Strangers on a train

So earlier this week I went down to New Haven to give a reading. I was paired with Susan Barr-Toman, whose debut novel, When Love Was Clean Underwear, is absolutely wonderful. It’s like an Anne Tyler novel, only not horribly, horribly annoying.

The train ride down was largely uneventful, until about 10 minutes before my stop. I’d finished the work-related reading I’d brought with me, and was reading a horror novel (Dan Simmon’s Carrion Comfort, which I am also enjoying greatly). I was wearing a grey turtleneck and tights, a red tweed skirt, an olive pashmina scarf, and black pearls. I am telling you this so you can get a visual image of me: an unaccompanied woman in early middle age, conservatively dressed and made up, reading a horror novel. I don’t know what it was about this combination that made the young man approach me.

He was in his early 20’s, appeared to be Latino, and was obviously gay. He came down the aisle and stopped by my seat.

“Excuse me, miss?”
“Do you have any cover-up?”
“Cover-up.” He turned and bared his neck to me — interesting choice, given that I was reading about vampires. “I just realized I have a hickey, and my parents are coming to pick me up at the train station, and they will kill me. Do you have any cover-up? I’ll pay you.”
I shook my head. “I have concealer, but that’s lighter than my skin, and look”–I pushed sleeve up and put my arm against his–“you’re darker than I am anyway.”
“Oh, it doesn’t have to be perfect, I’ll be sitting on the passenger side”–the hickey was on the right side of his neck–“just enough to hide until I get home.”
“Oh, wait! I have eyeshadow primer! That’s darker and it stays on longer anyway. Okay, get yourself over here.” I moved my bag and motioned to him to sit down. I dug through my cosmetics bag and pulled out the primer. “Here we go.”
I applied primer all over the hickey, dabbed it with my finger to blend it in, and put some powder on to set it. I turned on the overhead light and showed him the mirror of my compact. “There. How does that look?”
“Oh, that’s perfect! You’ve saved my life!”

We exchanged names and he offered to buy me a drink, and I’d have been so happy to have taken him up on it, were we not approaching my station. I wonder how amused he would have been to know that getting people out of sticky situations is my business, though rarely do I get to do so in such a concrete fashion?

Wherever you are, Eric, I hope you got home safely. And I hope that some day you can come out to your parents, or go far away from them, and live the life you need to live without concealment or concealer. And in the meantime, let us both cherish a moment of the kindness of strangers on a train.

UPDATE: Thank you for the love, you all, but I seriously did not write this as some kind of tribute to myself. It was just a moment that struck me as both profoundly human and profoundly odd — and, given the whole vampire angle, a bit amusing — and I wanted to share it. My deepest hope, actually, is that one of my creative-writing friends will use this little vignette as the inspiration for a short story!

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12 Responses to Strangers on a train

  1. Abby says:

    What a great story! Good work helping him out. you must exude helpfulness even when reading horror novels.

    this is completely unrelated except that I saw it on the train this morning and I know you’re a big fan of Michelle Obama. I am too, but for me this is just too much fabulous. :)

  2. BlondMaggie says:

    You. ROCK.

    Really, there’s no other way to say it. And I lift my glass (really a cuppa coffee) to the idea of him not having to live in concealment or with concealer.

  3. Ajay says:

    Your young man had obvious good sense and excellent survival skills – sadly it sounds as if he’s had to develop the latter. I’m guessing he noticed someone well put together – and with a purse/bag/brief big enough to be toting concealed eye shadow primer. Fortunate for you both – he would have had to settle for a little schmuts and spit as my suggestion!

    Though I’ve always imagined I do a good full drag -when necessary for a wedding, funeral or other dramatic production- maquillage is not my avocation. Growing up in a hardware store, I have some knowledge of primers, but I’m clearly waaay behind on advances in beauty products and their alternative uses!

  4. Ajay says:

    Left off of my previous comment – love and kisses to you for getting it done, and for sharing with your readers! I bet you had that extra glow at your reading, too –

  5. Robin says:

    Abby–alas, my obsession with Mrs. O has waned considerably; check out the most recent link I tweeted (right-hand column) to see why. Nevertheless, I was HIGHLY amused to get a letter of complaint in response to last week’s column, by a reader who said, “Your answers are too long — like Obama’s!” Best insult/compliment I’d gotten all day!

    I can’t help but wonder if it was the combination of my conservative attire and dark reading matter that made me more approachable? Would he have chosen me if he’d seen me catching up on my Harvard Business Reviews, as I had been 30 minutes earlier?

  6. EA Week says:

    Aw, that’s a wonderful story, MC. Reminds me a little bit of when I was having a horrible coughing attack on a commuter train, and a stranger offered me a cough drop, a tiny little thing that pretty much made my day.

    LOL also over the Michelle Obama shopping bag. Also LOL over people complaining about “long answers” (a sorry comment on the current state of our culture, alas). And also “word” to your disenchantment with the whole “war on fat kids” (to call it what it really is). Could not our otherwise wonderful First Lady find a better outlet for her energy, ambition, and intellect?

    Also thanks for the link you tweeted. That’s a great article, and it’s also a thin-privilege eye-opener to realize I cannot actually recall my weight from any point during my childhood (I didn’t stop growing until 18-ish), never made a list of what I ate, or a list of ‘good’ foods vs. ‘bad’ foods, never was told what I could or couldn’t do (implicitly or explicitly) based on my weight, by anyone. And of course, when you have this privilege, it never crosses your mind that other people have had those experiences. Thanks for the wake-up call.

  7. Penny R says:

    What a great story. Someone reaching out, someone giving a helping hand. A lesson for us all. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Ajay says:

    UPDATE: …and modest, too ; )

  9. emr110 says:

    You did a cool, cool thing!

  10. Amy R. says:

    This would be excellent fodder for “Don’t Stop Believing: 2010 Remix.” Get on it, Steve Perry.

  11. Danielle D. says:


    This story just made my day.

    I have some crazy “it happened on the T” stories of random strangers, but nothing as cool or funny as this.

    I guess I’ll have to get by helping lost tourists until the day someone like Eric needs my help. (Hopefully, the help will not be make up based, since I carry none.)

  12. Shulamuth says:

    This also goes on my list of Reasons Not To Clean Out My Purse — you never know what you might need,

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