Touch Me Not

MFA Boston # 1970.237

Summer is always worse. Worse than the jostling herd packing the sidewalk, worse than the sun-glazed canyon walls pinching the sky, worse than the inescapable din assaulting your cells, the very air, thick and carbon-sodden, smothers you. You struggle to breathe.

You reason with your panic, elbows held sharp and close. Your seeking gaze darts through the maze, rabbit mind looking for an escape, a path, a burrow. You spy a cavern.

You wade toward it. Caught by the current, you are swept forward in the river of souls as it spills over the rim and cascades down the battered steps. You struggle to maintain your footing.

With a lingering roar, the gaping maw blasts an exhalation as the cataract plunges through, then fans out, spent, into the subterranean chamber. It’s better on the platform. Cooler. More space.

You avoid the edge, the anxious, crowded on the stygian lip, inured to each other’s company. The wall is your friend. No one will approach you from behind.

The train arrives. Hydraulics hiss. Doors spring open, disgorging passengers into the barricade of bodies. They press and squeeze. You linger and, at the last moment, slip inside. Too late.

There are no seats. There is barely standing room. Unable to reach a straphanger, you grip a pole and brace yourself. Submerged in an anemone of limbs, the mingled scent of rancid sweat, leather and dryer sheets is overpowering. Your skin crawls in anticipation of accidental contact. You fear your reaction.

Then it happens. A hand lewdly grips your buttock.

You explode. Grabbing the wrist behind you, you hoist the arm high and loudly demand, “Whose hand is this?”

Eyes rivet. The owner of the offending hand shrinks beneath their stare. He tries to free himself. You ignore him.

You stand, legs wide, feet planted, gripping the stanchion like a spear, holding the conquered hand aloft, your face a mask, Athena with the Gorgon’s head.

The goddess speaks through your eyes, “Touch me not, for I am sacred.”

The chorus applauds. The train stops. The goddess steps back. You wake to your mortal self, startled at your commanding fierceness, your power.

You detach and glide through the doors, borne upward on air.

Transformed, you emerge from the underworld a hero, your patron at your shoulder. The crowd parts. No one touches you.