A 15-minute Break: Chapter 4

This is the fourth and final chapter of Under the Arch Voices’ new monthly serial.

Illustrated by Rachel Lee.

What does a 15-minute delay mean in a city that runs at 1,000 miles an hour? When a subway grinds to a halt in the middle of a tunnel, four strangers with different backgrounds, ages and destinations are forced to take the time to find out. 

Written by four different authors and released in weekly installments over the course of October and November with custom illustrations, Voices is proud to launch the fourth and final installment of this serialized story.

Written by Annabelle Tocco

Illustration by Rachel Lee

It begins with waiting. Waiting, or letting time pass if you’d rather call it that. Sitting on the subway, right leg crossed over the left, making absolutely sure that the point of your foot is the exact amount of centimeters away from the person sitting next to you so that you aren’t touching them — but if given the option, you could subtly nudge their right calf. Holding your canvas tote just so in your lap so that the two straps fold slightly over your left arm, which is holding the book you take with you for long subway rides. Your phone is tucked neatly in your tote, headphones sticking out as the sound of indie rock plays in your ears — loud enough to drown out conversations near you but soft enough you’d be able to hear if the entire car blew up. 

Julieta Germana situated herself precisely like this in the sixth subway car on the 6 train heading uptown. She peered her head down, her brown curls falling down the sides of her cheekbones. She shifted her weight between her hips and perched her elbow on top of her knee, holding her head in her hands. She looked up at the oblong map across from her. Six more stops until home. 

Julieta looked back down at her book, scanning the pages thoughtfully. 

“As Georgie lifted the cup of coffee to his lips, he felt the blackness wash over his tongue, and wondered if life would always be this bitter.” 

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Julieta rolled her eyes. People who drank their coffee black always had some sort of cynical opinion no one asked them to share. She pursed her lips, just as the subway car came to a stop. 

The person to her left stood up halfway, getting ready to leave, then sat back down immediately. Julieta gazed out the window across the seat from her, and to her surprise, all she saw was the grey of concrete behind an immensely scratched glass. If she squinted, she could just make out a cobalt blue scribble that read SCUZ. She felt a pang in her chest. They were stopped. Stopped between stops. Something was wrong. She felt the beginnings of panic. 

  1. Julieta uncrosses her legs. She looks around the car. The only light is the orange fluorescence of the subway car. All the other passengers seem unbothered. She bites her lip. 

Maybe it’s nothing, I’m sure the car will start up again. Don’t focus on it, keep reading. 

2. She brings her book up directly to her eye level, partially hiding her face. She goes back a few paragraphs, tells herself to put all her focus into the story. She reads each word individually in her head. 

“he felt the blackness wash over his tongue, and wondered if life would always be this bitter he felt the blackness wash over his tongue, and wondered if life would always be this bitter he felt the blackness wash over—” 

Fuck. Why can’t I read? 

She looks up again. 

Why aren’t we moving? 

3. Closing the book and putting it back in her tote, Julieta pulls out her phone. She checks the time. 7:52. She had just gotten off the graveyard shift. Promised Daniel they could have breakfast together. She starts to shake her leg. 

How much time has passed since I last looked at my phone? 

She checks it again. 7:52. 

Shit. 

4. She turns the volume up on her phone. Maybe if she lost herself in the music, let the lyrics wash over her, it would all go away. 

“If the stars could speak, they’d tell me to sleep, for I’d see you in my dreams…” 

She turns the volume up another notch and looks around. She could see people looking at their phones, their lips moving, even noticing the same twinge of nervousness reflected in their eyes. She focuses her attention intently upon the stain on the left knee of her black jeans. 

5. Julieta thinks of Daniel waiting for her at home. She thinks of Sarge, their overweight tabby cat sitting on the windowsill, his tail swaying slowly off the ledge. She takes a deep breath. 

Everything’s fine, it’ll just be a few more minutes. Not long now. 

