Change at Jamaica

For several weeks, Daniel Torrent saw a beautiful girl, whom he privately named Gretchen, every Tuesday afternoon on the platform at the Jamaica L.I.R.R. station in Queens. Gretchen was a short girl, with beautiful creamy Dutch or German skin, brown hair, and the largest blue eyes in the world. She wore peasant blouses and blue jeans and she carried a book bag. Daniel imagined she was a night student at N.Y.U.

The first week, Daniel noticed her from a few feet away and was immediately riveted. He had always been attracted to dark-haired, small, serious women; he almost believed that his imagination had manifested her. She had an intelligent look, wore little make-up, and no rings on either hand; from which he concluded that she was serious, straight, not vain, highly intelligent, and a fit companion for a life-time.

Why he immediately named her Gretchen, Daniel had no idea. It wasn't particularly a pretty name, nor one he had ever thought of before; he had never known anyone named Gretchen. It had no diminutive, except perhaps Gretch. For a gentle-looking girl, it had a sharp sound to it. But nevertheless, she was Gretchen to him immediately, and he couldn't stop calling her that even when he knew her name.

Gretchen never noticed him the first day. She daydreamed the entire trip into Penn Station; she was not even in the train mentally, but doubtless somewhere else, hiking a trail with a young man she longed for (Daniel thought gloomily.) In Gretchen's fantasy, the man--taller, but very handsome, with similar large blue eyes, dark-haired and serious ("like a cleaned-up version of me", Daniel thought)--would turn to her somewhere between the trail-head and the destination and make a declaration of love.

Daniel lived near Mineola and worked the four to eleven shift cataloging books at the Columbia library, where he had been a graduate student. He abandoned his masters degree in comparative literature, which made little sense in a world without jobs, but kept the job at the library. He had a separate apartment in his parents' townhouse--he hardly saw them any more than if he lived the other end of town, he told himself--and made a deal with himself that he would write every morning, go for a walk, eat lunch, then catch the 2:30 train to the city. The plan worked well, but for the writing; over the months, he slept later every day, until he was sleeping till noon and waking for lunch. Daniel wasn't certain if he was lazy or depressed, though he thought the latter; in general it seemed as if he were becalmed in a completely immobile sea, waiting for some event that would induce him to move again.

Daniel was not completely inexperienced with women; once every year or fourteen months, someone--typically a girl with whom he had been forced into proximity, through a class or a job--would reach out for him. However, the women who reach for you are rarely the ones you most want. Daniel was aware that he had passed up a number of highly interesting opportunities because of his curious immobility; even the phenomenon of a woman inviting him up to her apartment after an evening out--it had happened several times--wasn't enough to make him feel certain he was wanted. The women he went to bed with were the few who were comfortable asking a man, "Don't you want to kiss me?" or who would say to him, "Let me give you a proper kiss." There had been several.

Since quitting the master's program, there hadn't been anyone. He felt he was becoming a sort of sea-slug, inhaling the ocean and expelling his wastes without ever actually moving. It must be depression, because there were days he felt so thin and insubstantial he doubted he could scrape together enough of himself to go on a date with anyone.

Gretchen united a number of strands. A blank slate, he could make her out to be anything her appearance didn't actually contradict; and there was nothing about her which contradicted the theory that she was compassionate and loyal or that she had a beautiful soul. Daniel could hardly imagine that there could be a cruel or shallow person with such huge eyes.

Daniel hated the routine of his life. Waking late, showering, dressing, eating in the same diner, exchanging the same monosyllabic banalities with the big-haired waitress, and then walking to the station increasingly made him think of throwing himself under the wheels of the train when it arrived. Like Paul in the Willa Cather story, who disappeared back into "the general pattern of things." Seeing Gretchen for the first time was a wonderful distraction from his thoughts; he knew, the day he spotted her, that it was the first day of class at various New York schools. He was saddened not to see her the next day, and he even contemplated setting the alarm, waking early, and spending an entire day at Jamaica Station waiting for her, even if he had to call in sick at the library. There was certainly the chance that she was a migrant, an accidental like those n the last page of Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds, who would never turn up again. But if she was a student with a class on Tuesday night, she might be there again, so he looked forward to Tuesday with excitement.

