Sitting next to me on the train from New York to Philadelphia, a woman tilts her head to catch the corner of my eye. I can see the reflection of her hair, a cumulus kind of puffy. I find my own chin twisting towards her, her gaze a magnet. She has creases around her lips and her eyes from smiling. Perhaps there were faint frown lines that dipped between her brows, but this is a hazy image and I don’t remember. She speaks to me at a giddy, rushed pace, as if her mind is still processing what to say but her voice aches to release itself, and bursts anyway. She makes me think of when I was a child, and of those bubbles that would pop too fast in the wand, vanishing before they could find their form. I remember all the frustration that comes with those unripe bubbles. Like my sister, she cannot seem to tell a story. They come out in little clips of climax, or slow drones that refuse to rise and fall, a straight line in a tile floor. She tells me that she is visiting her niece’s children. I smile, thinking of this woman traveling long distances to see children that are not her own but could have been.
I think I may be like her one day, childless, a boyfriend that lives next door who leaves stringy bunches of flowers at my doorstep. I see my sister’s children, and their children, for holidays, and they love me, because I do not dote and fret like a grandmother but I spoil with small treats brought from far away places. Their smallness and foreignness make them that much more valuable than a new bike in the eyes of a child. I would be like this woman, but a better storyteller, the children rushing over to sit on my feet and lap and armrests, whispering “Auntie, tell us that story.” I’ll have a few adventures tucked away in my mind, pulled out for the children on rainy Easter Sundays. Some will be honed over the years, changed unconsciously, the occasional burst from below- “That never happened!” I hush them, finger barely hiding my smirk, a look that tells them not to ruin a tale with the truth. With that look, I’d share a secret and the child would quiet down and smile back, proud to know things the smaller ones do not.
The train quivers to a halt, and I rise to leave my seat. “You’re so lucky,” the woman says, eyes gleaming with something I’m still unsure of. “You get to go to school.” I smile, grip tightening around the book I’m reading so that the pages will be left with finger indents. I step out into the air, buttered with the sharpness of winter, the world bright and brilliant and smelling like the books of my imaginary grandnieces.