The New York City subway car -- that great metropolitan equalizer -- accepted its riders grudgingly. Faces were indistinct, features blurred, but no doubt the crowd included convicted felons, a couple of lawyers, an actor racing to an audition, perhaps a murderer or two, a young mother with a howling toddler, all packed into a graffiti-covered tin car.
And into this cocktail of humanity was tossed Julie Gaffney, all-around nice girl, the sort of person who pays her bills on time and never misses a dental appointment.
She did not blend in with the other passengers.
Julie Gaffney stood out like the proverbial sore thumb, with her fresh-faced good looks, her crisply ironed blouse, and her pleasant expression. It was the pleasant expression above all else that made her so incongruous on a Thursday evening at rush hour, that set her apart from the other commuters on an unseasonably hot spring day, the tail end of an early heat wave.
The other passengers stood as one blank-eyed entity, briefcases carving a path past the lucky ones already grasping a coveted pole, Macy's and Lord & Taylor shopping bags scratching arms and hands and occasionally faces with remorseless pointy paper edges.
Julie Gaffney entered, her own briefcase poised before her like a lance in a commuting joust.
"Brooklyn bound F train," droned a crackly speaker, words pouring forth only as alternate syllables. "Next stop, Forty-second."
The announcement was indecipherable to the unlucky riders who actually needed the information. It sounded like a muzzy horn blast with inflections, the grown-up voices in a Charlie Brown cartoon. Only those with an attuned ear, who already knew what was going to be said, could distinguish the words with any degree of accuracy.
"Does this go to Queens?" a middle-aged woman clutching a map shouted, panic rising in her voice.
"No," Julie said, and immediately the other riders shot her curious stares. There is an unspoken rule on the subway: do not react. Not to the one-armed beggar, not to the man selling yo-yos, or the guy with the paper bag on his head claiming to be an alien. Do not react to anyone. With defiance that could only be described as pleasant, Julie continued speaking to the woman. "You need to go upstairs and switch to the other track -- the uptown local. There'll be plenty of signs."
The woman eyed Julie, as if appraising her worth and the potential value of her information. She was enough of a subway rider to know the response was highly unusual. What she saw was a young woman in her late twenties, with blue-green eyes and shoulder-length blond hair streaked by the sun, and a face that combined warmth and beauty in equal measures.
"You sure?" The woman took in Julie's clothes, the pinstripe suit made feminine by a lace blouse and a fanciful gold scroll pin on the lapel.
Julie nodded, and just as the doors began to close, the woman wiggled through the crowd and left the train, adding over her shoulder, "Thanks. You're a very pleasant young lady."
All eyes returned to where they had been, to folded papers or mystery novels or, most common, to the nothingness just above the heads of the other riders.
Julie sighed. During the journey back to her Chelsea apartment, she was free to pause and imagine what life would be like if she weren't in the middle of a crisis at work. Not that every week didn't bring a new set of crises in the advertising business. It was the nature of the industry to operate in a state of high panic.
And it was an industry that Julie had somehow managed to conquer. For in spite of her gentle disposition, she was one of the youngest senior executives inthe city, and certainly the only woman in that position. While the rapid promotions had given her pleasure, the large office, and a spacious apartment, there was something missing. That something, whatever it was, seemed to touch every small joy she experienced, whispering, Yes, your life is good. But there should be more, so much more.
The subway rattled to a halt at each station, letting more passengers on as a few struggled to squeeze off.
She smiled at the young mother with the howling toddler. The young mother clutched the toddler protectively, pulling the child against her thigh as if Julie's smile had been a ransom note.
And then he slipped in, the old blind man with the accordion, just as the doors closed.
No one paid attention. No one cared on this crowded Thursday evening. Everyone just wanted to get home and to forget all about work and the subway and old blind men with accordions.
He was a regular on the F line, his short, squat body braced for the jolts and turns. Julie smiled and began reaching into her purse for some change. She always gave him change, the old blind man with the accordion and the misbuttoned shirt with a sleeveless T-shirt showing through the transparent fabric. He buffed his palms on his trousers, the accordion hanging loosely about his neck for a moment, and then he began.
There were a few groans as he launched into a song. His selection was not varied, but on the other hand, it was consistent. On most days, he played spirited versions of "Lady of Spain" and "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."
Today he played something different.
It took Julie a moment to realize what the lovely song was, slow and deliberate. And when she identified it in her own mind, her vision misted with unexpected tears.
The blind man with the accordion was playing "If Ever I Would Leave You" from the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot.
In her mind, she played the words along with the tune, the beautiful lyrics of love and longing.
Julie was aware that a few people were staring at her with curiosity, but she couldn't help being moved by the music. The song was so captivating that suddenly she wasn't on a crowded subway but in a field of flowers with a dashing knight who was promising, in his roundabout or perhaps direct way, that he would never, ever leave her. She swallowed as the song continued, and she sniffed softly, pressing her lips together to prevent any sound from escaping.
She recalled her dream then. It was the same one she always had, sometimes while she was wide awake, sometimes in the middle of a sound sleep. There was a woman, beautiful and mysterious, emerging from a mist. Her hair was shot with gold, her gown was an emerald green, and her every movement was graceful as a dancer's.
The woman stopped then, her motionlessness all the more obvious because of the continuous swirling of the mist, twirling and hovering about the hem of the gown. She reached down and picked something up. Julie could never see what the object was, for before the haze cleared, a hand, large and strong, took it away. And the woman smiled warmly.
That was always the end of the dream, and the music and the fantasy mingled and curled together so she could not tell where one ended and the other began.
