They finally met on a Tuesday morning. “I’ve noticed you on here before and I’d love to take you out for a coffee,” the stranger said, handing Ellie Fiedler a crumpled piece of paper with his phone number on it. Before she had time to answer, the subway doors shut behind him. Ellie stood on the train, blushing, hot to the touch. She had been watching him for weeks.
New York City wasn’t what she expected. After sleepwalking through the humid summer at her parents’ house in Iowa, missing her ex-boyfriend and slicing corned beef at the local deli for minimum wage, Ellie had been hired as a writer for a science magazine in the city. Although her new apartment was spacious and warm, with hardwood floors and honey-hued lighting, she wasn’t meeting any fascinating strangers, and instead kept waiting for her real life to start. The men she met at bars mostly worked on Wall Street; their favorite conversation topics were money and themselves. They didn’t notice Ellie’s blown-out hair or the way her bright green eyes lit up whenever she talked about her older sister. Their suits and night caps, the way they’d circle the wine in their glasses and laugh with their mouths wide open at their own jokes, made Ellie feel just as alone as she’d felt in Iowa. Maybe the frat guys she used to complain about to her girlfriends over bottles of cheap rosé weren’t so bad after all. So what if they wore backwards hats and shotgunned beer cans at parties? At least they didn’t spend the evening texting or showing her pictures of the houses in the Hamptons she would never be invited to.
On dates, by the time her second glass was empty, Ellie’s mind would drift to the mysterious stranger she kept seeing on the subway on her way to work. Their commutes were in sync. He was mysteriously handsome, with slanted eyes and a slight redness to the apples of his cheeks. She watched his big, smooth hands as he held the subway pole, and fantasized about feeling them caressing her body, or at least holding her own while walking through Central Park. His hair was shaved close to his head like a soldier’s and he wore a fitted suit that Ellie could tell was expensive. Sometimes, she could feel his eyes on her own body while she read on the subway and thought of how she finally understood why there were all of those songs about love on a train. This guy, whoever he was, always rode the subway alone, and she liked to think he didn’t have anybody else. He was always there, just out of reach.
Ellie saw her life like a book, inventing backstories for every character that seemed to pop into it. The homeless man holding a black plastic bag and picking at his browned fingernails? He was once a promising athlete who fell in with the wrong crowd. The gorgeous blonde twenty-something-year-old in a jean jacket and sneakers sitting across from her? She was probably on her way to her boyfriend’s apartment, wearing pink lingerie underneath her dress.
Her subway crush was harder to typecast. His ensemble suggested he worked in finance, or something corporate. But he also seemed sensitive and artistic from the way he nodded to the beat of the music in his headphones. Where was he from? What did he do for fun? Did he have a girlfriend? Did he wear boxers or briefs? Ellie wanted to know everything about him, but when she searched her mind for his story, it was foggy.
Sometimes the man disappeared for weeks. Ellie would fidget with her phone and look up at each stop, scanning every face in hopes of finding his. She hoped he’d step onto the train and catch her reading something that showed how smart and fun and interesting she was. All summer in Iowa, she’d binged on Lifetime movies, and as much as she made fun of the cheesy plots with her girlfriends, she also secretly fantasized about finding her own all-consuming love.
That Tuesday, Ellie took the One Train like she did every day. She looked up from the copy of Infinite Jest in her lap when she finally saw him. She had met men in all the conventional ways, sitting at her kitchen counter eating cereal while swiping through dating apps, and even through introductions through mutual friends. But that Tuesday, when he handed her his number, Ellie felt like she was starring in her own romantic comedy. In a whole car full of young men and beautiful women on their way to work, she had something compelling and worth noticing that he couldn’t pass up. He had chosen her.
Ellie flung her bag onto her work desk and plopped into her computer chair. She saved the number in her contacts on her phone. Eric, the note read.
No last name.
Would it seem desperate to text him right away? Should she wait until tomorrow? It must have taken him time to muster the courage to hand her that note and ask her out. She shouldn’t keep him waiting.
Hello, she typed.
Within seconds, Ellie’s phone dinged with his reply.
I’ve noticed you on the train before.
Two weeks ago you were carrying an Amy’s Frozen Lasagna.
And the Tuesday before that you were reading Infinite Jest.
Why’d you change your nail color to pink? I liked the turquoise.
Ellie looked down at her phone, furrowed her eyebrows, and tilted her head. Eric had noticed her. Isn’t that what she wanted? So why did she suddenly feel freaked out?
“You’ve got to be kidding me. You texted a random stranger you met on the subway? Who does that?” Ellie’s older co-worker said when Ellie shared her slight concern. Was it so terrible that Ellie wanted to give this guy a chance? She had just moved to the big city, and already her romantic comedy fantasy bubble felt like it was about to burst.
Her co-worker was right, he was a stranger. What if he was like the serial killers she’d watched in Netflix documentaries? When Ellie really thought about it, she didn’t actually know who he really was or what he was hiding. What was she thinking? How pathetic and desperate was she to have accepted his note? Her mind, usually sharp and quick, felt empty and hollow. Ellie was embarrassed she ever believed she could find love on the subway. All she’d wanted was for Eric to notice her, yet when she read his text messages, she didn’t feel like she was being noticed. She felt like she was being watched.
