The #6 subway from Grand Central to my station in Ridegwood Queens was surprisingly empty for 5:40 on a Friday afternoon. At first I questioned whether I had gotten on the wrong train but as I looked around I saw some of the familiar faces.
Diagonally across from me on my left was a man wearing a ‘sorta-suit’ – my made-up name for a jacket and slacks of slightly different shades that one tries to pass off as a suit but it never quite works. Not only was it always rumpled but it needed to be cleaned. His tie was missing and probably stuffed into one of his pockets. He always stood whether there were seats available or not. With his right hand he held onto a pole while he clenched and released his left hand as though squeezing a stress ball. I guessed he was a detective. He was probably in his early 30s but he looked older. Lots of people who ride the subway every day look older than they are.
Directly opposite me sat a young guy who always traveled with an oversized orange duffel bag. He was 19 or 20 years old and naive-looking, perhaps Scandinavian with blonde hair and cool blue eyes. There were numerous tags on his bag; the most prominent identified him as a student at Queens College. Living on campus could be extremely expensive and I wondered what he was doing for accommodations. It looked like all his earthly possessions were crammed into that orange duffel bag. For a nanosecond I entertained the possibility of offering him the spare room in my parent’s house; they knew what it was like to struggle alone in a foreign country but they were elderly now and this wasn’t quite the same as bringing home a stray!
On the other side of the subway car was a nurse in royal blue scrubs. My guess was she was just starting her overnight shift; she looked refreshed and her uniform was neat and clean. Her hair was nicely done and she didn’t have that after-work jaded look on her pleasantly round face. She hugged a large black bag tightly on her lap, her phone resting on the bag with her ear buds nestled in place. From the rapturous look on her face, she was probably listening to some “Help me through another day at work, sweet Jesus” type of music.
Sitting next to the nurse on the verge of dozing off was an Asian man wearing a windbreaker, corduroys and an N95 mask. I had him pegged as an IT guy or possibly a research analyst. He always had a flat yellow plastic bag with him which looked like it had a comic book or two inside, probably for his kids. I liked him; he looked like a good dad and a decent person.
Those were the regulars; here and there a few stragglers would wander on and off but these were my daily traveling companions. We rode together every day, rain or shine, come hell or high water, yet we didn’t know each other’s names, avoided eye contact and never talked. That’s how it’s done in the subways of New York – anonymity at all costs.
Today, however, there was a young couple on the train I had never seen before. They spoke softly and their vibe was very intense. He was in a navy uniform and she wore black pants, white sneakers and a black and white checked shirt, her fingers interlocked over a slightly protruding belly – a baby bump, I was quite sure. His back was to me and he wore a mask so I could not see his face; still, by his posture, I could tell he was ill at ease and the conversation was not going well.
It eventually became obvious they had reached an impasse; talking ceased and she stood with her back to the door, a symbolic stance I’ve seen 1,000 times. The frozen expression on her face was one of utter disappointment, despair, unhappiness, hurt and rejection. They mumbled a word or two but barely looked at each other. It was not a comfortable situation.
At this point I was compelled to take out my phone and snap a photo of the couple, pretending to be busy doing something else. There was a story unfolding before me; I could sense it and needed more than my memory to remember this sad turn of events. At the next stop the sailor prepared to get off; he reached for his seabag and his fingers fleetingly touched the pregnant woman’s arm but he made no other contact. He quickly headed for the steps, never looking back.
The doors closed and the woman leaned against them, staring down at her shoes. I could see streaming tears coursing down her face and her shoulders silently shook. I knew at that moment the couple had broken up and she was beyond heartbroken; she was shattered. I thought at any moment she might drop to her knees and wail in hopelessness.
Our eyes met and I held up my hand offering her a tissue. Without a word she walked the three feet to where I was sitting, took the tissue I proffered and sat down beside me. We were now connected yet we did not speak. I felt the need to console her but I decided to stay silent; if she wanted to say something to me she would.
Shoulders shaking, hands wringing, tears silently flowing. She tore at the tissue I gave her and I thought she was about to say something when her phone buzzed. Her voice was barely more than a whisper.
“Anita, Tommy is gone. Sí, just now. I don’t know. Just text it to me, por favor.”
She ended the call and looked over at me embarrassed, smiling poignantly. “Excuse me. May I?” and I nodded quickly, handing her another tissue.
“Gracias.” She wiped her face and shoved the tissues into her little purse. With tentative fingers she pressed the link Anita had sent her. She spoke softly with no emotion. “Hello. My friend gave me your number. My name is Esperanza. Now? Yes, I can come now.” And that was all she said.
The train slowed down for the next stop and Esperanza stood up and began walking to the door. I impulsively called out her name and she turned looking at me with hollow eyes. I handed her my package of tissues, hoping she would stay on the train. After a moment’s hesitation, she took the tissues, turned and left the train.
So many thoughts went through my head in that instant. I remembered from Spanish classes in high school that ‘esperanza’ means ‘hope’. I thought it was one of the most beautiful words I had ever heard.
Where Esperanza was going I had no idea. I wondered if I’d ever see her again? Above all, I hoped she would be alright.
NAR © 2022
N.B.: My usual routine when writing is to search for an appropriate graphic after a story is complete; sometimes this process takes hours. When my photo-snapping friend Eileen posted this pic, it hit me like a ton of bricks. To say it took my breath away would not be an exaggeration. It screamed out to me that something heavy, perhaps even life-changing, was going on in an otherwise seemingly innocuous photo. Some people will gloss over a pic like this, not really seeing anything; others will be glued to it and the woman’s face. I was transfixed. In a glimpse it can look totally mundane and unimportant – except for the excruciatingly heartbroken expression on the woman’s face and the sailor’s inability to look her in the eyes. This is a first for me – a story based on a photograph; hopefully there will be more in my collection. I hope I did it justice. NAR