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  • Writer's pictureRhiannon Ling

The Romanticism of the Prosaic: A Short Story

Hey, y'all! I've had this short story sitting on my laptop for a bit; based on a real couple on my Brooklyn/Manhattan commute, I don't think I'll ever professionally publish this one, but I still wanted to share it. They seemed like beautiful, fascinating people. Though I never knew their names, they deserve to be out in the world.


Courtesy of our beloved MTA. ;)

We took the 5 at Winthrop, walking up Nostrand past the 24/7 fried chicken place, several liquor stores, and a boutique coffee shop that stood out like a sore thumb. He departed at Atlantic Avenue with a fond kiss to her lips; I was never sure where she got off: it was farther up the island than me. I fancied that she did, indeed, work in the historic outpost on East 79th, within walking distance of the Met and the art her being so embodied.

That’s what her bag said, at least. Every day, she carried a black canvas tote, emblazoned in white with the New York Society Library logo. She was forever shouldering the bag to a more comfortable position--routinely, flippantly--as she held his hand on their walk to the station. She wore a dress without fail, regardless of the temperature. Summer brought florals. Autumn brought academia. Winter was accompanied by woolen tights and a trench coat.

She embodied the hip professor. He became hipster musician.

Thick black headphones were perennially looped around his neck, poised to be thrust into defensive music position as soon as he stepped off the train. A bomber jacket, one in every color of Newton’s rainbow, was paired with stained jeans and antique wire-rimmed glasses. His beard was finely kept, shaved angular and close to his face. I was surprised that I never saw a guitar case thrown across his back.

They were the Eleanor and Park couple, I remember thinking one of the first times I saw them. He, a tall, lanky artist; she, a short, compact bookworm. Their hands fit like puzzle pieces, fingers tightly twined. They leaned towards each other to talk and laugh, their figures creating a sculpture of Cupid. It was loud and intimate. Even when I couldn’t overhear their words through my earbuds, I felt their comfort with each other, love emanating from their very essence.

I knew them, but I didn’t. We only took the same subway every day, at precisely the same time.

It wasn’t long into the fall semester that I first noticed our overlapping commute. Through the instrumentation of indie and show tunes, interrupting the daydreams of stories and the worrying of classwork, I noticed her first. Her combat boots were similar to mine: shiny, black, prepared to kick the ass of catcallers and misogynists alike. Her arms swung with a determined brightness, welcoming and intimidating. Her bag (admittedly, the “Library” of it caught my eye with some immediacy) clunked against her side; I imagined it filled with hardcover anthropology and beat-up paperbacks. In many ways, she was the epitome of “The New Yorker.”

I kept seeing that bag out of the corner of my eye, winking, jewels to a magpie. So, I watched.

He joined her shortly after I realized we shared the same route. They walked only a few paces ahead of me: he slowed his long stride to match her quick, smaller one. His left hand was in her right; his right in his jacket pocket. When the station was reached and we joined the rest of Flatbush in the car, he rested an arm on the bar above while she curled under him, chin resting at chest level as she tilted towards his voice.

Rarely could I discern full sentences. It was snippets here and there, of “Jason’s rad party on Parkside” or “that bitch of a landlord” or “social Darwinism at its finest.” Her soft smiles accompanied his brash laughter, her murmurs interrupting his philosophical diatribes with perfect punctuality. On occasion, a book would be pulled from her bag, flipped through to produce a page pocked with pencil marks: notations on Shelley, Atwood, or Tartt. That’s what my mind scribbled in the blanks, at least; only once could I read Frankenstein on the cover of an antique novel.

The three of us continued this way, in perfect, synchronous harmony, for months. The tromp down Nostrand, joined by warm coffee cups as the weather chilled. Their linked hands; my fingers wrapped around whatever novel or libretto I had that day. The descent into the station, stopping just right of the turnstiles to wait for the car. Curled into one another. Their giggly intelligentsia chats whilst Tom Grennan and 88 Cups sang in my ears. Brief, sweet kiss at Atlantic. My own departure at Bowling Green. Repeat the next day.

Until, one day, the woman was walking by herself.

I would’ve thought nothing of it. Shifts change; people get the flu; it’s far more common to commute alone. I would’ve thought nothing of it, except her walk had changed.

Her normal stride had morphed into an abrasive stomp. Her hands fisted by her side, first grasping the bag, then her skirt, then thrust into the air as if a limb detriment. Her face flushed a frustrated crimson, jaw tight. The buoyant wave of her hair chased after her. It didn’t take a psychoanalyst to tell that she was angry. It was the type of anger that poisoned one’s entire day, suffocative hot iron engulfing a body; Brooklyn could feel it, and people avoided her with wide, circuitous loops.

