I saw Marie Antoinette riding the subway yesterday. The honest-to-god queen of France. You might think that because this is a short story, I’m just trying to be poetic about it. The person I saw obviously couldn’t have been a long-dead historical figure. Less theatrical types might say that the person I saw was just the type of person who wears fur-trimmed collars or knows about the hottest new restaurant to be seen in. The type of person whose high heels are of such Amazonian proportion that her ankles buckle like an exotic bird burdened under the weight of so much plumage. The type of person too proud to recognize that she wears her weaknesses to the world so clearly. The type of person incapable of seeing anything beyond her own orbit except for what repulses her, like the grimy smudges of hands upon hands upon hands on the vertical metal poles of the subway car. Peasants hands. “Ugh, she’s a real Marie Antoinette,” someone might say.
But that wasn’t the type of person I saw at all. The reason I’m writing this story is because the person I saw was really and truly her.
It happened during the summer I began to realize I was drowning. Drowning is dramatic, yes. But when everything is falling to shit, sometimes all you have left is hyperbole. Rent was crippling me more and more each month. As a half-hearted measure of making myself feel less sick about it all, I began to steal instant coffee and toilet paper from the office. My thievery went unnoticed by my colleagues, who were all ten years my senior or else the same age as me but had their lives together in such a boring way that I never knew if the choices I had made were really right or really wrong by comparison.
“Work’s work,” I would say whenever someone asked how things were going. My parents began to see through this pained euphemism and offered their individual brands of platitude to me. My mother would stress what a good thing I had going at the office. My father was of the opinion that I wasn’t putting myself out there enough. If I really wanted a better job, he iterated slowly, like he was explaining to a child how to use an elevator, I should just march myself into one of those high-rise lobbies and not leave until they had offered me a job. “Moxie goes a long way, kiddo,” he said.
“I’m not sure things work like that any more,” I told him.
After finishing work for the day, I would sometimes go out with friends for drinks I couldn’t afford, but most of the time I went straight home. I rented a basement room in a falling-apart share house that made me feel vaguely cave-trollish for the lack of light and the low overhead. The only way I could curb the feeling that the walls were caving in on me was to get blitzed, put on Time Out of Mind and crawl into bed in the dark, willing my bed sheets to absorb me completely. Though I kept my room somewhat tidy, it always felt thisclose to unleashing a disorderly terror upon itself. Self-assurances that I hadn’t yet awoken my inner Keith Moon were weak-hearted, to say the least.
The train car clattered forward. If I’m going to be honest, I had never given much thought to Marie Antoinette previously. It’s not like I’m a history buff. If I had expected anything prior to our encounter on the train, I guess I would have imagined someone with rose-apple cheeks and a voluptuously corpulent belly that would take three ladies’ maids to wrangle into a corset. She was rich enough to have three maids dedicated solely to the state of her waistline, I’m sure. But in watching the former queen of France clutch the metal pole to steady herself against the tilt and sway of the subway car, I realized that what I had imagined was dead wrong.
She was thin, for a start. It was the type of thin that made her veins thick and raised on her skin, like she was wearing a layer of crochet or corded brocade. It was the type of thin that makes a person look older than they are. She had a flat, veiled expression, like she had channeled herself somewhere beyond the subway. I suppose that’s no different than most commuters. But with Marie Antoinette, I felt it more than with other passengers. I had once seen a painting of a sleepwalker who had the exact same expression, with the candle she gripped accentuating the gauntness of her face and hollowed-out pockets under her eyes. Marie Antoinette was the same except for instead of gripping a candle, she gripped the metal pole. La Sonnambula in shambles, for her bodice was torn and her silk petticoat hung limp, the colour of upset clouds. The dress must have been her underwear, for it bared her shoulders, calves and ankles. She rode the subway bare-footed.
If it were simply a woman in a Marie Antoinette costume, I reasoned, it would have been all Bo Peep frillery and “let them eat cake” opulence. But that entity was nowhere to be found. This woman I was looking at was weeks-old flowers wilting in a vase. I knew I was looking at the real deal.
Passengers got on and off but Marie Antoinette remained still. I sat a half-car’s length removed, watching her. Looking around, it began to dawn on me that no one else was paying attention to her. Of course, maybe they just assumed that a woman in rags with a powdered face was simply a crazy person. No one on the train wants to make eye contact with a crazy person. And yet, no one was averting their eyes in that pseudo-polite way of pretending not to notice something unpleasant or inconvenient. The man in the business suit standing next to her seemed to be looking right through her at a sports drink ad.
The train lurched and so did everyone in it. Marie Antoinette gripped the pole to steady herself. No wonder, for her legs were emaciated. The fluorescent overhead lights made her skin appear marbled in white and sickly purple splotches. I wondered where she slept these days. Certainly not Versailles, which must be overrun with tourists and crusty old trustees of heritage committees, too ensconced in history to be able to recognize her in her current form. Maybe she lived in the woods of the city park. She would run between the trees, imagining the boughs of the firs and beechwoods as something far more grand, the way little children playhouse in suburban backyards. Maybe she lived like a child of the grass, shepherding pigeons and moles. But I have a feeling I’m being overly romantic about that.
I wondered if she ever felt hungry or horny or panicked, and I wondered if she was just as static on the inside as she appeared to be on the outside. The urge to shake her was overwhelming – to rupture her through her throat, her abdomen, her asshole. Just a reaction. Any reaction. Did she ever feel the urge to eat or piss or shit?, I wondered. Sometimes it seemed that all there was these days was piss and shit and heat and rubble.
The train was one stop from where I got off. I closed my eyes and all the sounds intensified – the iron clatter, the scream of trapped air in the tunnels, and the smack and rattle of the windows. With my eyes closed, it was deafening, like I was being sucked into a vortex that pulled me apart and let me exist everywhere at once – a commuter train on a weekday morning; in the backseat of my parents’ car; our backyard in the suburbs; in factories and churches and freshly-tilled fields – all the way back to eighteenth-century France, marble halls and guillotines.
If I was the only one who could see her, did that mean she could see me? The train blasted into the station and I edged closer to her and to the door to disembark. Her eyes were glazed and heavily-lidded. Her lips were slightly open and as I passed I was overwhelmed with the stench of stomach acid and bile. She didn’t pay me any attention, which I guess I should have expected, though I still felt weirdly offended and annoyed. It’s strange how we can feel connected to something all the while possessing zero affection for it. I looked back and watched the train pull away, with Marie Antoinette powdered and pale through the glass.
It was the hottest summer on record and the sidewalk provided little relief from the soupy amalgam of body odors on the train. I puked into a row of shrubs in front of a nice-looking office tower. None of the people walking past looked concerned at all. A security guard bounded forward, sweet man, but then he barked that I could either move it along or start mopping up. I moved it along.
At work, the air conditioner blast dried the stink and sweat to my skin. My co-workers were talking about who got voted off one of those survival island talent show things on TV. My eyes hadn’t yet adjusted from the sun outdoors, so everything was dark and narrow and full of spots. The spots were spinning, like that feeling of falling with nothing to hang on to.
I stole a steno pad from the stationery cabinet and began to write.
Kate Millar's work has appeared in publications such as The Boiler, Litro, Paper Darts, Event, Masque & Spectacle, The Danforth Review, and Imminent Quarterly. In 2012 she was a recipient of Canada's Western Magazine Award (fiction category). A native of Atlantic Canada, she currently lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.