Rather than jumping in front of the train, he boarded it on Tuesday, found a seat (the city-bound trains were not crowded in the early and mid-afternoon), slumped down and watched the boringly familiar and repetitive landscape pass beyond the windows. It was always the same conductor--grizzled old George Moore-- and George, who never recognized Daniel from one day to the next, would punch the proffered ticket, and return it to him intoning, "Change at Jamaica. Track eight."

Daniel's throat seized up at Jamaica when he saw her. Gretchen was territorial; she liked to stand in the same place, apparently, not far from the public telephones and from a little grimy, free-standing waiting room with plastic windows. This area of the platform was Daniel's favorite spot as well, and he always boarded the third car at Mineola so that he would emerge at Jamaica exactly where he wanted to be. Terribly afraid to be seen to be a jerk, practically a stalker, hunting the platform for her, Daniel was relieved that the train from Mineola had discharged him just twenty feet from Gretchen. He opened his New York Times and gazed vaguely past it, still afraid that Gretchen would spot him watching her.

In fifteen minutes, the train to Penn Station arrived and Gretchen and Daniel both found seats. He sat opposite her and a few places down, still obsessed with being too obvious. Gretchen, who was wearing her brown hair in a pony-tail, groped in her bag and took out Kierkegard's Fear and Trembling, which she read with a furrowed brow, marking passages with a pencil.

Daniel was disturbed. He had known Gretchen was an intellectual; he had wanted her to be. But he had envisioned her more as an outdoorsy, Emerson and Thoreau kind of woman than as a reader of Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard gave Daniel headaches; the Danish philosopher's thought was too intricate for him. He badly wanted Gretchen to be smart, but not emotionally complicated.

Still, it was quite likely that she was reading the book for a class. After he had contemplated the significance of the author for a while, Daniel began to worry about the furrow in Gretchen's brow. She appeared to be having a very hard time with the material. She would turn a page, then go back again and again with a hesitant hand. While Daniel did not envision a Gretchen drawn to Kierkegaard, neither did he want her to be baffled by him. Still, Daniel thought, the time I tried to read him, I probably looked like that.

At Penn Station, Gretchen got lost in the crowd and he resisted the temptation to follow her. He felt peaceful because it was now extremely likely that he would see her again next Tuesday. And he had a lot to think about, now, in updating his image of her: the pony-tail had taught him something about her bone structure and the beauty of her neck; but the furrowed brow still worried him.

At the Butler Library, Daniel typed book information into an ASCII terminal at a wooden table somewhere in the library's nether regions. Opposite him at another table sat his co-worker Samantha Lazare, who in recent weeks had begun to emerge as his first female friend since child-hood--possibly another reason not to jump under the wheels of the train. Not girl-friend, but friend-friend. Samantha was whip-smart and plain-pretty; her forehead was too large, her chin too pointed and her mouth too small for beauty, and her voice a little too sarcastic and nasal, but she had beautiful skin, and dark, long hair almost Asian in its fineness. Daniel had often noticed that he was drawn first to a woman's eyes, and Sam's were disappointing brown eyes, the least interesting color in a world where eyes could be blue, hazel, green and even yellow.

But teasing each other and talking about their lives made the time pass. She often complained about her boyfriend Bruce, and he had nothing equivalent to discuss; now that he had discovered Gretchen, he wanted to talk about her, but was afraid that Sam, whom he didn't yet know very well, would think he was a creep. Sometimes, Daniel and Samantha horsed around, playing poker with the old catalog cards they were typing into the system ("I'll see your Thackeray with a Lord Acton and raise you a James Branch Cabell".) The room had one window, so grimy and cracked you could see nothing outside, and around them were musty pile of books which someone had moved here for a project which had, by the looks of it, been abandoned decades ago. They talked about resuming the unknown project, and on their break sometimes looked through the pile, hoping to discover something their boss, the rarely seen Mr. Heimat, would tell them had been long-lost and yearned for by the librarian community. But the piles seemed to contain nothing but novels by forgotten American authors of the 1930's and nonfiction books of that period about events that were also not remembered.

