There were less intimate places available, so it was odd when a woman took the seat directly facing mine across the subway aisle. I looked up from my book and right back down: a couple of months before, we’d gone home together. She had a Southern accent and a boy’s name she swore was given. Bobby. Probably spelled Bobbie or Bobbi but she didn’t say “Bobbi with an i,” which I thought cool of her. Good sex, great chemistry, and I promised but then failed to text; encountering her on the subway might have been awkward even if I weren’t reading What Were You Expecting?: A New Manual for New Parents by Drs. Laurie and Lawrence Shriver. No point hiding the cover now. Bobbi had seen it before she sat down—that much was clear when we made eye contact. She chose the seat to shame me.
The train stopped and neither of us got off. I tried to continue reading. I’d been pretending to read since noticing Bobbi, but now I made myself concentrate. Did you know that fetuses float in their own pee? That’s what my book said: After twenty weeks, the amniotic fluid is mostly urine. It had the feel of a fact everyone knew, like the Earl of Sandwich or you eat bugs in your sleep, but I hadn’t known unless I’d forgotten.
I looked up to thank the woman beaming down at me. She was in her sixties and visibly rich: boring expensive clothes, tasteful plastic surgery, perfectly dyed hair—I believe she was actually wearing a tennis bracelet. I’m white and conventionally attractive but I have the word leg tattooed on my neck, so prim older women rarely go out of their way to talk to me. This one said, “When are you due?”
Bobbi was staring at me as hard as she could. I added five months. “December twenty-third.”
“Almost a Christmas baby!” The rich woman smiled. She had warm, crinkly eyes. Maybe I was wrong about the plastic surgery. I didn’t know much about plastic surgery. “My daughter has a three-year-old. I think she’s pregnant again, but they haven’t said anything. Fingers crossed.” She crossed her fingers.
This conversation wasn’t going my way. Bobbi remained fixated; I needed the rich woman to ask me the usual question—was it my first?—so I could say something semi-exculpatory like yes it was and quite the surprise actually. I figured Bobbi wouldn’t believe volunteered information.
“I don’t want to jinx it,” the woman clarified, in case I didn’t know the meaning of “Fingers crossed” or crossed fingers.
“I’m sure you can’t jinx it.”
“I’m sure I can’t either.” She bunched up her nose again. It was a fake smile, minimal correspondence to what she was feeling, but a good fake smile, the kind that makes you return a real one. After a long pause, during which our smiles faded and I tried to make peace with the possibility of returning to my book before I’d planted enough doubt in Bobbi’s mind to discourage dire behavior like finding my wife on the internet and ruining my life, the rich woman came through. “Are you nervous?”
I actually jumped a little. My ass came fully off the seat. “I am nervous, yeah. It was totally unexpect—”
“My son-in-law was terrrrified. He’s a musician. He was terrified, but he absolutely adores my granddaughter. She’s the best thing that ever happened to him. You’ll see.” The woman did her smile again.
It had lost its charm. She was an asshole for interrupting me and worse than an asshole for using my life to have a little moment for herself. She’d probably want to touch my wife’s belly if it were here. Five strangers had done that already. Five different people on five different occasions had walked up to my wife and put their hands on her belly. Three of them didn’t even say anything. You hear about this happening, but I’d thought it must not happen often. Five times! Never when I was with her, always when she was alone. Pretty messed up.
“Becoming a parent changes you,” the rich woman went on, feeling her oats. “I know everyone says that, and why wouldn’t it? But my son-in-law … You should have known him!” Clutching my arm, she laughed, then grew serious. “It will change you. I know it will, because I know people.”
She knew people.
“There is one thing that makes me nervous.” I held up What Were You Expecting? “In this book it says women lose control of their bowels while giving birth. Is that true in your experience?”
She dropped my arm. I thought she might hit me, but Bobbi beat her to it. Lunging across the aisle as the train lurched into a station, she caught my cheekbone with the heel of her palm, which made the slap harder than it was loud. Perhaps to compensate for this deficit, she added, “I knew you were a horrible person, Tad.” The way she said it, she wanted me to understand that she’d drawn the conclusion when we’d hooked up, not after I’d failed to contact her. Really she’d been sweet on me. But people revise history to feel less like a mark, that’s normal.
Anyway, huge silence after the slap, the other passengers holding their breath. Overwhelmed with voyeuristic pleasure, they squirmed for release. Bobbi rose to the occasion. Dialing up her accent and softening her voice, she shepherded the rich woman off the train, scowling back at me to discourage pursuit, as though I might want to extend our interaction.
Was that even the old woman’s stop?