I saw him every day at the train station smoking a cigarette. He sat on the floor wearing that winter coat, white faux fur around his neck and thick gray covering the rest of him. I waited for the train every day after night classes. He smoked a single cigarette, took it out of his mouth and snuffed it out under his boot. Always the same habit as if it were a part of his daily routine.
I never saw his face and didn’t bother to try. His hands, when I was close enough to see, were hard, though. They were working hands, coarse from manual labor. I wondered what he did for a living. He didn’t seem to mind getting dirty since he sat on the floor, and his jeans were faded.
The train station was always empty. Except for the two of us. I used to be afraid. My mom would yell at me for coming home late, but the late classes made it easier to work. I explained this every night when she called me as I waited for my train. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to repeat myself before she understood that this was my only option if I wanted to move out.
The one time she had thoroughly upset me, she had complained about my taking last year off, and I hung up on her. We needed the money, and quite frankly, it was more for her benefit than anything else.
I turned my phone down to vibrate and shoved it into my coat pocket when a shuffle of feet suddenly came from my left. I glanced at him as the wind blew and pulled my scarf up over my head. That’s when I saw how tall he was. His hood fell off as the wind blew harder. He was older, his face stern and chiseled, almost. At least, that was how I thought you would describe someone who was really strong-looking. He was broad shouldered; I could tell that much from his coat.
I looked up at the notifier, the board they installed a year or two ago to tell us when the train would be coming. Another ten minutes before the two train would arrive. It might have been cold, but it would be another good night. I looked back at him and smiled. He still wasn’t looking at me. I frowned and turned around to the entrance.
On the other side of us, by the turnstiles, four men were coming into the station. I watched closely and saw the alcohol bottles in their hands. Just what I needed tonight. I rolled my eyes and looked back toward the tracks.
I wasn’t worried. I’d never been harassed before. I wasn’t thought of as pretty, or hot, or anything like that. I was just some Hispanic girl from the Bronx who went home late from school. Plus, I looked angry whenever I walked alone despite actually being calm. I was just plain old me—shoulder-length brown hair, brown eyes, and sun-bronzed skin. I walked in jeans and bundled up in a big, overbearing black coat just to protect myself from the cold. I didn’t care what people said. I might have been born in the winter, but I was no winter baby.
As the wind blew and the cold bit at my nose, I began to smell the reek of alcohol. It was getting stronger by the second. I looked over, and those four guys were staring at me.
I looked away quickly, but the damage had already been done.
“Hey, mami!” one of the men cried out.
I shoved my hand into my coat pocket, holding onto the Swiss army knife my Padrino’s fiancé had given me.
Not tonight, please.
I breathed heavily as their catcalls got louder. They never came any closer, but it didn’t stop me from worrying.
“Hey, mami! ¿Quieres jugar con un hombre real?”
I scoffed at the bad pickup line. Play with a real man? Funny. I glanced at the man standing a couple feet away from me. Compared to them, he was the only real man I could see. The stranger I saw every day, the older man who silently accompanied me, finally looked at me.
I felt the heat rise in my face. I was twenty-five years old, staring at a complete stranger. I had no idea who he was or what he did for a living. For all I knew, he was homeless! What was wrong with me?
I stared out to the train tracks, and was pulled suddenly by my right arm. I cried out as one of the drunk guys pulled me closer to him.
“Ugh.” I turned my face away from the smell of beer. It even came from his skin.
“Hey, mami. ¿Por qué no me responde, eh?” He was strong despite looking so thin. His body shook from the cold, and with only a hoodie on, I wasn’t surprised.
“Please, let go.” I pulled my arm away and stumbled back. I tried to pretend not to understand, hoping he would be one of those guys who wanted a ‘real Hispanic woman’ and not some girl who was raised on English mostly. “I don’t know what you’re saying. Please leave me alone.”
I tried to walk toward my stranger. He continued to stare back at us. He might have been an older man, but a single man who had nothing to do with some random girl versus four drunk guys wouldn’t do anything. He didn’t want to get involved. He wouldn’t help me.
I stood in my new space. A few feet away from me, he stood there staring.
My heart was pounding. I could feel myself shaking.
Of all the days to get harassed by jerks with drinking problems. I’m exhausted. Couldn’t it have been another day?
I looked back at the notifier. Only two minutes to go.
“Can you understand me now?”
I turned toward the drunkard, and he pushed me to the ground. I fell, but I didn’t hit the station floor. Instead, I leaned against something firm, something heavy, soft, almost. I looked up into the face of the stranger who shared the train station with me every night just as the train was beginning to pull in. Behind us, I heard the four men laughing as he grabbed me by my shoulders and pulled me to my feet.
My heart pounding, I could barely get the words out before the guy who harassed me started yelling. I covered my head, fearing they would throw something at me. Instead, I was shoved into the train right before the doors closed. I slammed backward into a pole, no one around in the train car to catch me. I ran to the doors as they closed, but the train had already begun moving.
I was afraid to go back to that station. I didn’t have any classes for three days, and going back to my apartment—lying in bed—just seemed like the safest thing to do. I locked myself away, taking off from work, too. Much to the dismay of my mother. I eventually went back; there was no real way to avoid it. I was nervous. A couple of days had passed since I’d been to the station. My classes ended at ten-thirty, and when I got to the station, finally, it was eleven.
I swiped my MetroCard at the turnstile and walked toward my usual spot.
He sat on the bench this time. His hood down, and I could see a scar running down his left eye. He wasn’t blind, though. He had bandages on his hands and on his left cheek. He had the same white and gray faux fur coat on, with dark jeans—brand new by the look of it. His hair was black, with gray dispersed throughout. I stared at him. He was okay.
I kept staring, and he looked down, almost ashamed. I didn’t think he would’ve helped me. I doubted anyone I met on the street, and this complete stranger actually came to my rescue. How was I supposed to say thank you? How was I supposed to even say hello after something like that?
“You want to sit down?”
“Huh?” I looked up from the floor and saw him staring back at me. His eyes were hazel. I felt the heat rise to my face, and I suddenly bowed from the waist down, my hat flying off my head. “Thank you for the other day.”
I stood back up, quickly realizing how dumb I looked. He dug through his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, his smoke for the night. He patted the seat next to him. “Twenty minutes until the next train.” He smiled kindly. “Keep me company until then.”
I hesitated for a moment, unsure of what to do. “Are you sure?”
He grinned. “Am I sure that I want a pretty girl to sit next to me?”
I sat beside him, blushing. He snuffed out his cigarette on the armrest of the bench quickly, smiling at me with those eyes. He scratched his head, wincing in pain. I kept trying to come up with something to say as I sat beside him, something that would break the silence. But we just sat there, stealing glances, unsure of what to say or do.
Desiree A. Alcalá earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing from SUNY Oswego and is currently an MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College. Never before published, she shares her writing experiences and opinions on her blog at outofthecornerofyoureye.wordpress.com. She can also be found on twitter via her pen-name, @D_ArleneWriter.