Daniel's life, which had consisted entirely of sleep-walking only a few weeks ago, now began to take on an unusual division: in Mineola, he was still becalmed, and hardly ever awake; at Jamaica, he was intensely alive, and very excited; at Butler Library, he was comfortable and happy and heard himself laughing for the first time in years.

The following week, he learned that Gretchen was Susan. The desire not to be seen to be interested in her led him to enter the train first, even though this meant she might sit far away and he would not have a good view of her. But, still oblivious, Gretchen came and sat next to him. Daniel's heart was thundering and he wondered for a moment if he might black out; he stole a covert sidelong glance and noticed that her book bag had a label; she was Susan R., but her thin-fingered ringless hand blocked the rest of her last name from sight. She wore a subtle, unostentatious perfume; after a while he thought she might just smell of the soap she used and that it wasn't a perfume at all--a thought he rather liked. She was listlessly holding a book in her other hand; finally, with a sigh, she flipped it open and began to read and underline. It was Mill on liberty, and Daniel's mind began racing: first, she clearly was taking an introductory philosophy course of some kind, though the juxtaposition of the intricate Kierkegaard and the open, generous Mill was perplexing. (However, he much preferred seeing Gretchen read Mill to Kierkegaard.) Second, he now had a classic opportunity to begin a conversation. He formulated a remark about the "open, generous Mill" and was disgusted with himself; he could not imagine anything he could say which would not sound repellently pretentious, and he visualized various reactions Gretchen might have, from recoiling and changing seats to a dismissive, meaningless reply after which she would bury her nose in the book to indicate she did not wish to talk to a stranger.

There had to be a better choice. Formulating, polishing, and rejecting different comments he could make to Gretchen, Daniel became progressively more disgusted with himself. There was a world of men--many had been friends in childhood or peers of his in school--who could open a conversation with Gretchen instantly, without any planning or forethought. And to whom she would doubtless respond by putting down the book, looking at them, grateful for the distraction, laughing and making friends. But at the same time Daniel knew that anything he said would sound strange and rehearsed, and might even be drowned out by the coursing of his blood at the moment he tried to speak. Penn Station arrived and he had said nothing to her.

He arrived at Butler Library so depressed that Sam could not get a rise out of him. She didn't notice at first, or pretended not to; but at the end of a disquisition about some of Bruce's less pleasant habits, she imitated Daniel's place-holding "umm-hmmm" and said, sarcastically but cheerfully, "You haven't been listening to a word I said."

"I'm sorry, Sam. I've got something on my mind."

"Spit it out, Dan-O. There's only me here and the books, and the books won't tell."

He hesitated.

"What could it be, Dan-O? There's nothing new under the sun. You're probably in love with someone, and she doesn't know you exist." She saw the look on his face and added, "Got it, didn't I?"

So he told her all about Gretchen, though he felt ashamed; the whole story sounded so strange to him, that he was half-convinced that Sam too would think he was a jerk, and that their friendship would end.

He didn't know if Sam was careful or just oblivious; if he had seen a look of pity on her face he felt he would have to quit the job, so as never to see her again. But walking her usual line between being friendly and cruel, she laughed, and said, "You know, Dan-O, the statement that a girl doesn't know her suitor exists is usually a gross exaggeration meaning she's not interested in him. But in your case its literally true. So what are you going to do about it?"

"I don't know. I wanted to say something, but I'm afraid she'll think I'm a creep."

"You're not a creep," Samantha said, and talked about something else.

He had been highly interested to know whether a woman friend would give him advice on how to talk to another woman. Samantha didn't, but he realized later in thinking about this with disappointment that she had never sought his advice about Bruce either. Though he would hardly have known how to give her any; Bruce was a jock.

After that, he talked to Samantha about Gretchen every night; he praised her beauty, and speculated about her life. He felt stupid and he was afraid he would persuade her that he was a creep; but now that the subject had been broached, he could not help himself. Sam didn't particularly like hearing about Gretchen; though he didn't believe Sam had the least interest in him romantically, he dimly saw that a woman who was not beautiful (or even one who was, he supposed) might get tired of listening to a man endlessly praise the beauty of another. In any event, Samantha was courteous to him about it; she teased him or changed the subject, but never expressed the impatience he thought she felt.

