“There is a story about a sailor who fell from the top of the mast without injuring himself, got up on his feet, and said: Now copy me–but most likely he himself also refrained from doing it again. Likewise, repetition that involves good luck and inspiration is always a daring venture.”

—Soren Kierkegaard


On a train in downtown Chicago, a young man stood a row behind me, gripping the handrail overhead, laughing with his friend. I barely registered him until he moved to stand at the aisle seat of the row where I sat. He swayed, shifting his weight between his hands above and his feet below.

“What are you reading?”

I ignored him the first few times he asked, but then when he asked a fourth time adding, “Excuse me,” to the question, I responded, hoping he’d leave me alone.

I realize this logic is most certainly unsound, but I will admit to being a person who, when faced with the annoyance of public interaction, will occasionally just give myself over to it. I’ll talk to a cab driver about why I don’t think I want to have children of my own. Waiting for the bus one night, I watched a girl break up with a guy, and then analyzed what I’d seen with the stranger who’d witnessed the same interaction. I was once addicted to online dating, the worse the date the better. I loved that sacred ritual of watching how far off course an hour could take us. So when someone on public transportation won’t give up on asking me what I’m reading until he gets an answer, there is a switch that will often flip inside of me that says, “Fine, let’s talk it out.”

I flashed the book cover, “Kierkegaard,” looking up at him quickly and then back down to my open book.

He asked again, in a slight variation, “What’s the book?”

Again I turned the book, “It’s called Repetition.”

Repetition, Repetition. What’s it about?”

I am not an awful person, so I didn’t say, “Take a guess,” but I really am terrible at summarizing books, especially for people who are idly asking and not looking for a long explanation. I thought for a moment, and pieced together an explanation. “It’s about a young man who is already falling out of love with a woman before he even begins to love her.”

“Whoa, that’s rough…Repetition. Repetition.” I nodded and went on reading. The young man noticed the ticket I was using as a bookmark, and asked what it was for.

“I’ve never seen roller derby. Is it good?”

We volleyed back and forth a few times.

I looked down at my book again, and when I glanced up I saw the dynamic that had been at play the entire length of our conversation: the man’s dick was out of his pants.

I looked down quickly and thought about what would provide him the least satisfaction. I considered ignoring it for the final two stops of my ride, but I felt the anger rise in me. I looked up into his eyes, and said, “Get away from me.”

He smiled. “What?”

“You know what I said. Get away from me and cover yourself.” I pointed toward the door. “Cover yourself. Cover yourself,” I repeated in full voice until he apologized and pulled his pants up.

When he’d stepped away, I moved toward the door. “You are disgusting. I’m going to get off this train and I’m going to report this. I want you to think about whether that was worth it. You might not get caught today, but if you keep this up, one day you will, and I just want you to be sure this is worth whatever happens after that.”

The young man replied, “I said I was sorry and thank you.” I was enraged that he thanked me. I wanted to slap his mouth. I knew I was not the first person he’d said this to for how easily it came out, and so this moment, surely a repeat of some moment before, meant nothing.

I got off the train and ran up the stairs to the station attendant’s booth. Two women were eating their dinner, and I apologized for interrupting. I told them what had happened and described the man, frustrated about how little I remembered. They asked if I’d gotten the car number, and I felt regret at having rushed away from the train so quickly. They looked at me, disappointed, and shook their heads.

I walked to meet a friend for dinner. The first thing he said was that he was sorry to hear about it. It should be clear his intentions were good. But the next thing he said was, “You should have hit the emergency button to stop the train and told the conductor that there was a man exposing himself in that car and that he needed to be arrested.”

I don’t fault him for this advice. It’s solid, and had I been on the side of the train with the button, I might have considered it, but there was a clearer danger in that move. If I found myself trapped in the middle of a tunnel with a criminal I’ve just ratted on, weren’t the stakes higher? Mightn’t a previously harmless idiot become violent? It wasn’t a chance I considered taking in that moment, and I felt a new wave of anger at the way this male’s opinion had been phrased, like what I had done was wrong.

