I'd barely made my train. The doors were closing, but the conductor was still at his perch, hanging out of the sliding window semi-flaccid as a sock puppet. He kindly reopened the doors, allowing me to board.
I'd been accepted. I was now part of its train viscera, something small but significant to the body, a blood cell. The train then lurched suddenly, as though in the hands of a giant. We swayed and shuddered inside as it quickly built up speed.
There was already a man sitting on the seat nearest the doors, so I decided on an empty seat a few rows away, facing the man but on the opposite side of the car. The man, in his late twenties or early thirties, was listening to music on a smartphone and more generally seemed to be staring off into space. I have always liked music.
The train slowed to a stop, doors again opening, and two men and a woman got on together. They were friends, judging from their friendly banter and nudging. I instantly took a liking to them.
One of the men noticed the man sitting, listening to music. "Josh," he said, "Hey man, what's going on?" Hearing this, the idle man brightened and replied, "Hey Jeff!" Jeff took a seat next to Josh, "Where are you coming from?" "I'm coming from downtown. I was finally able to do a little sightseeing." Jeff nodded and introduced his two companions. "Oh, take my seat," Josh offered the standing woman and began to get up, but she politely declined.
I remember immensely enjoying the way in which they interacted. It felt totally real, totally believable. I wouldn't have let them break the fourth wall, even if they'd tried by acknowledging me. I respected their talents too much. Instead, I directed my gaze ahead, probably looking something like Josh had earlier, before I really knew him. I'd sometimes page through a book I carried, hoping to affect just the same impartiality the troupe had artfully and effortlessly achieved.
Come from the direction opposite the one my seat was facing, a sudden shriek tore across the train car, a rake of sound, catching people's attentions and pulling our notice to its source. A relatively young woman. She'd exploded in a hysterical fit, the cause of which was difficult to determine at first. Quickly, though, it became clear she was wrestling very sluggishly, which itself suggested intoxication, with a man who was presumably her boyfriend. At outset, I found this display little more than a powerful imposition, since I was so fully immersed in the clamor of the troupe.
The couple was arguing over a smartphone. The young woman had insisted the presumable boyfriend hand it over to her, apparently so she could see what precisely the nature of his texting was. The implication being that the woman suspected it was another female, and that her presumable boyfriend had been doing something inappropriate behind her back. Their wrestling and her screaming continued for an uncomfortably long time (easily minutes), and onlookers like myself began wondering if we should intervene, which is exactly when it turned extraordinary. I was enraptured, transfixed. Truly entertained, nearly to the point of forgetting my troupe. It's funny. How quickly we forget the things that supposedly matter most to us, as I had with respect to the troupe.
The culmination of the couple's scene occurred when a smartphone component of some kind fell to the floor and the presumable boyfriend rose to his feet, muttered something about her being "a crazy bitch" and wandered to the latched door that separated our car from the adjacent one. He was wearing clothing that in popular vernacular might be referred to as "douchey" -- i.e., a hoodie with weird vine-like tendrils beginning at the side of his left abdomen and sprawling over the rest of the hoodie, chest, shoulders, and back -- and baggy pants that sagged well below his waist, revealing unnecessarily, and ostensibly done only for the purpose of being fashionable, his underwear. The young lady, following not more than an arm's length behind him, continued her harangue into the next car. I was relieved to see them go, in part because I knew the other onlookers and especially my acting troupe would immediately begin discussing what they'd just witnessed.
But before anything really interesting was said, we arrived at the next stop. During which time, the train's lights began to flicker and, finally, turned off, leaving us in the weak fluorescence of the nearby platform. We heard intermittent hollering that echoed from the tiled walls of the train stop, as the couple was apparently exiting up the stairs to street level.
Our train remained inert, and people wondered about this aloud, to the detriment of discussing the couple's argument. I was frustrated, naturally. I'd wanted to observe people reacting to other people, even if negatively. The woman of the troupe, let's call her "Betty," was concerned because she'd need to be in bed soon. She had an early meeting the next day, she said. This led her to repeated ultimatums made to no one in particular, to the god or gods of railways, perhaps. But no sooner did she earnestly prepare to exit in search of a taxi, than the train's lights were restored and its doors closed, and we began moving once more.
We'd waited for five minutes, possibly ten. It had seemed like much longer, in fairness to those, like "Betty," who were frustrated and had grown impatient.
At the next stop, two new people entered the car. Both wore immaculately clean white lab coats. The couple from before, the pair that had shared such an impassioned moment in front of us. They were who entered the car, but they were profoundly different in complexion and in every other conceivable quality of their bearing. Newly dressed in their white lab coats, as mentioned. The man's hair was parted and the woman's was pulled back into a prim ponytail.
