Elliott may have heard the sound of the doors between the subway cars opening and then slamming shut because he was seated near the end of the car, but he wasn’t looking in that direction. Instead, he had become absorbed in watching a young woman with olive skin applying mascara two rows ahead of him. She was maybe seventeen years old, Elliott thought, and she held a jeweled compact mirror just inches from her eye, pulling the wand upwards along her lashes, again and again, in careful, broad strokes. The corduroy jacket she wore was a few sizes too small for her, exposing her navel, and a small tattoo of a butterfly that seemed to be floating upwards from under the waistband of her tight low-rise jeans. On the ground at her feet was a large cotton bag printed with yellow daisies, inside of which he saw a copy of O Magazine.
It was the look on the face of this girl that first alerted Elliott a few minutes later that something strange and unexpected was happening just behind him; and he too, had become aware of movement at his neck. It was only when the girl covered her mouth and gasped that Elliott turned to look behind him. The first thing he noticed about the man was not his bloodied face, but his feet. He was barefoot, and his feet were swollen and shredded, and, around his heels, his skin was the color of ink. Other than that, and other, of course, than the blood running heavily from his nose to his chin, he would have appeared quite ordinary: a tall, thin man in his late twenties, with pale skin and thinning brown hair. He wore dog tags around his neck, Army-issued camouflage pants and a red and green plaid flannel shirt. In his hand, he carried an oversized copy of the Bible. As Elliott watched the blood sliding from the man’s chin to the subway floor, drop by drop, he became aware of the silence on the train. The young girl’s gasp still hung in the air, and the older woman across from him, her knitting needles resting in her lap, muttered aloud (“Oh God, oh my God,” she was saying), and yet it felt to him to be as quiet as sleep.
Christopher Turner—a name he wouldn’t actually know until the next day, when he read it in a newspaper—shuffled quietly down the aisle, in excruciatingly slow, careful steps staring straight ahead. He leaned forward as he walked, like a very old man, and kept his chin jutted ahead of him, as if he were trying to keep the course of blood—which he stepped in as he walked—from dripping onto his shirt. Despite his appearance, there was something about Turner—the calm, unhurried pace of his steps perhaps, or the fact that the blood stretched his mouth into what looked like an exaggerated, almost cartoon-like smile—that conveyed a sense of stillness in which Elliott was able, perhaps ridiculously, to find a passing sense of comfort. This will end, he thought to himself. He will keep walking down the aisle and through the set of doors at the other end of the car. At one point, he will exit the train, climb the stairs, and enter the city. At one point, someone with authority to do something will see him. They will either help him, or they will arrest him.
The train sped through a station along the express track and Elliott dared to take his eyes from Turner long enough to see that they were passing 51st Street. He estimated that they would arrive at the next stop, 59th Street, in no more than one minute. By then, Elliott predicted, Turner would be in the next car. But he didn’t go to the next car. Instead, he stopped walking when he reached the end, and turned around, facing the passengers. For the first time, Turner seemed to become aware of where he was, and that others were around, and that they were all watching him. He stood up taller, straightening his back and shoulders, and lifted his hand, his palm facing his face. He stuck out his tongue and ran it slowly and firmly from the heel of his hand to the tip of his fingers. He then smoothed down his hair, leaving streaks of blood-spattered saliva on his forehead and scalp. He placed the Bible on the seat nearest to him, unbuttoned his pants, and pulled down the zipper. He wore nothing underneath. With both hands, he slowly tucked his shirt into the waist of his pants before buttoning them again. When he was done, he studied his reflection in the window, turning sideways and adjusting his shirt, smiling at himself. Then he leaned back down to pick up his Bible.
Elliott felt the pull of the train curving around a slight bend, and guessed that they were just moments from entering the station. Within fifteen seconds, they would arrive, and he would be safe. He planned his move: he would stay seated until the doors opened and would then sprint as fast as he could through them, and up the nearest stairwell.
Perhaps Elliott had turned to look quickly out the window, or maybe at the woman seated across from him, because the box cutter in Turner’s hand seemed to appear from out of nowhere, and he had no recollection of watching Turner take it from a pocket or—as it had turned out he’d done—from the hollowed out insides of his Bible. When he saw the box cutter, Elliott felt the terror take shape and congeal, first in his stomach, and then in the heat of his inner thighs. Turner spread his arms above him, like a minister before his congregation, and opened his mouth to speak. But he didn’t. Instead, he let his arms fall heavily to his sides, and bent his head to look at the floor, the posture of a man utterly defeated.
