by Cameron Kent
I’m in love with Michael. I love everything about him. I love the way he smells, I love the clothes he chooses, I love the sound of his laughter. I love the wry curl of Michael’s smile, his industry, his passion for life, his gentlemanly manners. I even love the way he crosses his legs when he sits. I simply adore Michael. At least I think that’s his name. I’m not certain, but he just looks like a Michael.
I see Michael twice a day, five days a week. We share a commute together on the London Underground. I pick up the Central Line at Notting Hill Gate, then two stops later, Michael gets on at Marble Arch. Precisely 12 minutes later, he exits at the St. Paul’s station in the heart of London’s financial district, so I assume he’s somehow involved in the investment world. I continue on one more stop to Bank Street to begin my day as a secretary for an architect. (Nice people, but I find that designing office buildings to be excruciatingly dull work.)
Michael is a creature of habit. He always gets on the fourth railcar from the front, and sits on the far side of the platform. Consequently, you always find me in the fourth car as well. I’ve tried creating a wide berth on my side of the train in hopes that one day there won’t be a seat for him and he’ll be forced to sit down next to me as I hastily move my belongings to make room for him, but it’s been over a year of commuting together and that has yet to happen. ( I’ve had a few undesirables take advantage of my plot, so I’ve stopped doing it.) Up to this point, the extent of our interactive conversation has consisted of polite phrases such as “pardon me”, or “excuse me”, and “I’m sorry.” The ends of our shoes once touched as the tube jostled to a stop. Not quite the rapid-fire exchange of witty banter and emotional intimacy I’m longing for, but it’s a start. Nonetheless, I’m still hopelessly in love with Michael.
I know you might view me as needy or impoverished on the relationship front, perhaps borderline pathetic, for falling in love with a man I hardly know. But I’m really not. I’ve had boyfriends before, but I’ve usually known from the first date that it wasn’t going to work out. It’s not that I’m overly particular, but very often you can just tell from the first time a fellow opens his mouth whether or not this is the proper match for you. I believe everyone has an “ideal” mate, that one person in the world who complements you and stirs the chemistry within your soul. It’s the image you have locked in your brain about how your partner should look, speak, and behave. There are men who are incredibly handsome, with their wild locks of sandy blond hair and eyes the color of cobalt, but they’re still not your ideal, if your ideal has neatly groomed hair that’s the color of ripe chestnuts and green eyes with a tinge of grey. Like Michael. Someone else’s ideal may enjoy cycling and arcades and true detective dramas, while yours prefers long walks in a snowy wood, a quiet museum, and sweet tales of romance next to a roaring fire. Which I’m certain Michael does. Your ideal may talk incessantly, while mine prefers to listen. Your ideal is not perfect… nobody is… but he’s perfect for you.
I envy those people who discover their “Ideal” at an early age. I will readily admit that I’m actually quite jealous of those couples who find each other at primary school and end up together, never having to endure the torture of endless bad dates and bitter breakups. I know I should be happy for them, stumbling upon romantic bliss not long after they’re free of their prams and nannies, but it seems like just a little quixotic suffering should be required to obtain a marriage license. Worse than that, I feel perfectly awful for the lonely souls who never discover their “ideal”, or even more tragically, settle for someone less. I had long harbored a secret fear that I would be one of those lamentable spirits whose heart wandered across the landscape of love and never found a home. Until I saw Michael. Now it all seems possible.
The first time I encountered him, he did exactly the same thing I’ve seen him do on every morning commute since. He sits down in virtually the same seat every day, tucks his briefcase beneath his legs, and pulls out the morning edition of The Independent. With an intrinsic thoughtfulness, Michael always looks to his left and right to insure he’s not encroaching on the personal space of his adjacent passengers. That’s the same reason I assume he reads a compact like The Independent and not a broadsheet like The Daily Telegraph. He crosses his legs, holds the paper with bent elbows, and scans the national and international headlines. Moments later, he turns to the back section for the sports news. Based on the amount of time he pores over the words and statistics, I do believe he fancies cricket and football more than finance and world events. As do I.
