We’re walking down the middle of a residential street, he and I, talking about some film adaptation of a book we both loved, the movie not so much, and it’s that pepto sky of a Chicagoland dusk. The competing streetlights on either side of us are moving our shadows as we cross them, this way and that, so our shadows keep touching even though we’re not.
We’ve been friends long enough where the discussion of plot can segue into analysis of our respective childhoods, our parents, where we came from and where we think we might be going. We’re both in college still, commuting to the city on weekdays, taking the el together and drifting away on our separate stops before meeting back on the train again after class.
We’ve got the routine down. I get on first, and there’s a few stops before I see him. I watch the circulatory system of the el as it breathes in new passengers and exhales others, the heartburn of the body around it: tunnel flashing in fits and starts from steel on steel. I think of contact. Of contact with him. I blink and it’s gone. I think of the midnight screenings, the Rocky Horror dress-ups on Saturday nights (whatever happened to them?), the couch screenings of cult classics like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Velvet Goldmine. After those films are over, we don’t bring the plot analysis into self analysis, even though I want to, even though I want to tell my best friend that I think I might be bi.
Then it’s his stop, and he’s asking how my day was, and I’m saying something, agreeing that I’m tired. There’s the intrusive thought that if I don’t tell him now, I’ll never work up the courage again. There’s watching Division come and go, then crossing over and into the light as the train takes us higher. There’s not knowing what to say, looking down instead, at the dirty train floor, where our sloughed-off backpacks are now mingling, touching, converging. He asks if I’ve had a long day and I say yeah.
After that, it’s people watching and listening to one half of phone conversations. Anticipating what the other person might be saying. He pulls out his notebook next to me and starts penning in possible dialogue, hands the pen over for me to continue. I make him laugh with a couple of my lines, and it’s that stifled, don’t-let-them-know-I’m-laughing thing. An intrusive thought, but just a word this time. Cute.
I hand the pen back to him, nod over to a different phone-talker. Far enough away where we can’t hear what she’s saying. What could it be? Our knees graze, my right to his left, every time the train jostles on the tracks, which is often, and I can’t believe I’m getting excited about knees.
He writes the phone-talker’s dialogue, something about a jilted lover, I don’t really take the time to read it like I should, to look for the subtext he’s hidden, because there’s always something else beneath the line with him. Most of the time I’m trying to figure out what he was trying to say without saying. He always leads the verbal dance.
There’s the sway of light as the train takes turns above the city, dust motes hanging in the air between us, and beyond that a transit map that hasn’t been snatched and put up on a dorm room wall just yet. A pre-recorded voice is announcing our stop next, reminding that doors open on the left at said stop. He hands me the pen and asks me what happens next. He’s still got the notebook on his knees, and I lean in close so I can write on it where it is. I think of the possible subtext. All the ways to hint at what’s on this person’s mind, what they want to say but can’t.
But you know what? Sometimes, fuck subtext. Sometimes you just need to come out and say something. I put my pen to his page as the train makes its slow approach to our stop. I scribble something just for him.