By Adam Bertocci
I noticed the girl first, of course — long red hair, unfortunate thick silver nose ring. The boy next to her was a prep-school type, tanned and tousled. There were two more kids across from them; I didn’t see those two that well, owing to the layout of the train.
When you take the Friday night Metro-North from the suburbs to the city — all suburban kids call New York “the city” — you see people who are young and excited. It’s only on the way back home that they’re drunk and unpleasant, stumbling, swaying, once in a while throwing up. Languishing between jobs and living with my parents, I’d learned the patterns of commuters ’round these parts.
“Woodlawn, Wakefield, Mount Vernon,” said someone I couldn’t see. “Does anyone live in those places?”
“Hey, I’m from New Rochelle,” said the guy. “That’s on another line. They just have the old trains.”
“Yeah, these trains are fairly recent,” said the girl, and then my focus drifted. I only snapped back when I heard my hometown’s name.
Bronxville. Bronxville High School. My God.
“You had to take the bus to the prom?” came a voice.
“There were three buses and you had to sign up for them,” the girl began explaining. “It was so lame.” But she didn’t tell them why.
I knew why. It’s to keep the kids supervised on the way there and back. It’s to cut down on drinking. I know because the practice in our area began at my junior prom, before these kids had been taught how to read.
I didn’t tell them that.
I was throttling an urge to speak up, as if compelled to buzz into a Jeopardy! answer half-sure of the question, as if I were an actor on stage with my big line up next. Running across my chest and up my neck was an impulse insisting that these people were just dying to hear from a twenty-something-year-old stranger on a train, that it’d fascinate them to discuss the origins of prom safety measures.
I still don’t know what held me back.
At this time the conversation turned to regattas. I listened, pretended to read. We rumbled on through a station or two. They were still on water sports when we reached the edge of Harlem.
“There’s a swim test at Columbia,” the young man said, with authority. “Because during the Revolution, they thought, New York is an island, it’s gonna be invaded. We need to get people off the island. That’s why the test is the length of the Hudson River, across.”
But I heard it differently, I wanted to say. I heard that the child of a wealthy donor drowned, and, distraught, he made swim tests her legacy. I wanted to talk about young men and women showing up to the pool bright and early on the morning of commencement, kicking themselves for not getting things done much sooner.
I wonder what they would have said if I’d spoken, if I’d tried to join in. No doubt they’d have been polite, young eyes bright with posed attention. No doubt they’d have giggled after our parting. What was the deal with that guy? — something like that.
I quietly thought back. Back to a time when I did greet a stranger, on the train to the city. It’d been May, and she’d gotten on at Fordham with her parents. She was wearing black robes and a mortarboard hat, and on her tassel was a gold charm that said the year. I forget what year. She was beautiful.
“Congratulations,” I told her, just as we were pulling in.
“Thank you,” she said, and her smile would break your heart.
But of course she was excited. Of course her eyes were shining. She was celebrating something more than leaving Bronxville for a night. You never really leave that place, anyway.
My flashback faded. We hit the mouth of the tunnel and disappeared twenty-something feet underneath Park Avenue. The preppy guy was still holding court on the matter of Columbia swim tests:
“It doesn’t matter how long it takes you, you just have to be able to swim.”
The redhead stretched and said something about her town.
“Bronxville, I love that neighborhood,” stated the guy. “I seriously just drive around there to look at the houses. I love them so much. The whole place.”
And to think I once lived there, when I was his age — and points thereafter. I made a note to see it through his eyes when I once again reached home. To try and be astounded. And young. Then we all got off at Grand Central, and I never said a thing.
“Sink or Swim”
A flash non-fiction piece by Adam Bertocci.