Fiction Issue - Toro

First Place

Politely and firmly, a white-gloved pusher guided her onto the subway car. Shocked at the sardine approach to mass transit, she shuffled her feet in step with the thousands of salarymen boarding the train. Crowded on all sides by charcoal suits and jet-black hair, she let her body move with the flow until she was roughly in the center of the car. A sterile chime, a whistle from the platform by one of the gloved pushers, and the doors heaved closed. The train shot off into the heart of Tokyo.

In her brand-new, two-inch, (I have a real job) heels, she towered over the heads of most of the other commuters. She wasn't prepared for how much larger she'd feel in her own skin immediately upon arrival to this new place. Never svelte, her legs felt wider and her arms felt thicker than they had even a few hours before while still in the company of other gaijin in training. Today was the first day on her own to navigate the subway and make it to work. She inhaled and noticed that the undertone of fish permeated even the subway. She became acutely aware of the button cutting into her navel and the extraneous flab resting on the hip of the salaryman to her front. Even with a cream-colored blazer to smooth out and hold in her back rolls, the saddlebags on her hips were brushing against the salarymen to her sides. She had taken this teaching job in Japan because of no other real prospects but was excited nonetheless for her first day. She just had to get there.

As the subway began to pick up speed, she felt her balance shift and her legs tighten to account for the change in velocity. Once the train hit cruising speed, she let her legs relax and she looked around. Only two stops until she got off. A short ride. Every other person on this train had clearly done this many times before, if not for most of their lives. None of them looked shocked at being herded onto a car, like fish crammed into a tin. She could count the blackheads on the man's nose in front of her. No one seemed offended that next to her a man had coffee breath barely covering up the terrific booze and stale cigarettes left over from last night. No one was fazed by his rumpled suit or the hangover stench seething from his pores. He clearly hadn't washed this morning and had barely shaved, entirely missing the left side of his chin. The train took a curve and she felt herself lean heavily on her toes to keep from pressing too indecently into the salarymen around her. She noticed a railing running the length of the car. She tried to free her arm to reach up so she could steady herself but was firmly held in place by the human straightjacket enveloping her. So she looked at the faces of the salarymen. They all stared ahead, seeing nothing. Across the car stood a grey-eyed man with his back to the door. He made eye contact and slightly inclined his head. Or did he? Every man on the car wore an exhausted, calm mask and pretended not to notice any of these things. Taking her cue from the salarymen surrounding her, she stood still, trying not to look around because that seemed too intrusive.

The train began to slow. Her toes curled in her shoes just as the clinical ding sounded overhead and a voice began announcing the next and following stations. The train doors opened. A handful of salarymen departed and more than she thought possible were ushered on by the white-gloved pushers. A suited shoulder pressed up against her breasts and rested there. She sucked in her breath, completely unaccustomed to this proximity with commuters. One more stop. Crammed in the car, the doors closed once again and the train sped off.

This time, she was prepared for the train's acceleration. She tensed her thighs as she plunged deeper into the Tokyo underground. Her head joined in the communal bobbing in rhythm with the movement of the train. The air pressure changed and her ears popped. Every other salaryman in the car felt it too. She noticed several jaws around her open to account for the change. She was astounded at the silence of the ride. Not only was the train itself quiet, not one sound issued from any of the passengers. Even their breathing seemed shallow and quiet. She looked at the doors. The grey-eyed man hadn't disembarked at the last station and was still facing her, looking at her intently. Upon making eye contact, he raised his eyebrow. She looked away.

The train hit a bump and her knees bent more than the people around her. She had nowhere to move and leaned heavily on the pinstriped man in front of her, futilely trying to raise her arms to steady herself. The pinstriped man overcorrected and jostled into others around him, creating a ripple of lost balance throughout the car. She got a blast of boozy cigarette breath as the hungover man exhaled and was righted by another commuter. Tranquility restored, several of the men turned their heads to see who had disrupted the commute. Upon realizing the source of the commotion was the lumbering straw-haired woman, the salarymen's faces returned to masklike. Her neck and cheeks reddened with the unwanted attention.

She looked up at the ceiling of the train wishing she was less conspicuous and willing her face to return to its natural ruddy appearance. As the heat began to recede from behind her ears, the lights on the train flickered. Her head snapped back down, looking around to see if this registered with the other passengers as a notable event. Every other face was placid. She caught the eye of the grey-eyed man. He gave her a wink.

At that moment, there was a loud bang that came from outside of the train followed immediately by the DJRRRrrrrr of lost power. The lights flickered again and then went out completely. She closed her eyes. It was no different when she opened them. The train was in complete blackness. She wiggled her toes in her shoes and could still feel the gentle rocking of the train, but her leg muscles tightened as the train slowed down. She shifted in her suit to look for the emergency lights that weren't illuminated. Nothing was illuminated. She wanted to ask someone what was happening, but her crash course in basic Japanese didn't cover power outages in a subway fifty feet beneath Otemachi station. The train came to a halt.

Calm silence reigned. A sudden lightness spread over her, and her hair began lifting off of her neck. She patted it back down, thinking it was one of the salarymen taking advantage of the darkness to touch it. But it wasn't just a handful of hair that had left her neck. It was all of it. It was rising off of her face. She inhaled and realized that she wasn't being pressed by bodies on all sides. She could inhale deeply. Her breasts rose underneath her blazer and her shoulders arched backwards. Puzzled, her arms rose above her and she felt, if possible, even taller. As she wiggled her outstretched fingers, her two-inch heels left the ground. She felt the tips of her shoes scrape against the floor as she rose. Thrilled at this newfound weightlessness, she twisted her arm slightly and her whole body began to spin slowly. Unable to see or hear any of the salarymen that were, moments ago, so tightly compacted into the train, she was uncertain of her orientation as she continued to spin. She collided with a salaryman rotating in much the same way. She gasped in the blackness as their bodies gently bounced apart.

She slowly waved her arms, and her fingers brushed against the railing at the top of the car. She folded her fingers over the bar to anchor herself. Holding tightly, she tried to tuck her knees to her chest to make herself less obtrusive to unseen floating bodies, but her stiff suit fabric would not allow it. So she remained there, clenching the bar in a comical, midair half-crouch in the complete dark.

The minutes ticked by, and she remained frozen, suspended in the air. No one bumped into her. She relaxed her legs a fraction of an inch and didn't make contact with anyone, so she stretched her legs and pointed her toes. She relaxed the rest of her body but still held onto the bar. She paused to listen and heard not a single noise. The only sign she hadn't left the other passengers completely was the faint trace of fish and coffee and cigarettes and booze. Without regard to the salarymen, she quickly pulled herself toward the bar to use as a springboard for an aerial somersault. She let go of the bar and propelled herself over and over, her hair slowly following the movement of her head. She twisted and turned and spun. She flipped backwards, marveling at her litheness. The sensation was wonderful and she smiled. She was air itself.

Through the blackness, she felt a warm hand take hers. She blinked and realized the lights of the train were on. Her feet were on the train, heels raised two inches high. She was standing at the doors next to the grey-eyed man, and the train was slowing into the station. She looked at her reflection in the glass of the doors and her cheeks were glowing on her mask-like face. She looked down at her hands, which were casually holding her handbag that contained directions to her school. They came smoothly to a halt. She took a deep breath and stepped off of the train.

Photo credit:

Courtney Aspinwall lives in Sandy Springs with her husband and two young sons, where she is creative between breast-feedings. She is a former elementary school teacher who taught in Japan, among other places. "Toro" is her first published work.

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