"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

F Train Woman and Barely Unscathed

F Train Woman and Barely Unscathed

F Train Woman

She is sitting across
from me on the F train
heading towards Manhattan,

a girl, really, much younger 

than me, with a prettier face, 
high cheekbones, healthy skin, 
stylish hairstyle, a girl 

who is busily 

and with great method,
care, focus, and what I guess
could be called craft, 

maybe even talent—what, 

with all those tools 
she is using, all that paraphernalia, 
powders and colors and 

pencils and brushes—

her eyes strained 
into the miniature mirror 
her manicured hand keeps

steady even 

in the wobbling subway car; 
she is composing herself 
as I would compose a 

sonata, were I a composer, 

or a poem,
were I a poet.
But I’m neither. 

I floss everyday; 

shave my armpits,
wax my bikini line. Today
I’m going to a yoga class,

the late morning one—

one of the few privileges of the
underemployed—then, sweaty and spent,
I will walk over to Union Square,

buy the organic vegetables

I can’t really afford, check
my cell phone every five minutes for
absolutely no reason at all.

But whatever I do, I know  

I could never transform myself 
the way this F train girl has just
morphed herself in front of me, 

from sleepy head 

to a super tidy business woman 
now entirely focused on reading
loose sheets of paper she neatly 

stapled together 

this morning, as she prepared herself 
for some important meeting, 
unlike me, the 40 + old woman 

who gets off at Fourteenth Street, 

shoves her unread magazine
in her bag, spills coffee on her jeans,
and heads out into the world, 

unprepared, and still unmade.



Barely Unscathed

No one knows for sure, but there’s a rumor that
my great-great grandmother on my father’s side
was a squaw who married a Frenchman whose
grandson, my great uncle, was tall and dark
and had a nose like an eagle’s beak and
lived in a wooden cabin up the river all
by himself and shot birds and squirrels
he then grilled and ate for dinner. He drank a
lot too, my mother would add, like all savages do
Her side of the family? Martyrs run as
smooth as a river all the way through the great
white north and across the ocean to
La Rochelle, a French fishing village her
ancestor, a donnée extraordinaire, 
left in 1644 to come and protect
the Jesuit priests in their evangelical missions;
little did he know that Jesuits were madmen
yearning for salvation through various forms
of martyrdom, especially the kind inflicted
by the savages they hoped to evangelize; 
little did he know that some of them would
become historical figures who died
in their missions, the most famous ones burned
alive, slowly mutilated, scalped or
struck dead with a tomahawk to the head; 
little did he know that down the ancestral line, 
one of his descendants would fall for a
man whose own ancestors were survivors
of these early battles, and thanks to
this ongoing mating between the
barely unscathed, here I am now, 
tall, dark, vegetarian, a moderate
drinker with a mousy nose, childless,
the end of the line. I shall
sacrifice myself for no one,
breed nothing more than
these rumors, as improbable
and wild as any offspring.

Sylvie Bertrand is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. A native French speaker, she was born and grew up in Montreal. She writes poetry, short stories and is working on a novel. Her stories have appeared in several journals, and she was nominated for the 2017 PEN / Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers as well as for two Pushcart Prizes. One of her stories received a 2018 Pushcart Special Mention. She teaches memoir and creative writing at The Writers Studio in NYC. She is also featured in the Story Category of this month's issue, read her story here.

Cover photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

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