Trainspotting is a new fiction series focusing on imagined accounts of real patrons of the New York City subway. Kayleigh Roberts is on her journalism residency in New York, and the stories are based on her experiences people watching/daydreaming on the train.
By the time Mila Swanson gets on the train, she is crying again. She told herself she wouldn’t, but she’s never been great at keeping promises. She has passed this trait on to her children.
She stumbles off the platform and onto the train — she’s bulkier and stiffer than she once was and things she used to take for granted now take increasingly more effort to accomplish. She is wearing her fur coat because she is from a generation that believes this to be a sign of wealth and status. Her frumpy stockings and clunky shoes give her away though. She is not wealthy. She is not poor. She is comfortable, but not always. She grasps the nearest pole for balance and steadies herself. Without the effort of not falling to distract her, the tears come.
Mila turned 60 yesterday. She looks forward to birthdays — not just hers, but her children’s, too. Luke will be 30 on April 12, Margot will be 36 on October 27. On birthdays, they meet at their old favorite restaurant — the Italian place in Midtown — and they see a Broadway show. What makes this celebration special is that it is never discussed in advance, always just assumed. Because of this, it feels spontaneous.
Last night, she was excited. It is Sunday so there is nothing to distract her from the celebration that’s to come. She hasn’t seen her children since Christmas and her birthday can’t come soon enough. She is ready hours before it’s time to meet — always at 6 p.m. sharp so there’s plenty of time to loiter and talk before the 8 p.m. show. She wonders which show they’ve selected this year. Last year it was Wicked; before that, Phantom. Soon she will have an excuse to call Margot — to begin planning Luke’s surprise.
By 4:30, she can’t wait any longer. She leaves home, totally content to walk around Times Square until 6 — she might even run into Margot and Luke. Yes, they might be early too, just as restless and unable to wait. She might even being doing them a favor. Obviously if they’re early too — walking around like she will be — it’s because they’re too embarrassed to call, too afraid to break the rule and mention the event, to plan. But if she just happens to show up early as well, then that’s just a coincidence –- no, fate. A psychic connection, the bond between a mother and her children, even all these years later.
The more she thinks about it, the more sense it makes. She is feeling this urge because they are feeling this urge. She is sure of it. She will let her heart lead her; their love will connect them. She practically sprints to the train – as fast as a 60-year-old woman in her best pair of heels can sprint on icy sidewalks, anyway. She snags a seat on the subway. Yes, today is a good day and it’s only going to get better. She had her hair done this morning just for the occasion, the red is brighter than it naturally should be at her age and the thin hairs have been teased out and curled. She’s wearing more make-up than she usually does and she’s wearing her good fur coat over her purple dress (the one she wore to Margot’s wedding). She feels pretty for the first time in a decade. She can hear the compliments already.
“Oh, Mom! You look fantastic!”
“Happy birthday, Mom! You’re wearing the dress! I love when you wear that dress –- it still looks great on you!”
She’s so lost in her thoughts she almost misses her stop.
“This is 42nd Street, Times Square! Next stop 34th Street!”
She stumbles off of the train and up to the street. She pauses, focusing on her heart and where it’s telling her to go. It knows where her children are, she’s sure of it. All she has to do it feel it and go. She walks down Broadway. Then she’s on 7th Avenue. Then she’s on 45th. She’s bumping past tourists and tripping on curbs and she can’t find them anywhere. Before she knows it, it’s a quarter to six and she heads to the restaurant to meet them. Clearly, tradition was not meant to be tampered with and she was meant to wait until six to see them.
She gets to the restaurant minutes before six and asks for a table for three.
“My son and daughter are meeting me here for my birthday,” she explains to the waiter.
“Well, happy birthday, ma’am,” he smiles and leads her to a small table in the back with a clear view of the front door.
At 6:30, he returns. He’s been hovering and checking on her for about twenty minutes and now he’s decided to speak up.
“Would you like to order without them, ma’am?”
“No, no. They’re on their way. Just running late.”
He nods and leaves her.
At ten o’clock, the wait staff are sweeping around her feet. She hasn’t ordered anything and she hasn’t even left the table to use the restroom for fear of missing Margot and Luke’s arrival. The waiter who seated her starts to come over to her table, but she shakes her head at him, gathers her things and leaves. She stops at a hot dog cart on her way back to the subway and eats her birthday dinner as she walks. On the subway home, she can’t find a seat and none of the young men seated near her offers her one, so she grips the bar and struggles for balance the entire trip home. When she gets in, it’s almost eleven and she doesn’t even change out of her dress before collapsing into bed.
On the subway the next morning, she’s standing again and she doesn’t feel she has the strength. “Excuse me, could I sit?” she says as she makes for a seat that has just opened up. Her request falls on deaf ears though as a 30-year-old man in a sharp suit takes the seat and opens his copy of the Times. She retreats slightly and grips the pole again as the tears slide down her cheek, creating grooves in the day-old foundation that is caking on her face.
She is tired and wants to sit so badly. She is tired of not being heard, not being seen, not being remembered. She feels a surge of gumption and straightens up, ready to say to the rude man with the newspaper that it’s impolite to steal subway seats from tired old women. She is ready to say this, to be heard, when she reads the front page of his newspaper. The lead story is about some catastrophe or another, but that’s not what has grabbed her attention. What has stopped her moment of bravery short is the date.
Her birthday is today.