You know what, actually, I thought about it and I don’t think I want to get that coffee with you. But thanks, anyway.
While she waited for his reply, her eyes traveled back to his messages. Two weeks ago you were carrying an Amy’s Frozen Lasagna. Two weeks ago. Was it two weeks ago? She hadn’t had time to cook because she was watching The Bachelor. Bachelor Monday. It was two weeks ago. Exactly. She couldn’t remember seeing him that day, but he had undoubtedly seen her.
When Ellie unlocked the door to her empty apartment, she turned on all of the lights and looked in every corner, anxious even when she found nothing. By the time she showered and climbed into bed, he still hadn’t answered. What did she expect? She re-read her own text. It was probably too harsh. She’d sent him mixed signals. He must have been shocked that she changed her mind. Although their eyes never actually locked, Ellie assumed he saw her eyeing him on the Subway at least a few times. Exhausted, Ellie plugged her phone into the charger, pulled the covers up to her chin, and fell asleep.
She woke up to a text. It was a selfie of Eric staring straight into the camera, expressionless.
The next day, he wasn’t on the train. The week after that, she still didn’t see him anywhere. She had wanted to forget about their encounter entirely, but every time she closed her eyes, she saw Eric’s vacant face. Two months passed without Ellie seeing or hearing from Eric at all. She assumed he was embarrassed by the rejection and had changed his morning commute. While she felt sorry for wounding his ego, she was relieved to be able to lean back on the Subway seat and relax into the novel she was reading without worrying if he was watching her.
It’s an awfully cold day on the Subway to not be a wearing a coat, don’t you think?
She looked up from her phone, scanning the train car for his shaved head and suit jacket, but Eric was nowhere.
The next morning on the train, another text.
What book is that? You finished Infinite Jest?
Again, she hunted the train for his face. He was nowhere. He was everywhere.
Haven’t seen you around lately, where are you? He would text whenever Ellie was out of town.
He sent articles from the Economist and the New York Times, asking Ellie if she read them. This one made me think of you.
He sent another expressionless selfie, and another, and another, and another.
Ellie never answered any of his messages, but for ten months, her stomach lurched like a train pulling into the station whenever she checked her phone. She felt like she had brought this whole situation upon herself, and therefore, she must have deserved it. She was the unsophisticated new girl, fresh to the city, who’d handed out her number like a rose to a random stranger on the Subway. It was nobody’s fault but her own.
Yet when Ellie wanted to calm her nerves by searching his name to see that he was considerably normal, she realized that she knew nothing about him: not his last name, his occupation, his address. There was literally nothing she could type into Google. She couldn’t even check to make sure he wasn’t an actual serial killer.
Ellie told her story to a police officer who was the boyfriend of a friend. He explained that while the messages were unsettling, Eric technically was not threatening Ellie, so there was nothing she could do. Eric had the legal right to be around her physically and emotionally, as long as what he said was free of threat. “Just block him,” the police officer suggested.
Ellie didn’t want to block him. Receiving his text messages was the only sense of control she felt she had over the situation, and each time he texted her hinting that he knew what she was wearing and who she was with, she at least knew that he was prowling nearby.
The stories she once tried to formulate about his life were exchanged for anxious scenarios of what he could do to her. She thought only of the worst and was afraid he would follow her home, tie her up, rape her and kill her. She sometimes imagined he would wait in the parking lot at her office in a black SUV and kidnap her. She began to fantasize about quitting her job and moving away.
They never locked eyes. Even when Eric handed her the note, he looked at the ground. The only times Ellie looked into his eyes were when he stared into hers through the selfies he sent. Look at me, they said, you have no choice.
Ellie rarely went out anymore. Instead, she spent nights at home writing, startled by every creak her apartment made. In her nightmares, she’d pull back the shower curtain and see him standing there. She would wake up sweating and savor the relief that flooded her body when she realized she was in her bed, safe and alone.
When Ellie’s older sister was hired for a new job in Boston, Ellie took it as an omen to follow her. She would be free of sweaty palms and the daily stress of worrying she might see Eric. She would start fresh, this time experienced and much smarter, and she would know not to accept strangers and their notes.
It was a warm April afternoon and Ellie was walking to an appointment at a new doctor’s office near her new apartment in Boston. The bustling of unfamiliar strangers comforted Ellie, and she felt sheltered by the city’s tall buildings casting long shadows onto the pavement. Finally, she was beyond Eric’s reach. Ellie inhaled the crisp air. As she turned the corner, her eyes recognized a face in the crowd of strangers. After months of anxious searching, there he was. Here. He walked past her, and their eyes locked for the first time. Ellie’s pace accelerated with the beating of her heart. She let her legs take her wherever they wanted, fast, far away from him, until her phone dinged with a text that stopped her in her tracks.
I could have sworn I just saw you. What are you doing here?
Raz Tal is a writer interested in how relationships shape women, identities, and culture. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and is a military intelligence unit veteran. Raz is founder of the dating advice column, Smart Girl Knows, where she offers hilariously true advice on modern love. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Betches, Hey Alma, Medium, P.S. I Love You, Forbes Israel, NoCamels,and The Israel Association of Writers in English Literary Magazine.