You don’t realize at first that she’s talking to you, because you’re riding the T and strangers never talk to you on the T, except brief commiserations when the train is crowded. And even those are always other men. This is a woman. She is beautiful. There’s no logical reason for her to chat with you.
It’s clear she meant you, however, when she said “nice shirt.” She’s looking directly at it — at the logo of Calvin and Hobbes drinking beer above the name of Cornell, your alma mater. Now she is looking at you and smiling. You smile back, thanking her, not certain whether she likes the school or the characters or maybe just beer.
But of course she means the school, and you join her in bantering about shirts of that nature. She hopes you went there, she jokes. No, you beat up some freshman for it. Well, people wear Cornell shirts when they haven’t — and so on, up through the realization that you both graduated a year ago, and, oh, what was your major, and what do you do now.
When you hear yourself admit that you are looking for work, you decide that the conversation has been unsalvageable from the start, and you can’t explain to a stranger about selling the family house and taking time to recharge. You try to brush it off by making the job at Tufts sound as if they’re just finalizing the paperwork, and maybe that helps.
But before she asked what you did, she had seen the sweat-clumped hair on your sunburned forehead with the receding hairline and the pimple in the crevice of the left side of your nose, and how much more obvious could it be that you are coming down with a cold and must have sniffled half a dozen times already.
You take out a tissue and blow your nose, a calculated risk, though you know it’s all academic from here.
And yet you’re still talking. It’s fun and pleasant and normal. But you can’t avoid thinking about how attractive she is, how not ready you are for this, how unfair it was to be caught so off guard, 10 minutes after once again observing that you are completely okay with not having a girlfriend at the moment. It’s difficult hearing her over the train. You concentrate on smiling and nodding and keeping your eyes above chin level.
She is out of your league, even for small talk.
When passengers clear out at the next stop, you both silently acknowledge that it’s time to resume ignoring each other. You try facing far enough toward the door behind you to hide that pimple, without making it seem like you’re staring at her. Despite attempting to convince yourself that you did all right under the circumstances, you suspect you’ve lowered her opinion of fellow alums.
You wonder whether you should have mentioned your name. You couldn’t dare ask for her number or the equivalent — not in that condition, not for another 20 pounds and six months of employment — yet beautiful women almost never start conversations with you, and this instance seemed particularly unlikely.
Every encounter involves chance. You know this and are no longer impressed. The moment you arrived, the door you chose, the shirt you wore. But you should not even own this shirt. Its message is out of character for you; everyone knows that and kids you about it. And it was out of character to buy anything from some frat boy knocking on doors in your dorm.
You both get off at Kenmore because it’s Saturday night and they’re servicing the rest of your line. You struggle to seem aloof despite having to walk beside her. You sigh when she heads toward Fenway Park as you cross the street toward the buses. You pick your seat so that she won’t see your pimple should she double back and sit nearby. You remember that yesterday was your ex-girlfriend’s birthday, and that she has now celebrated four such birthdays with her fiancé compared to three with you.
You reach your sublet and realize you don’t notice the pimple much. You admit that, yes, you’ve given this encounter more thought than it merits, or at least would merit if you “got out more” and if it hadn’t been so long since you experienced anything that resembled a date. You resolve to wear that shirt more often, and next time be ready.
Illustration by Mason Sklar1.
Mark Siegal is a tech nerd who lives near Washington, D.C. His background includes science writing, book publishing, and various magic tricks with spreadsheets.