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The guy on the train was reading a book called Foe, but I don’t remember the author’s name. Someone literary, no doubt. I might have been staring because he asked if I’d read it.
We must have been somewhere between Bay Fair and Castro Valley, but the world beyond his moving lips was undeniably on mute. He was handsome, with longish dark hair, and eyebrows that were severe but not unkempt. I was wearing jeans and my GAY AF sweatshirt, while he sported a peacoat, neatly buttoned, and a (possibly) cashmere scarf.
He smiled at me and said: “You know, I always imagine that the books people read on trains are only for show. If a guy is reading Little Women on his sofa, for example, I’d bet you a hundred bucks that he wouldn’t be caught dead reading it on the train — not that anyone actually reads whatever book they drag along. Am I right?” Had he said that the sun glowed green, I would wholeheartedly have agreed. Friend, I thought, glancing at his book again. Not Foe.
He was interrupted by an old man hacking up a lung in the seat behind him, and I tried my best not to show my disgust. But had he insisted that the old man be pushed from the moving train, I would have used my savagely bitten fingernails to pry the sliding doors open myself.
At Castro Valley some bookish girl came along and took a seat where I hadn’t had the courage to sit. She was busy digging through her bag when he turned to her and said that his book was really just for show. “I’m actually in the middle of Little Women,” he continued, “but I don’t have the courage to pull it out on the train.” Or something revolting like that.
She didn’t laugh — had he expected her to? — but after glancing at the book still in his hand said that Jane Austen was one of her favorites. How far into Little Women was he?
“Maybe we can talk about it over coffee sometime,” he said, at which phone numbers were exchanged. At the next station — it must have been West Dublin — the girl disembarked, and I became visible to Friend/Foe’s eyes once again. But it would have looked ridiculous if I suddenly took a seat beside him, and it wasn’t long until the train arrived at his stop.
“Shit,” he said, sounding almost astonished. “I’ve never read Jane Austen in my life.”
I didn’t correct him, and his parting words to me were that he had to piss like a racehorse. I imagined his scarf getting caught in the sliding doors of the train or failing that, in the escalator up to the filthy street. Foe, I thought, disembarking at my stop. Definitely Foe.
Jean-Luke Swanepoel was born in South Africa and currently lives in California with his partner. His work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Prime Number Magazine and Lunch Ticket, and he is the author of THE THING ABOUT ALICE, published in 2020.