By Gillian Ramos
Eliza has lived in the same city for many years. It is a big, loud place filled with strangers, and she loves them all. Every day, as soon as she walks out the door, she meets her husband.
Sometimes, he is at a kiosk buying a newspaper and cigarettes. Other days, he is clutching a coffee cup and a greasy paper bag holding something buttery and delicious. Most days, he is unaware that he is somebody’s husband.
Eliza’s husband is never the same man twice.
She starts collecting men when she first visits the city in college. She buys herself a train ticket, rides downtown, and marvels at the fact that no one knows or cares about the trip. Eliza is always cautious with her time, vowing to be at certain places at precise times, even if no one else knows of her plans.
On this day, there is no plan, only sunshine and a yellow round-trip ticket in her hand.
Her first husband is in a park, feeding squirrels. He holds a bag of pretzels in one hand and tosses pieces to the hungry creatures with the other. Eliza imagines a lifetime of Saturday afternoons in some park with this man, bags of pretzels in their hands and squirrels at their feet. Satisfied by this vision, she gets on the train and rides back to school.
Eliza’s parents ask about her social life on the phone and when they visit. They hope she will bring someone home for a vacation or holiday dinner. She tells them about her friends and neighbors and the people she meets at work. She is safe and content, and her family realizes they can’t ask for much more.
Her second husband is on the train just a few weeks after that trip to the park. Eliza’s roommate has planned a birthday dinner in the city, so they pay to have their nails painted, hair blown sleek, and makeup applied. They wear dresses with the tags stuffed in the back, so they can return them another day.
On the train that evening, Eliza sees a man in a brown leather jacket reading her favorite book. It’s new. A hardcover that still creaks. She envies him for experiencing the story for the first time, something she can never do again. Then, she imagines the two of them at home one night far in the future, telling each other what they loved most about each chapter. She sees herself pulling the expensive dress out of the closet, saying she couldn’t return it after that night on the train.
But she returns the dress and uses the money to pay her share of the electric bill.
Like any other wife, she sometimes gets angry with her husbands. She runs into one at the department store down the street from her office. He is in line to buy a cashmere scarf with a green checked pattern. Eliza peeks at the tag and is shocked by the cost. She pictures surprise and delight on Christmas morning. They had agreed not to buy presents, but this one seems precious. As the day wears on, she becomes annoyed. That scarf could have been weeks’ worth of groceries. Part of a rent payment. Anything but yards of fabric.
She gets mad at another husband in a bar for leaning too close to another woman, slurring his way through a pickup line, trying to follow her out the door. Before that, he was gregarious and funny. An intoxicating presence. He isn’t her husband for much longer.
Many of Eliza’s friends have husbands or men who will soon become husbands. They pull her aside at parties and ask in hushed tones how she’s doing. They offer to set her up with people they know. She says yes more often than no and quietly sips a glass of wine while these men talk about their jobs. She meets them at bars near her office or theirs. So far, none of them have become husbands.
She goes home with one just to see what it’s like. His apartment is beautiful and clean in a way that reminds Eliza of old movies about the future, all shiny and smooth. She wants to touch everything, but fears leaving behind fingerprints. The man who is not her husband offers her another glass of wine, or something stronger if she prefers. She sips the drink and tries to imagine her shoes flung in a corner, her dress in the hallway. She can’t picture wrapping herself in his sheets and watching the sun rise through the giant living room windows. But she enjoys the buzzy warm feeling that spreads across her face and makes her ears burn.
This is often the first step to recognizing a husband.
The man talks about the things in his apartment. Photographs of faraway places and items collected from unusual stores. She likes how they stand out against the stark white furniture, but can’t imagine sharing a home with them.
The warm feeling recedes.
Eliza collects her belongings and walks to the train. The night is clear and cold, the air hinting at snow. It’s earlier than she expects. The restaurants are still full, their golden lights illuminating tables that line the windows. People lean over generous plates and bowls of food, cutting and discovering, sharing bites. They smile at each other and gaze out the windows to admire the city streets and people walking along them.
The train is the right amount of full, with people dipping into newly empty seats at each stop. She sees the well-dressed man hunched over a suitcase, possibly returning from a business trip and longing for a meal. The youngish one in gym clothes who plays music without headphones. The one who apologizes into his phone and says he will call again when he is above-ground.
Eliza burrows deep into her scarf and coat. The sights and sounds make her feel warm and calm, and she loves them all.
Gillian Ramos lives and writes in New York. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in Third Point Press, Gravel, and Wyvern Lit, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. When she’s not writing, she can often be found reading, knitting, or sampling the city’s baked goods.