Mixed Signals

The train rushes into the station, its quick motion sending raindrops sliding backwards across the sleek metal. Our blurred reflection slows down until we’re staring at distorted versions of ourselves. Does this mirror make my butt look big? Laughter – interrupted by the chiming of the doors. The train is almost empty. A woman with wedges that hide blistering heels, her blonde hair falling from her once-secure bun, puckering her lips as she examines herself too critically in a compact mirror meant to accentuate imperfections. A bald Wall Street man with a crooked tie, exhaustedly perusing his rain-soaked newspaper. An au pair unsuccessfully trying to pry an Upper West Side child away from the clouded window. Two old men, conversing in an unidentifiable language, their exchanges short and quick.

We could have sat at opposite ends of the car, loudly talking about things we only pretended to know about, as is expected of restless teenagers. I’ve seen you with your friends, obnoxiously noisy, doing push-ups on the sticky floor and pull-ups on the slippery handlebars, just to prove that you could. But you act different with me.

You sit and motion for me to join, patting the space right beside you. I offer you some M&Ms, as the train lurches forward, pouring too many into your waiting hands. You throw one up in the air and it lands cleanly on your tongue, the colorful sugary coating already starting to disintegrate. You playfully toss one at me, the slight tilt of your eyebrows challenging me to follow your suave example. It bounces off my nose and hits the ground in a series of clinks, getting quieter and less noticeable until forgotten altogether, like ripples in a pond. You scoot closer to me, closer with each fallen M&M. I’m almost missing on purpose. You’re so close it’s almost like you’re feeding me in that cutesy look-at-us-looking-at-each-other-like-we’re-so-in-love kind of way. Almost.

The doors between the cars open, and for a moment the whooshing sound of wheels on metal tracks echoing through a dark tunnel drowns out everything else. A man in tattered clothing emerges and, with shocking optimism, begins to sing. I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May. He’s like a one-man musical, bursting into song, striding up and down the narrow walkway, it is his stage. I guess you’d say, what could make me feel this way? My girl… He pauses as he humbly approaches us, nods towards you. This gentleman knows what I’m talking about. You drop loose change into his outstretched palm, lined with age. You’ve got money and a pretty girl, lucky man! I blush and turn to the side, revealing only the coy corners of a slight smile, feigning embarrassment. Now you must know, must realize. See it in the way I look at you but pretend not to. Hear it in the way I say your name, each syllable easily rolling off my tongue. Feel it in the way I playfully push you away, secretly wanting you to pull me closer. I look back at your eyes, expecting a spark of recognition, ready to see that finally a sense of knowing has passed between us. But there’s nothing new there, it’s just you. And I stumble, then trip, then fall. In love with you all over again.

Trains – real and of thought – stop. You get up to go, pausing to ask if I’m okay, I look a little flushed. Touched that you care, annoyed that you don’t know why, I assure you I’m fine. I watch as you throw the worn strap of your backpack over your shoulder, smile, saying you’ll see me tomorrow. I watch as you step onto the platform, and walk down the stairs, your back towards me, and I wonder if you can feel me still watching, calling you back with my steady gaze. The doors are still open, but you’re already gone. Looking down, I see mindlessly discarded pieces of trash surrounding colorful bits of sweetness. We still aren’t moving, stuck in this one place. The omniscient voice crackles over the speakers. Mixed signals. Please be patient.

Katherine Yee
Age 16, Grade 11
Hunter College High School
Gold Key

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