Across from me, a middle-aged woman scans the lines of her book, her face as rigid as her back. She licks her index finger before flipping each page, and her eyes shift from left to right at a metronomic pace. Beside her, a little boy slouches at the edge of his seat, feet stomping to the subway screech. He pounds his tablet screen with stubby fists and grumbles in synchrony with the engine’s spatter. Behind him, a businessman jolts up, swings his briefcase into a pole on his way to the sliding doors. He dials a number with his left thumb as he steps off the train, his phone already pressed to his ear. Before his second foot hits the platform, a new cast of strangers stumbles in, shoulders brushing and elbows shoving on the way to gum-stuck seats.
Whenever I come into the city, I take the subway. Or, perhaps I should say, sometimes I come into the city just to take the subway. In spite of the sweat-slicked air and howling rails, I always find my own place here, my own peace. Surrounded by unfamiliar faces miles from home, I get to be just another body pressed too close to someone else’s, caught between stops on the way to our next go. There’s something about witnessing lives in transit, in transition, that reminds me of all of the roads I have never taken and perhaps never will.
I look to my left, and I watch an older man give up his seat to a young mother rocking her baby. I read the thank you on her lips, translate the relief in her eyes. She sinks into the hard plastic, her back folding with a long exhale. I imagine she’s a few years older than me, maybe just out of college, but she carries an aged shadow beneath her delicate frame. And yet, as she strokes the tuft of hair on her baby boy, her smile flashes like lightning.
I shift to my right, and I see two men whose bodies curl into each other, head leaning against shoulder and arm draping against thigh. They share a closeness I reserve for the dreams I hide in the clouds, too soft to keep on land. Shrouded in windswept whispers, they exchange breaths on rough lips and curved tongues. It is the kind of intimacy that dares and transcends the public eye.
We come to another stop, and the couple to my right steps off. I watch them even after the train leaves the platform, their figures fading into kaleidoscopic blur. And as more strangers fill in the spaces they’d left behind, I realize that the subway is an equalizer in a way nothing else I know ever seems to be. From the lawyer with a new corner office to the man with nowhere else to sleep, from headphone-clad college students to map-bearing travelers, we are all suspended in motion. For this ephemeral moment, we inhabit the same confined space, but we build our own within it. Together, on this ride, we can be solitary in our solidarity.
Writing: Sandra Chen
Music: Alan Shen
Art: Katherine Xiong