To Be a Woman on a Train

Poetry / Xandria Phillips

Across a gloaming aisle, woman becomes
woman’s swollen feet and dry mouth. It happens
when her body slumps on the train bench. She is
an equation every passenger has memorized: skirt
rising to the beat of each inebriated breath, blowout
fizzling at her edges, and those bloated feet puckering

under the criss-crosses of strappy heels. I want to
give her a pillow covered with my favorite silk
pillowcase. I think this because I myself am less than
sober and I need there to be something between her
cheek and the filthy, cracked, plastic seat. Her blackout
rouses a man who thinks himself big. I never know,

but suspect the rules of the land. Silence, the lack of
upset tells me that on this train—in this city—like
anywhere I’ve ever rested my heavy-booted foot, it’s fine
to touch a girl too drunk to raise her head. It’s fine to write
the unconscious undress of a woman layer by line,
but the man who cups her shoulders and shakes—in

what he must assume is his most gentle, paternal
maneuver—this man will exist as verb. He is jostles,
is taunts, is leers. I must correct myself. This man
does not think himself big. He reckons he is saving her
from someone big. His joy, his grasps at flesh are
a gratuity for all that he won’t do to her. My stop is

before hers because I leave her. I want to tell my friend
upon returning to her apartment that I was too scared
of the man on the train to intervene, but I am not one who
is cautious around men. I wanted to help—I wanted to
know for sure that the man was a stranger to her—as if
a loverfatherfriend has never gifted a woman a broken

jaw, bruises beneath clothes, her own vertebrae
disguised as an engagement ring. I wanted to know
that I could protect and extend my vulnerable neck.
I wanted to know that I myself could be a paradox
—would not break a single unspoken plea for
silence while impossibly wailing sisterhood’s song.

Xandria Phillips is the author of Reasons For Smoking (forthcoming at The Seattle Review), a chapbook selected by Claudia Rankine. She hails from rural Ohio where she was raised on corn, and inherited her grandmother’s fear of open water. Xandria received her BA from Oberlin College, where she studied creative writing and Africana Studies. Currently, Xandria is Winter Tangerine’s associate poetry editor and an MFA candidate at Virginia Tech. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem and Callaloo. Her poem ‘For A Burial Free Of Sharks’ was selected by Lucas De Lima as the winner of the fifth annual Gigantic Sequins poetry contest. Xandria’s poetry is present or forthcoming in Callaloo, Beloit Poetry Journal, West Branch, Transition, Nepantla, Gigantic Sequins, Powder Keg and elsewhere.