She could never tell if it felt worse underground in the summer or equally bad. Up top, the smell of hot, evaporating urine in stagnant air. Down below, like being buried alive. I guess it didn't matter which she preferred, both were exactly what she was going to get that day. Three C trains passed her completely full, strangers bodies pressed together like warm yeast rolls that had once been solitary but swelled until their shapes formed into each other. When the automatic doors opened out of mechanical obligation, every pair of eyes on board pleaded soundlessly, "Don't try." Some days Wasi was on a schedule and she'd have to force them all to believe there was space for her. She'd elbow and wedge herself in. Some guy on his phone would bottleneck the aisle unknowingly, humans compressed behind him like gas in an aerosol can. But today, she had time. She could wait.
Wasi dug through her backpack for headphones and spent a few minutes untangling the wiry mess. She had seen bluetooth headphones at a kiosk that weren't so long and easily mangled - she didn't buy them. A girl at work had a leather roll for all of her technology cords to be carefully filed and folded for easy access. Wasi could buy one, she thought, but her issue was never availability of tools, but rather a distaste for being so meticulously outfitted. Maybe if she climbed a mountain, one day, she'd go to REI and ask someone to give her a pocket and loop and a mesh vent for everything. Today she was just an hourly employee headed home. The effort she took to untie her headphones would mean nothing close to life and death. The last knot came undone and she plugged the end of the cord into her phone. Sound filled her ears, changed her environment, transported her from 50th Street to -- she didn't know where. Her own space. Wherever someone goes when they check out. Chvrches, "Leave A Trace (Goldroom Remix)."
Finally, two trains came one-after-another and the second was manageable. She stepped calmly onboard, trying to cosmically balance the violent injustice of the city by being an opposing force. Patient, gentle, cautious and slow in a sea of haste and fury. Maybe this was pride, she thought; maybe it made her just as self-involved as the pushers and shovers. Wasi almost never let herself get away with doing something simply, and this was no different.
She never sat on the train. Someone else would want to and she would want that for them. She grabbed firmly onto a pole. As her fingers wrapped around the chrome surface, her mind moved to people who obsess about germs - who wouldn't touch the pole for fear of contamination. She'd heard somewhere that stainless steel was inhospitable for microorganisms and sterile, but of course that couldn't be completely true. There had to be a layer of sweat or snot or syrup on the pole already, but she wasn't the kind of person who cared about germs. It dawned on her that this trail of thought proved otherwise. Did some people grab the pole and really not think about it at all? Everyone else always seemed to win at thinking less. It was like trying to stay back with slow walkers; their pace was effortless and working to keep a relaxing pace with them was exhausting. She wished she had more friends who walked fast. She wished she had more friends who thought about snot on the pole but weren't afraid of it.
The doors slid to a close and the train took its first lurch forward. Out of the corner of her eye, Wasi saw a figure bend deeply with the movement and it startled her. She fixed her gaze on the form, a man, seated on the aisle. He was bundled in a dark coat, a hat dimming his features, but she could tell he was asleep. The jolt of motion didn't wake him, and his unconscious body rocked side to side with the movement of the train as if bobbing along in an ocean. Something about this vulnerability touched her, and she loved him. This wasn't uncommon for Wasi, to fall in love with strangers. In her younger years it felt like a curse - to see people so clearly and feel on their behalf so immediately. As increasingly more of her attempts to ignore this sensation betrayed her, she tried to find a way to accept it - even explore the impulse.
He looked Latino. What was his name? "José," she thought, and then scolded herself for falling prey to generalizations. His name could easily be Brandon or Oliver or whatever struck his parents as dignified and respectable. His name was probably José, though. Her name was Wasi, and her dark Muslim features qualified their own stereotype. Formally, it was Wasifah, an Islamic name meaning "she who describes." Was it coincidence, then, that her mind ran in endless circles, like the earth rotating daily as it orbited the sun? Momentum; moving so much and so fast that humans on the planet didn't even notice. Wasi's mind was forever occupied with everything it saw, processing every thought, spinning internally as her body waited on the platform. Stood on the train. How was it possible that so much could transpire while nothing happened? She felt wearied by those thoughts and returned her focus to Jose.
With every turn, José's body lolled side-to-side. His nervous system would respond unconsciously, jerking his head up if he tipped too far. The people around him noticed and forgot in the same instant. They didn't know José or care. José was probably coming home from work, too. She wondered if he sold bluetooth headphones at a kiosk. Did he have lots of work friends downtown or more childhood friends uptown? Did he live with his parents - maybe a girl who was cooking dinner in anticipation of his arrival? A roommate who left pizza boxes on the counter instead of breaking them down to fit in the trash can? Did José always have to break down the pizza boxes? She imagined the roommate's name was Brandon. "Fucking Brandon, clean up after yourself sometime," she scolded. Why was José wearing a coat in the summer? Maybe he worked in the stockroom of a grocery store where cold air forced vegetables into arrested decay. Were the apples really fresh? She read somewhere that apples kept cold could stay crisp for up to a year. She would ask José the truth, were he awake. If she knew him.
Wasi knew it was easy to fascinate yourself with someone if you spent enough time contemplating how you were similar. José seemed to be around her age and he lived in New York City. He was on the same train as her at the same time. They had some big things in common. Why was it so hard to fall in love with people she dated? There must be an emotional threshold: a point at which counting similarities would work against you. Every relationship started the same - she would connect with someone over work, politics or music. They would see a movie they both enjoyed and eat at a restaurant, maybe Thai. They would both love Thai. She and A--- happened to buy coffee at the same hole-in-the-wall in the East Village. As things progressed, trying to stay in sync became a burden. Wasi didn't want to watch the same shit on Netflix that B--- liked. Wasi preferred staying at home on Tuesdays while C---- wanted to play trivia. Wasi was desperate to verbally communicate through conflict while D---- retreated for "alone time" to process. Past the initial steps of friendship, all she wanted was freedom to be different. She was desperate to find a companion who accepted her mind and its thoughts - her heart and its emotions - even if those traits weren't shared or understood. She was tired of trying to agree.
Wasi looked deeply at José. Why was he so exhausted that he'd fall asleep on the train at 5pm? Did he stay up all night playing video games? Did he eat fast food that sat heavy in his stomach, sapping him of energy? Wasi imagined Brandon and José watching SportsCenter until the early morning, sharing a joint and emptying two pizza boxes. "Get your shit together, José."
The song turned over in her headphones. Radiohead, "Let Down." Wasi snapped into a different environment, though she still didn't know where. The train neared her stop, and its abrupt halt was too much for José's sleeping body. He leaned forward quickly until he folded over himself and fell completely to the ground. His eyes shot open, awareness restored. He looked around the train as almost everyone stared back at him. The woman across the aisle reached out her hand to help him up. Wasi was already turned toward the door and as it glided open, she pushed herself hastily onto the platform.