The air was a thick halo of humidity hovering around me. I strode towards the Blue Line from the University of Illinois’s Chicago campus. The evening was creeping towards me, and so was my future it seemed. It was the middle of this past May. I’d be graduating in nearly a month from Northwestern.
I had just come from presenting a portrait I made for a series of visual and audio profiles of survivors of sexual assault. I presented the piece to the survivor and her immediate family. They said they liked it. They could recognize their faces. They even said I had done justice to their story. As a journalist and survivor of childhood sexual abuse myself, it was still hard for me to admit that I was proud of what I had accomplished. I whispered the words in my head.
I can leave my past behind. I’m ready for the world. I’m ready to graduate.
When I caught the train, I nestled into the unforgiving beige plastic of the seat. I blasted music through my headphones. I found myself not wanting to think about anything in particular.
Am I relieved? I wondered. I couldn’t decide what I had really learned. It was the most emotionally draining project I had ever embarked upon in the name of journalism, the core devotion of my studies here.
Slowly, my eyes drifted towards a young African American man who dashed onto the train at Jackson. He was holding a can of orange-flavored Fanta. A red tulip sprouted from the tin confines. The flower’s petals were tipped with a shock of yellow that looked as if they had been regally dusted with gold.
He sat in the seat adjacent to me, near the doors. Lanky and handsome, he had surprisingly round, almost childlike, cheeks for someone of high school age. His light gray sweatshirt was a bit too small in the shoulders, as if the fibers couldn’t keep up with a growth spurt. His matching sweatpants just barely touched his black athletic shoes.
He tiredly stared ahead. He protectively curled his thin fingers around the can, as if to warm them by the flame of his flower. As the train car began to rumble through the winding tunnels of the subway, the petals were jostled. One of them floated to the sticky floor of the train car. The young man picked it up, and delicately aligned the wayward petal alongside the others. He looked from side to side, wary of those watching.
I found the whole scene strange. The El is not usually a place for such tenderness. I usually spend half of time commuting furiously biting my nails and picking at my own cuticles. But he appeared so dutifully protective of this strange, fragile gift. He even stole a whiff of it’s perfume, wincing at what I imagined was a sting of floral sweetness.
Downtown platforms sped by. Rush hour was fast approaching. Exhausted businessmen and women poured into the train car, shuffling about in patent leather, black pants, and shoulder-padded blazers.
The commotion rustled the young man. He shifted nervously and made a quick decision to lower his flower to the ground. By now, I was blatantly staring. Will you be able to protect it? I thought. Is it even worth it? I felt callous.
He shielded it with his legs, using his heels to keep the can in place against the bottom of the seat. He was now a soldier, on alert.
His determination impressed me. I was rooting for him. I wanted to be on his team. Bring it home safely.
Suddenly, a gust of air flew through the opened doors of the El. All but one of the flower’s petals collapsed to the ground as if the flame he carried was snuffed out. The delicate pollen-tipped strands of waxy yellow filament were revealed. His eyes widened in alarm. He dashed to pluck the petals from the ground before they were dirtied and crushed.
Hurry, hurry, I urged, more for myself than him.
But the El violently ground to a halt. He gathered the remnants of his flower, and darted out of the train car.
He tossed it into a garbage can on the platform. He ran as if he was being chased.
A sadness overcame me. It just felt important, as if he had planted the flower and nursed it to elegant adulthood from a seedling. It’s his right to care for it! No, it’s his job, I decided.
I sat on the train surrounded by people and yet all alone. After four years of college, I was just beginning to learn the most important lesson of my life. It’s my right to care for myself. It’s my job.