I spent the better part of three years living in NYC. It’s where I cut my teeth as a people watcher. I used to sit anywhere and study my fellow humans: a subway station, central park, outside Yankee stadium. I paid particular attention to couples. I loved to watch them fight. New York is crazy in this way. You’re never alone, but everyone gets used to it. I’ve also lived in places like Austin and Miami. In those cities when couples fight out in public it’s more restrained. There’s this shared sense of “save it until we get home.” Not in New York. No one’s paying that much attention. Everyone’s too busy to care what’s going on in your life. So when a couple walks down the street, and the woman is screaming at her husband for fucking her sister, the people around them might glance up to see what’s going on, but they also might be glancing up to look for a place to grab a slice of pizza.
After a while, watching people so obsessively, I took it a step further and wondered how people were seeing me. Then I began people watching the people who were watching me. After that I wondered if they knew I was watching them watch me. I wondered how it affected them. I wondered if they were aware I was aware. I let this thinking spiral infinitely, or until I got bored.
Ariel and I were on the train back from Brooklyn and she was upset. It was a late Thursday evening so the train was pretty empty. Diagonal from where we were sitting was a black kid with his earbuds in, not too much younger than us, wearing jeans and a hoodie. He was reading some textbook, but I couldn’t make out what it was. It looked thick and boring, probably econ or biology. On the far end of the train was an elderly couple. They were sitting in silence, staring off into nothing. Her hand was in his lap and their fingers were intertwined as his thumb gently rubbed back and forth over her skin. They had the look that comes from decades of living in the city. When all their friends retired down to Florida or Arizona they were the ones who said, “Fuck no. We’re not leaving our city. We’re going to die here, where we belong.” A girl a few seats to the left of the black kid wore a jacket over her catering uniform. She was reading a worn copy of *Chronicle of a Death Foretold* that had a big NYU sticker on the back. In the middle of the train with no one around him, a guy laid across five seats, snoring and using his jacket as a pillow. I don’t think he was homeless. We were coming from Brooklyn so I assumed he was a hipster who lived with eight other hipsters in a loft, and being on the train on a Thursday evening was the only way he could get decent sleep.
I wondered if the people on the train could tell Ariel was upset. Were they expert people watchers like me?
Ariel was in her last semester at Columbia, getting her master’s degree in social work. A few weeks early she began an internship at a battered woman’s center. It was the kind of place that required 24/7 armed guards to protect the residents from their abusers. Women came in all states of distress. Ariel was their first contact. And though she had gone through all the training that was supposed to help her cope, anyone who has been in that line of work knows there is no such thing as coping. The best you can hope for is to numb yourself a bit.
Now more than ever our sex life wasn’t about sex. It was about a distraction. She wanted me to be more aggressive and violent than ever before. Which was fine. Ariel was a proper feminist. She loved being able to give me consent. To her, it was the most precious gift she could give. But I was starting to feel uneasy. Not because I had a problem with giving her what she needed. It was because I feared she wanted me to hurt her out of guilt. Every day she saw women in pain, falling apart with bruised faces and broken bones, contemplating suicide, afraid for their lives and the lives of their children. Above all else, Ariel was compassionate. I worried that compassion made her feel like she deserved to hurt like the women she was so desperate to help.
That night we had been at an announcement party for some politician running for some city council seat. I had more than a few drinks. That was how Ariel got me to go. She told me about the open bar. So, I was feeling pretty bold. After leaving, we walked to the subway station, and I tried to bring up my concerns about where our relationship was going and how I thought her internship was affecting her.
“So what the fuck are you saying? I need to quit my internship because you don’t like our sex life?”
“Fuck you, if you think that’s what I’m saying. You can go fuck yourself. Really, Ariel. I know you’re upset. But don’t say shit like that to me. You know better.”
“Just because you’re my Dom, doesn’t fucking mean you can talk to me like I’m a child. You’re not always the most important thing in my life, you know. I have family. Work. School. My whole fucking future ahead of me. I don’t have time to deal with your hurt ego.”