I knew what I had a done was not wrong. In fact, I knew whatever it was I had done would have been the correct choice. I don’t know that the action I took is even an important part of this experience. I feel no shame, and I am confident that I was in the right in every possible way.

This happened two months ago, and I’m surprised that I find myself thinking about it still. I flash back to the shock of the realization that the young man’s cock was out. I think about how it could have been possible that I looked up probably a dozen times, right past the exposed flesh into the man’s face, searching for his intention with presentness, openness, never noticing the true subject of our conversation.

I am unconcerned by the sight of a man’s penis. We live in an age where the simple fact of a person’s reproductive organs are not in any way incendiary, but I find myself fixating on the intention behind this man’s act.

Oscar Wilde, in that rubbery old truth that shows up in every context imaginable, said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” That’s one part of the experience that bugs me, that that man thought he was exhibiting power over me, holding me captive in my seat with limp meat as a barrier to my freedom.

If I look behind that ball of anger, I find a beetle rolling on more and more layers every time I step on a bus or train. I have felt my mind default to looking for repeat instances of this grievance. Without thinking, I glance at the waistbands of the people around me. I am expecting to see the same offending behavior and I experience weary relief when I find everyone’s belts buckled, flies zipped, aggression masked. When I notice what it is I’m looking for, I am angry at myself and at that young man for the ease with which he exacted change in me.

I have many bad habits that I am years into the process of correcting. I didn’t eat vegetables regularly until I was 18. I apologize for every goddamn thing (see my apology for interrupting the subway attendants’ dinner above)(and know that I have an instinct to apologize for this excruciating habit). I have more easily engrained the guilt of not writing than I have the habit of writing on a consistent schedule. There are whole shelves of the self-help section about how to break habits and make new habits and the hours it takes to make change permanent.

This jackass, though, gave me an insta-habit, one I had no interest in acquiring. A repetitive action, mindlessly performed.

In The Passion According to GH, Clarice Lispector says, “Perhaps what happened to me was an understanding—and for me to be true, I have to keep on being unable to grasp it, keep on not understanding it. All sudden understanding closely resembles an acute incomprehension.”

I have long been more comfortable with questions than answers. I like a storyline that is left open as opposed to one that ties up neatly.

Here is a truth that makes me feel uncomfortable: from the moment that man exposed himself to me, I felt an undercurrent of pride and vindication. Even while I was thinking quickly about what the safest and least-encouraging course of action would be, I was already imagining what it would feel like to have been through that experience. I am embarrassed and confused by this, but I am also able to consider my actions from the outside, and see this emotional response as a coping mechanism.

I see that by fast-forwarding to when the moment would be over, I was removing myself from the immediate danger, processing the present as the past. I felt pride in shaming the young man in front of a car full of people and I wanted to tell everyone, despite it being outside the realm of polite conversation.

I felt affirmed: all of those times that the switch hadn’t flipped, that I had ignored the greasy whispers and indiscriminate chatter strangers aimed at me on the train, this proved I had been right all those times to refuse their attention. This is what people are like. They are not worthy of the risk I’m required to take when they solicit a response from me, not when the odds are stacked so solidly against kindness.

In processing these feelings of pride, I fixate on Milan Kundera’s observation that, “The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!” This back-patting, even when associated with the recognition of harm or sorrow, rather than joy: I feel recognition and disgust for humanity’s willingness to assign a label and congratulate themselves for assigning that label.

Even now, in saying these things plainly, I am asking myself, “What is the big deal?” I am telling myself, “This is nothing.” I am putting distance between myself and this investigation. Like the young man in the novel, I am falling out of love before I’ve even begun.


Rumpus original art by Sylvia Nguyen.

Jac Jemc's first collection of stories, A Different Bed Every Time, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books in October 2014. Her novel, My Only Wife (Dzanc Books) was named a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award. She is also the author of a chapbook of stories, These Strangers She'd Invited In (Greying Ghost Press). She is the poetry editor at decomP and web nonfiction editor for Hobart. More from this author →