Joyland

Montreal |

Purely Coincidental

by Ben Stephenson

edited by David McGimpsey

Here you are minding your business in your blue fiberglass seat when this totally creepy thing starts happening. You’re checking out the other commuters in your metro car, being discrete: a bunch of used-up looking people on their way home from so many separate days of hard work. You, on the other hand, are just about to begin yours. You’re trying to decide which of the people intrigue you most, but no one’s much to look at, especially the men, and the fact that you have to decide whom to wonder about really underscores the banality of everyone. You sure picked the wrong car today. As usual you can pick out at least two men who think you’re not so bad looking yourself, including this one giving you a prolonged look like he wants to let you know you’re “delectable,” or some other drippy word a commercial would use to praise a chocolate. This is the baseline type of shit you deal with on a daily basis. Or maybe you’re just obsessing, you know, aggravating things and inadvertently buying into the shit, the expectation that you’re to be looked at and wanted in public. Sometimes it’s helpful to assume another point of view – you know, that cognitive therapy trick. Seems like in this case that’d be: maybe you’re thinking’s lazy – and that wouldn’t be unlike you, probably – and maybe it could somehow miraculously be the case that this man’s also conscious of the whole shitty game, and maybe some part of his looking’s like an acquiescence, and a source of guilt, though your gut’s saying nope, none of that’s in his gaze, so maybe you’re just overthinking the whole stupid thing: also not unlike you. He’s definitely not the kind of guy capable of limping over and asking if the seat next to you’s taken, though, or enlightening you as to how impossibly soft your skin is, which you’re grateful for only in the faintest way.

 But all that’s not really the problem. What happens starts when you’re underground between Place-Saint-Henri and Lionel-Groulx, surveying everything in the subway car as you often do, having recognized years ago that your hour-long commute doesn’t feel half as tedious or dismal when you manage to absorb as many of its mini-variations as you can, keeping a diligent account of them inside. It’s like if you can just stay curious then there’s usually a reason to keep looking – you can’t always summon the energy for this, but you try. You’ve already tallied the desiccated passengers and the newspaper-strewn floor and the blue hair elastic on the seat beside you and its samples of someone – artificially? – blonde, and the obnoxious evangelical ad overhead – WHAT IF GOD WERE INSIDE YOU? – and its fine print impossible to read, and your window’s murky refractions, and now you center your attention on the fluorescent panels in the ceiling. They’re long thin rectangles of matte white, and they light the lurching train in that buzzy white way most people claim to find nauseating to the mind, but personally you’ve never hated – probably ‘cause you didn’t do your growing up in a lampshade home but a big “modern” house, an Open Concept barn-thing where halogen reigned. You note the smoothness of the light panels, much different from the stripy textured kind found in panel-ceilinged workplaces, like your own looming workplace. On the face of one panel some graffitist’s red paint marker apparently wants everyone to know YOU’LL ALWAYS BE PART OF THE SHOW.

And then, fixated on the panels, you get to thinking: do the lights in these trains ever fail? Because, though it’s never happened to you, you can imagine it’d be pretty horrifying to get caught between two subway stops in the roaring darkness, as in completely in the dark – here your stomach’s taken by a pang of ancient fear – not just the daily dimness of fluorescent train in unlit tunnel. That would be the worst, to be blind in here with all these dead strangers, including this one who still thinks it’s cool to sneak looks at you. It’s not like you’re actually afraid something real would happen in the dark, not like as soon as it’s conveniently dark he’ll limp over to grope some exposed inch of you – it’s the darkness itself. Childish or not, you’ve just never overcome that atavistic fear of the dark, and the unseen hairy things that await you there. Waiting ‘til the terror is at its utmost peak to pounce, it’s always seemed. Anyone who says the dark doesn’t scare them’s either doing a great job of kidding themselves or a terrible one. On nights out you generally take taxis. You’re now feeling in sudden boundless detail what it’d be like if the lights in here just burnt out for whatever reason, and a jolting tremor climbs your vertebrae. The messed up part is how, not even fifteen seconds later as you’re pulling into Lionel-Groulx, the lights do go out. For real.

But it’s only half of them. Bizarrely only every other panel’s gone out, fading to deep-ocean blue, dimming the car by half, as if overcast. You breathe deliberately, prescribing a slow, deep rhythm, but your chest feels pierced, your veins scream. It’s a coincidence. That’s all it is. And look: you’re at Lionel-Groulx – it’s not apocalyptic. Because beyond your window glows the yellow and orange tiled floor, brightly lit people scattered around, a guide dog – it’s fine. The doors slide open and lots of people exit the train, though not the ogler – why did you have to notice – and lots more come in. Half the new passengers make an anxious glance at the ceiling while they settle in, of course noting that half the lights are out. You also gaze up there, timid, your mouth halfway open, and the rest of the lights go black.

