Sometimes life is a force of habit: eat this, do that, go there. And sometimes experiences let us see our habits for what they are. But larger experiences can do the same thing...
It's four a.m. I'm riding the subway. I'm drunk. There are three people in my car. I'm watching them.
Particularly, I watch the man in the leather overcoat. I watch that man because he carries a heavy gym bag. I watch that man because he has silver eyes. I watch that man because he is watching me.
"Midnight Meat Train," she says, lighting a candle.
"Midnight Meat Train." She pours more wine into my glass. "It's a horror story."
I drink. "Sounds more like a porno."
"Very funny." She sets the bottle on the nightstand. "I want to read it to you."
She inches closer. "Yes, I do."
She smiles. She skates the tip of her index finger in figure eights down my neck and onto my chest. "So on the subway home tonight, you'll think about it."
I drink and after a moment say, "Tonight? You aren't asking me to stay?"
She pauses, slides away, and pulls the sheet over her head. The candlelight makes a dark outline of her body. "You've never stayed once. Not one time. Even if I beg, and I'm tired of begging."
Her voice bounces all around me. For a moment I feel cold. I crawl above her, pulling at the sheet, trying not to spill my wine. I choose laughter. "Not even a little? I like it when you beg."
Her face is pressed taut against the fabric and I watch her lips shape words beneath it. Her voice drifts up to me like black smoke, stinging my eyes, choking me.
"No, I'm not asking you to stay ever again."
I let the cover go. I try to stare through the sheet and into her mind.
Eventually she drags the cover away from her face and looks up at me. "If you stay, it has to be your decision."
I take a big swallow of wine. I take another.
Her lips tighten. She is waiting.
I turn my head toward the window. "I can smell pizza from that place across the street. You hungry?"
There is silence. She reaches around my knee and takes the bottle from the nightstand. She tugs the glass from my fingers, tops it up, and pushes it back to me.
I look down into her eyes. I should explain. I should apologize. But I say, "Why the hell would you want me to think about some horror story?"
Her eyes close for a moment and then open slowly. She smiles.
The man in the overcoat uses every second slowly, murdering me with his eyes, his expert butcher-knife eyes. I feel naked except for the wine on my breath. I'm forty-five minutes from home. The train is slow and old and scrapes through the dark tunnels on its hands and knees. I should move to another car. I should get off at the next stop and escape to the surface of the city. I don't move. I can't. His eyes magnetize me. I feel naked. I need a slice of pizza. The train stumbles and stumbles and stumbles. I start to shake. Between two ceaseless motions I am epileptic. I need a slice of pizza.
She sets the book carefully on the side of the bed. "What do you think?"
With my big toe, I push the book until it falls onto the floor. "It's the most repulsive story I've ever heard."
"Don't you believe it could be true?"
"Some guy cutting up people on the subway... to feed his deformed children that live under the city?" I gulp down the rest of the wine. "It's fucking ridiculous."
"Does it bother you?"
I take a long purple crystal from a basket on the nightstand. "What do you keep these rocks for?"
"They're crystals. They channel power from the earth. You didn't answer my question."
I hold the crystal up to the candle and follow a reflection along its geometry. "You don't believe that bullshit, do you?"
She leans close to my face and says nothing for a moment. I turn my head and look at her. It's like staring into arc welding. Her face is a river of current and sparks. Her voice burns quietly into me. "It bothers you, doesn't it?"
I try to study the rock, but I can't break focus from her radiation. She has me and she knows it. She pushes her hot gaze inside me. The momentary fusion slows time and for a second my body pulses and tingles. "What bothers me?"
"There are things you don't understand, things you can't control." She gently reaches and takes my hand. She closes it around the crystal. She smiles.
There is perspiration around my collar. It feels like the train stops every ten feet. I'm comatose drunk. I feel at the edge of spinning and my vision begins to tumble. I want to close my eyes, but the subway butcher is watching me with eyes like boiling mercury, waiting, his hands on the glowing zipper of his bag. Two cheese slices with fresh oregano and parmesian. Why couldn't I stay with her? My eyes are changing to heavy puddles of lead. Why am I on this Midnight Meat Train? Why did she do this to me?
She dresses me by the front door. We are quiet. There is a comfort to this ritual, a childlike comfort I desperately need. My fingers are alcohol-blunt and I can't manage my shoelaces.
