Stranger of the Week

L train, Below the East River

Illustration by Forsyth Harmon

A large and shallow, buttercup-yellow box, wider than a pizza box, bearing, in neat black letters along one side, the words “KERRI MEMORIES.” This was your lap’s cargo, as you rode the eastbound L train to Brooklyn on a Monday evening. Where were you taking them? To Kerri? Would she want them? It was egregious, this big bright box. It would have been better if the box were gray or black. Then I might not even have noticed you, with your sad eyes and plump moustache and belly — a man of divorceable age.

The sunshine color seemed so cruel, a kind of travesty of sadness, and I thought this even before I noted, with a misplaced guilt, that it was the same color as my wedding dress. While there, resting vast in your arms, were what I thought must be manifestations of your maybe-ex-wife. Letters from Kerri, photographs of Kerri, ticket stubs and trinkets. All the pocket-softened vestiges of you and Kerri, Kerri and you. I will never know who Kerri is, and you will never not-know.

I looked away. A quick, ridiculous vision: everyone in New York going about the city carrying an unwieldy box in a pretty color, labelled with the name of their foremost pain. Decreed by bland, bluff de Blasio — himself a box-faced sort of guy. One box per person, to be carried at all times. Shades of lavender and rose and mint green, like macarons or lingerie. Women setting them neatly in their laps to eat a glum sandwich on a park bench. Men slung against a subway pole, hoiking them up under their arms with a mild glance down at the label, as if they didn’t know what it said, as if it weren’t the one thing they couldn’t forget.

I was sitting next to you, compacted, and it didn’t feel right that someone should be thinking all this of you, or that you and your Kerri memories should be right there visible at my left knee. My companion, standing at the rail in front of me, swaying a bit as we hurtled beneath the East River, texted me a zoomed-in photograph of your label. I texted back “:(“ , then I looked up and we each made a small sadface, a real one, to each other.

A moment later, it was show time — a river crossing’s worth of circus — and you whipped out your phone and began filming, leaning forward over KERRI MEMORIES so as to get a better shot of the guys spinning their bodies with all that extraordinary every-day athleticism. I watched them in miniature on your screen and wondered what you were going to do with this video. Where does any of it go— the big yellow boxes and the digital files.

When the dancers finished you didn’t stop filming. Instead you wheeled your phone steadily, fingers and thumbs in a taut frame around its corners, to the smiles and relenting applause of the people opposite. You looked dogged as you filmed them, as though this were a military maneuver, as though, in some way, you felt it to be a thing on which your life depended.