She finished her shopping, and clawed her way to the front of the store. The cashier had a name-badge that said "Tina" on it, and Nicole noticed that Tina did a double take when she saw the small basket of food Nicole put on the conveyor belt.
"Welcome to Whole Foods. Did you find everything alright?"
Nicole vaguely wondered if anyone ever answered no to that question, but just said, "Yes," even though she had been told at the meat counter that they were out of her favorite blueberry sausage.
Tina, however, nodded, and then asked, "Going out of town for Thanksgiving?"
“No," Nicole said.
"Oh. Already have all your Thanksgiving shopping done?"
“No," Nicole repeated, and she saw Tina deflate a little, so she added, "but thank you for asking."
Tina brightened up at this, and then swiped Nicole's bottle of Kung Fu Girl Riesling over the scanner. "Good wine,” Tina said as she finished ringing Nicole up.
"It is," Nicole said and paid. She collected her things in her bags and headed out of the store. Outside it was already below freezing and a nasty wind sliced through people's coats and gloves. Nicole shivered as soon as the icy air hit her skin, so she picked up her pace and walked the few blocks to the metro station. Luck was with her, and right as she walked up, the elevator doors leading down to the train platform opened. She ducked inside and just before the door closed, an arm snaked though, keeping them open. Attached to the arm was a man who looked to be in his mid-fifties or early sixties and who had eyes the color of hoarfrost and that glittered like fresh snow under a new moon.
“Sorry," he said, slightly out of breath.
"No problem," Nicole said, as he walked into the lift. As the doors closed and the elevator began its descent, Nicole noticed that he also had a small bag from Whole Foods. She could also tell that he was looking at her out of the corner of his eye. Not in the way that men would normally do if they were checking her out, but more like he was trying to place her. Nicole was sure that she did not know the older man, but she wondered why he was looking at her. Then, for no reason that she could put her finger on, she said, "So you headed out of town for Thanksgiving?" As soon as the words left her mouth, she could feel herself flush, and she knew that her ears and cheeks were turning a bright read. Partially this was because she never talked to strangers on the metro, but largely it was because she could vividly remember the flash of annoyance she had felt towards Tina when she had asked her the same question.
The man looked at her and smiled. "No. I'm here in town for the holiday.”
Nicole felt herself go even more red, but thankfully she was spared from responding by the DING of the elevator. The doors opened up and air that was almost a full ten degrees warmer than what they had just left flooded into the car. Nicole darted away from the man, who walked out after her, the same smile still on his face. As Nicole moved deeper into the station, she heard the telltale sound of a train entering the station, and she knew without even looking at the next-train-sign that it was her connection. She began walking a little faster.
Nicole reached the turnstile, placed her groceries on top of the machine, and then fumbled in her purse for her metro card, but could not find it. She heard the train stop and a chime sound that told her the doors were opening up. She tore through the cavernous bowls of her handbag looking for her card but it remained elusive. Suddenly, she remembered it was in her jacket pocket. She snapped her bag shut and shoved her hand into her pocket. She instantly found her card and then pressed it to the sensor. Nicole rushed through the opening gate, slowing only long enough to grab her groceries. She started running to the escalator, but even as she did, she heard the chime again along with an increased whine that told her the train was getting ready to leave the station. She reached the platform just as the silver cars started to move.
Nicole was furious with herself. If she had not been flustered on the elevator, she could have remembered where she put her metro card. Now she had to wait, which was not really that much of inconvenience, but it was still annoying. She was, however, pleased to find that it was even warmer on the platform than in the upper station. Trying to ignore the wait in front of her and the embarrassment behind her, Nicole headed for an empty bench in the middle of the platform and sat down, glad for the warmth. Thirty seconds or so later, the man from the elevator sat down on the same bench, bypassing several free benches around them. He did leave nearly the whole width of the remaining bench open in between, which Nicole was inwardly happy about. She looked at the train arrival clock: 15 minutes.
The man did not speak to Nicole for what felt like ten minutes, but eventually, he said, "My name is Melvin, but all my friends call me Vin."
Nicole looked over and saw that the sign now said 12 minutes. "Uh. Hi. Nicole," she said as she shifted her shopping bag so that it was sitting on the bench between herself and Vin.
He smiled and shook her hand. "Nicole. That's a nice name."
"You're welcome." Vin said. "And I just want you to know, you are positively adorable when you're flustered." Nicole felt herself start turning red again, but before she could say anything Vin added, "I'm not saying that to embarrass you. I just want you to know that it was nice. An old buzzard like myself does not get that many nice looking younger women just chatting them up on the elevator."
Nicole tried to decide if Vin was poking fun at her, but his face was inscrutable. "You're not that old yet," she said, while avoiding eye contact by looking over his shoulder.
"Nice of you to say. True in a way, but I'm not exactly a showroom model anymore."
"Do you always fish for complements, Vin?" Nicole asked, and was pleased to see that this time, he got just a little red in the cheeks.
"If I was, would you blame me for trying?" he asked.
"Probably not," Nicole said, noticing a light creeping up the train-tunnel. She let her eyes jump to the board and saw that a new entry had appeared: No Passengers - ARV. Just as soon as she saw it, the train emerged, and let loose a blast from its air-horn. Almost everybody on the platform flinched at the noise and cast sour looks at the operator as the train rumbled and swayed through the station.
"I hate it when they blow that stupid horn," Vin said. "Its not like we can't see or hear one of those things."
"Yeah," Nicole said, her ears still ringing. "It's stupid."
"It is," Vin said, and Nicole could see his eyes start roving, trying to find something to talk about. His eyes alighted on the wine bottle that was laying on the top of the groceries that she had placed between herself and Vin. "Kung Fu Girl. Any good?"