Sam had been a graduate student like himself; but she was actually using her mornings to write a book, a nonfiction work about New York machine politics in the 1950's for which she was interviewing people. It was aimed at a general audience, not at the academic presses, and she had a contract with Henry Holt for it. Daniel was still waking up at nearly noon; but now he was waking up thinking about Gretchen and looking forward to his companionable evening with Samantha.

The following Tuesday, Susan Rosenbaum boarded the New York-bound train at Babylon, Long Island, headed for her philosophy class at Cardozo. She spent an hour thinking about horseback riding and whether she might get a job at the stables; how much she hated the class, and how her father's plan to push her back towards college by bargaining for her to take a course or two was failing; her new next door neighbor, Bernard Steinmetz, of the classical dark good looks and who drove his own Jaguar; whether her father the tax attorney would in fact trade in the Lincoln for a Mercedes, as he kept promising, and whether he would let her drive it, as he insisted he would not.

She got off at Jamaica, and a few minutes later, after a train from Mineola had arrived, found herself standing next to a thin young man, dressed in black jeans and a denim shirt, whom she realized she had seen here every week since she began commuting in for the course. He was mildly good looking, dark-haired and serious, probably a student like herself but a few years older, and he had interesting hazel eyes. The entirely cloudless sky arched over Track 8 at Jamaica, and the air had that pleasant beginning of a bite that Susan liked so much. She suddenly realized that for no accountable reason she was in a very good mood, and she shared it by smiling at Daniel. He responded with an almost comical look of alarm; he mouthed "Hello" but could not smile and hesitated, stepping towards her and then away a little bit. At that moment, the train arrived, and Daniel dived into the next car down. Susan, surprised and insulted, consulted a mirror from her purse to make sure that she didn't have a shocking booger or food hanging from her teeth; a man had never run away from her before. The next week, she was in her usual reverie and didn't even look for him; and two weeks later she dropped the course.

The day of his awful failure to speak to Gretchen, Daniel had woken later than usual, and had eaten only a chocolate bar before catching the train. Feeling nauseous--hungry, faint and hyped up by the chocolate--he kept his eyes closed and heard Moore's "Change at Jamaica--track 8" through a loud hum, which he assumed was either his own blood or his anxiety.

He had a vision of Track 8 that hung exactly in between a dream and a daydream; he wasn't quite asleep but he wasn't conscious either. Track 8, rather then being a human construction of steel and concrete, was a geological phenomenon. Rather than being governed by the train timetable, events at Track 8 were measured in geological time and, for any living organisms to be found there, with the somewhat greater granularity of evolutionary time. He saw himself embedded in the rock that was the platform of Track 8. Half living and half fossilized, he wondered if he too would be subject to evolution: would there be change at Jamaica, or was it an empty and foolish promise repeated every day by George Moore the conductor?

He stepped off the train feeling unsteady and faint. So when Gretchen answered his question by smiling and opening up a new world to him, Daniel was completely unprepared; his riposte to Gretchen's answer was simply to run away.

He had been re-reading Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude, in which there was a character, Santa Sofia de la Piedad, who was described as having the virtue of existing only at the opportune moment. Daniel, with a crunching sense of failure, believed he was the opposite of her: he always existed except at the opportune moment.

He couldn't go to work that day, but spent the afternoon and evening at the movies--he saw three--then went back to Mineola. The next day, he called in sick again, telling Heimat he had the flu. He had never missed a day of work before, so he figured that Heimat would cut him the slack. About thirty minutes later, the phone rang. It was Samantha. They had never called each other; she must have gotten the number from their boss.

"You don't sound sick," she said.

He couldn't lie to Samantha, but he couldn't tell her the truth, either.

"Something happened with Gretchen," Samantha said.


"Don't you think you better tell me?"

Later, he analyzed those words, wondering when, in her mind or his, he had contracted a responsibility to tell Samantha anything.

"She smiled at me," he said. Sam's laugh was sharp, startling and unsympathetic. "Dan-O, you're too eighteenth century poetic to live, if a smile from the object of your fancy caused you to miss two days of work."

