According to family legend, I was born on the floor of a taxi.
I’m the youngest of six, and apparently Mom went from “I have a bit of a cramp, but let me finish making lunch” to “Hello, Holland Lina Bakker” in the span of about forty minutes.
It’s always the first thing I think about when I climb into a cab. I note how I have to shimmy with effort across the tacky seat, how there are millions of neglected fingerprints and unidentifiable smudges clouding the windows and Plexiglas barrier—and how the floor of a cab is a really terrible place for a baby to meet the world.
I slam the taxi door behind me to block out the howling Brooklyn wind. “Fiftieth Street station, Manhattan.”
The driver’s eyes meet mine in the rearview mirror and I can imagine what he’s thinking: You want to take a cab to the subway in Manhattan? Lady, you could take the C train all the way there for three bucks.
“Eighth Ave. and Forty-Ninth Street,” I add, ignoring the clawing flush of awareness that I am absurd. Instead of taking the cab all the way home, I’m having the driver take me from Park Slope to a subway stop in Hell’s Kitchen, roughly two blocks from my building. It’s not that I’m particularly safety minded and don’t want this cabbie to know where I live.
It’s that it’s Monday, approximately eleven thirty, and Jack will be there.
At least, he should be. Since I first saw him busking at the Fiftieth Street station nearly six months ago, he’s been there every Monday night, along with Wednesday and Thursday mornings before work, and Friday at lunchtime. Tuesday he’s gone, and I’ve never seen him there on the weekend.
Mondays are my favorite, though, because there’s an intensity in the way he crouches over his guitar, cradling it, seducing it. Music that seems to have been trapped inside all weekend long is freed, broken only by the occasional metallic tumble of pocket change dropped into the open guitar case at his feet, or the roar of an approaching train.
I don’t know what he does in the hours he’s not there. I’m also fairly certain his name isn’t Jack, but I needed to call him something other than “the busker,” and giving him a name made my obsession seem less pathetic.
The cabbie is quiet; he isn’t even listening to talk radio or any of the other cacophonous car-filler every New Yorker gets used to. I blink away from my phone and the Instagram feed full of books and makeup tutorials, to the mess of sleet and slush on the roads. My cocktail buzz doesn’t seem to be evaporating as quickly as I’d hoped, and by the time we pull up to the curb and I pay the fare, I still have its giddy effervescence simmering in my blood.
I’ve never come to see Jack while drunk before, and it’s either a terrible or a fantastic idea. I guess we’re about to find out which.
Hitting the bottom of the stairs, I catch him tuning his guitar and stop a few feet away, studying him. With his head bowed, and in the beam of the streetlight shooting down the stairs, his light brown hair seems almost silver.
He’s suitably scruffy for our generation, but he looks clean, so I like to think he has a nice apartment and a regular, well-paying job, and does this because he loves it. He has the type of hair I can’t resist, neat and trimmed along the sides but wild and untamed on top. It looks soft, too, shiny under the lights and the kind of hair you want to curl a fist around. I don’t know what color his eyes are because he never looks up at anyone while he plays, but I like to imagine they’re brown or dark green, a color deep enough to get lost in.
I’ve never seen him arrive or leave, because I always walk past him, drop a dollar bill in his case, and keep moving. Then, covertly from the platform, I look over—as do many of us—to where he sits on his stool near the base of the stairs, his fingers flying up and down the neck of the instrument. His left hand pulls out the notes as if it’s as simple as breathing.
Breathing. As an aspiring writer, it’s my least favorite cliché, but it’s the only one that suits. I’ve never seen someone’s fingers move like that, as if he doesn’t even have to think about it. In some ways, it seems like he gives the guitar an actual human voice.
He looks up as I drop a bill into his case, squinting at me, and gives me a quiet “Thanks very much.”
He’s never done that before—looked up when someone dropped money in his case—and I’m caught completely off guard when our eyes meet.
Green, his are green. And he doesn’t immediately look away. The hold of his gaze is mesmerizing.
So instead of saying, “Yeah,” or “Sure”—or nothing at all, like any other New Yorker would—I blurt, “Iloveyourmusicsomuch.” A string of words breathlessly said as one.
I’m gifted with the humblest flicker of a smile, and my tipsy brain nearly shorts out. He does this thing where he chews on his bottom lip for a second before saying, “Do you reckon so? Well, you’re very kind. I love to play it.”
His accent is heavily Irish, and the sound of it makes my fingers tingle.
“What’s your name?”
Three mortifying seconds pass before he answers with a surprised grin. “Calvin. And yours?”
This is a conversation. Holy shit, I’m having a conversation with the stranger I’ve had a crush on for months.
“Holland,” I say. “Like the province in the Netherlands. Everyone thinks it’s synonymous with the Netherlands, but it’s not.”
Tonight, I’ve concluded two things about gin: it tastes like pinecones and is clearly the devil’s sauce.