She patiently ties them while I stare down at her. A pink light, spilling through the curtains, exposes the naked length of her back. I follow the light with my eyes. A single thought erodes through the gossamer layers of wine. She gives and I take. She gives and gives and I take.
She rises and adjusts my jacket. With each careful tug on the fabric, I feel her need. I should stay. I know I should stay, but my hand touches the door knob. I feel a snap of static electricity, a realization, and the fading sting of both. Her scheme didn't work. I didn't pass out. I've drunk like a champion and I'm standing, ready to walk out the door.
This is when she begs. This is when she begs and I kiss her softly on the forehead. This is when I say I'll call, and walk out into the night.
"Wait..." she says.
She's going to beg. She'll beg and I'll know everything is not changing. I am relieved. We will complete the ritual.
"...You forgot your tie." She hurries to the bedroom.
Her voice is like chloroform. I am sensationless, anesthetized. I am hollow.
She puts the tie in my jacket pocket. She straightens the clasp of my belt. She smiles. She softly kisses my forehead.
"I'll call you," she says.
Suddenly, I'm outside in the night.
I'm King of Pizzaland. I'm oily and fat. She's my Anorexic Queen, feeding me each bite, never taking one for herself until I remember to nod at her. But I don't nod, I eat. That's my job as Pizza King: to eat, to gorge myself, to become a round planet while everyone around me starves.
Somewhere far in the distance, on the opaque fringe of this dream, I feel a scratching -- a faint sound of a heel scraping the ground. It begins to move closer, echoing louder with each step. Then I feel him. He's coming for me. A thin windshield explodes into my face, a subconscious detonation.
Abruptly I wake. Every cell in my body oscillates and collides. It's not a dream, I feel him coming. A dim, pale light trembles above me. I feel him.
He emerges from blackness in the back of the car. The trembling light strobes his movement. All I see is the bag, swinging like a pendulum at his side, and his silver eyes.
In my mind, I see the husk of my body hanging upside down from a meat hook.
I look at the other passengers for help, but they ignore me. Then everything stops. I am too numb, too fucking drunk to move. He is standing over me. I can't take my eyes off the bag.
"You were sleeping. That isn't very smart."
His voice is a cold, thick fog that envelopes me.
"You were staring at me. You know who I am, don't you?"
I can't answer.
He crouches down. We are face to face. His sliver eyes are dissecting me. He whispers, "You know what I do, don't you?"
I nod slightly.
"I'm flattered. Not too many people recognize me. I'm usually finished before anyone notices I was there."
I feel dizzy. I mumble, "Why me?"
"It's my gift, you understand, to show how people look on the inside. I'd say right now you're pretty much inside-out. It won't take long."
I understand. I understand I'm getting exactly what I deserve. He unzips the bag. I squeeze my eyes shut. I hear him take something from the bag. I wait.
"Open your eyes -- just for a second. Open your eyes."
My eyes fall open. I am blinded by a flash, and then another. After a few seconds he presses something into my hand.
"This time it's free, because you knew me, but next time it'll cost you. I'm getting famous, you know."
My eyes adjust and he stuffs the object back in his bag.
"I always keep one. I figure you owe it to me. Hell, you never know, someday you just might buy it back." He stands just as the train stops. The doors slide open and he steps onto the platform. The doors close. He is gone.
I look down at my hand. It's a Polaroid. As the image solidifies I see my face, but I don't recognize myself. I see a man drowning in fear. A man with desperate, lost eyes. A man who is still a child.
At the surface I find a phone booth. My hands feel like paws as I search my body for change. I bat my jacket pocket, feeling the shape of my tie when I hear the clink and hiss of metal. I claw my tie out and coins tumble in a streak onto the ground.
The tie unravels like a snake in my hand, and wrapped in the center of its coils is the long purple crystal.
I stand with my forehead against the glass for ten minutes before I dial her number. I can feel a train pass beneath the street. It feels like an earthquake and I am the epicenter. I have a hard time holding the receiver to my ear. It rings six times and she answers. Her voice is quiet and soggy from sleep.
I don't speak, but grip the crystal until it bites into my hand.
For some reason I am sobbing.
"Who is this?"
"I think I love you," I say.
She is silent, but her silence is warm.
Jon Seaman says he turned to technical writing rather than face jail, but who are you going to believe: him or us? He has a BFA in Theater and is a published playwright whose works include "Lenses" and "Autumn." "Epicenter" originally appeared in Shades magazine. (Biography last updated in 1993.)
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Jon Seaman.