life in the train is suspended; you enter a state of conscious hibernation when those doors hiss shut. You are cryogenically frozen, like Walt Disney's head - if, you know, Walt was still alive and could find the rest of his body somewhere. You have no past and no future. You have no ties to the world above. You might do anything. You could be anybody.
And so could she.
There you are. Together. In the whale. And nobody is getting out - at least not until the next stop. These unique circumstances are fertile ground for the Subway Romance.
In the throes of the romance, very little actually happens. It's all in the eyes; a choreography of glances. You look at each other. You look away. She steals a peek at you while you pretend to look somewhere else. You steal a peek at her while she pretends to be otherwise engaged. A smile is a first kiss. A glance over the shoulder as she exits the train - oh indescribable bliss! - is a marriage proposal. It's Molly in bed, thinking yes I said yes I will Yes. All for you, young Bloom.
But the true power of the Subway Romance comes from projection, not connection (forgive me, I never thought I'd have the opportunity to rhyme anything with projection, so it had to be done). Now pay attention, 'cause I'm wading into some deep water here:
In the freeze, with Walt's head, you project all your romantic fantasies, both sweet and naughty, onto the object of your affection. You can't help it, it just happens. It's required, almost. You know nothing about her and you never will. She's getting off the train in two more stops. So, you create a person, a lover, where there was only a frozen head. And who do you create? Well, that's easy. You create yourself, of course. You have no choice. Sure, the body doesn't look like yours (or maybe it does, that's cool), but you fill that body with your desires, your hopes, your political affiliations. Guess what? You are making love to you! In public! And no one gets arrested! It's the ultimate objectification. And it's the only time, in any interaction between the sexes, that objectification is completely harmless.
And when the train stops, when the whale finally opens its maw and dumps you unceremoniously back on shore, the spell is broken. The love affair is over. But there are no fights. No pain. No tears. No, it is merely arrested, trapped like a butterfly in amber, captured in that initial, intoxicating flush of dizzy infatuation. You will never have to meet her mother. She will never have to see you in the morning. You are puked back into the dirty, bustling world. Time starts ticking once again. And your fellow passengers become real again, become strangers again; secret, unknowable, headed in a million different directions, and wearing their individual lives like heavy winter coats.
So I want to respond to all my fellow Craiglisters. I want to send this out to your anonymous inboxes, all of you, with compassion for all: She's not here. He's not here. You won't hear from any of them. They are all underground, in the back of your mind, in your dreams, on the train, waiting for you. And they won't, ever, respond to your posts.
They can't get on the web down there, silly.
* Fuller Disclosure: I do not own a Toby Keith T-shirt. But If I did, I would wear it. Ironically. Like a skinny kid from Brooklyn wears a John Deer ball cap, with every confidence that the world-at-large will look at him and say, "That dude is no farmer."