Before you can stand up the dark train is singing its ascending three-note song and the doors close. With nothing ahead but a lightless tunnel, the train accelerates, as do your thoughts, on all their planes and in all dimensions – it wouldn’t be half as ominous if you hadn’t been knowing it was about to happen, literally twelve seconds beforehand, is what makes it unspeakably creepy, and though day-to-day it’s like Time doesn’t even seem to exist, it’s like it’s now alleging itself through this sickening coincidence, aimed straight at you, aiming to hurt you. The tunnel and dark went from disturbing idea to imminent horror right before your eyes – say one day you imagined the subway’s lights going out and then some other day ten years or even a month later the subway’s lights went out, it would still be terrifying, the upcoming blindness and suffocation, but the terror wouldn’t be like gift-wrapped in this other overwhelming layer of terror: the eerie overwhelming terror of something unseen’s will. Running into a rabid wolf is bad enough, but what if it spoke? Knew your name? Because with proper distance between the unuttered thought and its manifestation, your only thought about its happening could’ve been: Oh, so that really can happen. But this is truly messed up, and sending your mind sprinting to places it hasn’t gone in a very long time, as if it hopes it can preclude the fear by locating it in some feasible context? And after the initial surge of fresh dread, your first try at this is: You’re kidding me. You must be inventing it somehow, and you spend a panicked instant blinking and blinking harder, each time half-expecting you’ll unsqueeze your eyes and the lights will be back on bright as ever, the accelerating car’s ghosts back to looking bored and tired instead of staring at the ceiling all Chicken-Little. This thought stream runs parallel to the more unipolar one about the coming black tunnel and its pure primal horror, plus basements and cobwebs stretching across your mouth – but your blinking does nothing, so once it’s clear you’re not imagining it, your next intelligible thought is: I am a psychic. I can interface with this psychotic thing we call a World in a capacity way way beyond what most can wrap their heads around, and here’s the proof. You have the urge to tap the shoulder of the old woman nearby and blurt out Excuse me, but can I confess something really messed up to you? – all this blasts through your head in less than a few seconds, of course; the train hasn’t yet traveled half the platform. In these first few hyperseconds you’ve also ruled out déjà vu: you’ve had your share of déjà vu and this has none of that dizzy impending meta-feeling, the feeling that knows itself and its own momentum, like Oh-God-I’m-having-déjà-vu, and I knew that would happen, and that too – it isn’t that. This is too independent, in this really opaque way – you’re not just surfing on some freak surge of neurotransmitters in your skull; if you’re not an undiscovered psychic then this whole messed up thing is purely coincidental. Your next thought: Well there you have it. I’m totally solipsistic after all, a lost cause. The metro system and Lionel-Groulx and whomever it’s named after and the faulty panels and their fluorescence, it all exists only to me and for – you can’t even finish this one before you recognize: how could you possibly prove all these shadow-people aren’t battling their own untamable hyperthoughts, drowned in their own panic, or that maybe some of them didn’t also foresee the darkness, and maybe the elderly woman’s also tripping balls right now, debating at light-speed whether to tap your own shoulder and stutter Excusez-mois, mais – and strictly speaking it’s possible in fact you all foresaw it, in unison –

Your final thesis, as the train now reaches full speed and the tunnel’s toothless black mouth will come any second, and your heart beats hard enough to push the blood of everyone on the train, and all you can see of that creep is the silhouetted knob of his shoulder in the dark and shards of red nightmares flash on your forehead – your last-ditch thought: I turned them off, I can turn them back on. You’re yelling Go, Go! inside yourself but it’s no use, like how no spoon bent for your mind as a kid – you burrow your fingernails into your palms. No more options. Paralyzed acceptance as realization stalks closer: you will be the victim of this, it’s coming for you, this evil dark intrusion it’s already here. Your eyes tingle and make tears, everything slams black and you speak in a language you don’t know.

The most sinister part is how no more than a second later the car’s lights come back on. You wall in your face with your hands. You are trembling, trying to disappear. Fuck it if they notice your fear – theirs is just as obvious, or should be – but did they notice what just came out of you? Had it come out? Your heart rate won’t yield to your will, you keep your hands over your face. Some woman’s asking you about being OK and you swat your hand. Now an announcement comes on about a possible delay on the Green Line, but it’s irrelevant: you’re on the Orange Line. You pull into Georges-Vanier and the rational slice of your brain slowly starts to come back online. Maybe you’d originally imagined the lights going out because of something else, like maybe in your periphery you saw a light go out in the next car over – but you didn’t, and couldn’t have, there are walls between the cars on this line, and anyway you’re sitting in the middle of yours. Dissipating adrenaline leaves you dazed, curious, puts a shimmer on everything. Maybe some ancient reptilian gland in you had sensed a decrease in electrical current next-door, and that had sparked your vision of the coming abyss, but what kind of far-fetched explanation is that, if you can even call it an explanation, and plus it doesn’t even touch this new thing now sitting here demanding explanation, this business of whatever you just said. How to reconcile what behind your hidden face is so clear: that you had issued a prayer, and it had been heard.

And all night at your computer you keep making miscalculations and hesitating halfway through calls, forgetting what you were just about to say. You keep having crazy embarrassing thoughts, most definitely because of that creepy church ad, stuff like if there were a Divine Something it might not be separate from you and from humankind, but inextricably fused. Could there be a secret thing found everywhere, secret even to horrible churches, to patriarchy and history? These notions feel entirely not-like-you, as if imposed – or implanted? – by the coincidence, and you seem powerless over your thoughts. Two separate calls you have to transfer because you burst into tears just as you attempt your introduction. You keep stealing glances at the fluorescent panels above, if you worked the day shift you’d be daydreaming. And what the hell are you going to say when you crawl in beside him at 4 AM and, half-awake and reaching for you, he asks how your night was? But maybe prayer and “God” have a simpler relationship, less than causal or linear, that is, maybe when you’d uttered whatever it was, the secret hadn’t been beckoned and so leaned Its face toward you and winked, but maybe you’d winked, activated and been activated at once, cyclically, somehow blessed yourself there in the tunnel on the brink of death, turned your own secret outward, said that you were ready. You feel a strangling need to tell a version of this to each poor caller, to recount the story of your commute, but you’re too self-conscious – because what if one of them agreed with you? – and the calls all end as usual. At the end of one when the customer says Thank you you instinctively say a nonsensical Thank you right back to her – a well-worn customer relations habit – even though she obviously hasn’t helped you at all or even added any small thing to your life. But when you hang up you wonder if that’s really, when you consider everything, true.