“Yes. This is all about my hurt ego. How could I have been so blind to it? Thank you, Ariel. Once again you have shown me the light; the error of my ways. ”
We must have walked by a hundred people on our way to the station. I am not sure any of them noticed us. If they did they saw a couple who hated one another. Now, silent on the train, me leaning towards The Bronx and Ariel leaning towards Brooklyn, I wondered if our train-mates could see the crumbling relationship in front of them. After the third stop, Ariel finally spoke. “I’m getting off. I want to be alone, I think.”
This is really important to point out. If you didn’t catch it you might think I’m a horrible person for what happened next. You might think I’m controlling and sick. You might think I was wrong for not respecting her wishes. But if you thought that, you couldn’t be more wrong. It was subtle and easy to miss. If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Ariel, everything from the tone in her voice to all the different reasons she fidgeted with her hair, our relationship could have ended right there. If she had only said, “I want to be alone.” I would have kissed her forehead and told her not to worry. I would have told her I loved her and that I would get off at the next stop so she could be alone. But that isn’t what she said. She said, “I want to be alone, I think.”
I almost missed it myself. I felt rage bubbling up in my throat, and was a second away from saying, “Fine, fuck it. Go be alone.” But I caught it before I let it out, swallowed it back down, and simply answered her with, “No.”
Laughing dramatically, in disbelief. Ariel said, loud enough for the whole train car to hear, “Oh, so you think you own me now? You think you can tell me what to do?”
Calmly, I answered, “No.”
“Jay. Listen to me. We’re breaking up. Deal with it.”
“Fine whatever. I am getting off at the next stop.”
“No, you’re not.”
“How the fuck do you think you’re going to stop me.”
And then I turned to look at her, without a hint of emotion on my face, all of it in my eyes. I didn’t know what the right thing for me to do was, but I did know she was stressed, she was hunkering down, she was afraid that her emotions would be too much for me. She didn’t want me gone. She wanted to protect herself from me leaving her. In that moment, Ariel’s body went from cocked forward to slumping down. Her out stretched neck loosened and her chin fell into her shoulder. All the hot hair that had been in her lungs left her body, allowing everything inside of her to return to a normal temperature.
Touching Ariel’s chin, I forced her eyes back up to meet mine. “You know what I love most about you?” I asked, softly and quietly.
“No,” she whispered. “Honestly, I don’t know why you love me at all.”
“It’s your emotions. It’s your ability to feel so many different things all at once. It doesn’t scare me. It stresses me out sometimes. But if that is the only cost of being with someone so fucking compassionate, and caring, and kind, I will take the stress. I will take ten times more stress- a hundred times more, if I have to.”
“I’m sorry,” she said softly, trying to lower her head. I wouldn’t let her. My hand held firm forcing her to maintain eye contact. “I’m not sure I can do this anymore. You are a great guy. Probably the best guy. There’s just too much on my plate right now. Please let me go.”
And again, I was tempted to do it. The easy thing for me to do would have been to walk away. I had nothing to be ashamed of. I had been the best I could be for her. I could hold my head up high and move on to something new. But I cared about her too much to do that. “Do you trust me?”
“Of course I do. I trust you implicitly,” Ariel answered.
Sliding my hand from her chin, along her cheek, past her ear, and into her hair, Ariel’s eyes closed. Whatever tension was left in her shoulders vanished as I grabbed hold. She felt weightless, the way her body acquiesced to me pulling her over my lap, laying her stomach across my knees. She rested her face on to my left and stretched her legs out across the seats to my right. Her eyes closed, she folded her hands underneath her head, using them as a pillow. I brushed her long blonde hair off her face, to make sure I could see everything she felt. I didn’t want to miss it. I wanted to experience all her emotions, not just the easy ones, not just the ones that make me feel good. I wanted the shit ones. The ones that made me want to hide and never talk to her again.
