EPIPHANY ON THE
E TRAIN
by Alyssa Metcalfe
JULY 2017
I see you staring. Why wouldn’t you? She’s beautiful
and sitting right across from us. She looks completely out of
place on the E train with her fancy clothes and perfect
makeup, swaying in the rhythm of the tracks with the rest of
the haggard commuters. Hell, even I can’t help looking, but
she seems used to it because she probably came out of the
womb that pretty. She can ignore the attention as
automatically as blinking, like her hair spray and lipstick
come equipped with a little force field. What I wouldn’t give
to spend a day looking like that. To know, for once, what it’s
like to feel that confident and secure. Like maybe if I could
taste it, just for a minute, I’d learn a new way to be.

I feel you detach. It’s happened before. But the way you’re
holding my hand—our fingers interlocked between your open
thighs—renders you incapable of playing that game in your
head, where you pretend you’re not with me and stand a
chance. And I know you’ll resent me for it later. It’s always
my fault. I’m the one holding you back. Like if I wasn’t sitting
here in my frumpy jeans and sweatshirt, she’d be all over
you. And maybe she would. You’re good looking, muscular
for a guy who doesn’t do much, and you have that swagger
and machismo women can’t resist. And God knows you can
flirt. You do it all the time—right in front of me even—just to
remind me how lucky I am to have you. Maybe she wouldn’t
even care that you can’t hold a job and drink too much. But
she looks like the type of woman who doesn’t take shit from
anybody so I’ll bet you’d never treat her the way you do me.

I know as soon as we get off at our station it’ll start—the little
put downs. You’ll compare me to her, ask why I don’t try to
fix my hair better or dress more like a lady. As we’re walking
to my apartment—where you contribute nothing except
commentary about how cheap the furniture is and how my
housekeeping skills are less than adequate—you’ll say I
should use makeup to hide the bags under my eyes and
brighten my pale cheeks, try to look like someone you’d be
proud to show off, forgetting that when I do you tell me I
look like a whore and accuse me of wanting to fuck all your
friends. I admit it’s kind of flattering, in a disfigured sort of
way, that you’d care if I cheated. So I dress down and get
called a hag instead because it comes with a lesser
probability of violence.

As you criticize me, familiar feelings will arise. They’ll be
reminiscent of my father and the way I was never good
enough in his eyes either, and how his words of
encouragement were always wrapped up in insults: You’d be
such a pretty girl if only you’d lose ten pounds, or smile
more, or go out and get some sun on your face, or try
harder. Don’t parents know that once they lay the stench of
low self-esteem on a child it follows them forever? That no
matter how far I run, or how much therapy I get, it will
always be my default setting—like a slingshot, launching me
back into that dark pit of shame, fear, and inadequacy? Don’t
they understand that they’re just priming their kids to be
victims that other abusers will sniff out from miles away?
Abusers know. They always know.

When we first met you started slow, reeling me in gradually
so I wouldn’t break from the hook. With calculated precision
you corralled me away from my friends, making me think
you were all I needed. The affection was over the top and the
love making was passionate. You made me feel so pretty and
special, like I was the best girl you’d ever dated. You knew to
wait until I was comfortable and dependent before the
methodic chiseling of my self-worth began. It wasn’t hard, I
admit, but you were so good at sensing just how much I’d
take.

It began with a derogatory comment or two, which I brushed
off because you could be so sweet otherwise. Later came the
name calling—bitch, cunt, whore. Those words passed across
your lips so naturally I thought I was the one wrong to be
offended. God, I was such a novice back then. I couldn’t see
it.

And then you hit me.

We were parked at the curb, in a car you’d borrowed from a
friend to move some stuff, and it was over something so
trivial. You didn’t punch me full on the first time, just a little
backhand to the face. I’d never been hit before, not even as
a kid playing around, so it surprised the shit out of me. But
because you’d already laid such good foundation and done all
the preliminary work, instead of getting mad I got
embarrassed. I looked around to make sure nobody had
seen. For some reason I felt like I needed to protect your
character. Like if the outside world knew the true shitbag you
were, it would impede my ability to pretend things weren’t all
that bad.

The pattern is always the same. After you’ve sent me
spiraling into emotional devastation, you instinctively know
to act all remorseful, following me into that pit of
worthlessness for the sole purpose of making me feel
comfortable there, making the new low the new normal.
Then you tell me it wasn’t your fault. You didn’t want to hit
me. I just pushed your buttons and brought it on myself. It’s
not enough that I’m the victim. I’m supposed to feel guilty
about it as well.

