By THEADORA WALSH
The thing called phantom vibration was one of the most common ways Corduroy experienced touch these days.
The racking on the subway, which he always holds his body against, pendulumed his thighs against knees pressed into his sides.
An older Jamaican woman to his left clutched a purse of stained peach to light blue capris. A round fat lower lipped man on his right had a freckled knee smashed tight into his calf. With a weak middle, Corduroy felt nauseous trying to steady himself against all the unfortunate touching. Physicality always only reminded him of his body, and the ugly space it takes up.
Something caressed his thigh. He spun towards the woman, his surprise touched less with accusation than warmth. She was still staring straight forward, her forehead rough with a grimace’s wrinkles. She’s too hardened to admit she needed to reach out to me, Corduroy thought, how sweet. His eyes made the mistake of panning down farther. Her hands were still knotted around her purse.
It must have been his phone, a false but already defeated reassurment.
Sliding the soft screen easily from thigh to palm, he found no new words. There were no words for him. Even though he personalized his phone’s interface to show all words made for him in his favorite font, myriad pro.
It got lonely. All of a sudden, on that train. Nobody wanted to cup their hands around the boniest parts of his knees. He pulled the phone up into his arms anyways. Opening his snapchat, he pressed his thumb into moments of some others’ memories. Eyes see a bus smashing water all over the chase building, an urban wave, eyes see a slow scroll of a lake, all the water looked the same, eyes see a flower being bit by matches, eyes see a selected compilation of 10 second or less representations of the Westminster Kettle 2015 National Dog Show.
He closed it, reopened and ran his finger between the screen which held a representation of a camera and a screen which held a list of his friend’s usernames. Friends as a category decided by snapchat. He closed it.
Pushing his knee further down Corduroy’s thigh the enormous man beside him pressed his body up through thigh extension and made his way off the train. The doors slid shut with a strange silence, as if everyone was recognizing an abandonment. Leaving and not saying anything, not even giving a look to the man who he had practically been holding, caressing, rubbing against in the slow motion of a train.
The haunting of empty space and exposition of his thigh was interrupted when a girl, her hand sliding on the train car’s pole, spun into the seat behind him. The last thing to arrive was her high ponytail, the tips of which swung into his neck. She quickly collected her hairs and put them behind her neck proudly, a timed look of dismissal for Corduroy. He realized that soon, just like his previous seatmate, she would leave him. And, just as before, she wouldn’t look back.
Ingenari Strategic Crossways was founded with stimulus money in 1998. Gertrude Mensel was inspired to create the company after her cupcake business went bankrupt because their automated answering machine went defunct and began recording hundreds of imagined orders. Her team worked overtime and sent delivery boys with boxes full of cakes out on bikes, buses, and even one by sailboat. All to be sent away upon arrival. She was left with thousands of unsold cupcakes and an emotionally damaged delivery staff, they all felt nervous for future deliveries having shown up unwanted at people’s homes all afternoon. Enraged, Gertrude ate her feelings. She got through 17 cupcakes before developing an acute sugar anxiety and committed to a week of bed rest. From then on she felt sick at the sight of sugar and the sticky density of a confectionary kitchen. Determined not to move back to Indiana with her mother, she swore to never again allow a poorly programmed automatized digital communication to hurt anyone. She dedicated her company to the perfection of digital voice recordings. Now Ingenari employs over 40 people and the Chelsea office just installed a bocce ball court on the rooftop garden.
Corduroy dialed Ingenari. The perfectly toned and articulate answering machine asked his ID number so that he could be directed to his personal operative partner.
“Hello Corduroy” the voice of a young woman who might have just woken up, but, from some sweet dream, greeted him.
“How are you enjoying yourself today? 19:32 Monday April 19 2017?”
“Fine.” Corduroy finally felt a little bit of relief on his long train ride.
“Are you ready to begin?”
