Brief encountersGood dates

The Stranger on the Train

Commuting is a dull, necessary evil only a few of us can avoid. Usually, I work from home, the full journey from bed to office via bathroom taking around 90 seconds. But, on landing myself a new contract in a suburb of London, I am to rejoin the rat race I’d so fondly missed.

The journey takes a mere 20 minutes, and I excitedly get on the train on my first day, like an eager schoolboy unaware of the horrors awaiting beyond. It’s busy, but not crowded, and I take my seat opposite a man who’s looking down at an iPad and frowning thoughtfully. As I smooth down my jacket and trousers, he looks up at me fleetingly. He is an utter vision: his hair a dark, rich brown and his eyes even duskier. His skin is pale, smooth and gleaming. He is dressed simply, yet smartly – burgundy trousers, a bottle green jacket, and desert boots the same colour as my own. I feel a lurch in my stomach and the train moves, chugging out of the station.

On the way home, he’s there again, looking slightly more harassed, but just as handsome. I mentally make a note of the carriage we’re in and the seat within it, wondering whether he waits in the same place every time he takes the train. Pathetic, I know. I don’t care.  

The following day, I test my theory out. I’m right: there he is again, the exact same place. I can’t get the seat directly opposite, so I skulk in the gangway peering at him over the top of my newspaper, glad of the distraction from the dull stories within.
And so it continues. Getting on a train he’s likely to be on quickly becomes the highlight of my day – the job is drearily unfulfilling and the central heating in my flat is going through a teenage angst phase. It appears I’ve found myself a harmless fixation to entertain me on the way to work.

Such crushes tend to be one-way streets, but the flickers of recognition come quite rapidly. A polite nod is offered only four or five journeys in. When you’re gay, you have to be careful how you take these nods of acknowledgement. Not every well-meaning “good morning” is a precursor to mind-blowing homosexual passion; sometimes it just means “good morning”. And misreading these signals can be disastrous, even fatal. 

But there’s something different here. I know it. Call it gaydar, spidey-sense or just sheer fucking determination on the part of my libido, but my attention is not unwelcome, I’m sure of it.

This is a train, however, not a nightclub. I can’t sidle up to him and confidently waggle a gin and tonic in front of him. So I return the nods, adding the very pinch of a smile, and go back to my phone or my newspaper – my ears, not to mention my balls, burning with anticipation and embarrassment.

We’ve been going through this polite, infinitesimally paced flirtation for about three or four weeks when I get my first word out of him. It is a Monday, the day stretching ahead like a huge bad-breathed yawn with only hungover colleagues and rainclouds for company. I am sitting next to a guy who is clearly still enjoying his weekend: the stench of beer, illicit snogging and going to the toilet in an alleyway still hangs heavily around him. I’m concentrating so hard on not breathing in and avoiding throwing up that I don’t notice my fixation on the train. But as my hungover neighbour stands up to get off, leaving the whiff of a thousand pub toilets behind him, my crush, magically sitting opposite me, rolls his eyes and gives a conspiratorial grin. 

“Looks like someone had a good weekend,” he says.

I feel myself start to turn crimson but manage to sneak out a one-liner before my throat almost fatally constricts. 

“Well it certainly smells like it,” is my reply and when I have finished gurgling that, I notice he is laughing. 

And then it is my stop and I get off gratefully and stride mock-confidently up the platform, waiting until the train has fully pulled away and is out of sight before I lean against the wall and hyperventilate. Progress, of sorts.

I am, of course, impatient to finish that day to see whether he is on the train again that evening. I wait as poker-faced as possible on the platform as the train pulls in. I gingerly step on the train and look to the usual place. He’s not there. I feel my bottom lip poke out in frustration and a small child who bumps into me gets a look that would wither lilies. Tomorrow, then.

The next morning, there he is as usual. We nod, smile, hello – the usual morning trifecta that would make my day – and then I get back to my running magazine, wearily reading the latest developments in lycra technology. All of a sudden, I feel I’m being watched. I glance up. He is looking at me.

