None of my business

Subway pic by Alex KehrMet with the tax accountant in his office in the New Yorker Hotel (not as seedy as it sounds) and after dinner rode the 1 train home. A couple gets on at 42nd and sits nearby. He looks to be of northern European stock, with a neatly trimmed goatee, and she more slavic, with a rounder face. Both are thin, and are carrying off the hipster look without the requisite irony. They and their clothes are clean and they are carrying a full Army duffle bag. Mid-twenties, but weary for their age. Look like they are from the midwest.

They sit at the end of a row of seats. The train is full on a Saturday night, but it’s too early for it to be crowded. He opens a paper bag and pulls out a small bottle of water and a much smaller bottle of red liquid. Looks like cough syrup at first glance, but neither look like they have a cough. A thought passes through my mind: there must be cheaper ways of getting drunk in Manhattan than cough syrup.

She pulls out a small bottle that was probably intended to be used for packing travel shampoo. He takes off the child-safe cap on his small bottle of red liquid, and starts to worry the foil seal. It seems a bit overly careful, and my first assumption is that he doesn’t want to spill as the train jerks along. At this point I notice the warning label on the bottle–a flash of orange stuck on haphazardly, on the corner of the prescription label. Everyone is waiting for the spill, but no one wants to look like they’re looking.

A hushed but heated conversation takes place, and the girl surrenders her small bottle. By now, the guy has managed to remove the foil and begins to pour the liquid from the prescription bottle into the other bottle. Back and forth the pour goes on a jerky train. People glance over in that furtive way familiar to subway-travelers. All except the woman sitting next to me who is staring at them pointedly. They argue over whether the two bottles are even, holding them up to the light to compare levels, even though one bottle is of smaller diameter, calling to mind black-and-white films of Piaget’s demonstration of centration among young children. The couple’s words and actions remind me of children in other ways, I realize.

They have agreed on an equitable distribution of the liquid. The girl notices a drop on the threads of her bottle and eagerly licks it off. Then she tries to force her tongue into the tiny neck of the plastic bottle to get more. The guy tells her, again, to stop because people are looking. He carefully uncaps the bottled water and refills the prescription to the top. He then takes the foil seal and tries to reapply it, crimpling the foil around the outside of the lip of the bottle in an effort to conceal his tampering. On goes the child-safe top, and he shakes it vigorously. They consult on whether it looks right, and then it goes into her purse.

“Just hand it to her in the bag,” he says, “and don’t say anything. Trust me.”

None of my business. The breakup of an older couple, the child cuffed for asking to read, the woman threatening to cut up someone else for brushing her on a crowded train. Living in a crowded city means creating new boundaries and keeping the dramas close to home. Yet, later that night, while I am trying to drift off to sleep, I can’t help but picture in my mind an old woman in a dressing gown, trying to make her way painfully to bed with cane in hand, wondering why the OxyContin (is that what it was?) doesn’t work like it used to.

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