The train slowed to a stop, but there was nothing but blackness outside the window. What the hell were they stopping for?
“Could I not…” Turner was saying, quietly at first, and then louder. “Could I not. COULD I NOT JUST GET A FREAKING CUP OF COFFEE?” He looked among the faces of the passengers, and like most of the others, Elliott kept his eyes averted, afraid that connecting with this madman in any way might cause him to react. “I’m serious here you brain-dead assholes. I don’t ask for much. I didn’t ask for any of this bullshit.” Turner was walking toward the middle of the car now, the hand with the box cutter at his side, the other clenched tightly in a fist. “Would it kill someone to say thank you? To maybe let me cut in line at the overpriced same-fucking-place on every corner Starbucks. I don’t know, that doesn’t seem like too much. Does it?” He screamed these words, his voice milky with contempt.
The subway still wasn’t moving and it felt to Elliott that entire days had passed since he boarded this train. The voice of the automated conductor came over the loud speaker. Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing delays because of train traffic ahead of us. Please be patient, and thank you for riding New York city transit.
When Elliott looked up again, Turner was standing at the center of the car, the box cutter pointed straight ahead of him, and he twirled slowly in a circle. He began speaking again, this time in a calmer voice. “Seriously, just one cup of coffee. Just one venti mocha-motherloving-chingchong.” Turner laughed now, uncontrollably, shrilly, and Elliott felt the bile rise in his throat.
“You from Afghanistan?” Elliott thought Turner was talking to him. “Look at me. I’m TALKING here.” Elliott lifted his head, but Turner wasn’t speaking to him. He was standing in front of the mascara girl, holding onto the bar above her head, leaning in close to her. “Didn’t your teacher ever tell you that it’s rude not to look at people when they talk? Didn’t you learn that?” The girl looked up into Turner’s face, her expression a mixture of terror and disdain. She slowly moved her hands off her lap, which was reddening with the falling drops of Turner’s blood.
“I asked you a question.”
“Yes,” the girl replied.
“Yes you’re from Afghanistan?”
“Oh no. No, I’m not,” she whispered.
“You ever been?”
The girl shook her head. Elliott kept his eye on the box cutter, which remained at Turner’s side.
“Yeah, well, I just got back from there. There’s a war going on. You know about that?” The girl nodded. “Do you not freaking speak?”
“Yes,” the girl managed. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, what do you have to be sorry for? You fight a war? You lose your job? You ever get asked to leave a Starbucks without a cup of coffee?”
“No,” the girl said.
“No, I didn’t think so. And did it ever occur to you to say thank you?”
“Yes,” Turner said, in a mimicking tone. “Yes. So say it.”
“For the war.”
“Oh, you’re welcome. You’re welcome for the war. It was my pleasure.”
The girl lifted her head to meet Turner’s eyes “Please,” she said softly. “I’m very sorry. Please just leave me alone.”
Turner stared at her. He didn’t say anything for several moments, just looked at her. He took the sleeve of his shirt in his hand, and wiped his nose.
“You’re kinda hot,” he finally said, sliding into the seat next to her. He lifted her chin. “Real hot.” The girl looked away from Turner. In doing so, she met Elliott’s eyes. He looked away.
Turner lifted the box cutter high above his head, then to girl’s collar bone, and then, finally, to his own lips. He licked the metal handle and the flat edge, slowly, seductively, before pressing it against the girl’s temple. Elliott heard a long, muffled gasp from the woman across from him. Turner slid one arm around the girl’s shoulders and, after setting the box cutter on the seat between his legs, put his fingers to her lips. He smiled at her, his eyes reassuring, his mouth contorted into an oversized smirk. He then slid his hand behind her head and grabbed her long ponytail, twisting her hair around his hand and wrist, tautly pulling her head back, exposing her neck. He then lifted his free hand. Elliott thought that Turner was going to slap her face, or unbutton her jacket, but he didn’t. Instead, he reached for his nose. He ran the top of his hand and his fingers along his upper lip, wet with fresh blood, and then pinched his nostrils and blew into them, three hard exhalations, as if he were holding a Kleenex. He slowly studied the contents of his hand, all smiles. He then took his hand, palm up, and carefully carried the thick and gummy blood to the girl’s mouth. She writhed in her seat and twisted her head, but his hold on her was too tight and Elliott watched him spread the contents of his hand onto her lips and mouth, which he forced open, staining her teeth and tongue with his blood. The girl’s scream was muffled by the force of Turner’s hand over her mouth, like the desperate yell of a deaf woman. She seemed to go limp in Turner’s arms as he leaned forward toward her face, prying her mouth open again, now with both hands. But instead of kissing her, as it looked like he was going to do, he shoved his nose firmly into her open mouth, took a long, noisy inhalation, and forcefully exhaled through his nose. The noise the girl made this time was like nothing Elliott had ever heard before.
