I HAD AN ODD, potentially embarrassing encounter on the homebound train this evening. The first major shift in the train seating pattern occurs at the Wood-Ridge station, when the first group of riders disembarks and the folks stuck standing since they got on at Seacaucus get to sit down. It was at this point that someone decided to take the aisle seat next to me (I always sit next to the window).
Out the corner of my eye, I was convinced I knew the person. I don't think with the corner of my eye, though, so I tried to steal a full-on view so I could rule it out or face up to it. This is because I haven't seen the person I thought this might be for 8 years or so, a streak I have no desire to break.
Rewind for a briefing. This person was one of the few fellow graduates of mine with whom I remained in touch. He and I met in freshman year as next-door neighbors, then roomed together in junior year. He was the first acquaintance of mine to own a stereo component with a CD player in it, and he had scores of discs, which at the time — 1987 — were still novelties in long, tree-killing boxes. In expanding his collection to well over 300 over the first year of college alone, he also became the first peer of mine to face down immense credit-card debt. But his parents were loaded and he worked for his father, so his pain was minimal.
The reason I broke off contact with him was his eventual wife, whom he met in sophomore year. She was an expert psychological manipulator, in addition to being seriously troubled herself, and through a combination of sex and guilt, she latched onto him hard. They did break up a couple of times after college, though he eventually did return to her. It says something about how close I was to this couple that, not only did I get a detailed description of one of the breakups from both parties, the woman invited me up to college (she was a year behind us) for a weekend. I am almost certain that had I taken her up on this, I would have been a little more than a crying towel for her. I made excuses, gritted my teeth, and stayed the hell away. I knew how she had treated him, and I had no desire to wreck the friendship between him and me or to let her get into my head the way she had drilled into his.
They eventually reconciled. They had a lot in common: Both came from wealthy backgrounds, both had stressful childhoods (he lost a sister to a wrenching battle with leukemia and wrestled with his parents' divorce, she was adopted but was very much not adjusted to the fact), both were virulently racist. They married in 1995, at a time when I had finally found a girlfriend of my own, and was paying little attention to them as a result.
The marriage, like the relationship that led into it, was rocky. The bride's level of manipulation via guilt and, now, compulsive shopping rose to new heights. It was sad to see. The guy had the demeanor of a golden retriever, but she took advantage of it and fell back on her psychological diagnoses when he called her on her bullshit. She was seeing a therapist for a genuine condition, but she never failed to remind her husband of it when she crossed the line from gentle nagging to overt harassment. An example would be when we all went to Williams-Sonoma, and she filled a basket to the rim with junk, unneeded gimcracks and foodstuffs that she bought just to spite him. When he asked why she needed so many pieces of oven ware, she said, "Baking season's coming." He confirmed to me, later, that this was the first he had heard of her interest in such things. One hundred and sixty dollars of aggravation went on his credit card that day.
Perhaps worse, she antagonized and repulsed his other close male friends. She turned him against two of the other four guys in his wedding party besides myself and a guy whose residence in Germany probably spared him such direct assault. I forget precisely the excuses she used, but she convinced him they were no longer worth his time. I think I escaped this fate because I didn't live down there and thus wasn't on the scene all the time. Maybe she had some special fate cued up for me that I didn't allow her the time to enact.
This is because, in the late Nineties, I cut them off. It made me sick to see him so ill treated, and yet to have her speaking to me on the phone, by herself, as though nothing was wrong at all. I decided after one visit to make it the last. I hated to hear their racist ravings, their constant sniping at each other, and especially her hectoring him about how her AOL addiction was caused by her medication and job. When I moved again in 1999, I gave instructions to my parents not to disseminate my phone number to either one of them if they called. I have neither seen nor heard from this couple since.
And now it looked like the guy was sitting right next to me.
On the surface, his presence in Bergen County made no sense. The last I knew, he was living in the same mammoth condo development as his mother in Somerset County, a good hour down 287. Also, he worked at his father's business, which was based both there and way out in western New Jersey. Unless he had left his chosen field, he would have no reason to move up to Bergen and away from his remaining family. This, of course, presumed a divorce, as his wife would surely never allow such a move away from her own chosen position of maximum grief and frustration with her job, his family, and the community. But I wasn't sure it was him, and I was still angling for a better glimpse of his face, let alone his ringfinger.
I could see his features more clearly on a second look. Glasses were similar, as was the hair and profile. I suspected his hairline should have been higher, based on the last time I saw him and how his father's hair eventually went. But I also noticed he was reading Car and Driver. The college guy was also an avid car fanatic. Yet I lived with this guy for 9 months, so it was difficult to believe he had sat down without noticing me. I hadn't changed all that much, aside from having more gray hair and a little less of it overall.
I remembered a sure test. The guy I knew had a fairly unsettling way of clearing his throat and nasal passages periodically. Not as comical as Felix Unger, but actually fairly gross. Over 25 minutes, he would surely make the noise I had learned to dread while living and — worse —eating around him.
I heard nothing save a few common coughs.
When the train neared my stop, I got up to retrieve my coat. He stood. I still averted my eyes, for fear of being recognized, although I was convinced it wasn't him. From the position of the train door, I looked back. Definitely wasn't him.
Why I would be shy to reestablish contact with him alone, if he was alone, was a mystery I tried to unravel as I walked home. If he was split up from his wife, reacquainting myself with him wouldn't hurt. I guess I was afraid that he might still have been hitched to this unsavory woman, and that I would be pulled back into the drama with them. Frankly, if they need me that badly, they can write me checks as though I was a couples therapist. If, of course, there's anything left in the budget after the purchases for this year's baking season.