"I don't think you can beat it," Nicole said, glad the topic of conversation was no longer about either one of them. "It's rated at 90 points and it's only $13 a bottle. I think it is one of the best wines you can get without breaking your bank."
Vin nodded. "Sounds delicious. I don't drink much wine, but I do like the sweeter ones, so that looks like something that I might enjoy."
A strand of Nicole's black hair fell so that she had to brush it away from her face. As she did, she caught the look the Vin's face. It was a look she had not really seen before. She could tell that he was not checking her out, but that he was scrutinizing her intently, as if he was trying to figure something out. "What is it?" Nicole asked.
Vin shrugged. "It will sound weird."
Nicole glanced up at the arrival board, which listed her train as still 8 minutes out. "Well," she said waving her hand at the board, "it seems kind of important from the way you have been looking at me."
"I guess I have been looking at you, haven't I? Well, here," Vin said, pulling his wallet out. "The picture inside will explain it."
Nicole looked at the proffered wallet, and for just a second she hesitated, but then she took it. The leather was old and worn, and the corners were turned in. She knew of course. Knew she would be looking at her own doppelgänger. Nevertheless, she felt her palms grow sweaty. Opening the wallet, she immediately saw herself as she might look in a few years. The woman in the photo had her same black hair. The same straight nose, and since she was standing next to Vin, she could tell that the woman was within an inch of her actual height. There were no kids in the picture, but it was obvious that Vin and this almost mirror image of herself had been together a long time. Nicole glanced at Vin's left hand and noted the wedding band. "She was your wife."
"Emily. Her name was Emily, and yes--for the better part of nineteen years."
"What happened to her?" Nicole said, lost in the photo.
Vin opened his mouth to reply when the PA crackled to life and the automated service announcement blared that safety was everyone's responsibility. ”If you see something, say something." Then just as suddenly as it started, it died out.
Vin, who had not tried to speak over the PA said, "Those things are really annoying aren't they?"
"Yes they are. And I seriously doubt they actually work," Nicole said.
"You're probably right about that,” Vin said and then fell silent. It lasted so long that Nichole though Vin was going to ignore her question, but then he said, "She was visiting a friend in New Jersey when Superstorm Sandy swept through. They didn't evacuate because the house was built on stilts, and Emily's friend said it would be fine. The short version is that it was not fine, and she got sucked out to sea. She wasn't a very good swimmer, but even if she had been, I don't think there was anything she was going to do against that."
"I'm sorry," Nicole said, handing Vin his wallet back.
"Me too," Vin said. “I saw you in Whole Foods, and for a second I thought Emily had come to haunt me, and then…well. I guess I kind of followed you for a bit.”
Nicole smiled a little. "You're right. It is weird, but it's not creepy. In fact its kind of understandable,” Nicole said and then patted his shoulder without thinking. That lasted for a second, but then she realized what she was doing and snatched her hand back, blushing.
Vin smiled, and Nicole could see that his eyes had tears in them. She was not sure what to do. Whatever she had expected to happen today, this was not on the list, but she knew what was waiting for her when she went home: the television and reruns of Castle on TNT. "So this year is the first Thanksgiving you won't have Emily to share with?" Nicole said, trying to buy more time.
"The second. Sandy hit in late October," Vin said, as he took out a packet of tissues and wiped the tears that were threatening to fall away from his eyes. Nicole saw the sign change to show that there were only four minutes until the next train. "But enough about me. What about you? You don't have family or friends in the area that you can hang out with?"
"I wish," Nicole said. "I got laid off at the beginning of the year. I've got a pretty steady temp job as a paralegal that pays the bills, but my parents live in Arizona, and I just can't afford the ticket this year. I've got a roommate, who is heading off to see her family in Vermont. She offered to let me come, but I didn't want to spend all that time in the car."
Vin nodded. "Is this your first Thanksgiving away from your family then?"
"No. I did a fall semester in Denmark when I was in college, and I didn't make it home then either. Otherwise though. Yeah, this is my first Thanksgiving on my own while in the States." The sign behind Vin clicked over to "ARV" and Nicole could see the lights of the train approaching. Unlike the last train that had gone by, she could hear the brakes being applied. What should she do? Nicole did not have to be anywhere, but Vin still was a stranger.
"Well," Vin said as he looked over his shoulder at the train and then turned back to Nicole. "I hope you have a good Thanksgiving."
"You too." Nicole said, as the train passed their bench and slowed. Vin nodded and then turned in his seat to face the train, but he did not get up. Nicole turned on the bench as well and heard the chime that signaled the doors opening. This was followed by a swarm of commuters, who exited the train like animals fleeing a forest fire. No sooner had they exited the train, before the flow shifted, and people stormed their way onto the cars looking to grab a seat. While all of this occurred, Nicole and Vin sat on the bench. Finally, the chime sounded again, the doors slid close, and as the previous occupants of the train fled the platform, Vin cast a quick look over at Nicole.
"You're still here."
"I am. I mean, you said Riesling was one of the few types of wine you drink."
"Does that mean you want to have Thanksgiving with me?"
"I don't know." Nicole said. "But I know they will let you drink wine in that Whole Foods we left, so I say we go back there and keep talking."
Vin smiled. "Deal. Just one caveat. If we do decide to have Thanksgiving, I'm going to buy a turkey to cook."
Nicole smiled, "The goal here is to make me think you are not crazy. This close to Thanksgiving, you think you can get a turkey over all those crazy moms?"
Vin picked up Nicole's groceries as well as his own, and said, his eyes sparkling, "Stranger things have happened today."