"I ran away," he said, rendering Sam silent. Finally she asked: "Are you coming to work tomorrow?"

"I don't know."

"If you keep this up, you might lose your job."

"Right now I don't care."

"How about brunch tomorrow, say around eleven? We could talk about it."

"I'll think about it," he said and rudely hung up on her. But a moment later he missed Sam, and that, coupled with a horror of his bed, his house, the diner and Mineola in general, led him to call her back.

He met her at a sidewalk cafe in the West Village, a few blocks from her apartment.

"This is completely mercenary," Samantha said. "I don't want you to quit. I'd go bonkers sitting in that room alone. Or imagine if Heimat replaced you with a real donkey, one of those men who bray when they laugh?"

"I'm interrupting your writing time."

"Well, I can't write every minute." After a companionable silence, she asked:

"Will you come to work with me today?"

"What will we do until then?" He felt ashamed; she probably needed to work. "I can see a movie or hit a bookstore; I'll meet you there later."

"I do need to write for a while." Samantha hesitated and said, "You're welcome to hang out, long as you don't bug me."


"Would I lie to you?"

Sam had a one bedroom apartment with huge bookcases crammed with Edith Wharton, Doris Lessing, and other unsentimental women. The place was pleasant, clean and sunny. She shut herself in the bedroom to work and he passed an enjoyable hour looking at her books, then fell asleep on the couch. At three o'clock she shook him awake and they took the subway to work.

After that, he came in early sometimes, had lunch and napped on her couch. It was a comfortable routine. On Tuesdays especially, he relished taking an earlier train, so there would be no chance of running into Gretchen.

Bruce stopped by once unexpectedly to drop off some books. He was a handsome jock, in love with himself and nasty. Samantha had told him about her friend Daniel and Bruce, who didn't really understand but wasn't in any position to insist, had probably come by to take a look at him. "Ah, the sleeper," he said. "Is that couch comfortable? When I sleep over, I'm not on the couch."

Samantha was furious. After he left, she said, "All men are dicks. Except probably you."

"He loves himself a lot for a guy who plays for the Columbia Lions," Daniel replied.

On a Saturday night, when Bruce was away playing football somewhere, they had dinner near Sam's apartment. They split a bottle of wine and were warmly, humorously drunk. He walked her home and she invited him in. Again he dimly sensed he had crossed a bridge with a woman, and again he was paralyzed. First, he could be wrong, and if he made an unwelcome move he would be a jerk. He had slept on her couch so many times, and they were such great friends, that her invitation to come up in the evening might mean nothing at all. Secondly, he still had a feeling of insubstantiality, that there wasn't enough of him there to do anything. Finally, he had become comfortable with the idea that he didn't exist at the opportune moment.

He sat on the couch looking at the galleys of her book while she went into the bedroom. She returned and sat next to him and said, "Dan-O is a physics problem. All potential, no energy."

She abruptly lifted a hand and began stroking his cheek with her knuckles. "Do you mind?"

"No." He took her hand and examined it. He had noticed before that her hands were big but still long-fingered and womanly. As if made for work.

"I want to kiss you," Sam said. He kissed her and felt a long-suppressed hot flush in his body and his blood; it had been two years since he had been with a woman.

He remembered having thought Sam was not beautiful. Her features had not changed but he saw everything through a new lens, of friendship turning into love, tinged by deep gratitude. He loved her wit, her fine hair and her soft skin, and he loved her for wanting to be with him.

In the morning, they went out for brunch and she ordered two mimosas. She proposed a toast: "Here's to Gretchen."

"Gretchen brought us together," he agreed.

She called Bruce that night and broke off their relationship. Daniel moved in a month later and they were married in the spring. Samantha's book appeared and got some excellent reviews. It was not a financial success, but she promptly signed a contract to do another one and was clearly launched as a writer. Daniel still felt no particular ambition but wanted to keep up with his wife; he took a job as an editor at a publishing house. Later, when she was pregnant with their first child--it was late autumn and they were walking in Central Park--he confessed to her his judgment of himself that he never existed at the opportune moment.

"Well, luckily for us both, I did," said Samantha.