This is 59 th Street. Transfers are available to the five, six, F, N, R and W trains. The next stop is 86 th Street.
Elliott felt himself rising from the seat, and staggering toward the open doors, pushing weakly through the crowd of people who waited on the platform to board the train.
“Where the hell have you been?” It took him a few seconds to figure out that the noise—he hadn’t been able to discern what she’d said—had come from the bedroom. He dropped his bag on the couch, realizing, for the first time, that he had somehow remembered to take it from the subway seat before he left the train.
He flipped on the ceiling light in the bedroom, the one they never used because it cast ghostly, depressing shadows throughout the room. Emily was laying on the bed, her arms covering her face. She wore her long winter coat, buttoned to her neck.
“What did you say?”
“I said ‘where have you been.’”
He was silent, unsure of how to begin.
“Seriously, Elliott, of all nights, you pick this one to work late? To actually put some sort of effort into your job?” He couldn’t really make sense of what she was saying. The floor and the walls felt floaty and unanchored, like the room was submerged underwater. He wanted to lie down next to her, to bring her under the covers with him, but the edge in her voice kept him away. “And to not even call, or answer my calls.”
“You called me?” His voice sounded strange to him: hoarse and sore.
“About a million times. Your cell phone, here, your office, where what’s-her-face helpfully explained that you were ‘unavailable.’” Her arm was still covering her face, and he wished she’d stop doing that. “I finally gave up about an hour ago. And you want to know what’s funny? I seriously thought you just weren’t coming home.”
Elliott wondered for a moment if perhaps he had been gone longer than it seemed. He looked at the clock on the dresser. It was 8:34 p.m. It was Monday still. It had to be. He slowed down, trying to retrace his steps since the subway. The subway. The ledge on the thing near Bloomingdales, to think. Or maybe just to breathe. Somehow, a little while later, the bench in the park along the East River. Then the hospitals, asking, ridiculously, about a girl wearing mascara. And an older woman with knitting needles. Another hospital, New York Presbyterian. They didn’t know what he was asking. A young woman with a yellow cotton bag and blood on her mouth? Then downtown, to a Starbucks. Or a series of Starbucks, really.
“Please don’t touch me.” He was sitting on the bed now, and he removed his hand from Emily’s leg. “After the sixth time you ignored my call, and didn’t call me back despite my messages, I was like, okay, I guess today’s the day he stops pretending to be happy. Once I let myself go there, I realized how long I’ve actually been expecting this day.”
He figured Turner had boarded the train at Union Square, although, of course, he had no way to know for sure. And while this still made no sense to him, it had become suddenly important as he left the last hospital that he find out what had happened. He wanted to understand what they had done to him in that Starbucks to make him do what he did to that girl. He wanted to apologize to someone, although he didn’t know who, and he certainly didn’t know what for.
“I can’t go on like this anymore Elliott. I can’t just sit here and watch you screw everything up like this. To fail so horribly at our marriage.” Emily finally sat up and he saw she was wearing her favorite dress under her coat, her pretty blue cashmere one. “But you are coming with me to this thing tonight. I told them we’d be there, I need this for my job, and we’re going. I’d appreciate it, however, if you wouldn’t speak to me.”
“But, Em, listen—”
“No, Elliott, I’m serious.” Her voice rose here, as she walked to the closet and slipped on her red heels. “I don’t want to talk, because I’m pretty sure I’m about to say something I might really regret.”
She looked at his wrinkled suit and shirt.
“You really need to change,” she said, turning off the bedroom light.
They took a car service to the party—a party he had no recollection hearing about or agreeing to attend. When Emily directed the driver to pull over in front of a large warehouse in DUMBO, a half-block from the river, Elliott didn’t recognize the building. He wanted to ask her who was hosting this party, and what it was for, but he was too afraid that would further anger her. Plus, he didn’t necessarily care.
