PEOPLE WATCHERS
by Jordan Nettles

I didn’t know Lexi.

I didn’t even know Lexi’s real name.

One of the only things I did know about Lexi is that she lived somewhere in Brooklyn, south from where I got on the subway. I also knew that she went through two packs of cigarettes and two packs of gum per day. She accidentally let that slip once.

“Hey, Paul,” she would say with a grin as I slid onto the orange-brown seat next to her.

My name isn’t Paul.

I first met Lexi in June, about a month after I moved to New York City. It was only my third time riding the subway alone, and thankfully it wasn’t crowded. My eyes were locked on the map pulled up on my phone, and I counted the stops nervously, hoping I wouldn’t end up lost somewhere in Manhattan. I couldn’t afford to be late for the first day of my new job. It was only an entry-level position at a small publishing house, but working with books was my dream.

“Hey. Buddy. You got a cigarette?” a girl across from me said.

I hadn’t had a real conversation with anyone other than my roommate since I’d gotten to the city. People in New York are unfriendly, and I knew I shouldn’t even bother. I fumbled, trying to remember how to make words reach my mouth.

“You’re not supposed to smoke on the subway,” I choked out awkwardly.

The girl had purple streaked dreadlocks and an angel pendant around her neck. She eyed me strangely through her thick, boy-wizard glasses. I felt uncomfortable but curious. I had never seen anyone like her.

“Whoa, I was wrong,” she said, turning away and closing the small blue notebook she was holding. “That doesn’t happen often.”

The conversation probably should have ended there, but I wasn’t city-hardened.

“Wrong about what?” I asked.

The girl raised her eyebrows. I shifted in my seat, not sure if she would answer.

“I thought you were a New Yorker,” she finally said. “But nobody local calls it the subway. We’re on the train, buddy.”

I nodded my head, feeling ignorant and naïve. I knew she must have been inwardly rolling her eyes. I was every other wide-eyed Midwesterner alone in a city I would never understand. I searched for a redeeming response that would make me sound intelligent and interesting. I settled for: “Right. The train. Thanks.”

She eyed me carefully and pulled out two sticks of spearmint gum. I stuck out my hand like Pavlov’s dog to accept one, but she unwrapped both and popped them in her mouth. I lifted my arm in the air, hoping she’d think I was stretching. Her forehead and nose crinkled slightly, but she didn’t call me out on the mistake. Thank God for that. The girl stopped looking at me and opened her notebook. She looked toward the other end of the train where a petite, well-dressed woman was nervously rapping her knuckles against her knees. The girl started sketching but angled the notebook out of my line of vision.  

“Her name is Connie,” the girl said nodding her head in the woman’s direction. “She has three kids and thinks she might be pregnant with a fourth. She’s lived in Brooklyn her whole life but still hates taking the trains. Especially when it’s going under the Hudson. Right now she’s headed to see her lover in the Upper East Side to let him know about the Baby Possibility.”

There was no way this girl knew “Connie,” but the woman’s eyes kept darting nervously out the window. Maybe she was terrified of something. And maybe I’d finally made a friend.

“What’s your name?” I asked the girl when the train screeched to a stop at my station.

“You can’t give out personal information to a stranger in New York City. Even you should know that . . . Paul.”

I opened my mouth to correct her, but the grin tugging at the corner of her mouth let me know that it wouldn’t matter. To her, I was Paul.  I nodded and hurried off the train, unable to stop thinking about . . .

Lexi. She looked like a Lexi.

“Hi, Lexi,” I said, grateful that we’d made it onto the same train that morning. We’d been running into each other for about two months, always struggling through the crowded subway to the seats closest to the conductor’s car. Sometimes our timing was off, but I could usually count on seeing her at least three times a week.

Most people would start with small talk and maybe catch each other up on the latest life events. She’d tell me about her six-year-old sister’s kindergarten graduation and I’d tell her about my Uncle Bruce’s bee farm. If I had an Uncle Bruce who owned a bee farm that is. But me and Lexi had our own set of rules for the socialization game.  