"Ladies. Gentleman. If we can have your attention. I apologize for our earlier display, mine and Dr. Cartwright's, but you must understand it was part of a social experiment, the facts of which I now intend to reveal to you." The man had spoken these words convivially but with a clear air of disinterest, as though he was staring at something encased safely behind a thick wall of glass.
"Let me say again: what you just viewed was a social experiment. We have never been lovers, Dr. Cartwright and I. We are merely colleagues, a man and a woman who care deeply for their shared interest in the nature of human behavior," the man said, grinning and regarding the more taciturn Dr. Cartwright, who did not smile.
He cleared his throat, awkwardly punctuating the moment, and continued, "How do we react to the things that we witness, especially when we are confronted with a social faux pas like two lovers publicly engaged in a bitter fight? This is what we want, in some respects, to determine. Although the experiment is much bigger than this one, albeit important, constituent part to which you were privy. Nevertheless, you were this constituent part's focus. You who are, for our purposes, termed ิthe consortium'. You are the random men and women on which we wished to measure our catalytic effect. Allow me to offer this for an initial report of our findings: the effects were measurable indeed." He continued to speak but I found myself yawning. I was overcome with an inexplicable desire to determine whether he still wore those ridiculous clothes beneath his lab coat. It was hard to tell, despite my commitment. His shoes, I think, were different.
Meanwhile, Dr. Cartwright, who'd made no previous motion to speak, interrupted her colleague. "I would like to say, while I have no desire for any intimacy with my associate, Dr. Hanley," and she gestured toward the man. "And while he has made no motion to kindle any sort of romantic relationship with me, I'd be remiss not to mention it is often this sort of close collegial engagement that leads two healthy adults to shed professionalism and give themselves to the throes of passion."
"Yes, sometimes that is the case, but we are so professional that such a thing isn't possible. We are both married to answers. Giving in to each other would be to commit on infidelity against our, pardon the pious terminology, hallowed and sacred objectivity."
Dr. Hanley's words did not produce any visible effect on Dr. Cartwright. She continued, "The truth is, in the case of our research, what had been started as a search for a specific kind of understanding of human behavior has turned to the creation of an irreconcilable chasm between us. I being the meeker of the two, have fallen into a position of subservience, though together we have created a monster. Unfortunately that monster exists in us both, and especially in the vanity of one. Love can't exist where there is nothing beneath the topsoil but bedrock. Aggrandizement and a focus on building one's fame in whatever community to which he or she belongs has ruined our so-called experiment. Suffice it to say I don't even like my colleague anymore."
Dr. Hanley laughed nervously, in a convincing way that reminded me of the skillful portrayal of social behavior I'd previously witnessed in the acting troupe, who themselves stood staring fixedly at the man and the woman, but especially the man.
"Ha, what she means, everyone, is it is vital to understand how extenuating factors are so much a part of human behavior. We cannot test people's reactions in a vacuum, as it were. Our laboratory exists in everyday life, which explains our earlier tumult, nothing more than an unorthodox experiment conducted in a decidedly unorthodox laboratory."
"Oh go to hell, Frank! Go. To. Hell! How can you possibly stand yourself anymore? You've contrived your own little behavioral world. It's high time for things to change, so I say this professional relationship is over. I'd rather leap from this train than continue these so-called experiments."
Dr. Cartwright's suicide would not be necessary. The train slowed to another stop, suggesting merciful fate wished to spare us much more of this second protracted public scene. She ran from the train and Dr. Hanley pursued, shouting about how she'd ruin him. That last line seeming a bit cliched but, still, I found myself instinctively clapping, nearly rising from my seat in elated ovation.
The excitement there ended, little else happened after the doctors' exit. It was the best time I've ever had, all of my friends together. Every wistful now and then, I go back to that place with them, in my memory -- all of us in the same place for the last time: me, the doctors and, yes, even the troupe, Jeff, Josh, "Betty" and that third man, I forget his name.
Once, I came across the good doctor, Dr. Hanley, dressed in much the same dress as he'd been wearing the night of our first meeting. He had on the white lab coat, and therefore appearing to me as simultaneously professional and unprofessional as he had before. I yelled excitedly and hurried to him, laughing about what an honor it was to see him again. Perhaps under better circumstances? He said he didn't know me. He didn't know what I wanted. Didn't know who I was. To get off of him. And that was the last of it. I didn't see him again after that. It was the beginning of a difficult time in my life.