They stood silently inside the cold freight elevator, which opened to a cavernous, noisy loft on the top floor. At least forty people were there, standing in groups, sipping wine, or sitting on one of several white leather couches set around a coffee table, its top fashioned from the sanded hood of a red Camaro. Emily seemed to know a lot of the people there, many of whom stopped her to kiss her on the cheek and, after an introduction, shake his hand. He recognized no one. They made their way to a bar set up in front of a wall of floor to ceiling windows where Emily ordered a seltzer with lime and he, a double whiskey. More people were gathered in the kitchen: a room as large as their apartment, with an oversized granite island, and several ficus trees, at least twelve-feet tall, their leaves strung with tiny white Christmas lights. A large metal sculpture—a pool of swimming fish, Elliott thought—was suspended from the ceiling over a long dining table, which was set for dinner.
Emily largely ignored him for the first hour, which he didn’t mind. He didn’t feel capable of engaging with these people and, as he stood alone on the terrace, fighting the wind, he realized that he actually preferred that she ignore him than have to endure the way she typically behaved at parties like this, around people she believed to be superior, younger or more in love than she was. She’d cling to him, touch him affectionately during conversations with others—far more affectionately than she did when they were alone—answer every question from the perspective of we.
Oh we loved Fight Club. We’re trying to read more fiction. We really can’t wait to have a baby.
He did his best in those moments to respond the way he knew she expected. He’d laugh wholeheartedly at her attempts at humor, tenderly push the strands of hair off her cheek, wrap his arms around her after she’d drop onto his lap, even though he was in the middle of a conversation with someone. He did not, however, make eye contact with her. He didn’t want her to see how clearly he saw through her, at this role that she forced them both to play, to the vulnerability underneath, to her graceless fear and insecurities. And he especially didn’t want her to see how much he was growing to detest her for these things.
Elliott went to the bar for another whiskey. The alcohol was a bad idea, he knew, but he was having a hard time keeping his hands from trembling, and the whiskey seemed to be helping. Twice since arriving at the party, he’d been certain that he’d seen Christopher Turner among the people in the room, his face a crimson flash in the crowd. Despite all the space—2,300 square feet of it he overheard someone next to him at the bar say—he felt cramped and confined, and wanted nothing more than to get away from the relentless chatter, the surround-sound music, and the brainless young women in white blouses who walked around with trays of Swiss cheese on white toast, which they absurdly called vol-au-vents.
He ordered a glass of Maker’s Mark, this one with no ice. It tasted pleasant and medicinal, and he took it to the living room, and stood by himself, his back against the exposed brick wall. He watched a woman talking to a man near the kitchen. Elliott could tell by looking at her—something in the way she enunciated her words and held herself—that she was the type of woman well-versed in the latest happenings of celebrities.
A bell rang then, it’s thread-like chimes mixing with the laughter. “Well, then, it’s time to eat,” a woman announced from the kitchen as waiters delivered steaming bowls of food to the table.
Elliott couldn’t eat. Instead, he drank, and listened intently to the guy who sat across from him. He was short and slightly overweight, with messy brown hair, which was too long in front, and kept falling annoyingly into his eyes. Elliott had met him a few times before, at similar parties through Emily’s work and had seen his photo more than once in the gossip pages of the New York Post, although he couldn’t immediately recall what for.
He was saying he was in the south tower on 9/11, and Elliott remembered Emily commenting once that September 11 th was “his thing.” He used that experience the way that a growing number of teen starlets used their bodies, their rock star boyfriend and a video camera to define who they are. September 11 th was his celebrity, his sex tape. Elliott had probably seen this guy no more than two or three times, but he knew the story in great detail, which he was now telling to a woman with long brown hair and large gold earrings who sat across from him.
“I’ll never forget it. I was walking down the stairwell and I said to myself, Brian, if you get out of here alive you are going to do something really great with your life.”
“That’s so crazy. I can’t believe you were there,” the woman said to him. Elliott looked more closely at her. She was a few years older than the 9/11 guy—in her late thirties probably, and she looked at him with so much anguish and want, like a woman keenly aware of lost time and her own waning appeal.
“Yeah, I know. Even talking about it right now brings it all back: the smell of jet fuel and smoke, the quiet, the prayers. But anyway, I knew it. I just knew that I was going to do something really important.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Everyone seemed to stop talking just as Elliott said this, perhaps a little more loudly than he had intended, and his words filled up the space around them. Several people at their end of the table turned to look at him.
“What’s that?” the guy said, lifting his martini glass.
“Something really important? You’re a fucking blogger. I just remembered who you are. You run that weird celebrity blog, right?”
“Yeah, although I don’t know if I’d call it ‘weird.’”