“That guy’s girlfriend just broke up with him. He tried to take her to a strip club for her birthday,” She pointed with her eyes at a young man about my age pushing his way onto the train.  A professional people watcher if there ever was one. Sometimes she still had to swat my hand away when I forgot that pointing fingers could lead to well-deserved glares, or worse. He was tall, thin, and didn’t seem like the confrontational type. I felt a connection to him.

“No way! That’s Ben. I think he’s headed to a comic book store,” I said. “You know, that huge one near Union Square?”

“Maybe so,” she said. “He looks like he could be a DC guy.”

I thought about the piles of Spider-Man comic books and Stan Lee poster I’d brought with me to New York.  

“I don’t know,” I said slowly. “I bet he prefers Marvel. More relatable.”

“Yeah, that works, too,” she said nodding. “I could see him wearing one of those shirts with Captain America’s shield on it.”

I smiled, thinking about my three Captain America shirts. Ben and I could be friends. I was sure of it. I imagined Ben, Lexi, and I taking trips to the comic book store and hanging out at a coffee shop afterwards. Lexi usually scrunched her nose when I brought my to-go coffee cup on the subway, but she could always order something else. We’d sit at our usual table and laugh. The tourists and regulars would never know that we’d already figured out their whole lives.

“He hates dogs,” Lexi said.

“Wait, what?” I said, slightly annoyed that she’d pulled me away from the hypothetical friendship.

“Yeah, Ben hates dogs,” she said shrugging. “He always has. His mom gave him a puppy when he was 10, and he ignored it until she finally gave it away.”

“Oh, right,” I said. I really didn’t want Ben to be a puppy-hater, but Lexi was looking at me expectantly. “Well, he hates tongues. He couldn’t get over the licking.”

Lexi let out a quick laugh and then covered her mouth so Ben wouldn’t notice.

“He hates dogs because . . . he doesn’t like tongues?” Lexi clarified.

“Honestly, I can’t imagine another reason to hate dogs,” I said shrugging. I thought about my four dogs at home. God I missed them.

“Well, obviously it’s the tongue thing,” Lexi said.

She reached into her bag for her notebook and started sketching.

“Ben isn’t such a bad guy though,” I said. “He loves animals that don’t lick as much as dogs, for one thing. He’s taken in five stray cats. He really cares about his little brother Jimmy. Ben takes him out to the neighborhood park whenever he can. Sometimes they’ll go get ice cream when Jimmy gets tired. They both try a new flavor every time and then decide which one is better…”

Lexi nodded her head as I talked but stayed absorbed in her notebook. I didn’t mind because I knew she was still listening. I tested it about two weeks after we met. She’d been drawing for almost 15 minutes so I told her that the little girl across from us was an alien. I explained that she’d come from Saturn a week ago and was headed to conduct a surveillance operation in Central Park. The teddy bear she was holding was actually her shrunken spaceship, which she carried around in case she needed to make an emergency departure.

“Aliens disguised as little girls cannot do surveillance while carrying around a miniaturized spacecraft, Paul. NYPD can detect equipment like that. Please take this seriously.” She never looked up from her notebook, and I never again wondered if she was paying attention.

As I talked about Ben I noticed the corners of her lips pulling into a slight smile. I didn’t stop talking until the train arrived at my station.

“See you soon, Paul,” Lexi said as I stepped onto the platform.

I waved as the train picked up speed and rushed into the tunnel. I wished I knew where she was going.

— 

I pulled off my heavy coat as I made my way onto the train. It was so crowded that I didn’t see Lexi at first. I maneuvered around a large man standing near the pole and found Lexi saving a seat for me.  I sat down quickly to keep the other passengers from getting annoyed.

“What do you think about him?” she nodded her head at the man I’d noticed when I’d gotten on the train.

“Well,” I said, tugging softly on my ear, “He’s a chef, no doubt. Look at that moustache. If anything says Italian chef, it’s a handlebar moustache.”

