I look good. I like to make an effort when I go to the ballet. Some people turn up in jeans, track suits, even school uniforms. I always wear a dress. At the moment, it’s concealed underneath a knee-length black overcoat. I’m also wearing knee-high black boots in deference to the cold. It’s a nightmare driving to and parking in the city so I usually take the train but it’s winter and the platform is chilly.
I duck into the partially enclosed seating area but it isn’t any warmer. The breeze whistles through unintentionally but perfectly created wind tunnels and ruffles my hair. I hate the wind more than any other kind of weather. For rain, I have an umbrella. For sun, I have hats. For heat, I have loose, barely-there clothing. For cold, I have jackets – like the one I have on now – and scarves and gloves. There is nothing for the wind but staying inside. But I have to go out to get to the ballet. So instead I have a hairbrush in my bag to repair later the damage it is doing now.
He sits down next to me before I even realise he is there. “Hello.”
“Hello,” I say in response before I can stop myself. I am polite to the point of ridiculousness. I once thanked a dentist, through my swollen jaw, for extracting a wisdom tooth.
He rubs his eyes before he speaks again. “I fell asleep on the train.”
He has an accent but not an undecipherable one. He’s dressed in dark pants and a dark shirt that match his dark skin but he isn’t wearing anything that will keep out the deep cold. I wonder if he’s homeless. If I were homeless, I’d ride the public transport system to keep warm.
“Don’t you have anywhere to go? To sleep safely?” I ask. He laughs quietly.
“Yes. But I missed my stop because I was asleep.” He names the stop and it’s in a respectable suburb.
“Oh!” I laugh at my mistake but I’m relieved at the same time. I understand that there are all sorts of homeless people but I don’t think I have anything in common with any of them. I am strong. I am independent. I don’t allow myself to get into situations that would result in my own homelessness. And if worst came to worst, I have a large extended family, any member of which would offer me a bed for however many nights I needed it.
“I’m Harry.” He offers me his hand and I shake it after looking at it for the briefest of moments.
I offer my own name in return.
“You look nice,” Harry says.
“Thanks,” I respond but there’s something about the way he says it that makes me wary. “I’m going to the ballet with my cousin.” He nods his head but I can tell he’s not interested in ballet.
The train arrives and we both stand. When it comes to a complete stop, I press the button to open the door and it slides apart electronically. I step into the carriage and it’s virtually empty. At the other end, a tradie gets on. He must have been standing on the platform as well but I didn’t notice him.
There’s safety in numbers, I think, and sit across the aisle from the tradie. He has curly orange hair and he’s wearing khaki shorts and heavy work boots. I sit next to the window so I can look out of it and ignore what goes on in the carriage. Harry sits down opposite and adjacent to me, his legs splaying and stretching so that I can’t get past without asking him to move. I look over at the tradie but he’s looking away from us.
“I’m from Punjab,” Harry says to me. “Do you know where that is?”
“India?” I guess.
“Pakistan. I’ve been here for two months. I’m studying accounting.”
I nod my head to acknowledge the information but I don’t want to encourage him to share anything else. He’s too interested, especially given my reticence. It must not be obvious. I need to be more obviously reticent. But it conflicts with my natural instinct to be polite. I stare out the window instead.
“Would you like to go somewhere for coffee?” he asks, drawing my gaze back to him.
“I can’t. I’m going to the ballet,” I remind him.
“What about later?” He’s clearly not going to let this go.
“How old are you?” I ask.
“I’m thirty-seven. Don’t you think you should… have coffee with girls your own age?”
“You’re so beautiful,” he says but it’s not a counter to my argument, it’s merely evidence he is choosing not to listen to what I am saying.
I pull out my mobile and text a quick message to my cousin: Guy on the train won’t leave me alone.
She texts back: Tell him to piss off.
But she knows I won’t. She knows I’m too well-mannered.
I text again: It’s okay. There’s another guy here in case. See you soon. I don’t elaborate on what “in case” means.
As soon as I put the phone away, Harry asks, “Can I have your number?”
I’m not very good at this but my friend Samantha coached me once after a religious fanatic masquerading as a Red Cross volunteer where I was donating blood asked me to attend his church and made me write down my number for him.
“I don’t think my boyfriend would be too happy if I gave you my number.” I don’t have a boyfriend.
“What’s his name?”
“Alex.” I don’t know anyone named Alex.
“How long have you been together?”
“Nine years.” I’ve never had a relationship last longer than it takes to make cheese.
“Are you going to get married?”
“No.” It’s hard to marry your fictional boyfriend.
“I have no interest in getting married.” Finally, the truth. It rolls off my tongue so much easier than the lies but I hope Harry can’t tell the difference.
He shuffles in his seat and adjusts his clothing as though he’s trying to get comfortable and I look out the window again. It’s completely dark outside and very well lit in the carriage so I can barely see anything. I’m not good at staring unseeingly. I’m an observer. I observe things. When there’s nothing to observe, I can’t just pretend. I’m bad at pretending.
Harry’s hands are moving in his lap and with nothing outside or even inside the carriage to keep me looking away, my eyes flick to the movement. He’s not adjusting his clothing, he’s adjusting himself. He’s not even trying to be discreet about it. His penis is semi-erect and he is moving it around underneath the fabric of his dark pants. Not enough so that he comes. Just enough so that he is enjoying this as much as I am hating it. I look away again.
“You’re so beautiful,” he says again, leaning over towards me. “Your lips are so pink.”
I want to shout at him but I don’t seem to be able to control my reactions. Instead, I laugh in disbelief and cover my face with both hands, cover my pink lips, cover the sticky lip gloss that I applied so carefully in the bathroom at home an hour before without ever thinking that this would be the result. But it’s no more than a few seconds before I know what I want to say and am able to say it.
“You are making me very uncomfortable.”
He just looks at me. His erection is still evident. He is still touching himself.
“Piss off, mate. She’s not interested.” Harry and I both look over and the tradie I deliberately sat near for precisely this reason and this moment – not really thinking it would be necessary, hoping it wouldn’t be necessary – is looking back at us but mostly at Harry. The tradie is closer to my age and looks like the kind of man who would drink beer, drive a truck and pick fights, although there aren’t any tattoos. I sort of wish there were.
But his intervention is enough. The tradie doesn’t look away, doesn’t move, doesn’t do anything but stare until Harry jumps up, backs away and heads for the nearest exit, alighting one station earlier than the one he told me he was heading for.
I’m not relieved, I’m ashamed. I don’t want to be saved. I don’t want to have to be saved. I don’t want to be in situations like this in the first place.
“Thank you.” I say it anyway because the tradie deserves it. In a line up to choose the bad guy, between Harry and the tradie, I would have chosen the tradie. I’m so bad at judgements based on first impressions.
“He just wouldn’t leave me alone.” I feel like I have to explain myself.
“I don’t know how not to be nice to strangers, even those who don’t end up deserving it. I shouldn’t even be talking to you.”
“Probably not,” he agrees. He seems to be a man of few words. He gets up a few stops later and asks before he heads off, “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes.” I nod my head. “Thank you again.”
I get to the city and meet my cousin, telling her what has happened. I sit through a ballet that I don’t remember afterwards. My cousin, who drives everywhere, drives me home, refusing to let me take the train and I let her refuse to let me.
Days later, I tell my mother what happened and she buys me an engagement ring, a big one with a knuckleduster fake diamond, to help sell the lie of the fake boyfriend. I guess he’s now my fake fiancé. The trains aren’t the same. The ballet isn’t the same. I am not the same anymore.