In the evening ride home, Michael not so much takes his seat, but rather melts into it. I can tell he works hard, and cares deeply about his job. On the days the financial markets are down, the wrinkled crease in his brow that indicates worry or concern deepens a little. I feel helpless on these days, wishing I could somehow soothe him with a bowl of hot lentil soup, or perhaps just a kind word of encouragement. It must be difficult to lose money to financial forces beyond your control. (I wouldn’t know, because I don’t have any money aside from what I use to pay the rent for my flat and other assorted bills.) As soon as he finds his seat for the ride home, he adjusts the headphones that are already wedged in his ears, then regulates the volume on his phone. I’ve never actually heard what he’s listening to, but I’m quite certain it’s music and not some BBC news update or self-help podcast. Michael closes his eyes and the crevices of worry slowly dissipate. The music seems to remind him of someplace, or someone, that’s calming.
It saddens me when Michael isn’t feeling well, but I admire that he never misses a day of work due to illness. On days when the tube is especially crowded, Michael always gives up his seat for children and women, or anyone else who appears as though they might need it more than he does. I love that about him.
He invariably ties his British regimental neckties with a Windsor Knot, the wide triangle symmetrically filling the gap in his spread collar shirt. Since most young men use a four-in-hand knot, Michael’s choice of the full Windsor tells me he’s either a bit of an old soul, or perhaps he has a boss who also uses a Windsor and Michael wants to convey the image that he’s upper management material. They’d be lucky enough to have him, I can tell you that.
He never wears cologne, but on the rare occasion when I get close enough to drink in his scent, he invariably carries the lingering smell of aloe shaving cream and fresh coffee in the morning, and a hint of manly perspiration in the evening after an arduous day of labor.
On the first Monday of every month, there is clearly an important meeting of some sort. On this particular day, Michael always wears a neatly pressed chalk stripe suit, neatly tailored from navy blue serge wool to complement his trim, athletic frame. He selects a crimson red silk tie with grey and white stripes (that looks fabulous against his crisp white dress shirt), and opts for Wingtip Oxford shoes with laces instead of his usual tasseled loafers. It’s the only time I ever see him wear this combination, so it’s obviously important to him to impress somebody. Otherwise, he seems to be content with a blue blazer and khaki or grey trousers. I’d love to see him dressed in denim and flannel, perhaps with his hair tousled a little. Or in all black.
Even though he rides the tube to work, Michael owns a car. When he crosses his legs, I can see the round scraping on the sole of only one shoe, about the size of a twenty pence piece, where he twists the ball of his foot on the pavement as he climbs into the driver’s seat. I imagine it’s something sporty, perhaps even a vintage Austin-Healey with two-tone paint and a convertible top. A girl with blue eyes and auburn hair would look very good driving up to the Lake District in a car like that, I promise you.
I cherish my time with Michael, fleeting as it is. I am perhaps the only girl in all of London who can’t wait for the weekend to end so I can begin the commute to work all over again. These are halcyon days, nearly perfect. Nearly.
Several months ago, something changed. Michael got off the Central Line at Holborn, and had the eager, anticipatory look of a young boy heading off to Brighton on holiday. From Holborn he could transfer to the Piccadilly Line that would take him to the quaint restaurants and elegant theatres of Covent Garden, the cinemas and nightclubs in Leicester Square, or the quiet tea rooms and charming booksellers along Charing Cross Road. Wherever his underground journey was taking him, he clearly couldn’t wait to get there. I had to consider the worst case scenario; Michael had found romance.
My suspicions were confirmed a week later, when he stepped on the tube at the very last moment at St. Paul’s. Presumably the bouquet of freshly cut Gerbera daisies he clutched in his left hand had taken him longer than expected to purchase from a street vendor and the transaction had nearly caused him to miss his train. He hopped off at Holborn and I watched him through the window as he disappeared into the throng. It felt like seeing a life raft floating away on the churning sea, forever out of my grasp.
I sat down in an overstuffed chair in my flat that night and stared at the ceiling, noticing for the first time the water stains that had spread like veins on the yellowing plaster. I took stock of my life, which didn’t take very long. Stuck in a dead-end job that was as about as interesting as a broken hammer and barely paid the bills. No social life, for lack of funds and lack of interest in other men. Mostly I was weary of the questions from friends and family… “Have you met anyone? Are you seeing anyone? Is there anyone special in your life?” No, no, and no. My world was not moving forward. It was like the Circle Line on the Underground… retracing the same path day after day, with most of the view just a dull blur of darkened tunnel walls. Speaking of walls, I suddenly hated every poster and print I had hanging in my flat. Time to change them. I’ll do it tomorrow, just as soon as I paint over those ugly water stains on the ceiling. And I might take up yoga.
