Thursday, October 11, 2007

Do I Know You?

"Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walks of dreams,
I fear these supposed realities are to melt from under your feet and hands."

---Walt Whitman

I could have sworn I saw an old girlfriend of mine on the subway the other day.

She got on the train at Dekalb Avenue and sat directly across from me in the two-person seat.

Those are my favorite seats on the subway, especially the one against the conductor's booth.

I can rest or sleep and dream I'm on a beautiful beach instead of riding the damn subway.

But I wasn't dreaming on this particular morning; this was real. I'm just not sure who it was.

I'll call her Kate, though that wasn't her name. I went out with her nearly 30 years ago and I haven't seen her for at least 25 years and probably more.

I studied this woman's face--as much as I could without being called a stalker. It looked like Kate, though a few pounds lighter. The hairdo, her profile; if it wasn't her, it could have been a close relative.

I was already losing my hair when I first knew Kate and I shaved my head about six years ago, so I don't think the Telly Savalas look has altered my appearance that much.

So what do you do at a time like this? Lean over and say, "do I know?" Did we have a relationship so many years ago that I'm not sure who you are?

What if you're wrong? You have to do the old Emily Litella "never mind" routine, sit back down, and wait as the minutes grind slowly by until the train pulls into your station. That's assuming you don't get Maced.

And I wasn't sure if I wanted to see Kate again. We didn't end on the best of terms and it was my fault.

Why bother reminding someone of a relationship that ended years ago--before the Internet existed? What could we say to each other after all this time?

We worked together at a vanity press way, way over on the West Side of Manhattan, back when it was all factories and nobody wanted to live there. Like a lot of things in New York, that's changed dramatically.

This was my first job out of college. I had dreams of being a writer and I thought this would be my way into the world of publishing, where I could make my connections, unleash my great novel on an unsuspecting world, rake in millions of dollars and quit riding the subways.

The great novel--or even a mediocre novel has yet to happen and I'm still riding the subways.

It's A Living

Kate was a copy editor at this hellhole and during my first week there, I came found her waiting for me in my office.

She was about to ask me a question about a manuscript when she stopped and looked at me.

"Did you go to Brooklyn Tech?"

"Yes, why do--?"

Then I realized I was talking to my English teacher from sophomore year. She was hands-down my favorite teacher during those four lousy years and now here she was at my first job.

This is the time when someone usually says "small world" but it's not going to be me.

I had a terrible crush on Kate when she was my teacher. I fantasized about dating her. And these weren't the smutty sort of fantasies, I'll have you know. These were tasteful, romantic delusions.

At the end of the school year I gave her a card and a present--it was some kind of woman's cream, which she dabbed on her wrist so she could smell it.

I was hoping I'd have her again in my junior year, but she left the school and a classmate told me she had moved to Massachusetts. I was bummed, but I figured these things happen.

Now, this is how crazy I am. Some point in junior year, I read about a plane crash in the Boston area, saw one of the victims had the same last name and first initial as Kate and somehow took it into my head that it was her.

I mean, I know I was a teen-ager, but it's still nuts. I immediately hit the panic button, dial in the worst case scenario and run up the white flag. She had a common surname, but that wasn't enough for me.

Now I'm at my first job and there's Kate standing in front of me, alive and well.

We went to lunch to catch up on old times and started going places--just as friends. I didn't know how to make my move and I was afraid I'd offend her if I did and then I'd have to see her every day at work.

I went out to Staten Island to see a neighborhood theater production of "Barefoot in the Park" with her and then we went back to her place for pizza. And...I made my move.

I was facing and I heard a voice in my head say, "do it, kiss her!" So that's what I did. And she went for it. I couldn't believe it. I was convinced she'd break a chair over my head, but I was wrong--in the right way, for once.

We started going out and it was great. We had similar interests and made each other happy. Even my parents liked her.

One of my friends said that was the ultimate teen-age boy's fantasy, but I was no longer in school and she was no longer my teacher. We were civilians, free to do what we wanted. And we did.

I gave her some my short stories to read and she was very supportive about my writing. She really built up my confidence, for which I remain very grateful to this day.

Whenever I was acting like a smart-ass, which was most of the time, she'd say "I should have failed you."