She tries to lose herself in the song again. 

I cast my eye, it’s a beautiful view. Well, I’m lost again with thoughts of you…:

6. 7:56. Biting her lip, she lets that last line linger over her. I’m lost again with thoughts of you. Daniel and Julieta had been dating for just over a year and a half, and to calm herself down, she tries to recall how she felt when she and Daniel first met. She remembers that small house party, with one of her college friends. How he told her he had just started working at a temp agency, but it was just to pay the bills. How one day he wanted to open his own music studio, and give free guitar lessons to kids. Last she checked, it had been two months and 12 days since Daniel had touched his guitar. She turns her music off. 

7. Looking around the subway car, she searches for signs of advancing. The lights for each stop are turned off. The dim glow of the emergency lights showers everyone in orange. Julieta pushes a single curl behind her ear. She is suddenly very aware of the overwhelming perfume of the woman in the burgundy pencil skirt sitting next to her. Her leg shakes a little faster. 

How much longer? 

8. As her phone clicks silently past 8 a.m., all she can think of is being home. She wants to throw her work apron on the floor. She wants to scoop Sarge up in her arms and hold him above her head, even if he hates it. She wants to melt butter in the pan, start whisking the batter together for her blueberry pancakes. 

Sh-t, blueberry pancakes sounds so good right now. I’m so tired. 

Biting her lip, Julieta recalls the lyrics of the song again. None of the things she is looking forward to involve Daniel. 

9.            What the f-ck is happening? 

She twists her rings around her fingers. Silently, she curses Daniel: Why hasn’t he picked up guitar? Does he actually like the work he’s doing? Bouncing from office to office, endless 9-to-5? Is he happy with her? Is he happy in general? Her chest begins to close up as she realizes that she has never even taken the time to ask these questions to herself. 

10. Double shifts, working from the day well into the middle of the night, she wastes her days aligning pastries behind the case, signing for deliveries of coffee beans, juggling add-ons for orders Upper East Side blonde bobs simply cannot live without. Julieta knows she hates her job, but at least it’s in her industry. If she’s to have her own kitchen one day she knows she has to start somewhere. 

Right? 

She tugs at the back of her left earlobe and lets her hair fall into her face again. She can feel her heart racing faster and faster. 8:09. 

11. As if all at once, she feels the subway car start to close in on her. Like someone on an invisible computer was trying to close the window she was trapped in. Two seats down someone coughs. Someone to her left is speaking loudly in a broken language. A middle-aged man in a suit starts pacing back and forth in the car. 

Are we ever going to leave? Is this hell? 

Julieta bounces her knee. She bites her lip. Outside the window, the faint outline of SCUZ mocks her. 

Do I even want to get back to my normal life? 

12. And in a whirlwind, she’s panicking. Her eyes start to go dry, she tries to will the tears to come but they don’t. She bounces her leg frantically up and down, adjusts the bag in her lap, takes her headphones out of her ears. Thoughts flood her, thousands of what-ifs, statements followed by question marks, her chest tightening. The back of her throat goes dry. She swallows, just to remind herself she can. 8:21. 

13. To distract herself, she tries to think of other things. Sarge, food, movies, music. Anything that crosses her mind. She tries to wonder about the people sitting across from her, about what language that person is speaking. Has she ever thought about what her favorite soup is? If someone were to ask her, she wouldn’t know what to say, and that thought alone was enough to make her want someone to pull the string and unravel her completely. And just as suddenly as it had stopped, the wheels screeched, the lights turned on, and the car lurched forward again. At the front, someone sneezed. 

Julieta exhaled. She dropped her head in her hands, just letting herself lay there for a few moments until she found the willpower to lift her head out and put her earbuds back in again. 

Before she could even put the song back on, the train whizzed through a pocket of cell service. 

A notification flashed on her screen: Where are you? She ignored it, pressed play, and looked straight ahead for the six subway stops that were left.

Email Annabelle at [email protected]

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