“Okay, super great. Please say: please in a nervous tone.” Mandy, whose voice Corduroy had been assigned to after answering a set of questions meant to determine his optimal compatibility, was often over enthusiastic.
“Please say: please in a sorrowful tone”
“Please say: please in an aggressive tone”
“Please say: please in a hopeful tone”
“like what do you want,” the girl beside Corduroy spun around all full of annoyance.
“Sorry?” Corduroy felt violently ripped from the digitized sanctuary in which he’d sunk. Repetition like meditation, Mandy made him calm.
As the phone’s sensors were incredibly sensitive, Mandy whispered into his ear; “Excuse me Corduroy, I asked you to say Please but you said Sorry.”
Disappointed, but not angry, never hateful, he could almost imagine Mandy shaking her head with a suppressed smile, “Corduroy, I asked you to say Please but you said Sorry”. In his mind, Mandy had red hair and a thin slightly slanted, perhaps once broken, nose.
The girl was still staring at him, not at his eyes, but indignantly at the space between his eyebrows. Self-consciously, he ran his finger over the center of his face and then lowered his phone to his lap, waving it gently at the girl on its descent.
“I was on the phone,” he muttered before letting his eye follow the path his phone had taken down to his lap. He slid the phone off, he didn’t want words he made for Mandy to be overheard by the girl who’d injured him.
He noticed the screen on his phone brighten before it even began to vibrate, he scooped it up eagerly. Trying to look as if receiving a call was a common and unsurprising—maybe even a bothersome—event, Corduroy raised his eyebrows indignantly at the eyeroll he imagined the ponytail girl making.
It was his mother calling. A few years ago Corduroy decided to replace “mom” with “mother” when referring to her because it made him feel like he was taller than he really was.
“Hey,” he was about to say mom, but caught himself, “hey there” he corrected. Mother isn’t really a name the way mom is, she had to be unspecific now.
“Corduroy, listen, as you know Jeffery had his follow up surgery today. The lepst lept onoscopy or letsonoposcy, I can’t remember the scientific name. And, they found something. We thought the little wire camera they insert would show us that we defeated the cancer, but, then they found it in the lymph nodes.”
She stopped talking. With the silence, the phone was telling Corduroy he had to say something.
“Oh, no, so, what did the doctor say?”
“We thought he would tell us we could put all this behind us, but now he is talking about further procedures and a strict diet and they’ll have to operate. And, you know that this weekend is Linda’s softball tournament. She was so excited for her father to support her and now I think I’ll have to rent a wheelchair to take him. Oh well, after the whole ‘not a real sport’ incident we’ll just have to make this.”
The train surfaced. Corduroy found himself as disinterested in the passing city scape as he had been by the dark walls of the tunnel. It was all just squares and grey if you rock your head back and forth while squinting anyway.
“So that’s the update. Now, will you be at Linda’s game this Saturday?
“I don’t think I can make it.”
“What? You know sometimes she asks me if having a half sibling means she is an only child.”
Corduroy wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be profound. It sounded like something she might have heard on the radio or seen on television and found some weight in. He imagined her behind the wheel of her Volvo practicing the words and feeling them fit nicely between her lips. The glasses she wore slimmed into something an Italian man might wear, her voice found a steadier harmony, and the thin scar beneath her chin folded and colored itself clear.
Because he had decided that she’d said this sentence only for herself, he felt no obligation to give a response.
“I’m sorry. I just can’t make it.”
She was quiet.
“I’m meeting someone.”
“A girl?” she asked, not even trying to mask her desire to knit tiny cashmere booties for some future structuring of time, “that Mandy?”
“It is for work,” embarrassed but not willing to correct her, and not able to let slip the Mandy who his mother’s mind held, he rushed the conversation to an end.
Though he had forgotten her, the girl to his side was still sitting beside him. The Jamaican woman had left him at some point. His body was still there, his white shirt was not the same color as his white running shoes. The body of the phone was warm and his cheek where he had held it, felt touched.