“It’s all a bit overwhelming, isn’t it?” he says, nodding toward the magazine. I look down at the page, grasping for something to say.
“Yes, it can be,” I reply, nervously. “It makes me feel so unfit just reading it.”

He laughs. “I know what you mean. I’m doing a marathon next year and the more I read, the more I dread it.”
We talk for a few minutes more about our various running endeavours until it’s my stop. I say goodbye cheerily and bounce onto the platform, feeling ebullient, invincible.

On every subsequent journey that we see each other, we chat amiably. He mentions that he used to do his training with “an ex”, the gender of this former paramour still very much a mystery. Talk of running soon turns to other topics: where we’ve lived in London; the jobs we do (he’s a designer); the places we’ve travelled. But we are only together for around 17 minutes each time, and occasionally not near enough to chat. Our moments are few, and I confess that in my head I make a complete idiot of myself wondering what could become of it all. Is it possible these chats could turn into something else? Dare I dream of something marvellous like a character in a novel, or must I tread the familiar path and await the inevitable tragic ending?

Each time we talk, I ask myself whether today is going to be the day we broach the subject of ever meeting up ‘off the rails’. But the moment doesn’t seem to arrive, despite many an opportunity, and I’m too chicken to bring it up myself. He never asks for my number, nor I his – instead the train trundles in and out of the station, day in, day out. I begin to conclude, dolefully, that he is straight.

The contract I’m working on is due to come to an end, and my working hours change suddenly, meaning I get on a later train every day, so don’t see my nameless crush for a couple of weeks. For my final few days in the office, I revert to getting the usual train in the evening, and wait in the customary spot. His seat has another occupant, a man with implausibly hairy fingers. The next day, it’s the same. My disappointment could power a jet engine. The following day, however, he gets on at a different stop. He looks bright, clean and handsome, his eyes glimmering in delight as he gets on and takes a seat. But he is not alone. I see the reason for his delight. A slim, good-looking guy about his age has got on the train with him, and stands in the aisle, leaning over the seat to look at the iPad in my fixation’s lap. A brother? Colleague? I look away, down the carriage. I don’t want them to see me watching. I get off at my stop without looking back. No, no, no.

The rest of the week drags by like a dead leg, with no sightings of my commuting crush or his new travelling companion. On the very last evening of the job, I get on the train to see them both there, sitting together, huddled closely. I sigh. It looks more than fraternal to me. He looks toward me and our eyes meet. I dip my head at him. He does the same and smiles slightly. We are back to nods. Not even square one. Zero.

The realisation that I have dallied too long, missed my chance, makes my stomach lurch – just like it did the first time we met. As I’m cursing my shy tongue and crippling self-doubt, the train pulls into what is now his stop. So engrossed is he in the man sitting next to him that he is late noticing it and leaps up from his seat, shooting me a final smile which I can’t read. Behind him, his companion bends down to pick something up.

“James,” he calls. “You dropped your glove.” He hands him the glove and, as he passes it over, squeezes his hand affectionately. I watch them jump off the train and bound up the platform as the train pulls away.
Goodbye James.

Stats: Early 30s, 6′, brown/brown, England
Where: The 0842 from Waterloo
Rating: 8/10

Image: garryknight on Flickr

9 Comments

  1. Great story, and I’m sorry it didn’t work out. Sadly, I’d probably be just as shy and hesitant as you and screw it up as well.

  2. I don’t know if there’s a London Underground/London Transport installment of Missed Connections… but it’s worth it to see if you could reconnect with Milo.

  3. I love reading all your posts but like an earlier commenter wrote, this one has got to be one of my all time favorites. I think we’ve all situations like this at one time or another. I almost feel guilty that I found some pleasure in the ending. This is not because of your missed opportunity but the knowledge that I’m not alone in not trusting my gaydar. I wonder how many straight men can relate to such encounters. When approaching a potential date, all they have to fear getting beat up is their ego. Wedding bands can be a big help too. Great Story!

  4. What a great post. I do daily commute by train for about the same length of time and have had very similar experience although with not much speaking. It is strange why we don’t trust our instinct/gaydar. Good luck in the future

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