My mood suddenly brightened as I considered new possibilities; maybe the flowers Michael clutched in his hand were not for some new paramour? Perhaps they were for his mother, or sister, or his favorite aunt? That would be so like Michael. Thoughtful. Caring. Generous. My spirits collapsed just as quickly. Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody has that kind of gleam in their eye and sparkle in their step when they’re going to visit their mother. It was obvious; my ideal had discovered his.
I wanted to be happy for Michael. I wanted him to find love, and intimacy, and joy. Just not with her. I’m sure she’s quite pleasant, and no doubt attractive and funny and clever, and wears real pearls and nice scarves, otherwise Michael wouldn’t be interested in her. But I just don’t believe she’s good enough for him. I can’t believe she’ll listen to his fresh ideas and anxious worriments. She won’t massage the furrow in his brow after a long week of sorting out stocks and bonds. I highly doubt she knows how to make a proper lentil soup. And I’m quite certain she wouldn’t look nearly as happy riding in a vintage Austin-Healy with the top down.
His evening exit at Holborn went on for most of the winter, with the bouquet of daisies held in hand every Friday evening, creature of habit that he was. It was almost unbearable for me to watch, to the point where I nearly started sitting in a different railcar just to avoid seeing his face and all his glints of amorous delight. Nearly. But if I did that, I wouldn’t get to see Michael, and I wasn’t about to let her take that away from me.
And then just as suddenly, it all stopped. One day Michael stepped on the train with his face sallow and drawn. His normally impeccable necktie was pulled down loose and his top button was unfastened. He sat down harder than usual, and listened to his headphones for exactly 14 seconds before tugging them out of his ears and turning off his phone. He closed his weary eyes and just rode the rails of the London Underground, jostling about in his seat like the thousands of other nameless strangers around him, their only purpose being to get home.
In the days and weeks that followed, Michael no longer stepped on the train with a bounce in his step, no longer arrived with daisies, and most importantly, no longer disembarked at Holborn on the evening commute. No more Covent Garden or Leicester Square. No more antiquarian books at Charing Cross. It was on to Marble Arch, where he dragged himself out of his seat and out the door of the railcar and up the stairs to some lonely flat, his tender feelings assuaged only by the dim light of a football match on the telly.
This moping went on for over a month, as winter turned into spring. It broke my heart to see him in such a state of melancholy, but the fact that he never missed a day of work through all of his disconsolation let me know that deep down he was going to survive his tribulations. I just wished I was the one who could nurse his wounded psyche back to full strength.
It was another Friday, the end of the work week. The London air was warming, and the first buds had appeared on the trees in the park. I imagined the Lake District was beautiful this time of year. (I could only imagine, because I’ve never actually been there). As I stood on the platform at Bank, I could feel the breeze pushing out of the tunnel from the approaching train. My pulse quickened. I’ll see Michael soon. And today, I felt like something might be different. Something in the shifting underground wind was telling me that a metamorphosis was on the horizon. Just a feeling, based on nothing more than instinct. And hope.
As I stepped aboard and heard the superfluous pre-recorded warning of “mind the gap”, reminding me to avoid stepping into the space between the platform and the railcar, a lightness of being came over me. Perhaps it was because I knew it was only one stop from Bank to St. Paul’s before I would see Michael again.
Even though there were a handful of seats available, for the first time in my life I chose to stand and grab the strap above me to steady myself as the train rolled out of the station. As I had secretly hoped, there was a sizable crowd waiting on the platform at St. Paul’s. They scrambled aboard and every vacant seat was quickly snapped up. Michael was among the last to get on, and after a quick glance around, he immediately surmised he would be standing for the duration. He grabbed the strap above him and widened his stance for balance, placing his briefcase between his feet. He just happened to be directly adjacent to me. Ever the creature of habit. He looked horrible. He stared out the window at the darkness of the passing walls. Nothing to see, but nowhere else to cast his burdened gaze. The weight of the breakup with “whatever her name was” must have been crushing. I’m glad she broke up with him, but I’m still angry she did it so harshly.