It really is a grand manipulation and it couldn’t be more
perfectly orchestrated. But what’s funny is you’re not all that
bright. You never even finished high school, but this you have
down to a science. You know exactly how much you can get
away with before I’ll leave or call the police. Did you learn it?
Is it innate? Are insecurities like pheromones that draw it out
of you? I mean, you certainly aren’t well versed in
psychology, so how can you possibly know that if I think it’s
me causing it, I’ll delude myself that I can control it? And that
if I think I’m controlling it, I’ll stay. You’re nowhere near that
insightful. You don’t even have the mental capacity to
program the TV remote.

Once you’ve turned me into a worthless, empty shell, you
start fucking around with anyone dumb enough to buy your
line of bullshit for a night. Why wouldn’t you? Who’d want to
be with a pathetic loser like me? You call me ugly and
complain that I’m boring in bed, but when I try to do
different things to entice you, you fly off the handle, accusing
me of having learned the techniques by whoring around with
other guys. I’ve just given up. I don’t feel sexy. I barely
speak anymore, and I never go out—except to work, so I can
support the both of us.

I remember the first few times I confronted you about the
cheating. Naturally, you denied it. You said you were just
staying at your mother’s, and that the loose condoms
disappearing then reappearing in your wallet were all my
imagination. Is that part of the plan? After you’ve robbed me
of everything else, you want me to think I’m hallucinating?
But what you don’t know is that I don’t care. When you’re out
screwing around, that’s one less time I have to fuck you. And
why are you suddenly so concerned with trying to spare my
feelings? Did it ever occur to you that maybe I want to hear
it—need to hear it—so I’ll have an excuse to get out of this?
But maybe that’s the point. You don’t want me to leave.
Again, it’s sort of flattering in the most messed up kind of
way, but I accept it because my ego is that starved.

The routine has basically come down to this: you insult or
criticize me daily, cheat on me every few weeks, and hit me
several times a year. So what happens now? What does one
do when their abusive relationship hits a plateau? Is there a
handbook for that? I imagine counseling is out of the
question. Maybe you could start a support group, meet with
other abusers to share techniques for freshening up the
degradation and humiliation. The truth is I’ve become so
numb it doesn’t even affect me anymore. It’s just boring
now. Does it bother you that my reactions to your anger
have grown so lackluster? Is it infuriating that I’ve started
agreeing with all your put-downs, or worse, beating you to
them? When you hit me, I’m almost grateful because the
pain reminds me that I’m still capable of feeling something.
See what you’ve done to me? You’ve demoralized me so
badly that I can’t even be a good victim anymore. I guess
there was one more thing at which I could be inadequate.

You let go of my hand as the train approaches the station and
get up to position yourself in front of the sliding doors. I
follow and stand behind you. You keep your back to me, like
I’m not with you, like I’m nothing. You check your reflection
in the window and fix your hair, not acknowledging my image
over your shoulder. God, you’re such an asshole. I want to
spit on the back of your head. I think I hate you. No, I do
hate you. Wow. It feels good to admit that. It feels good to
get angry. It feels right. Your anger is always so big and
volatile that there’s never any room for mine. I stuff it down
and pretend it doesn’t exist, but it’s in there, simmering and
festering, and recognizing it gives things a different
perspective. Suddenly you’re not that handsome anymore.
And you certainly don’t seem strong. You might be weaker
and emptier than me.

The doors slide open and you stride onto the platform,
weaving between the masses, not even noticing that my pace
is slower and I’m lagging behind, not even caring. I kind of
like the view from here: your back, walking away. For some
reason, it makes everything seem so clear. I allow the gap
between us to grow as we hike up the stairs toward the exit,
wondering if you’ll feel my distance. It’s funny, the farther
you get, the farther away I want you. I’ve never felt like this
before, but now that I do, I’m committed to it.

You push through the turnstile, passing two cops by the token
booth. I’m several paces behind. You start up the final flight
of stairs to the street, but I stop walking because I recognize
that an opportunity like this might not come again for a long
time—me feeling this way about you at the same time
someone is available to protect me. You must sense it
because you finally turn to look for me. I’m frozen in the
middle of the floor as people rush by, dodging me like leaves
blow around a tree. You ask what the fuck I’m doing. It’s that
familiar tone—annoyed and patronizing. The cops recognize
it, too, and glance in your direction. You see them and switch
to something more chipper, calling me babe and telling me to
stop acting stupid. That’s much better. You’re arrogant
enough to think saying babe will counteract the stupid.

I look at the cops. They’re paying attention but they’re being
cool about it, waiting to see what plays out. You start down
the steps but I can’t control my revulsion anymore, so I back
away. That makes you angry, but you try to cover it by
laughing because we’re in public, trying to pretend like it’s all
a big joke. You glance at the cops, shrug, and roll your eyes,
like I’m just the village idiot acting up in the town square
again. But they don’t seem like they’ll need as long to see
through your bullshit as I did.