Calvin smiles up at me, saying cheekily, “Holland. A province and a scholar,” before he adds something quietly under his breath that I don’t quite make out. I can’t tell if the amused light in his eyes is because I’m an entertaining idiot, or because there’s a person directly behind me doing something awesome.
Having not been on a date in what feels like a millennium, I also don’t know where a conversation should go after this, so I bolt, practically sprinting the twenty feet to the platform. When I come to a halt, I dig in my purse with the practiced urgency of a woman who is used to pretending she has something critical she must obtain immediately.
The word he whispered—lovely—registers about thirty seconds too late.
He meant my name, I’m sure. I’m not saying that in a false-modesty kind of way. My best friend, Lulu, and I agree that, objectively, we’re middle-of-the-pack women in Manhattan—which is pretty great as soon as we leave New York. But Jack—Calvin—gets ogled by every manner of man and woman passing through the station—from the Madison Avenue trustafarians slumming it on the subway to the scrappy students from Bay Ridge; honestly, he could have his pick of bed partners if he ever took the time to look up at our faces.
To confirm my theory, a quick glance in my compact mirror reveals the clownish bleed of my mascara below my eyes and a particularly ghoulish lack of color in the bottom half of my face. I reach up and attempt to smooth the tangle of brown strands that every other moment of my life are straight and lifeless, but have presently escaped the confines of my ponytail and defy gravity around my head.
Lovely, at present, I am not.
Calvin’s music returns, and it fills the quiet station in this echoing, haunting way that actually makes me feel even drunker than I thought I was. Why did I come here tonight? Why did I speak to him? Now I have to realign all these things in my brain, like his name not being Jack and his eyes having a defined color. The knowledge that he is Irish just about makes me feel crazy enough to go climb on his lap.
Ugh. Crushes are the worst, but in hindsight a crush from afar seems so much easier than this. I should stick to making up stories in my head and watching from a distance like a reasonable creeper. Now I’ve broken the fourth wall and if he’s as friendly as his eyes tell me he is, he may notice me when I drop money in his case the next time, and I will be forced to interact smoothly or run in the opposite direction. I may be middle-of-the-pack when my mouth is closed, but as soon as I start talking to men, Lulu calls me Appalland, for how appallingly unappealing I become. Obviously, she’s not wrong. And now I’m sweating under my pink wool coat, my face is melting, and I’m hit with an almost uncontrollable urge to hike my tights up to my armpits because they have slowly crept down beneath my skirt and are starting to feel like form-fitting harem pants.
I should really go for it and just shimmy them up my waist, because other than one comatose gentleman sleeping on a nearby bench, it’s just me and Calvin down here, and he’s not paying attention to me anymore.
But then the sleeping gentleman rises, zombielike, and takes one shuffling step toward me. Subway stations are awful when they’re empty like this. They’re caves for the leches, the harassers, the flashers. It isn’t that late—not even midnight on a Monday—but I’ve clearly just missed a train.
I move to my left, farther down the platform, and pull out my phone to look busy. Alas, I should know that drunk and persistent men are often not swayed by the industrious presence of an iPhone, and the zombie comes closer.
I don’t know if it’s the tiny spike of fear in my chest or a draft passing through the station, but I’m hit with the cloying, briny smell of mucus; the sour rot of spilled soda sitting for months at the bottom of a trash bin.
He lifts a hand, pointing. “You have my phone.”
Turning, I give him a wide berth as I circle back toward the stairs and Calvin. My thumb hovers over Robert’s phone number.
He follows. “You. Come here. You have my phone.”
Without bothering to look up, I say as calmly as possible, “Get the hell away from me.”
I push Robert’s name and hold the phone to my ear. It rings hollowly, one ring for every five of my pounding heartbeats.
Calvin’s music swells, aggressively now. Does he not see this person following me around the station? I have the absurd thought that it really is remarkable how deeply he gets in the zone while playing.
The man starts this shuffling, lurching run in my direction and the notes tearing out of Calvin’s guitar become a soundtrack for the lunatic chasing me down the platform. My tights keep me from running with any amount of speed or grace, but his clunky run speeds up, turns more fluid with confidence.
Through the phone, I hear the tinny sound of Robert answering. “Hey, Buttercup.”
“Holy crap, Robert. I’m at the—”
The man reaches out, his hand wrapping around the sleeve of my coat, jerking my phone away from my ear.
“Holls?” Robert yells. “Honey, where are you?”
I grapple, trying to hold on because I have the sickening sense that I’m off balance. Dread sends a cold, sobering rush along my skin: the man is not helping me stay upright—he’s shoving me.
In the distance, I hear a deep shout: “Hey!”
My phone skitters along the concrete. “Holland?”
It happens so fast—and I guess things like this always happen fast; if they happened slowly I’d like to think I’d do something, anything—but one second I’m on the nubby yellow warning line, and the next I’m falling onto the tracks.