SHORT STORY CONTEST
EPIPHANY ON THE E TRAIN
by Alyssa Metcalfe
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.