One of them asks if I’m okay, but the distress on my face
must be obvious because he leaves his post to intercept. He
asks if I know you and I tell him yes, you’re my boyfriend,
but I’m afraid of you. The other cop takes a position beside
you. You’re furious now but can’t show it. It’s an unusual
predicament for you, having to censor yourself, not being
able to projectile vomit all your repugnant emotions at will.
You’re so frustrated you look like you might cry. I’ve never
seen you like this before: vulnerable. And it’s creating an
even bigger shift in my perception. Why did I think you were
so tough all this time? How on earth did I mistake bullying
and abuse for strength?

You tell them not to listen to me, that we just had an
argument and I’m trying to get back at you by making shit
up. But I can’t stop now. Who knows what you’ll do to me
once we’re alone. I kick into pure survival mode. It’s primal.
I say that you’re lying, that you’re abusive, that sometimes
you hit me. I show them the purple and yellow bruises in the
shape of fingers on my arms from when you grabbed me the
night before last, and tell them I need to get away from you.
Saying it out loud for the first time surprises me. I had no
idea it would be this liberating, that it would take away the
numbness.

One of the cops calls something into his radio but I’m not
paying attention. All I can think about is that I need to break
away from you. I need to never see you again. I watch your
head shake back and forth in disbelief as you take a
defensive stance, glaring at me with clenched fists. You’re
trying to terrorize me into following your lead, and I’m
tempted, because the pattern is that habitual, but you don’t
look as threatening to me anymore. You look more like a
spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum. It’s like a curtain
has lifted and I’m finally seeing you for you, instead of the
person I pretended you were, or wished that you were.

One cop takes hold of your elbow to guide you away from me
and, like the predictable asshole you are, you yank it back,
spewing obscenities at him. Good move. Now he’s got the
handcuffs out and is pushing you against the wall. The other
goes to assist. Once your hands are secured behind your
back, the string of threats begins to flow, interspersed with
every misogynistic slur in the book, completely validating my
testimony. One cop wrestles you up to the street while the
other hands me his card. He rattles off a bunch of victim’s
rights information and tells me to meet them at their precinct
to give a statement before leaving to catch up with his
partner.

Now I’m standing in front of the token booth, contemplating
the enormity of what just transpired. I’m alone and in shock.
I maneuver to the wall, away from pedestrian traffic,
because I feel like I might collapse. Panic floods every vessel
in my body. I’m trembling all over. What have I done? There
are so many emotions swirling around my brain that I can’t
identify a single one. It’s too much. I’m too used to being
numb. I start thinking about all the steps it’s going to take to
break free of you—showing up in court, moving your stuff
out, the threats, the guilt trips, God knows for how long—
because I know you won’t go quietly. How will I ever find the
strength to go through with that?

I become crippled with self-doubt. Maybe I am too weak, too
inept, too whatever. Maybe I should’ve just kept my mouth
shut and tried harder to be a better girlfriend. Were you
really that much worse than being alone, having to discover
who I am, who I want to be? Fear narrows my focus.
Freedom and independence seem like impossible tasks
because I spent too long believing I didn’t deserve them,
being told I didn’t deserve them. I’ve just muddled along
from put-down to put-down, battering to battering. After
living like that for so long, how am I supposed to know how
to be?

For some reason that pretty woman from the train pops into
my head—the way she seemed so confident and secure, the
way she carried herself fearlessly. I wonder what would
happen if I pretended to be her. Not forever, like just until I
learned how to be me. I close my eyes and recall her image.
Immediately my posture straightens. I imagine I’m dressed
and made up like her. My shallow, tentative breaths start to
regulate and I breathe deeper, trying to inhale strength. I
think about how her self-respecting presence would probably
command authority, and the panic starts to subside. I can’t
believe this is working. I feel proud of myself for trying
something different, for being able to turn my thoughts
around. It’s an unfamiliar feeling but I allow it to fill my heart
and I’m hopeful for the first time.

I march up the stairs toward the street. The darkness of the
subway gives way to light. I tip my head back and feel the
sun warm my face. It feels good, like it’s shining just for me.
That makes me feel alive. That makes me believe I can do
this.

I can do this.


Alyssa Metcalfe was born in the Inwood section of New York City
in the early 1960s. She and her older sister were raised by their
British jazz pianist father and American mother who worked as a
secretary, but never missed an opportunity to march against
injustice. By the early 1970s, her family qualified for affordable
artist housing in the West Village, where many of the adults
shared a hands-off style of parenting. There was little supervision
and less discipline. As a result, Alyssa and her new friends used
the city as their playground, theater, and teacher. It is through
those experiences that many of her stories have been inspired.
She currently lives on Cape Cod, where she sits on the board of
directors of the Cape Cod Writers Center.