When I say the coupe was on fire, I don’t mean that there was a little smoke slipping out from under the hood. I mean it was blazing: the flames climbed four or five feet above the car’s roof, its gun-metal gray smoke billowed in a cylinder as thick as the trunk of a redwood. It was a flicker of dystopia – or the somber news footage I remember from the war-torn Balkans. Flaming cars do not belong in the parking lot of the Midway Rainbow Foods. It was a sight equal parts astonishing and captivating, one impossible to reconcile from my seat in the glistening new Green Line cabin.
Even before the fire, the train ride had been eventful. The Hennepin Avenue station where I boarded is positioned awkwardly in front of both Sneaky Pete’s and a strip club. (After just a few minutes of watching the rope line and pedestrians from the station platform, it becomes obvious which men would make the sharp, swift bank into the doors of the latter. They have the tendency to grimace when they notice the line blocking their path.) Despite the throng of club-goers and night owls, the only other person waiting on the platform was a young, slender brunette woman. She was wearing workout gear: yoga pants, a track jacket, Reebok cross trainers with hot pink highlights. And she was crying.
We boarded the train together and sat across from each other in an otherwise-empty cabin. I glanced over at her. Her arms were crossed tightly across her chest, almost like she was hugging herself, and her lips were pressed together as if to quarantine her voice. I opened my mouth almost as a reflex. I wanted to say something – I don’t know if the “damsel in distress” thing is hardwired into men in general, or if it’s just me, but few things swell my sympathy like a woman crying. Call me sexist if you must. But I couldn’t think of anything of any value to say.
As luck would have it, we were afforded a timely interruption. Another woman, slightly older than the first, came aboard on the next stop. She was wearing a leopard-print top underneath a faded denim vest. Her perfume preceded her by three paces. She sat in the seat immediately in front of me, tapping her half-inch long fingernails on the handrail and muttering, “That was the worst date of my life.”
That was too much for me to resist. “Excuse me,” I said. She swung her head around. “What made your date so bad?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see our fellow passenger riveted while awaiting her answer. Apparently, her date was more interested in getting high than he was in the date. “He ask me if he could use the drugs!” she groaned. “When I said no, he got drunk on the liquor!”
“Yikes,” said track jacket, breaking her quarantine.
“It was awful. I didn’t even wait for him to pay. I just left.”
I let out a chuckle. “On the bright side, though,” I offered, “your next date can’t possibly go so badly!”
She didn’t appreciate the joke. “No. I am never going out with him again.”
At that point, I looked back over at track jacket. She was smiling slightly, but her cerulean irises looked luminous in contrast to the bloodshot whites. I must have been frowning myself: the second she made eye contact, her lower lip quivered, her inner eyebrows shot up, and she turned away. Ack. I finally tried to ask, like a shy toddler requesting a cookie, “What’s wrong?”
She inhaled and sighed. “I can’t really explain – it would take too long. It’s just… some people just jump to conclusions. They don’t even try to understand.” As though it were scripted, at that exact moment her phone buzzed in her hand and her whole body clenched from the surprise. She hoisted her knees to her chest, embracing them in a seated fetal position, and began texting with the speed and fury of a court reporter tracking an auctioneer.
By and large, that’s how it stayed until we spotted the fire. Denim was the first to notice it. “Oh my goodness,” she gasped. “Like this night needed any more weirdness.”
The people waiting on the platform didn’t seem quite as interested in the blaze. In fact, none of them were even watching it. When a group of three teens – two girls and a boy, sharing a pound bag of Skittles – boarded our car, they seemed practically oblivious. Denim asked them, “Guys, what happened to that car?” The three of us watched them in anticipation of an answer.
The question went unnoticed. What was noticed, however, was the fact that I was looking at them. The male of the group made eye contact with me and held it, waiting for me to look away. I held the eye contact, waiting for him to give me more information about the riot scene playing out in the parking lot. “Dude, stop looking at me!” He dropped some Skittles on the floor and smashed them with his foot. “I’m not gay.”
The girls immediately stood up and boxed me into my seat. “Yeah! My boyfriend’s not gay! Stop looking at him.”
I laughed derisively.
“We will fight you.”
I laughed harder. The thought of two teenage girls furiously slapping at me while I covered my face with my forearm was just too much to hold in. “Wait. You want to fight ME?” Denim started laughing too. The girls huffed and went back to their seats. I considered asking for a handful of Skittles, but thought better of it. I tend to have a hard time putting out fires I didn’t start, but I am slowly learning to not throw gas on them.