The woman sat on the train wrapped tightly in her coat. She stared at herself in the window and eyed the other passengers. The night before, the woman had painted her fingernails. At the time she couldn’t have said why she bought the color—it was too feminine for her taste—but now she saw it, the pale red of her genitals. The other passengers suddenly knew something about her, she decided, and she thrust her hands into her pockets. A few stops after hers, a group of people pushed in, among them an ugly woman. The ugly woman was an ugly version of someone the woman had known from her school days. She ducked through the clot of bodies at the door and stood some feet from the seated woman. The ugly woman wore a grey pea coat and matching knitted beret, and her light hair fell slick to her shoulders. Within its polish, her face was a surprise. Her chin was sunken to nothing and her pale skin was pinned with purple acne and its scars. The seated woman had not liked the woman from school. The woman from school had been, and was still, attractive, dyed blonde in the way that men liked or women thought men liked. She had become a comedian in a different, larger city. There were videos of her standing on dark club stages saying that women needed to shave their pubic hair if they wanted men to have sex with them. She used words the seated woman would not have used. The videos made her tense with anger, yet she couldn’t stop watching them.
The train gathered more passengers, and the ugly woman pressed in closer. The seated woman had to tilt her eyes up. She thought reflexively to offer her seat. She felt bad for the ugly woman but glad too. The ugly woman made her feel, if not good-looking, then at least less ugly herself. Several times, the seated woman had filled out applications for jobs or school, and always, near the end, she was asked to identify a certain otherness about herself, a way in which she was not like most people. Or what was considered most by those creating the forms. A possible disadvantage. The woman had always thought that beauty, or rather the lack of it, should be included. She looked back to herself in the train window. Her nose, her eyes. It was a habit. She could find herself anywhere. She looked at the reflection of the ugly woman, who was rubbing her thumb over the screen of her phone. Her eyes drooped like apologies. In school, the seated woman had started to play a game with herself. She would identify each of her friends’ things. Andrea was considerate yet hapless, Beatrice was cheerful yet dismissive, Chad was funny yet sour. The seated woman felt that the ugly woman was not free to say the ridiculous things the woman from school did. She had to balance the way she was with the way she looked. Kind yet ugly. The woman from school had been loud and bawdy, incredulous of nuance, taking over every room she was in. The seated woman, who was once sillier, had retracted in her presence. Their paths crossed frequently, and at a party their final year, the seated woman overheard her talking to a boy in their class. He was speculating whether or not the seated woman had performed oral sex on their married philosophy professor. The other had said loudly, Oh, she has too much integrity for that. It had felt like both a compliment and criticism. The seated woman had always been uncomfortable with people forming opinions of her. She didn’t want to seem any particular way. When the professor first asked her to stay behind, she had felt both acknowledged and agitated.
As the train pulled into the station downtown, the ugly woman dropped her phone into her purse and turned toward the door. The seated woman wanted to communicate that she was sorry for her or to ask how she’d come to look the way she looked. Or, to see if she could mean it, to tell the ugly woman that she was beautiful. Instead she watched as the ugly woman slid from the train and into the crowded station. That same year in school, the woman drank too much one night and fell down a set of stairs. Her hand had immediately turned a magnificent blue. She had rejoined her housemates at their kitchen table, holding her hand beneath it. The following day, a doctor reset the broken pieces of her thumb. She had liked the cast and wore the gauze wrapping long after she needed it. People she didn’t know would approach her and ask, Are you okay, what happened? That looks like it hurts.