The man on the end seat is reading Steinbeck. I am standing by the doors, as if that gives me some kind of privacy. Really it means I can look at everyone at once. I like to look at everyone at once. I guess it is just one more way of hiding.
Why is he reading Steinbeck? He can’t be doing it for fun. Everyone knows that Steinbeck is dull as hell. Maybe he is reading it too look cool. But surely everyone knows it isn’t cool to read Steinbeck anymore, if it ever was. It is not even cool to read. Period. I only say ‘period’ because Steinbeck is getting on my nerves, and reminding me about ‘Great American Literature’ . I imagine myself as some kind of drop-out living in New York, sitting in a diner, bitching about Steinbeck to a blonde girl who doesn’t care (not caring infuses her very being), and planning a road trip for the Fall. ‘Great American Literature’ infects us and takes us over. We have to be on our guard.
So perhaps he is reading Steinbeck for a class. I can’t see which book it is, and I don’t want to know. The man is olive skinned, maybe Mediterranean in background, very black hair and a soft-looking understated beard. He doesn’t look like a jerk. There I go again. Steinbeck is making me write ‘jerk’. What a jerk. But nobody teaches Steinbeck anymore do they? I haven’t studied literature since the 1980s, and we did Shakespeare and Chaucer and E.M, Forster. English Literature it was. Not an American writer in sight. I didn’t mind. At least my essays didn’t read like horrendous teenage homages to JD Salinger. At least I didn’t sound like this.
I can’t ask him can I? I can’t just sit down on the seat next to him and turn and say,
‘Excuse me but why are you reading Steinbeck in this day and age? Have you no imagination?’
He would think I was mad. He would not be entirely mistaken. And anyway there is a cute drunk woman next to him, in a stripy top, who keeps knocking her knee against his to get his attention. He barely looks down from his book. He must be disciplined. Or gay. Do gay men still read Steinbeck the way they still read Whitman and Foucault? Long after everyone else gave up and gave in, to the more seductive, manly pull of Franzen, Mitchell, Safron-Froer. Whatever. Nobody really reads anymore. They just pretend. How many copies of Cloud Atlas have you seen open, on the tube? How many people do you know who have actually read it? Exactly.
So Steinbeck is left hanging, refusing to die, but not justifying his existence either. Like most masters of Great American Literature do. I hate that about them. They don’t have to fight for their place in this world. It goes without saying.
My gaze wanders over to a woman sat opposite. She is not reading. She doesn’t need to. She is transfixing enough as it is. A book would make her seem too potent, especially if it was Emily Dickinson or Jeanette Winterson, or someone like that. Someone real. That’s what she is. Potent. Her hair is red. Her skintone is that of a perfect redhead-pale, opaque. Her eyelashes are faint, her expression inscrutable. I fall into her face, her hair, her eyes. I notice she is wearing skinny jeans, tucked into knee-high leather boots. There is nothing about her appearance that seeks attention, because she knows she will have it anyway. She has mine completely.
The woman reminds me of Orlando, as played by Tilda Swinton in the film. Her complexion and hair and eyelashes of course have put this idea in my mind, but also the possibilities I want to take from her. If she were a boy, and I was a girl, if we lived hundreds of years ago, if the world would just stop for a moment and…
She smiles at me. I try to analyse the smile. I want it to be hopeful, offering, sexy. But I think it is saying, ‘I know you are staring at me. I don’t blame you’. I suppose the best I can hope for is that her smile forgives me. I don’t know if I forgive her. This kind of beauty is usually unforgiveable.
The train slides to a halt. As she gets up and walks down the carriage, through the double doors onto the platform, I think of going after her. I imagine myself walking behind her, following her out of the station, touching her arm, stopping her in her tracks, asking her, what? I don’t want to ask her anything I want her to tell me. I want her to tell me what you do with a woman with opaque skin and faint eyelashes. I want her to tell me how to go down on her, clutching at her thin, porcelain hips, and how to lick her cunt the way she likes it, so it burns hot on my tongue and I forget I have never done this before, forget that there is no dick to fill me no strong man to restrain me, nothing to stop me from jumping off the cliff and into the freezing water below.
But I don’t. I stay on the train and watch her through the grimy windows, disappearing. She doesn’t look back.
Steinbeck guy is still reading Steinbeck. How could he read Steinbeck when that vision was sat right infront of him? What’s so fucking interesting about Steinbeck? Am I being unreasonable here? I don’t think I am. I’ve got eyes, haven’t I? I’ve got a heart.
I think about her again and feel weird inside. Like I admitted something secret about myself to a total stranger, that I’d never even admitted to myself before, and she said
Except we didn’t need words.
I wish I didn’t need words.
But Steinbeck has ruined it. Great American Literature is so overpowering, so masculine. Why can’t that man on the end seat be reading someone more subtle, someone who gives the rest of us a bit of space to breathe? Someone like Christopher Isherwood, for example? Or Edith Wharton? Then everything might have been different. But he is reading Steinbeck. And everything has stayed exactly as it always was.
The tube stops at Finsbury Park. I shuffle off and up the escalator and out, alone, into the mundanity of the North London night.
Quiet Riot Girl