By now I was sure the other people on the train were watching. My proof was the elderly couple was still stoic, eyes forward, staring at nothing. The kid with the earbuds and the catering waitress were still focused on their books. The hipster continued to snore. And now I rolled up Ariel’s skirt, exposing her flesh colored ass, wrapped tight in her purple lace panties. I felt her body take a deep full breath, and then release every molecule of air, pushing out all the toxic thinking, all the insecurity, and all the doubt. But the thing about those negative feelings are, they linger. They latch on and refuse to let go. It was those hanger-ons that were trying to destroy our relationship. My grudge was with them, not the girl they infected.
When to cool subway air sent goosebumps across Ariel’s newly exposed skin, something switched on in her. She opened her eyes, and all that tension came shooting back in. It was like I had lulled her into a trance and the trance had just been broken. “What the fuck are you doing?”
I held her onto my lap by pressing my hand in her back. She kicked and squirmed like a child. “Do you want to break up with me, yes or no?”
Fighting even harder, those hanger-ons mounting an all-out assault, Ariel screamed, “You better fucking believe I want to break up with you… Asshole!” The word asshole shooting out her mouth like an afterthought.
Lifting my arm as high above my head as I could, I came crashing down into Ariel’s ass with all the force I could muster, jolting her body into my knees. The smack, so loud, even the kid wearing earbud’s glanced up. The waitress closed her book. The old man stopped massaging his wife’s hand with his thumb. And the hipster lifted his head from his makeshift pillow.
“Fuck! You!” Ariel screamed from the top of her lungs, still squirming and trying to kick free.
“Just stop for one fucking second and listen!” I yelled before spanking her ass again, just as hard as before. This killed a little of her fight, but not much. I smacked her again over and over, three times for each cheek. “I said stop!” Ariel gave one more defiant yank as the train slowed down for the next station. The elderly couple exited the train.
“You know by now I can see right through you.” I spoke calm and even. “Haven’t we been through this enough? I know there is something wrong. Tell me what it is.”
“Besides the obvious?” Ariel asked, almost jerking her body off my lap. I latched on to her and pulled her back up with one heave.
“Tell me what is wrong!” I demanded, punctuating it with a hard smack on her soft, glowing red ass.
“What the fuck do you want me to say, Jay? What do you think this is going to accomplish?”
WHACK! This time she let out a moan instead of a curse word, grunted through her teeth.
“Start by saying you’re overwhelmed.”
She responded by grabbing a hand rail and trying to pull herself free. Leaning over I wedged my thumb between the rail and her hand and broke her grip. WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! “Just say it. I. Feel. Over. Whelmed.” WHACK!
And now Ariel began to sob and covered her face. “No! I am not letting you hide. Not now. Not this time.” I wrapped my fingers around her wrist and removed her hand. For the first time all night, not even that night, for the first time in a month, it felt like she was actually looking at me. At first it was rage, but I held that eye contact, and refused to give her rage back. I wanted her to see that I was desperate. I wanted her to know how much I cared about her. I would have done anything I could not to lose her right then and there. What choice did I have? This was my last shot. Once Ariel made up her mind, trying to change it was like trying to stop 9-11 in 2015. I slid the backs of my fingers across her face, brushing golden strands of hair behind her ear. “It’s, OK,” I whispered. “I already know. You can tell me.”
Taking a deep breath with a tear rolling from the corner of her eye, down her cheek, looking right at me, our eyes locked, she said, “I am overwhelmed.”
WHACK! This was followed by a gasp, which lead to a moan, and Ariel biting into her lip as she pressed her hips into my lap. “Tell me more,” I demanded, raising my hand up, holding it there as a threat and a promise, signaling that if she said the wrong thing I would send pain shooting through her entire body. But, also signaling saying the right thing would likely have the same result.
“I don’t know what you want me to say!”
WHACK! That was the wrong thing to say.
“Please you’re right. I’m overreacting.”
WHACK! Also wrong.
“OK, OK! I mean I’m overwhelmed.”
WHACK! Now she was saying what she thought I wanted to hear.
“I’m scared. OK? Is that what you want me to tell you?”
WHACK! She should have known better than that.