Now the job really sucked--I had to deal with all sorts of freaks who thought they could write books when they could barely write a grocery list.

I was so miserable, working at this dank factory and being much younger and quite immature, I couldn't handle it well.

I went to Ireland on a vacation, which was a blast, but when I got back, the relationship with Kate started to crumble. We began bickering over stupid things and seeing each other became a chore.

"I feel distant from you," she told me at one point. And she was right.

I was pushing away from her. I thought I had found the woman of my dreams, but I was too young and much too immature for a serious relationship. Emotionally, I was still a teen-ager. Hell, I was still 12 years old in the maturity department.

Kate got a new job, so at least we didn't have to see each other every day at work. We somehow managed to keep our relationship a secret, or at least I think we did.

One of the rules about office affairs states that you should never worry if your co-workers will find out about your relationship. They probably already know.

As I mentioned, I had to deal with a lot of psychos at my job. Well, one day one them came to the office demanding that either we give him his money back or his book.

It took forever to get the books publisher because the owner of the company was so cheap that he always did business with the most inexpensive suppliers. The result was a lot of angry "authors" who directed their venom at me and my supervisor.

This guy was a hulking ex-con who was twice my size. I was trying to reason with the bastard when he punched me in the face.

I staggered back and just stood there in shook. He had a friend with him who took him out of the office and we called the police.

That's What Fiends Are For

The cops who responded told me that it was unlikely that much would happen to the guy--and they were right. One of they even advised me to get some friends with bats and "break the guy's fucking legs."

I think they were right on that score, too.

I spent the next several hours in at an area hospital waiting to get checked out. I wasn't hurt, thank God, but I had to get X-rayed and examined just to be safe.

The prick lived in Jersey and the police told me they don't extradaite people for simple assault cases. I supposed I could have sued, but this bum didn't have two nickles to rub together.

I tried to forget it, but some one my so-called friends at work starting making fun of me, making what were supposedly harmless "jokes" about the incident. I know we were all young, but couldn't they see how much these jokes hurt my feelings?

I find I'm still angry at these "friends" even after all this time--more so than I am at the scumbag who hit me. That guy was a criminal; these schmucks were supposed to be my friends.

I've never been very good at sticking up for myself. I've taken a lot of abuse over the years from people I thought I could trust, people I considered friends.

I was always desperate to be liked and certain people picked up on this trait and took advantage of it.

I eventually got another job and then I broke up with Kate. I took the coward's route, breaking off a series of dates until she asked me what was going on.

I tried to make it sound like it was both of us going in different directions, but she started crying. Clearly I was the only one going anywhere. I had failed her.

We broke up and lost contact with her. I saw Kate one more time, hmmm, I want to say around 1985, as I was walking through the lobby of the World Trade Center.

I was working for a security company back then--another lousy job--and I was feeling ill. It turns out I was suffering with mononucleosis and this would be the start of a long, awful time of my life, where my immune system was severely battered.

But at the time I thought I had a simple virus and as I headed toward the revolving doors, I saw this woman coming toward me. We looked at each other and I realized it was Kate.

We greeted each other and it turned out that she worked in the trade center, too. We talked about what an idiot Ronald Reagan was--and will always be--and I suggested we have lunch sometime as soon as I felt better.

She said yes and she let me give her a peck on the cheek, though I could see she was uncomfortable having me so close to her. We never did have that lunch.

I also saw that scumbag who hit me, years later, in downtown New York. It was very similar to my suprise meeting with Kate.

We recognized each other, but I kept walking. I told myself that it was impossible, that it couldn't have been the same guy, but I know now it was. And I let him get away again.

I suppose it really is a small world after all; and a rather crazy one, too. You think certain people will be in your life forever, but they fade away from you until you're sure what they look like.

I got up when the train pulled into Rector Street. I couldn't bring myself to approach the woman I thought might be Kate, so I got off the train and started walking down the platform.

In a sense, it really wasn't the same person. She wasn't the same Kate she was 27 years ago and I'm not the same me.

The train doors close and I couldn't resist taking one last look at the woman before she was gone from my life forever.

I turned around and saw that this woman was looking at me. Whether it was out of curiosity--I had been looking her over for several minutes--or recognition I don't know.

And I guess I never will.

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