Closing her eyes, she swayed with the music and with the rhythm of the train and with the mist in her mind. And then, all too soon, the music ended. Once again, she was in a subway car filled with strangers, on her way home to an empty apartment.
The blind man walked the length of the car, nodding wordless thanks as coins were tossed into his coffee can. Julie slipped a five-dollar bill into the can, and he nodded, just the way he nodded at everyone else who had given him a dime or a nickel. He left for the car up ahead, and as the train pulled into the next stop, she could hear the vague strains of "Raindrops" through the scuffed metal door.
Yet she couldn't get the song from Camelot out of her mind. It put her in a strange, dreamy mood, even as she got out at her station and mechanically stopped at the grocery store for dinner.
Was it possible for anyone to be so in love that they could promise -- absolutely and without a doubt -- they would never leave? Could romance really last forever?
Standing in the checkout line, she scanned the headlines of the tabloids, about the divorcing stars whose weddings had been reported so breathlessly in the same publications less than a year before, and Julie concluded that perfect love probably was not possible. Her own track record was evidence enough of the transitory nature of modern romance. Nothing lasted anymore. Nothing was permanent.
It was a man's voice behind her, and she immediately knew who it was. Forcing a smile, she turned to face him.
"Orrin, how have you been?"
"Great, just great!" He twitched his nose, a peculiar habit he had displayed with alarming frequency during their one and only date. "And you? I've left a few messages on your machine, you know. Thought we could get together."
"Oh, yes. Well. I've been so crazed at work, Orrin. I mean, it's really nuts there."
"Yeah, I bet. You work at a travel agency, right?"
"No. Advertising. I work at an advertising agency.
"Yeah, whatever." His nose twitched.
"Well, I'd better get going." She clutched her grocery basket and gestured toward the line.
"Yeah. Did I tell you that I've got a big gig coming up next week?"
"How wonderful. Where are you playing?"
"Over at the Cockadoodle Lounge, right after karaoke night Tuesday. I'll be going solo, singing original songs, that sort of thing. More of a concert than a gig, in actuality."
It crossed her mind to ask how he was going to sing and play the French horn at the same time, but she did not really want to know the answer.
"Hope you can make it, Julie." As an afterthought, he added, "It's also nickel beer night. They serve it in plastic cups, and you have to use the same cup over and over again, but it's still a bargain. No cover or anything."
"Great. I'll try to make it, Orrin. Thank you."
"Thanks. And Julie?"
"Sorry about the other night."
Julie wasn't sure what he meant. Their one date had been three weeks earlier. In the course of the evening, he had pulled off his shoes and socks to apply foot powder in the middle of a sushi restaurant, requested that she "get really drunk" so she would loosen up, gargled with a gelatin dessert, and engaged in a bit of road-rage banter with a motorcyclist on Hudson Street.
"Oh, no problem," Julie said brightly. "And good luck with the gig."
"It's a concert, in actuality," Orrin corrected.
Finally, he waved and left.
Julie took one last glance at the tabloids. No, she had her answer. Real romance, the kind she had always dreamed of, was simply not possible in this world. And as she placed the bananas and frozen dinners and salad bar containers on the conveyer belt, she wondered, with more than a little sadness, had perfect romance ever been possible?
The red light was flashing furiously on her answering machine. As she set her groceries on the floor, her desire to hear the messages overcoming a desire to rescue the rapidly melting frozen dinners, she punched the play button.
The first message was from her aunt Tessie in Ohio, reminding her that Aunt Fran in Indiana had a birthday coming up, and a card would be most welcome. Julie nodded at the machine, as if answering, Yes, yes, I know. She had already mailed the card that afternoon, as Aunt Tessie most certainly would have guessed. Tessie simply wanted to hear about Julie's social life, the glamorous New York niece living an oh-so-glamorous existence in the city. Not that Julie had ever uttered a single word to reinforce the notion of such a life. That was not necessary -- Aunts Tessie and Fran had already filled in the blanks on their own. And they had indeed created a wondrous life for their niece.
Sweet as the women were, it was sometimes difficult for her to bear their well-intentioned ministrations, their constant concern for their orphaned great-niece. Every time Julie felt she was doing well on her own, she would receive a telephone call or a doily-embossed card that did nothing but remind her that she was alone in the city.
The next message was from someone named Dale, a friend-of-a-friend who wanted to ask her about the advertising business. His voice faded in and out, some sort of static on his phone when he called, she assumed. Perhaps he had called on a car phone. In any case, he asked if they could have brunch that weekend, his treat. Oh, and his girlfriend would be there, too.
She was unable to suppress a slight giggle. Why did men always seem to operate under the unshakable conviction that every unmarried woman will fall at their feet in a swoon unless they are fairly warned about a preexisting girlfriend or fianceée or wife?
The third message was from a college friend who gleefully announced her engagement and wanted to know if Julie could be a bridesmaid. Of course she would. And once again, another synthetic gown in some godawful pastel shade and design guaranteed to make the bridesmaids look perfectly ghastly would join the others in the back of her closet. This would make nine such gowns and nine such matching shoes and nine such frilly barrettes and...
Another voice drifted out from the machine. It was layered over her friend's message, and through the excited babble, a man was saying something. At first, she wondered if it was her friend's fianceée, perhaps in the background or on another extension of the telephone. But the male voice seemed to be coming from someplace else, someplace distant.
Her friend signed off, and during the slight pause before the answering machine clicked, she could finally hear the words the man was saying.
In an anguished tone, he said simply, "Help me."
Copyright © 1998 by Judith O'Brien