I just had the kind of surreal experience you can only have on public transportation.
The red line to Silver Spring pulled into Union Station like a dream come true. I didn’t get much sleep last night, tossing and turning, and today I had watched each hour slowly slide by like molasses on a plate. I also got up late, which left me no time for breakfast, so I literally watched the hours creep by like I would watch molasses: with pained hunger. But before I devour everything in my fridge, I want to tell you this story.
I boarded the train and picked a secluded window seat. (One of the many perks of getting off work at 2 p.m. is the general breezy emptiness of the trains.) My earbuds pumped Regina Spektor into my groggy head as I pulled this morning’s Express from my bag. Before I could even smirk at the hilariously derpy picture of Robin Thicke above the masthead, I felt a presence beside me.
A man was lowering himself next to me. To everyone who remembers the previous paragraph where I pointed out the general emptiness of the train, you understand why this immediately raised a red flag for me. Everyone who uses the Metro knows that when boarding a train, the goal is to have two seats to yourself. That way you can have somewhere to rest your bags, prop up a leg and generally just be left the hell alone. There’s no hate intended, it’s just generally understood that staying out of each other’s way is a courtesy.
The way this man sat down raised another red flag; instead of perching himself on the edge of the seat, making sure our legs did not touch like most people, he slid slowly down in the center of the seat. It was almost like he was trying to be sneaky about sitting down, so as not to startle me or the cushion.
Another tidbit of information: this man was large. So when his body finally settled down into the seat, our legs were touching. My personal bubble popped so loud I was shocked that the others around us didn’t turn and stare. Here I am, wedged between this large stranger and the subway wall rushing by, thinking: Of all the seats, in all the trains, you had to sit next to mine.
I twitched my chin in his direction and flashed a sidelong smile. Maybe if I keep my earbuds in and pretend to read he’ll leave me alone, I thought.
Silly me. He leaned in closer and started to say something. I pulled my earbuds out and prepared to face my doom.
“Excuse me, ma’am. When you sat down in those black pants, did the seat feel cold against your butt?”
I looked down at my pants and up again, unsure if he was trying to sexually harass or punk me. But the look on his face was anything but threatening. In fact, he looked positively concerned for me. No one had ever checked in with me and the status of my butt’s comfort, expect for maybe my doctor.
“Um…no, not really,” I said.
“Oh, so your butt didn’t feel cold at all when you sat down?” he said, slightly frowning and shaking his head.
I told him again no, my butt felt normal when I sat down. I was about to put my earbuds back in and pretend to read some more, but then this came out of my mouth:
“Why, did your butt feel cold when you sat down?”
He shook his head, yes, it did feel a bit cold when he sat down. For some reason, I actually started to second guess my answer. I suppose the seat did feel a tad cool when I sat down. It certainly wasn’t that sickly warm feeling when you sit down after someone (referred to here as “swamp butt” or “foggy bottom”). But cold? No.
I extended my hand to him.
He seemed surprised but took my hand in his. His hand was big, soft and a little moist. My index finger rubbed against what felt like a mole in his palm.
He didn’t say anything, so I asked him what his name was.
“Darius,” he said. “What’s yours?”
I smiled and told him my name again.
“Oh, Mary. I thought you said you were married.”
I threw my head back in a surprise cackle. Not sure what that kind of response means, but I immediately had the feeling I was making an awkward situation even more awkward.
I quickly put my head back in a normal human position and said, “It’s nice to meet you, Darius.”
He had kept his eyes down for most of the conversation so far. After each little clipped exchange he would slowly turn his head forward before turning it back for another question. There was a small circle that stood out on the side of his shaved head. I couldn’t tell if it was a lump or incision marks.
I considered escaping, getting off at the next stop and just waiting for the next train. But other than him getting in my personal space, there was nothing threatening about this man. In fact, sitting next to him actually made me feel less alone. I closed my paper and folded my hands in my lap, looking outside the train at the passing landscape of weeds and empty warehouses.
“Where are you headed?” I asked him, shrugging my shoulders.
He was going to visit his old school (unfortunately, I can’t remember which one he said).
“Are you from Virginia?” he asked me.
“No, I live in DC. I’m originally from Texas. I moved here about a month ago.”
He nodded and looked slowly forward. It was like he was taking the time to think of what he wanted to say next. I asked him if he was from DC, and he nodded, turning back to face me. He lifted his browns eyes, a serious look on his face, which revealed a younger person when he faced me. He must have been around 18 or 19 years old.
“Me and my family live in DC now, but we’re moving to Virginia.”
“Why are y’all moving?” I asked.
“To get away from all the nonsense,” he said.
I nodded my head, turning slowly toward the front.
“Yeah, there is nonsense, isn’t there?”
DC has been pretty good to me so far, but there are things to get used to. Specifically, there are people to get used to. A couple weeks ago I was followed home by a man on a bike, screaming nasty things like “hey you, whore” and “fucking bitch” at me. It was the first time I felt truly frightened by myself in public. I clutched my keys and power walked the three blocks home, trying not to hear him but also listening to make sure he wasn’t coming any closer. He stayed on the opposite side of the street and kept shouting until I rounded the corner to my street.
Looking sidelong at this young man on the train, who was obviously different but gentle and sweet, I suddenly felt a wave of calm wash over me. He just wanted to talk to me. He didn’t want to hurt me. He saw me get on the train and decided that he wanted to sit next to me. And I could tell by the hesitancy in the way he sat down that it took a lot of courage for him to approach me. He wanted to be my friend, and that brought the first genuine smile of the day to my face.
He turned again, leaning in slightly and asked:
“Could you put on those glasses for a minute?” He lifted his hand close to his left cheek and pointed meekly at the top of my head to my sunglasses.
I pulled them down onto my nose, turned to face him and smiled a toothy grin.
“How do I look?”
He smiled, looking up and down quickly.
“Oh, you don’t look bad at all in those glasses. Not bad at all,” he said.
Next, he brought the conversation back to my butt.
“Suppose if someone hadn’t been sitting in the seat before you and you sat down in those black pants, do you think the seat would be cold on your butt then?”
I studied the dark mole above his left eyebrow.
“Well, since it’s summer, I don’t think so, no,” I said.
He wasn’t satisfied with that. He asked the question again, shaking his head. “But suppose…”
“Well yeah, maybe. I guess it could…well, yes. Yes, I suppose it could be cold then,” I said.
His next question really took me by surprise.
“Do you suppose that when you’re wearing those glasses…you could be evil?”
I had to think about this one. I looked around the train, as though to see if my perception of the world was suddenly turning dark and sinister.
“No, I don’t. I don’t think I’m capable of being evil, honestly.”
What an arrogant thing to say. He turned away and got off at the next stop, saying “Bye, Mary” before he stepped out onto the platform.
I waved and said “Bye, Darius.” The overhead voice chimed its sing-song “Step back doors closing,” and the train began to move again.
I made a friend.