We traveled side by side in silence, occasionally bumping into each other as the train navigated the gloomy tunnels underneath the teeming streets of The Smoke . It was as close as I’d ever been to Michael, and as close to heaven. (I can only imagine what heaven is like, because I never actually been there either).
It was Oxford Circus before I finally summoned the courage to speak. “Hi,” I said, with a polite smile. Hi? That was the best you could come up with? After more than a year of wishing with every fibre of your being that you could have a conversation with the man you adore, “hi” was your opener? How pithy! How full of genius and wit he must think you are! How could any man resist such enticing charm? Honestly, I thought we had rehearsed this!
Michael snapped out of a mild trance and looked around to see from where the voice had come. He looked down a few inches and noticed me, staring up at him with the same polite smile frozen on my face.
“Hello,” he replied, somewhat startled over the intrusion over the borders of his state of mild depression.
He spoke to me! Michael actually spoke to me! He said “hello!”, in the most wonderful of voices! I’m actually having a conversation with my ideal!
“Hi,” I repeated. Again with the hi? Really?
He took on a puzzled look. “Forgive me, but do I know you?” he asked in his gentle way.
“Not really, no. I think we sometimes ride the Central Line at the same time.”
“Oh.” Michael nodded, then looked away, about to venture back into catatonia.
“My name is Liza,” I blurted out, back on script and not about to let the moment I had seized slip away.
He turned back, his eyes suddenly coming into focus and warming a little. “Nice to meet you, Liza.” For the first time, he actually took notice of me. Not just as a human shape occupying the same space on a crowded train, but as a human being.
I summoned all of my courage and blurted out a line I’d been rehearsing in my mind since the onset of the winter chill. “Forgive me for saying so, but you look as though you might be having a rough day.”
He chuckled sardonically, as if trying to break free of the bitterness of unrequited love. “You might say that. Been a bit of rough year, truth be told.”
He laughed again, nodding his head as he silently recalled the difficulties of the last few months. “Is it that obvious?”
Only to someone who loves and cares about you, I thought. Emboldened, I continued on with the next line from the theatre in my mind. “Would you like to get a coffee?”
Michael wasn’t the least taken aback by the offer, in fact he found it refreshing, but his current mood didn’t seem to allow for company. Even company as lovely as hers. “No thank you. But thank you for asking.”
“Why not?” I pressed. “I think it might cheer you up.”
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t be very good company tonight.”
“Perhaps not, but I would be.”
Michael pressed his top row of teeth down onto his lower lip and narrowed his gaze, studying the situation. Studying me. He nodded his head slowly, as if to indicate he’d reached some sort of positive conclusion. My heart raced, thinking he was about to accept my invitation. Then suddenly, in a stunning turnabout, Michael reversed course, breaking eye contact with me and turning his head to one side and shaking it no. My fluttering heart sank. I’d waited for over a year for this very moment… to finally approach “my ideal”, and in an instant it was all going to be dashed, like a delicate china saucer falling off the table onto a cold, hard, tile floor, destined to be shattered into a thousand irreparable pieces.
“Actually, coffee doesn’t sound all that appealing to me, ” said Michael, still looking into the blur outside the window and shaking his head. My advances had all gone so badly so quickly. His rebuff was crushing. Stinging. Demoralizing. In an instant, my mind was already plotting a different route to get to work. Perhaps even a different job. A different city was not out of the question. I’ve heard Liverpool is nice. (I’ve never actually been there.) Then Michael turned back and engaged my eyes once again. A pleasant smile spread across his face and the furrow of worry in his forehead vanished. He spoke gently. “But a nice cup of tea would be lovely.”
As the tube slowed to a stop at Marble Arch, he extended his hand to steady me, of which I already knew every line and fold. Trembling with excitement, I reached up and grasped his hand in mine. The sensation of warmth and electricity comingled in my skin as it touched his. I felt like I was home. “My name is Garrett,” said Michael. “And I appreciate the offer.” Garrett motioned toward the stairs that would lead us out of the London Underground. “Shall we?”
I nodded and beamed, taking the steps lightly and heading upwards to the warm evening light of the vibrant streets above, where I would soon find delight in a cup of hot tea and a long-awaited conversation.
I am now in love with Garrett.
* * *