Train Spotting 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.

    There are some people whose genders are indeterminable. At least, there are those whose gender is indeterminable using the polite method, in which one just knows by looking “that is a man” or “that is a woman” or even “that is a man dressed as a woman.” We humans, we like to be mysterious. We like people to look at us and wonder, but we want them to wonder things like “Where did she get that beautiful scarf?” and possibly, “Wow, is that bulge in his pants what I think it is?”

    “Hmm…man or woman? I don’t know,” is not one of these things.

    But this is one of those people. This person is large and round, short for a man, but bearing on the tall side of average for a woman. He or she has an angry face – pissed off and outwardly and openly judging everyone it meets. This person wears a heavy camo coat, the kind you would buy at an army surplus store, and a black knit toboggan that doesn’t quite fit the circumference of his or her large, bald head.

    Yes, even bald, this person’s gender is impossible to guess because it’s not exactly the natural, gradual kind of bald that men tend to get. It’s not a full baldness, either; it’s that almost-baldness that still qualifies as “bald,” when the hairs are faint and thin and cut impossibly short because allowing them to grow would create a sadder look still. The face looks like Mickey Rooney circa the early 2000s, but more effeminate. He or she is not only rotund but lumpy to boot. It’s hard to determine, however, if these lumps are of the Fergie variety or merely mounds of fat squeezed too tightly into the clothing hidden beneath the camo coat.

    If you asked this person for a name, you would have to follow up with an interested, “Oh I love that name, how do you spell it?” Because “J-e-a-n” would suggest woman and “G-e-n-e” would lead one to confidently proceed under the assumption of man. Unfortunately, Katie (who is definitely an eight-year-old girl) did not ask for a spelling. She didn’t even ask for a name. Katie chose a more direct path to the same answer.

    “Excuse me, are you a boy or a girl?”

    The response Katie received didn’t do much to answer her question.

    Jean/Gene growled at her.

    Yes, Jean/Gene is the kind of person who growls at small children. This wasn’t a ferocious, loud lion-like roar, but a guttural sound that was something like a purr if purrs sent the message, “Get out of my sight or I will eat you.”

    Katie spoke frightening purrs and understood the message perfectly. As someone fluent in the language of this exchange, she responded in the appropriate way and retreated to the sanctuary behind her mother. Through the gap between her mother’s elbow and side, Katie looked at the man or woman, who to her now seemed like a wild animal. The pudgy, inflamed lips were curled in a snarl and the puffy, reddened eyes were bugged out in her direction, burning holes through her skin. Her small muscles tensed and her body screamed, “RUN!” but stuck on the train there was nowhere to go, so Katie closed her eyes and buried her head into her mother’s sweater for protection.

    Jean/Gene tightened her/his grip on the pole she/he was holding and surveyed the rest of the car, daring anyone to repeat Katie’s question even in thought. Throughout the back end of the subway car, gazes were averted — books became more fascinating, advertisements more compelling, and the volume level of every iPod in the place needed to be attended to. Jean/Gene was used to this; the awkward fiddling as a way of avoiding someone uncomfortable to notice. She/he preferred it to stares or puzzled looks or worse, wrong guesses.

    Jean/Gene let out a satisfied, “Hmmph,” and went back to staring at the floor, the activity that Katie had so rudely interrupted. She/he was satisfied that no one was looking — carefully, purposefully not looking — but also knew that they were all thinking, all replaying the scene in their heads to soundtracks of their iPods or the setting of their novels. The story was playing out one way, in every imagination, she/he knew.

    “Once upon a time, on a New York City subway, there was a hideous monster and a beautiful princess. When the princess asked the monster what it was, the monster frightened her. Evil monster. Then the village shunned the monster and they all lived happily ever after.”

    Except for the monster, of course.

    The train seemed to run for hours without stopping. The next platform was less than two minutes away, but took an eternity to get to. When the train finally slowed and the breaks announced the halt with a screech, Jean/Gene quietly exited, still looking down. She/he walked toward the exit, as if to leave, but slowly so that she/he was still on the platform when the train pulled away. When it was gone and none of the witnesses were left to see, she/he turned and walked back down the platform, waiting patiently for the next train to come.


    blog comments powered by Disqus
    Please read our Comment Policy.