No Free Lunch

Please, remember me
My misery
And how it lost me all I wanted
– Iron & Wine, “The Trapeze Swinger

Across the street from the train station, on the south side of 5th street, there was a beggar holding the requisite cardboard sign. I couldn’t really read what it said, but despite the usual club-goers and the traffic on Hennepin, it was quiet enough that night that I could hear his conversations. “I’ll do a dance for you. If you like it, you can give me a dollar,” he’d say to passing pedestrians. Sometimes they’d laugh. Usually they’d ignore him. Before too long, though, a well-meaning young man in a blue Oxford and a black North Face windbreaker walked up with a doggy bag in hand. “Here. I got you a bite to eat.”

The beggar mumbled something in reply – a humble but practiced “Thanks,” perhaps – but accepted the white bag reluctantly, as if he thought there was a fifty-fifty shot it contained scarabs rather than food. He glanced inside before setting the bag beside him, reciprocating a wide smile with a curt nod. He watched as North Face walked away: as soon as the do-gooder turned the corner, the beggar slogged over to the nearest trash can and threw away his free meal.

I considered rummaging through the trash to see what the bag contained, but my curiosity wasn’t strong enough for me to bypass the arriving train. Being late on a Wednesday, the cabin was predictably empty. Two people had their heads down on the seats in front of them, striking the “Heads up, seven up!” pose I learned so well in second grade. (Train travel note: discounting rush hour, you’ll find that most people sit on the last car. It didn’t take me long to realize that this is because the station entrances tend to be closer to the rear of the stationary train and most people can’t be bothered to walk the length of the platform. I, on the other hand, prefer to defer my laziness to end of my trip and board the car that will be closest to my exit.)

That night I wanted a distraction, and as amusing as it was for me to imagine some sprawling city-wide game of Seven Up, it wasn’t about to cut it.

The next station gave me people to watch. I mistook them for a couple at first. They were both attractive: her with sandy-blonde hair and what seemed like green eyes – or maybe her emerald jacket just drew the green out of them? – and him dark-haired with murderer’s thumbs and, despite it being well past five, a square jaw without a hint of stubble . What drew my eyes were his shoes, rich burgundy wing tips without laces. They seemed unnaturally stiff, as though toes had never flexed against the polished leather. Even after I noticed the titanium rod where his ankle should have been, it took a moment before it dawned on me. This man is missing his legs.

That detail, perhaps morbidly or unfairly, piqued my interest in what I’d brushed off as a run-of-the-mill date night. But by then it was too late to eavesdrop. “Well, this is my stop,” he announced.


“This was a lot of fun. We should do it again.”

“Yeah,” she said, somewhat flatly. “We should.” He gave her a side hug and shuffled out the door.

I glanced over at her and I felt anger swell up. Have you ever been irrationally angry at a total stranger over something completely innocuous? It’s a good sign you’re projecting. How could she? I bet it’s because he’s an amputee. Just how shallow is this woman? It always says more about you than it does about them.

I don’t remember what she said that interrupted the self-analysis of my contempt. With how much time I spend speaking to strangers – and just how often people ask me for my favorite ice breakers – you’d think I’d have a more natural memory for conversation starters. But the best conversations seem to flow from something said off the cuff. I wish I remember what she’d said. All I can say is that one second I was fuming, and the next second we were talking. Detached from the immediate context of such events, it seems remarkable to me that people open up to strangers on public transit, or that they’d deconstruct elements of their lives in the apparent hope that a fresh set of eyes could help them reassemble in a more comfortable arrangement. All that to say, at some point she asked me in some arrangement of words, “Why do men ask women on dates if they know there’s no future for their relationship?”

I could think of three reasons. “Either they don’t know that they don’t have a shot, or they think they can change your mind, or they see inherent value in going through the motions and issuing the invitation regardless.”

(She scoffed at the third possibility. When I told her I’d done it, she pressed me for an explanation. All I could think of was baseball: if you’re at bat, in the bottom of the 9th with two out and a full count, a certain type of man will always swing at that next pitch. Although she nodded her head, I’m not sure she could relate.)

“Is that what happened tonight?” I asked. “You don’t think you have a future with that guy?”

She nodded her head.

I often finding myself asking the wrong question. What followed was a discussion of why she didn’t think he was right for her – a conversation I had no way to contribute to, not knowing him at all. What I should have asked but didn’t was, “Believing that there was no future, why did you go on the date?” Maybe hers would have been a disappointing and banal reason (“I didn’t have any plans” or “I couldn’t think of a good excuse” or “Well, he asked, and I have a rule about that”). Maybe it would have been something interesting like, “I didn’t want people to think I was shallow for turning down an amputee.” Perhaps the presumption that had me fuming was, in fact, her whole motivation for going out with him in the first place. I’ll never know.

Past her sandy-blonde head I saw the familiar sight of the Lexington Aldi. “Well, this is my stop,” I said as I stood up. “It was nice meeting you.”

She sat up straight. “Actually, we haven’t met yet.” Then she thrust her hand in mind and told me her name.


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