“You write about life from the perspective of that famous woman’s dental floss, right? What’s her name?”
The guy didn’t answer.
“No really. What is it? What’s her name?” Elliott asked.
“Don’t pretend you don’t know her name.”
“Natalie. Natalie Something.” Elliott looked at Emily, hoping she’d help him recall the woman’s last name, but Emily was looking at the napkin in her lap, which she twisted around her thumb. “Harmon! Natalie Harmon. The casino heiress.”
“Her dental floss?” asked the woman he had been speaking to.
“Yeah, it was this crazy idea I had—”
“Yeah, her dental floss,” Elliott interrupted. “The interns at the firm are always talking about it. It’s like this whole thing around this woman’s used dental floss. Like the used dental floss tells all these stories about Natalie Harmon’s day. What she did. Who she’s dating. What she wore.”
“That is genius,” someone further down the table said. “I had no idea that was you.”
Elliott laughed loudly. “Are you kidding me? Genius? Did you just say that was genius?”
“Elliott,” Emily whispered, “stop.”
But he couldn’t. “And you out celebrities who are gay. And make fun of famous people’s children, right?”
“I’ve been known to do that.”
“I read about this. That one girl—whose-its’ daughter, the woman who won the Oscar—you won’t let up on her because you think she’s fat. And she’s like what? Sixteen?” Elliott laughed again. “Yeah, that’s genius all right. Is this what you had imagined when you were—” he didn’t know why he was doing this but he began to use air quotes here—“‘racing down the stairs,’ ‘outrunning death.’”
“Look, dude. I get it. You think you’re better than everyone else. What do you do again?”
“I’m a lawyer.” Elliott said.
The kid didn’t even try to hide his amusement at this. “Of course you are.” He lifted his glass and raised it in Elliott’s direction. “Well, cheers to that.” He sipped his drink. “In fact, you should give me your email address. I think I may need a lawyer soon.”
“No kidding.” Elliott said.
“I was planning on announcing this on the blog tomorrow, but screw it. I just signed a book deal.” Some people broke into rowdy applause and a woman stood to hug him.
“I fucking hate you for keeping this from me,” she said, her cheeks red with excitement.
“A book deal?” Elliott asked.
“About the dental floss?”
“Based on the blog, yes. And before you continue to try to make me feel like an idiot, I did really well on this deal.”
Elliott reached to pour more wine in his glass, but both bottles near him were empty. “That’s fantastic.”
“Look, dude. Think you’re better than me if you want but all I’m doing is giving people what they want.”
“A blog written by used dental floss. This is what you think people want?”
“No, it’s not what I think people want. It is what people want. Do you have any idea how many people read my blog every day?”
“About 300,000. And you wanna know why?”
Nobody else was talking now. “No, listen to me. You may think this is just some Web site about some rich, foolish girl and her stupid friends. But it’s not. People need something. Some way of dealing, because look at what’s going on. Look how shitty it all is, and how little it matters what people think, or what they do.”
A woman at the far end of the table spoke. “Ok, guys. Enough. You’re depressing us.”
The 9/11 guy talked over her. “These people—us—we marched against starting a war, and nobody cared. We marched to end the war. Again, nobody cared. Shit, we fucking elected someone other than the guy who became president and even then. Nobody fucking cared. And you’re surprised everyone’s spending their free time concerned about what Natalie Harmon’s dental floss has to say? You’re either stupid or naïve.”
“I’m sorry. I’m still stuck on the idea that you’re trying to make me believe you ever marched for anything.”
“Ohhhhh, right. Of course. I get it now. I get exactly who you are.”
“Oh yeah? Good. You should start a blog about me. From the perspective of my Q-tip maybe.”
“Yeah, you spend your days in your office in midtown with your fancy law degree, and your graying hair, and you look at us and you get all pissed off. Pissed off that we’re not who you want us to be. That we’re not reading the newspapers more and taking a stand against, I don’t know, let me guess. The war. Guantanamo. The torture. Well, it’s not gonna happen, old man. The people have a choice. And guess what? They’ve chosen me.”
“Yeah. Well. Good for you.” Elliott drained the last sip of wine in his glass as he stood. He looked at Emily. “I think it’s time to go.”
“You go,” she said.
“I’m staying here.”
Elliott looked around the table, to see if others were as shocked as he was that his wife could so publicly humiliate him like this, but nobody could meet his eye.
Aimee Molloy is a freelance journalist, and the co-author of three books. She is at work on her first novel.