Red Nails on Wednesday

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I first saw her on the same 6 a.m. train I had taken into the city every day for two years. I heard her before I could see her. Labored breathing told me she was running to catch the doors before they closed. She was toting a black briefcase on her right arm and a gray handbag on her left. She was clearly under the impression she was running terribly late and had probably convinced herself she would miss the train.

She sat directly across from me, which I found odd. There were only two others in our car. She landed in a disheveled heap, and her lengthy brunette hair was everywhere: in her mouth, wrapped around the collar of her coat, in her eyes. She gave me a feeble smile and began sorting the things she was carrying onto the floor in front of her.

She was new, although to what I couldn’t quite tell. She was dressed professionally, though, and I made assumptions. New to the train, new to her job, new to the world.

That, as it turns out, would serve as our only introduction. Monday through Saturday she boards the 6 a.m. train and rides 23 minutes toward the city. She always gets on a stop after I do and leaves two stops before me. She reads thin paperbacks or listens to music on headphones turned so quietly I can’t hear it. As she creates a world for herself on the train car I stare at the beautiful mess in front of me and take notes.

Monday through Thursday her fingernails are manicured simply: pale pink with round white smiles at the end. Fridays and Saturdays she paints them deep red. She never pulls her hair out of her face, and puts on heaps of cherry-flavored Chap Stick. She likes to eat nacho cheese Doritos for breakfast, and I think that is disgusting. She never sucks the cheese powder off of her fingers, although I admit I sometimes wish she would. She owns two pairs of pumps — one pair of black leather and another in patent black. She reads books that were once forced upon me in school: To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, The Grapes of Wrath. I don’t find this incredibly cliché because it’s her.

Every day I think of at least three lines I would try on her if she didn’t scare the hell out of me. Most of them are pathetic, but I’ve fantasized about two that are almost endearing:

“Do you like Jane Austen?” (This was what I thought I might say to her when she was reading Persuasion, which was the week after she finished Pride and Prejudice.)

“Are you going to work?” (This seemed obvious, but I could tell she loved her job and I thought it might spark a sustainable conversation.)

Instead I stare at the left side of her face for 23 minutes, six days a week and wait for an act of God to cause this transit to break down leaving both of us stranded in the car until I knew everything I didn’t already know about her and she knew my name.

Today is no different. She walks in quickly and gives me a sweet smile, then sits in her usual seat. She looks cluttered and unkempt, her usual gorgeous. She pulls out a battered copy of Of Mice and Men, a book I read my freshman year of high school and one that I never particularly cared for. I see a flash of red as she puts her book in her lap.

I freeze when I see the red flash was her fingernail polish, and it occurs to me that today is Wednesday.

As a self-proclaimed expert, I know nothing else about her appearance is different. She hasn’t put on more makeup or made any visible attempt to tame her hair. She isn’t smiling more than usual or reading a book for adults or even eating an appropriate breakfast, I notice, as she pulls a noisy sack of Doritos out of her purse.

But today is Wednesday, and she’s painted her fingernails red. And there is something different about her face. She isn’t smiling, not exactly, but something about her manner tells me that if she found it appropriate she would. As I watch her read her book, I notice she grins every few minutes. My experience with John Steinbeck tells me she isn’t laughing at the content of the novel.

I continue like this until we reach her stop. Every time she smiles I deflate, and suddenly I know why. As she gathers her things and exits the train car, I collapse into my seat because I have failed. And where I have failed, another has not.

I’m sure he’s handsome and smart. I’m sure he wasn’t afraid to ask her if she liked Jane Austen or where she works. She is going to go out tonight with him, and her fingernails will be painted red and she will have a wonderful time. She might even fall in love with him, but not on the first date because I don’t think she’d be the kind to buy into love at first sight. This is ironic, considering I’ve loved her since she first got onto my 6 a.m.

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