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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Love on the Escalators

The steps spit out from beneath steel teeth like newspapers off a printing press. Three, four ... I mark their passage until a nudge to my left kidney tells me I have waited too long. I place my right foot down and am swept off the steel grate, my left foot alighting behind me with the velocity of the descent.


Visible in front of me on the escalator, only inches from my lower lip, is an elderly woman's hat -- knitted in lavender wool, then brushed out into a translucent membrane of tendrils.


To the left, across two idle escalators, is a column of ascending faces: a man with Coke-bottle glasses nervously clutching a briefcase; a young woman balancing a baby carriage, a scarf draped over her shoulders like a nun's habit; and grim people wearing fur.


Then I see them.


Her auburn hair falls loosely around her face, framing a smile set against red, red lipstick. One of her smooth, ivory hands, the paleness made more devout by scarlet fingernails, strokes the young man's cheek. The skin stretches tautly across his features as he yields to an overarching smile.


Within moments they shuttle beyond view and another, older couple appears. They are laughing, holding hands that jut out from fur sleeves, fleshy, like dolls'. She playfully denies him a kiss. They are married -- but not necessarily to each other.


More than a minute has passed when the escalator starts to disappear into the marble platform of the downtown metro station in Moscow.


I stride off in a sort of hiccup, nearly running up the heels of the woman in the lavender hat. I keep moving, moving my legs with the expectant inertia of people disembarking behind me.


It is then I realize I have just witnessed a sort of hit-and-run intimacy that transcends these tubes of gnarling, snarling conveyors which hurtle millions daily.


It is incongruous, I think, to find love here: The sounds are thwarting, the crush of people constant, the gaze of voyeurs invasive. Perhaps love resides here because the metro escalators are the one place where this city must stop.


It is the metro's efficiency, the frequency of the trains -- one about every two minutes -- that renders passengers nearly anonymous. Several months, even years can pass before neighbors meet coincidentally.


I have shared stray smiles and hard stares across the stagnant escalators with women I expect never to see again. Perhaps escalator protocol encourages intimacy: Bodies are stacked single file so that, when one turns to face the other, man and woman are already pressed close. The man can be supplicant, as if on bended knee, to the woman on the step above him. Inversely, the woman on a lower step is easily enveloped in his arms.


A woman leans with one shoulder against a pillar on a crowded platform. She adjusts the collar of her overcoat, drapes a colorful scarf around her neck. She wears indelicate black leather heels in open defiance of the sign hanging from the ceiling: no high heels, smoking, sitting on the steps and resting umbrellas on the conveyors.


She straightens when she sees him. They smile, dropping their heads slightly with the modesty of new love. Flanked by disembarking trains, they walk side by side as if unaware of the other, only to touch and press close on the escalator.


There is cacophony here. Second-rate imports are hawked from garish metal billboards. Conveyors are propelled by shipyard-scale gears caked with grease, concealed by veneers of highly-shellacked wood. Yet the couples infuse a sense of magic to the sensorial assault of the metro. The repulsive and graceful become cohabitants.


Passengers descend from the street to the accessible grandeur of metro Arbatskaya in a precise 90 seconds. Rows of 19 glass globes on elegant torch bases illuminate the escalators. White plaster walls absorb harsh sounds. Conveyors move in grooves routed into wood banisters.


The lighting in the underpasses at Komsomolskaya is dissipated, like candlelight at a corner table for two in a small cafe.


The circle line's Kievskaya, renowned for its mosaics, might have registered the longest escalators at a total of 111 seconds -- if they had not been disrupted by a second platform at 76, and 35 seconds.


Even the loud and boorish Savyolovskaya -- whose lamps look like the filter ends of cigarette butts -- harbors 103-second escalators. They stop sometime after 1 a.m., stranding ascending passengers, short of breath, like vehicles left behind by a retreating army.


One evening a man and a woman step out of a train and onto the unremarkable platform at Oktyabrskaya, on the Kaluzhsko-Ryzhskaya line.


They walk, unharried, to the base of the vertiginous tube -- its rows of 21 evenly spaced glass lamps, spanning three escalators, aglow on crenelated brass bases like the settings of engagement rings.


She steps first on the rising stairs. She turns to face him, smiles, closes her eyes and drops her head toward his. She strokes the left side of his face with her cheek, brushes her lips across his, then back. Her movements are so soft that he seems to feel her meld into him. Her right hand slowly parts its way through his hair. She buries her face into his shoulder.


He resolves to remember her smell, the heat at the base of her back, the shiver of emotion that travels up his spine and settles into his forearms.


She turns away as the steps arc near the end of their ascent, which he later determined to have lasted 110 seconds.


She lists gracefully, her back against his chest.


And then, just then, he looks back as a babushka -- wearing a blue and red smock, a towel on her head -- emerges with a rag, propelled by the moving steps, and wipes away the dust and the grime and their fingerprints, as if the moment never existed.





Bryon MacWilliams is a writer living in Moscow.