She sat hunched over on the subway car’s bench.
It wasn’t the coat she wore that I noticed first — brown, long, heavy, wintry, a fur-lined hood, wholly inappropriate to the day’s weather. Rather, it was the savage odor that permeated the subway car — sweat and grime and soiled clothes. The smells mixed together strangely, the tanginess of sweat, the sickly sweet odor of fecal residue. Together, they were like a bubble, an exclusion zone that ultimately no one truly dared to cross. Not even habits, like an accustomed seat, could bring one across the boundary for any length of time. People boarded the train at the platform, caught the strong whiff of the woman, then left.
Except for me.
I’d taken my seat, same as I do every day — last car, second quarter of the car, rear facing on the right (facing forward), at the window. I like to sit here; the last car is the least populated, having the window at my left frees my arm to write. I’d noticed the odor when I boarded the train after it pulled into the Owings Mill station and thought little of it — subway cars don’t always smell nice. Then I noticed that the odor didn’t dissipate with the doors open and the stiff autumn breeze outside. Once I realized the source of the odor — the woman was seated across the aisle from me, she had come in with the train to this last stop but didn’t leave — I didn’t feel that I could move, if only out of politeness’ sake. If I ignored it, my reasoning went, eventually I wouldn’t notice it.
Other regulars on the last car filed in, took their usual places, and then quickly left. Eventually, the doors closed, the train started to move, and I tried to shut out the odor. My hope that the odor would become less obvious as time passed proved false. If anything, once the doors were closed and the train was in motion, the odor only strengthened.
I took a few sideways glances at the woman. She was a heavy woman, and I guessed that she would probably stand 5′ 9″. She wore a dress beneath the coat and, oddly enough, slippers instead of shoes. She slipped a foot out of one of her slippers, and it was crusty and calloused. She fell over, essentially laying across the seat.
Halfway to the Old Court station, I decided that I would move to the next car. As the train slowed, I stood, went to the door to be ready to rush over to the next car. Several people rushed past me into the car. I took a rear-facing seat near the back of the second car; from where I sat, I could see the woman in her fur-lined coat, hunched over.
At each stop, there would be a person who would stand up, as I had, and rush into the second car. I could also see a new passenger board the last car, sit near her, and then move.
I had developed a headache just from sitting near her, one that has yet to dissipate, though I have valiantly attempted to dope it into oblivion at the office.
For all I know, two hours on, she may still be hunched over on that subway bench, riding back and forth between Johns Hopkins and Owings Mills.