Lexi stared fixedly at the floor and nodded her head seriously, so I kept going:

“His name is Leo. He and his wife don’t have kids, but they volunteer at a local children’s shelter. He loves helping people almost as much as he loves mixing the perfect blend of spices in his spaghetti sauce.”

Lexi pulled her notebook out of the side pocket of her tie-dye bag and started flipping through it. I asked her once what she drew in it, but she told me that counted as personal information. Expecting her to start sketching furiously like she usually did, I glanced around the train looking for a passenger to ask Lexi about. She stopped me.

“I knew it! I’ve seen him before,” she said, shoving the notebook into my hands.

On the opened page, there was a sketch of a large man with a black handlebar mustache who looked identical to the man sitting near us. On the back of the portrait, she’d written: Italian chef. Big hearted. Large family. The date on the top left corner said April 15. She’d seen and drawn the exact same man a month before I’d moved to New York.

I turned and grinned at Lexi.

“Two out of three!” I said wrapping an arm around her. “That’s not bad at all. This drawing is incredible. You’re a really talented artist, Lexi.”

Lexi stared at me for a moment, stunned. She snatched the notebook back and shoved it into her bag. I’d crossed a line, but I had no idea what was on this side of it. I shouldn’t have commented on her art. I should have just nodded and said something like: “Wow, we’re such great people watchers.” But I was sick of not knowing anything about Lexi. I was sick of only having a friend for a 30-minute train ride three times a week. If I wanted to salvage things, I had to make my next words count.    

“What’s your favorite food?”

“Paul, that’s per-”

“My favorite is avocados,” I said.

“Avocados?” Her lips moved, but the rest of her body was rigid. She clenched her hands into tight fists.

“Of course,” I said, even though I wanted to explain to her why I loved avocados and how much having her as a kind-of-friend meant to me. But the train reached my station, and I didn’t have time.

“Wait, what’s yours?” I asked when I stepped onto the platform, but the doors closed before she could answer.

Three weeks went by, and I didn’t see Lexi. For awhile I searched for her frantically, switching cars at every stop, hoping to find her wedged between other passengers. I had no way to find her and I was terrified. I thought about asking around, but I already knew how that conversation would go. Excuse me sir, have you seen a girl with purple dreadlocks? She’s my only friend here. No, I don’t know where she lives. No, I don’t know her name. No, please don’t call the police. I promise I’m not a stalker.

Eventually, I stopped the frantic search. Lexi wasn’t going to be there, and her absence left a dull ache throughout my body. Even though I knew so little about her, I knew too much. I sat at our spot on the train and stared blankly out the window. When I realized there was nothing to see, I pulled out my phone and stared blankly at that instead.  I could have looked around the train and played our game. Better yet, I could have engaged someone in conversation. But what was the point in that.

A sheet of paper sticking out slightly from under the seat in front of me fluttered at the edge of my peripheral vision. The movement was so subtle, I was surprised I even noticed. I crossed the aisle and grabbed it, hoping that whatever ad or flyer it was would add excitement to the train rides that had gotten much duller without Lexi. It worked. My heart pounded in my chest as I examined the paper.

Staring in a mirror for any long amount of time, I always felt like my reflection was unfamiliar. Almost like a word that you repeat so often it loses its meaning.  But I knew that no matter how long I looked at the drawing – a drawing of my own face – it would never stop looking exactly like me. I recognized the style, even though I’d only seen it once before.

On the back of the page, underneath the date of my third solo train ride, were the words: New Yorker. Asshole. Unobservant. There was a line through each word, like she’d changed her mind. Underneath she’d written: From ???  Fun to be around. Obsession with Avocados.

I gripped the paper tighter when I spotted the note at the very bottom of the page:

Paul,
If you found this, I was 3 out of 3 wrong.
- Lexi

Underneath the note there was a phone number.

 

 


 

 

Jordan Nettles is  from Wesson, Mississippi and is currently a senior at the University of Southern Mississippi. She will graduate with a BA in English with minors in Public Relations and French. Her goal is to pursue a career in the publishing industry so she can work with books 24/7. Her work has most recently appeared only in Product 30, but she officially has the writing bug!