Under, Over

When the tube stops at Gloucester Road, a man with pink pants sits down across from Allen and begins to eat an emaciated-looking donut. It’s the kind of donut, Allen think, that would be ashamed of itself—a brown, dry thing that might’ve sat in the back of a display case for days, forgotten, crumpling under the heat of fluorescent lights. He remembers seeing one almost exactly like it a week ago, in a grocery store near the Union, the only store open in a street dark and closed off, shutters and blank storefronts, the only sound his shoes on the uneven pavement and the faint shiver of leaves in the chill of a summer wind. He remembers the shock of it, the aisles in the shop stretching out before him, silent, still (it’s nothing like America—the emptiness of it all, even at midnight, there’s always people at the cash registers, not like here, where the only noise is the beep, beep, beep of the self-checkout machines), and he remembers passing the pastry aisle, baskets mostly bare except for crumbs and the odd left-behinds—that donut, not brown, but a pale yellow, powdered with the stick of crumbling sugar, but with the same sense of misplacement, of loss.

Allen blinks, realizes that the man has finished eating, is wiping his mouth with a quick swipe of his hand. Crazy. Allen chews his lip. Crazy to think about donuts this way. It is crazy, after all, to attach so much meaning to something so small, so inconsequential. It’s a dessert—breakfast item—food. It’s almost twelve at night, and Allen is heading to King’s Cross. He is alone, carrying nothing but his blue backpack (baggage tag still attached—he never took it off—too lazy maybe, or sentimental, or he just liked the look of it, the way he seemed like a person who went places and did exciting things). The man across from him has a messenger bag slung across his shoulder (why didn’t he take it off?), a very traditional leather piece, well-worn and faded at the edges, especially around the clasp. Off from work, maybe, a late shift—overtime, projects to finish. Or—Allen frowns—maybe nothing like that at all: maybe that’s just the way he operates and he’s heading to a pub to meet up with his friends, where he’ll sling back a few beers, eye some girls or guys, sit around a cramped table and talk about everything (Nancy and Natalie, Drake and Drew—these hypothetical people of his, and Drake will give him a fist-bump, and Natalie will roll her eyes and return to whispering to Nancy, their knees touching).

At Leicester Square, a group of young men stumble onto the train, cheering, whooping, flushed with delight. One of them, a blond with a leather bracelet around his wrist, is wearing an inflatable crown that he keeps trying to pass around only to have it slid back on his head again, which he accepts with a good-natured grin. A birthday party, Allen thinks, a bachelor party. Some kind of celebration—it makes him happy, to see people celebrating. The group move into the next car, their voices growing fainter and fainter until Allen can’t hear them anymore over the roar of the subway, the wheels rolling on tracks, a rhythmic thump, thump, thump that he can feel in his chest.

The man with the pink shorts looks after them, and his gaze lingers for a little before going back to his business—staring at the map above Allen’s head, those crisscrossing lines, so many lines, all running underneath London, underneath history, the bones, the temples, the walls, the graves. Allen saw a coffee cup in a museum gift shop with a part of the tube map printed on it—probably the center, the best-known stations, where all of the different trains seem to run into each other, Green Park, Oxford Circus, South Kensington—and he had wanted to buy it, but it had been ten pounds, too much, and he had left it behind.

Allen wonders how much ten pounds is worth to the man in the pink shorts. He wonders if the man in the pink shorts had ten pounds, what he would do with it. Would he ever buy a coffee cup with part of the tube printed on it? And, if he had bought it, would he have ever used it? Or would it have been a gift? Or something shared between him and his girlfriend or boyfriend or that one friend who always stays over to watch movies and play around, who understands and knows things in some unfathomable, fateful kind of way?

For some reason, this is very important to Allen—what the man in the pink shorts would do in this situation or that situation or the thousands of possible situations that could ever happen to him. That this man could have a life, a life that is great and vast and full of so many things—people, places, tennis games, dates, brisk nights, heavy days—and Allen doesn’t know about any of it, that he doesn’t about any of these stories, and he doesn’t have a responsibility to know any of these stories, that when this man disappears back into London, Allen will never see him again, will never know why he chose to wear pink shorts, or why he carries a messenger bag, or why he wanted to eat an emaciated-looking donut at almost twelve.

Allen wants to talk to the man, wants to talk to him a lot—and not just about the simple stuff. He wants to know the man’s likes and dislikes, and he wants to tell the man his. He wants to be the man’s friend, and he knows this is impossible because his tongue is very thick in his mouth and he couldn’t move it if he wanted to. But, what about this—but what about that—and another and another and he could go on endlessly, like what did the man think about the prime minister, and what did the man think about America, and did the man want to travel, and did the man want to stay at home eventually when he had children, and did the man even like children, and did the man ever look up at the sky and notice how brilliant the moon was, bursting even behind clouds, how the stars moved and how the satellites moved, and how the rivers looked so quiet, so patient, and how the grass was always wet when he sat down on lawns, and did he believe in good people, and did he believe in bad people, and did he even care that there were too many bad people and too few good people or that there were too many good people being very good, so good that they became bad, and did he, after talking about all of these, like Allen, trust in Allen, even though the summer was ending, and there seemed to be less whimsical things in life to dream about, swing sets and popsicles and fireworks and dolls and little plastic cars that went around and around and around all the furniture—

The man with pink shorts stands up. The tube has stopped at Russell Square. The man stretches, shifts on his feet, waits until the subway grinds to a halt. Allen fights the compulsion to get up too, and instead watches the doors slide open, the man slip off the subway with an almost breezy ease. As the doors close again, Allen is struck by the sudden realization that he will probably never see the man with pink shorts again—but the man turns back, for some reason, stares back at the train, through the window, at Allen. He gives a small smile and jaunts off—as if he knows what Allen has been thinking, even though that is impossible.

When Allen is in King’s Cross, he pauses, looks up at the signs with all the trains listed on them, all the times, all the places. He pulls out his cellphone and—on an impulse he can’t quite understand—calls his mother, tells her that he loves her. She loves him back, and tells him that she and his father are having pork for dinner.