Coming home on the subway last week, a strange thing happened. As I stood there sleepily gripping the bar, I saw out of the corner of my eye a young woman smiling and gesturing at me. I turned to her with my worker-drone eyes as she began to rise, butt half-lifted off the bench, and I realized she was gesturing for me to sit down. To take a load off. These old bones could use a rest, my animal brain thought, and I took a step toward her. She was about my age with a gentle, encouraging smile and a delicate butterfly tattoo on the side of one of her jugs. Who was this girl, I thought. A subway angel? But I didn’t sit down just yet.
As tempted as I was by the offer, my sleepy mind slowly whirred to life and I scanned for reasons that a random stranger would offer me, a young and seemingly able-bodied person, her seat on a packed downtown 2 train at rush hour. If I were her I’d have clung to that choice seat so hard, someone would have to roll in with an iron lung before I would consider getting up. And even then I’d be real pissy about it, rolling my eyes and such. Then again, I am a terrible person, and maybe this girl was not. Maybe she was being sweet because I looked exhausted? But so did everyone else on the train, given that it was quitting time. Maybe it was the gigantic computer bag I had hanging around my neck? But every other person there had suitcases, purses, and/or garbage bags they were cursing and lugging. I even wondered for a second (how not unlike a fool I was!), Was this girl hitting on me?
She was cute, about my age, and was clearly a preternaturally kind-hearted person. If lesbian courtship involves politely offering each other seats on the subway, then count me in! But I didn’t want to send her the wrong message or anything, by not accepting her seat on the subway, so I demurred with a smile. But this chick wasn’t going to let it drop that easily. “Please, I’m getting off at the next stop,” she said loudly, and jumped up as if to prove it. “No thanks!” I exclaimed, which made her move even farther away from the now-empty seat. I decided to end it by crab-walking toward the middle of the car, the whole time watching her with my frozen smiling eyes. God bless a person for offering, but no way was I getting involved in some stranger’s mind games, not before 6 p.m. on a Tuesday.
So it wasn’t until two minutes later when another person offered me her seat that it started to dawn on me what was going on. This time it was a grandma-type lady who took one look at me and sprang into action. "Please, sit down!" she said. What's going on? I wanted to scream. But I politely declined again and buried my face in my blush-stained copy of A Man In Full. “No, come on, come on,” the woman said jovially, “come sit down.” The conviction, the insistence in her voice, still horrifies me even now. I smiled and turned down her offer again, even more confused about why this woman was basically reversing subway etiquette to offer a younger person her seat. Oh, also, other people had started leaning over to watch our continuing back-and-forth. I mean, sure, I was carrying a heavy computer bag, but why would she think that was ... OH GOOD GOD NO. And that’s when I realized: this bitch thought I was pregnant.
Being the hypochondriac I am, my immediate thought was: oh my god, how does she know? I’ve seen I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant; I know how this shit turns out. There must be dozens, hundreds of women whose eyebrows kissed their foreheads over the course of nine months as stranger after stranger offered them open seats, knowing smiles, gently used bottle warmers. They just never put it together until they were crowning in a Barnes & Noble bathroom. MAYBE I WAS ONE OF THOSE WOMEN, and these ladies were angels sent to notify me before I was clinging to a handrail for dear life, my recently purchased items sprawled amid recently used paper towels and crumpled receipts. I didn’t want to end up like one of them!
But then I remembered that I could not possibly be secretly pregnant (I’ve been averaging one pregnancy test a month since IDKIWP first hit the air; I think of it as an investment). I was just … pregnant-esque. I know I’ve put on a few pounds recently. And early breast growth in fourth grade combined with the soft chalky bones of a white woman have given me posture that would make even Quasimodo say, “Girrrrrrrrrrrrrrl.” I was wearing an empire waist dress, and beneath it my tub had come to rest on the elastic of my holy Forever 21 leggings like a chubby pigeon on a ledge. But pregnant? My face burned as the kindly grandma struggled to her feet, her coup de grace in the argument that I had never planned on entering.
Which is when I did one of the most shameful things I’ve ever done in my life. As I verbally struggled to keep Memaw in her seat, god help me, I pushed out my stomach even more. No way in hell was I letting her or anyone else on that train suddenly realize, “Oh wait, no, that lady is just tubby. And she tricked that elderly woman out of her seat!” I wanted to curse at them, yelling “It’s just water weight,” but my dignity wouldn’t let me. As the train pulled up to my stop at 34th Street, I yelped a final “NO, THANK YOU” and sprinted toward the door, my protruding belly pushed out in front of me, leading the way.
My eyes watered with humiliation as I hurried down the stairs. I don’t mind the idea of someone thinking my abdomen was pulsating with life rather than sandwiches; I just don't want to be the punch line of a cultural joke. What sitcom/shitty rom-com/episode of Reba hasn’t featured the protagonist accidentally identifying some one-off lady character as being with child? The audience gets to share in the protagonist’s delicious embarrassment, their paralyzed smile about to shatter with laughter as the sullen faux-pregnant woman sits there silently, her bulldog face and her empty womb betraying her as The Butt Of The Joke. The asker gets a moment of terrified glee, a breach of adult etiquette so sweet and squirmy we can’t help but giggle in recognition. The replier has to go finish helping Reba buy a toilet.
Based on the information I gathered while staring at my abdomen in the mirror during the next week, I could definitely see how this could have happened. I’d just rather someone call me fat to my face than have to deal with the sweet, pleading kindness of people who honestly though they were being helpful and couldn't take no for an answer. Even if they were 99.9% sure, they should have stopped themselves. And if in four months I end up bearing down in a Barnes & Noble bathroom, I owe those women a huge, huge apology.
Halle Kiefer is a comedian and writer living in Brooklyn. Please visit her at mustanghalle.tumblr.com and give her work and treats.