Helen Mirren is my best friend. She doesn’t know me, of course. But I know her well. I can picture her home. Lush greenery, stone walls, gorgeous English gardens, all well-hidden in the hills of California, somewhere off of a non-descript commercial stretch (seriously, you’d hardly believe you were heading to her home if you saw the left turn). I remember her shock and dismay, how she burst into tears, when, upon accepting the part of the Queen of England, she was introduced to the dowdy wardrobe she’d be wearing--rows and rows of practical shoes. I know about her strict father, disapproving of her dramatic pursuits. I’m familiar with her husband’s dry sense of humor. Hilarious guy. I know all of these things about her because she kept me sane one morning, last September, on the subway.
I had a New Yorker in one hand (pre-folded for easy reading), the train was packed, and I was thrilled. Thrilled to be stepping out of my mother-of-three life for just a few hours, to go somewhere--to a high floor of a glossy skyscraper in midtown to be taken seriously by a group of grown-ups, strangers from some sort of communications empire, who would be dazzled by my thoughts and ideas--original views and expressiveness that would no doubt make me stand out as truly special and valuable and worth every penny of the hundred bucks they’d be paying me. I was on my way to a focus group.
“I love you so much baby I want to release all over you but I can’t baby--you know why I can’t,” a man muttered in a gravelly voice to the woman he was pressing up against (the woman who was pressing up against me). She purred something in response and pushed her knee up between his legs. If I look anywhere but at my magazine the bottled-up man might (rightfully) accuse me of eavesdropping. He’d already called out several people on the train for looking at him. But is it really eavesdropping when my open ear is inches from his open mouth? My crime, if accused, would be paying attention to the words he was knowingly floating next to me. My only hope was to fill my head with Helen.
Helen gazed regally out of her black and white photo. I read and re-read the opening sentences of her life story, trying to get them to stick in my brain. My ears were hot with the uncomfortableness and proximity of the dangerously dirty couple and their dangerously dirty conversation. My brain chugged along offering up reasons for the guys impotence--erectile disfunction? Impending boxing match? We were all too close together.
And then the train lurched to a stop. One of those angled-pitched stops you get mid-turn in a dark tunnel. The lights flickered and then the thrumming sound of some secondary kind of engine followed. My blood pressure began to rise. I wasn’t even supposed to be on this train.
I had left early enough to ensure a slow and steady ride on the underappreciated but generally plodding C train. But then I panicked on the platform when no Cs came, the waiting crowd started to get denser, and a garbled announcement happened--one that no one understood but one that *might* have been warning us of problems on the route. If I’d known I was going to be coming in on the F train, I’d have gotten on it in a different way--the light-hearted coming-in-from Queens way, not the heavy-duty heavily-packed downtown-Brooklyn way. Every decision I’d made along the way had been the wrong one, I was hopelessly helplessly late.
My only memory of the show Emergency! from when I was younger was when the heroes were sent to help a woman who’d eaten bread dough and it had risen inside her, causing her belly (and more, from the looks of it) to expand grotesquely. Her entire body was barrel shaped and she had a hard time breathing. I thought of that lady when I was on the F train. A hard fist of frustration was balling up in me and was threatening my breathing as well. The difference between me and the Emergency! victim was that she got to lie down and be helped by handsome Randy Mantooth and I had to deal with my pain, sitting up, wedged in between gross, threatening strangers.
I dove further into my article. If my eyes had been lasers I’d have burned holes through the magazine--so intent was I on connecting to the words on the page. So strong the energy in my gaze, so determined was I to etch those words into my mind--Anything! to escape the lewd couple and the simultaneously full and hollowed-out-empty feeling of being so late and so helpless to improve my circumstances.
And etch themselves they did! Like a reverse lobotomy. A slice of information force-added rather than force-removed. Or rather like an elegant old scrollwork engraving on a tarnished silver pot. Here is my brain. Here’s my brain with Helen Mirren. Here’s her disapproving father (he couldn’t stand royalty!). Here’s the nondescript commercial stretch in southern California, the inocuous left-turn, the drive into the hills, the lushness of her life there. Helen Mirren and I are very close. When I’m late I remember taking refuge in her and when I see her I remember the awful sensation of being so late.
I was underground for over an hour. I surfaced into the hot sun and vanished into a cool lobby. I panted in the mirrored elevator, apologized in the plush waiting room, and was dismissed several minutes later. They’d begun without me. They gave me the hundred dollars anyway. And I felt bad about that. But I accepted it anyway.
5 years ago