I met someone on the train yesterday. That never happens to me. But it did happen yesterday. Or was it the day before? That doesn’t matter.
I was returning home from an internship in the city, shuffling underground to the subway, when the back of a woman’s head struck me as uncanny. I quickened my shuffle to a bobbing trot down the stairs, and it’s a good thing I did because the unidentified woman squeezed into a packed train car and I had only a second to do the same before the closing doors suffocated us all into the moving metal contraption.
The mysterious passenger had drowned in the suit-and-tied pool of commuters, amidst which I just barely stayed afloat, gripping the metal bar on the ceiling. They blocked all the windows with their pressed and pleated silhouettes so that I couldn’t watch the tired afternoon’s haze settle outside. Not that I really wanted to. I didn’t look out the window on train rides home from the city these days because I often fell asleep and missed the horizon swallowing the last of late afternoon’s auburn glow. And the contrast from light to dark when I’d next look out the window jarred me. It was like walking down a road after parting with someone and waiting too long to look back at them, because when you do think to look back, you’re too far away to see them anymore.
The stranger nowhere to be found, I watched the commuters. They all looked haggard, ten years older than they likely were. A young man in a cheap suit slouched in a nearby seat with his eyes locked on the folded hands in his lap. I wondered how his palms didn’t twitch from the sting of his indifferent gaze.
A dozen stops later, the man had left and I was scanning for the mysterious passenger when I spotted, behind a seated couple at the opposite end of the car, the familiar stranger’s unmistakable hair.
Certain they were the same dusty tan locks I’d chased earlier, I inched to the other side of the car and slid into the bench nearest her. She wore a pencil skirt and a matching blazer, as grey as the drab undertones of her skin. She sat by the window but she’d set her gaze unwaveringly forward. This look resembled that of the man I’d watched earlier, but worse. This woman seemed to understand her own passivity, and from the way she refused to avert her eyes, this recognition appeared to pain her.
I continued to watch her and wondered why it was the hair that brought me to this stranger. After all, it was unremarkable, no more dusty or tan than my own shaggy mop. Perhaps only a touch more grey. In fact, despite her age – I guessed late forties – the small mole below her right eyebrow, the subtle purse in her resting lips, the slight downturn of the corner of her left eye looked all oddly identical to my own.
The woman noticed my blatant staring and in the middle of my careful observation, her gaze floated my way. I fired my eyes down at the floor, but when I peeked back up she faced me with acknowledgment, but not curiosity. I blinked and, perhaps coincidentally, she did too. Something in my conscience then told me to speak and when I opened my mouth, she simultaneously opened hers. At this I snapped my lips shut, as did she. She mirrored my actions that followed – a scratch at my chin, a shift of my hair from right to left shoulder.
I knew I should have thought the whole situation to be more peculiar than I did, but when I realized who she was, I became more concerned than baffled. I wanted suddenly to comfort her and to tell her that this would never happen. That I would never become this. But I couldn’t. Because I wasn’t completely sure that it hadn’t already.
I pondered that possibility for a moment. Yet somehow – I still don’t know quite how – I was confident that I’d defended myself against the indifferent virus she seemed to have contracted, that I’d continue to evade the stagnancy she couldn’t escape. I knew the metal contraption that we rode that evening was too stifling for the both of us, and I think she knew it too.
So when we reached our stop and she remained seated, in one long glance we exchanged a mutual understanding that I, we, didn’t belong here. And when the doors of the train slid open, I gave her a final reassuring tilt of my head before I left the car.
I met this woman yesterday – or the day before, it doesn’t much matter – and I don’t intend to meet her again.