In the snack car en route to California, a scraggly middle-aged man starts talking to me about his ex-wife, a "crazy bitch" who "ruined him forever." He’s so close I can smell his vinegar breath, his crusty sweatshirt. His left hand is at my elbow: in it, a bottle of single-serving train wine. I avoid eye contact, back up into a booth and sit down. He say something like "Aw sweetheart, you don't want to sit with me?" I glare at him, trying to look girl-angry – snappy, but not threatening, with half an ounce of cute to get him to listen. "I’m no sweetheart. You don't get to call me that unless we're related or dating, got it?” With half an eye on his boundaries, I turn to my sandwich.
He starts to yell about crazy bitches again. I shoot a pleading look at a woman standing near us. Come on honey, help a sister out? She looks away, takes a step towards the stairs. I tell myself she’s probably looking for a staff person. I look the man in the eye and try to talk slow, certain, controlled. "Sir, you are in my space. I need you to back away at least three steps, right now."
Another voice interjects: "Honey, is this man bothering you?"
I look up, and up. The voice is coming from a person about six feet tall, with football shoulders, a fuzzy red sweater, dangly beaded earrings, and fitted flare jeans. The voice is deep. I see the hint of stubble on her chin.
"Yes," I say, while my eyes telegraph an insistent no. no. no. no. I’m torn between hoping she’s going to superhero me out of this, and calculating how quickly I can disable the guy if it comes to that. I think: this is so much more dangerous for her than for me! What is she doing, getting involved? She doesn’t smile at me, but raises an eyebrow. The message is clear – silly girl. You think I’d get involved if I couldn’t handle this? The man turns around. I can’t see his face, but he takes a step back, as she takes one towards him.
"What are you, some kinda freak?!" he shouts at her. I'm on my feet in a flash, fist pulled back. I’m ready. I’ll beat him to a senseless g-ddamn pulp. Somewhere past my animal brain, I’m terrified at how quickly I’m willing to resort to violence. "Don't you dare - "
"Sir!" she says loudly, cutting me off with a pointed look. "I am probably the only person on this train with both a pair of stillettos and a pair of genuine cojones, so take it from me: you don't want to be on the receiving end of one of my shoes.” She lets that sink in for a moment, staring him down. I swallow a bout of frenzied laughter, press my lips together. How in the world is this happening? We’re going to be okay.
He sputters, and a train staff person shows up, takes him by the elbow to lead him to parts unknown.
The breath leaves me, half sigh, half hysterics. Blood rushes to my head. That was a close one. Hilarious. And close. What a fucking cowboy.
I stick out my hand. "Thank you - I'm sorry - oy. Thank you ma'am. I'm Dane."
"Charlotte," she says, shaking my hand with a gentle squeeze. Her hands are perfectly smooth, with the vaguest hint of lotion. She smiles a little bit. I imagine I look more earnest than a puppy. I want her to know. I want her to know what just happened. I want her to know I’m going to take this back to my seat and curl up with it for days and laugh joyfully whenever I think of it and how grateful I am, and oh gender…
I don’t think any of that is really getting across, so I try again:
"All of us need to keep an eye out for one another, y'know?"
"Yeah," Charlotte says, with a wink and an eyeroll towards the woman who ignored me. I hadn’t noticed she was still there. For the first time, I realize she’s got headphones on. She’s missed everything. "Be careful, ok?" I start to answer “You, too,” but bite my tongue.
I want to stay and talk to her for as long as the train ride, but she slips past me, buys a hamburger, and makes her way up the stairs without another word.