“Please, Jay. I’m sorry. I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Do what?” I asked. WHACK
“This, everything. Fuck! Please stop. All of it. I’m sorry. I don’t know if I can do us. Do school. Do my internship. I don’t know if I can be a fucking functioning adult. Like, what’s wrong with me? You should just go. I’m going bring you down with me. Please.”
WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! Finally, we were getting somewhere.
I guided Ariel up so she was straddling my lap. Looking right into me, her arms wrested on my shoulders. Her skirt was still pulled up around her ass with bright red handprints on each cheek. The train slowed, and finally came to a stop. Peering over Ariel’s shoulders I watched as earbuds made eye contact with the NYU student. They made an unspoken agreement, that the two of them were ready to abandon ship.
Ariel rested he head on my shoulder, her tears fell to my neck. “Who am I? These women are amazing. What they go through, their strength, their will to survive. I feel like I must look like a stupid child to them, some privileged white girl who gets to go home to her loving boyfriend. Why do I deserve any of this when they struggle so much?”
The train pulled out of the station. I stayed true to myself. I saw this fucking perfectly beautiful girl in the window’s reflection across from us. I saw the force of nature she was, so strong she could take on anything, even herself. I saw her holding the man she loves, another New York couple. Beyond our reflection, Earbuds and The Waitress had disembarked, and were in the station, looking back over their shoulders and cracking up. I imagined them going off to get coffee somewhere, laughing about what the witnessed that night, and other people watchers watching them and happy to see another New York couple who loved one another. I imagined somewhere in an apartment, on the northern side of Brooklyn an elderly couple were in their apartment sharing a piece of buttered toast. “Something like that would never happen in Arizona,” the man said to his wife. They shared a smile and a kiss. The woman responded to her husband, “I would think not. I love this city. I love you.”
Ariel continued, “I’ve never had a job like this. What am I saying? I’ve never had a real job, period. I worked last summer renting out beach chairs in Jersey. The summer before that I worked at the concession stand at Yankee Stadium. What difference did it make if I spilled a beer on some Wall Street asshole? Now if I fuck up or say the wrong thing – if I can’t get through to the woman I am trying to help, the next time I see them they could be dead.”
I wrapped my arms so tight around Ariel I practically pulled her body into me. “I know. I really know.”
The tighter I held onto her the tighter she held onto me. Ariel cried, and all I could do was say, “I know.”
Gently she rubbed her hips against me, but it didn’t seem like she was looking for a distraction, not this time. This time there would be no hiding. Ariel lifted off of me just long enough for her to reach down and unzip my fly. She dug her hand into my boxer-briefs and pulled out my cock. Then, she slid her panties to the side as she sat back down. As soon as I was inside of her we went back to hugging one another like we would die if either of us let go. I’m not even sure if she moved up and down or rotated her hips. I don’t think we were having “sex.” Sometimes being close to someone isn’t close enough. Sometimes you need to be closer.
“I love you.”
“I love you. I’m here for you. I know that’s cheesy but I don’t know what else to say.”
“You don’t always need to know what to say. But I’m really glad today you did.”
On sheer connection alone, without any movement except what the train provided, running along tunnels that have existed in one form or another for over a hundred years, on tracks first laid by Irish and Italian immigrants, in a city that has been deconstructed and reconstructed over and over again since the Native Americans sold us the land, I felt Ariel shudder and bite down on my shoulder as I came insider her.
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
Neither of us could move until we reached our stop, all the way in The Bronx. Even then, I don’t think we would have cared if we took the train to the end of the line. But, tomorrow was a new day. Ariel had to get up early to be at her internship. I had to be up significantly later for my bartending job. So, Ariel eased off my lap, reached down, and righted her panties. I quickly pushed my cock back into my jeans and zipped up my fly. The two of us giggled as we walked past the sleeping hipster, careful not to disturb him. When the doors closed behind us I grabbed Ariel’s arm and swung her into me.
“I’m here for you when you need a distraction,” I said, kissing her forehead and hugging her tight. “But no more hiding, OK?”
“OK,” she promised. On the way from the train station to my apartment, we must have passed a hundred people. I am not sure any of them noticed us. But if they did – if they were people watchers like me – they saw a couple in love.