That rewarded the woman on the subway. She plopped into the nearest vacancy, forcing the man next to her to stand as if repellant magnets; she clutched her bag tightly in front of her. I could feel rather than hear her sigh. She remained like that—tight, tense—until I got off in Manhattan. I could spare only one concerned glance backward, brows furrowed, before I wrenched my backpack further up and turned to school.

For three days, there was no male partner. For three days, the woman walked by herself, becoming more dejected with each step. For three days, I halfway kept on eye on her, intrigued by her story, concerned for this stranger.

The fourth day, all of Flatbush heard quite clearly.

“B! Hey, c’mon, babe, can we just talk about this?”

The woman steeled against the reverberation, teeth clenching as the man’s voice bounced inside the corner bodega and back onto the street. She pushed to move faster, left hand white-knuckling the Society bag, right hand a shaky fist. It was no use. I watched with my own internal trepidation as the man caught up with her in three near-languid steps.

“Babe, please. I didn’t mean to make you this mad.”

“Then what did you mean to do?” the woman snapped, refusing to look anywhere but forward. “You came out with this revelation like, like, like a fucking nymphomaniac, and you expect me to—”

“No, no, no, that’s all wrong,” the man interjected.

“What, then? What? You made it pretty clear that I’m not good enough for you, that you need to go find satisfaction else—”

“No. Babe, no. You’re perfect. I just…wanted to try…”

“Try? There is no trying here.”

Winthrop had been reached. I stood behind them with several other miffed commuters as the woman turned to the man, blocking our path with ice and rage. The businessman behind me sighed. The man shifted uncomfortably in front of the crowd.

“Baby, I love you,” he told her, voice low. “I just…I have this need. It’s part of my identity, y’know, and—”

“I’ve gotta get to work,” she interrupted. Her voice was a knife of arsenic. “Bye.”

Mouth set, she turned and stormed down the steps. The businessman shoved past the man. The latter stood for a moment, appearing utterly defeated, before turning on his heel and shoving his hands in his pockets. My eyes narrowed as I descended.

Cheater? Addict? Fetishist?

The next morning, neither of the two were out. My wintry walk was peaceful, almost disappointingly so. My podcast received undivided attention.

The next morning, I side-stepped a divebombing pigeon.

The next, a Great Dane flew by me as his owner sprinted to catch him.

A week passed with only mundane Brooklynite drama. I became used to being engrossed in my book, in my music, in my audio. It was quite nice; still, I couldn’t get the couple out of my mind. My imagination detailed a multitude of scenarios, each one bolder and more improbable than the last. Clearly, Hipster Man had done something to betray Professorial Woman. All I had to go on was her last accusation: nymphomaniac. She had stammered it out, irate and unsure if the insult would fit; technically speaking, I didn’t know if the definition did or not. But clearly, this argument had something to do with sex. Possibly gender. Possibly both.

After seven days had passed, they were back.

I almost didn’t notice them at first, having become accustomed to their absence. No argumentation accompanied them this time; they strode as amicably as they had in the first days I had noticed them. Only the Society bag, thumping in my periphery, announced their return.

Her hand was back in his. Their conversation had returned to cordial, a laughing query on evolutionary theory and human sexuality. She leaned her head against his shoulder for a brief moment as they walked; he pressed a kiss to her hair. It was as if nothing had passed between them. I couldn’t decide if that was odd or relieving. Normalcy had returned, at any rate.

At the intersection of Parkside and Nostrand, they were joined by another man. Of medium height, stocky build, and foisting a skateboard under one arm, he completed their height portraiture. Both waved with enthusiasm; I smiled at the friendly image, turning to adjust the water bottle in my bag. When I looked forward again, the skateboard man had reached the couple. He pressed a kiss to each of their lips.

Oh, my mind stuttered.

“Hey, beautiful,” the stocky man murmured to the woman, wrapping an arm comfortably around her shoulder as he shot a wink to the man. “Hey, handsome.”

The trio continued down the final block and into the station. They looked like an urban Lemaire painting, I thought, a watercolor of muted Neo-Romanticism in the midst of sharp city lines. The thing that had nearly torn the couple apart had resulted in something so effortlessly normal, prosaically beautiful. My mouth pulled. I turned to my book, a McQuiston.

A chaste two kisses. The man was off at Atlantic. A forehead kiss. Skateboard took off at Borough Hall. And I’m sure that the woman rode all the way to the Upper East Side, within walking distance of the artwork they had become.

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