Real Character #1: The Woman with the Carrots

New York, NY

I saw a woman on the subway a couple months ago during my morning commute, pulling baby carrots out of her purse and eating them.  She popped them into her mouth whole, chewed, and then reached into her bag for another as she swallowed.  Purse, pop, chew.  Purse, pop, chew.  Over and over again as I steadied myself against the grimy, fingerprinted pole.  I hoped that woman had gotten a seat immediately upon entering the train car, that she’d never had to touch this pole.  That she at least had a mini bottle of good, strong hand sanitizer tucked into her purse beside the carrots.

What kind of life must a person lead to compel her to keep carrots in her bag, hidden from view the way high school girls hide tampons, buried deep in the fabric like something shameful? She was not elderly, so senility had nothing to do with it. Nor was she odd or remarkable in any other way. I can’t remember what she was wearing, but I imagine it to be the dress trousers and sweater ensemble that’s typical of women during the weekday rush hour; I can’t remember the color of her hair, but I imagine it to be a dusty sort of blonde.  Her shoes were undoubtedly nothing special–black, round-toed, patent leather flats.  She stared ahead, looking at nothing in particular, popping the carrots into her mouth.  Chewing.  Reaching into her purse for another.  Purse, pop, chew.

She may have had kids at home, perhaps a boy around eleven years old and a girl about eight.  Maybe two boys.  They could have been twins.  She made their lunch every day, spreading peanut butter on one slice of bread and jelly on another before slapping the two together and cutting off the crusts.  She did this twice every morning, one for each child, and placed it in a sandwich bag, which was later placed in a brown paper bag, and complemented with a pudding cup and a juice box and a handful of baby carrots.  Never mind that the twins think they’re too old for juice boxes.  They’re perfectly content to let their mother make their lunch, so they’ll take what she packs them whether they like it or not.

And she saw them out the door, watched from the window until they turned the corner in the direction of the school that sits three blocks away.  She had to rush to get to work on time; sometimes she feels like she’s always rushing.  On her way out, she grabbed the torn plastic bag with what was left of the baby carrots.  There was a cartoon rabbit printed on it, chomping on a carrot like a knock-off version of Bugs Bunny.  It’s terrible marketing, she thought.  Unless they’re trying to sell carrots to rabbits, and really, what’s the challenge in that?

By the time she got to the subway platform, she felt a little winded.  A bead of sweat slid down her back.  She could feel it under her jacket, like a phantom fingertip tracing the line of her tailbone.  Everything looked duller than usual that morning:  the concrete floor, the garbage on the tracks stained with rat urine, the fading graffiti on the cracked tile wall.  Her own coat was gray, ordinary enough that she could feel it swallow her with its ordinariness, its grayness.  A man with a purple mohawk walked by, cast her a quick look as if he pitied her, and took a seat on the wooden bench a few steps away.  A train screeched at the far end of the platform, just as it all started closing in–the concrete, the trash, the cracks in the tile big enough for her to fall into and disappear.  The gray, the overwhelming gray, consuming her like it would never consume the man with the purple mohawk, like he never would have let it consume him.  And when the train doors opened in front of her, she bolted through them, collapsed into the nearest open seat, and pulled out a piece of brilliant, perfect, orange.  Pop.  Chew.  Purse.

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