Across from me nods a blue beanie, eyes shut on the face below. A day’s growth of stubble has been allowed to poke out, take a breath and feel the crisp air, catch the subtle winds of autumn while providing the skin beneath a mild respite from the same. Frayed cuffs lead down to chewed cuticles, but the nails are immaculate, clipped short at the start of the week and growing back for weekend adventures.
The air inside the train provides a marked contrast to the light sting of mid-October beyond its walls, so my eyes find the young man’s vest unzipped and jacket shed. He is relaxing, digging in for a long ride or perhaps closing out the end of one. His legs are crossed ankle to knee, head kissing the window he leans against, hands splayed casually across his open lap. The train rocks back and forth, and the beanie nods on.
To the untrained eye, this stranger could be sleeping, but there is subtle movement that tells me otherwise. The fingers of one hand spring to life every few minutes, tracing the buttons and dials of his plastic companion, the controls sensed by touch alone, their corresponding functions having long since been imprinted on the memory of the fingertips that manipulate them.
But even this ruse of sleep is short-lived. Occasionally my fellow traveler will open his eyes and watch the heaving breasts of a passenger across the aisle. Their rise and fall is hypnotic, primal. Two fantastic orbs that cling to her chest, filling her shirt and betraying the count of each breath with their steady movement. She is unaware of his gaze, or of mine that follows it. She is lost in her book, knee upon knee, cheek against clenched knuckles as her head bobs with the motion of the train. The beanie has lost interest in her again, and his nodding and her bobbing synchronize to the beat of high-speed travel.
To my left, a woman puzzles over single digits, setting numbers into boxes, trying to make sense of what seem to be random distributions and chaotic strings. A pattern is slowly emerging, one that will bring harmony to these boxes, but even as empty variables begin to reveal their true natures-faster and faster, promising a swift solution to the whole-the circus soon grinds to a halt, the remaining boxes as inscrutably hollow as those which are now filled had so recently been. The pen in her fingers is never still, tracing an invisible line back and forth while she searches for an answer, and moving erratically around the 9 x 9 grid when she thinks she is on to something. The ink, however, has not left it for a long time.
The fur-lined hood of her discarded parka looks on blankly, but whether it stares in befuddlement or silently gloats, haughty in the knowledge that it already possesses the answers, remains unclear. Suddenly there is a flurry of energy and colour bursts from her pen once more. Boxes now bear tiny sketches of their suspected inhabitants, though only time will tell if she has figured correctly. The parka seems to nod, as if it has finally consented to impart its precious knowledge, but I suspect it may simply be misleading her, spiteful after being unceremoniously discarded when other sources of warmth had made it redundant in her eyes. And yet, I sense the hope for reconciliation.
Ahead I spy the tops of heads, obscured from the eyebrows down by the seats that face me. Fuzzy black-and-white hair caps one of them, the other sports curls of outright grey. Black-and-white wrestles his thick, dark eyebrows above the seat and into my line of sight, but his eyes never appear. His partner sits too low to see more than the wrinkles in his forehead, and yet I have designed the rest for them both already. Eyebrows has a nose like Henry Kissinger and a tight-lipped mouth with tobacco stains. His partner is long in the face with wide nostrils and a cleft chin, a mouth that is ever open in a pleasant, if goofy, smile.
We are slowing and the eyebrows dip out of view. I look away as the men rise to gather their things, not wanting to spoil the image of them that my mind has created. As far as I am concerned, this will be their identity forevermore, and knowledge of their true likenesses would serve only my curiosity and not my satisfaction. Although curiosity often wins, today it is trumped by my attachment to a fiction, and yet I wonder what truth I have let escape me and why I prized a falsehood over certainty.
The train empties and bodies shift, looking for a more comfortable spot, bags placed on neighbouring seats in hopes that this will deter the new arrivals from occupying them, sending these souls on instead, searching for an empty pair, of which they will occupy only one. The eyes of traveling couples search frantically for the same, but with quite different intentions in mind. Faces fall when only singletons are found and light up when they discover a hidden geminate after all. If only I could see this light go on for all of them.
And now the strangers departed have been replaced with strangers embarking, new journeys are begun in this same vessel to replace those which have just ended. These new bodies, shot through space in the stead of those who have pushed on from these iron rails, do they now take over the unfulfilled destiny of those bodies who are gone? And what path is stolen from another by the man who oversleeps his stop and rides on, denying his seat to the woman for whom it had been intended? Will he spot the dropped glove, as she was meant to, or will the boy who is sitting in front of him seek to warm both hands in the one that remains when he emerges into the cold and misses its mate?
New strangers, fresh from home or weary from travels that have gone before, turn their faces toward me now. They peel away their layers, flap their shirts to expose their overheated bellies, unwrap scarves from necks that have begun to sweat. They place their bags to the side, as the old strangers have done, evidence of a phantom traveling companion that will be removed at the slightest inquiry, though they sit secure in the knowledge that such an inquiry is unlikely.
A four-eyed maiden empties her nose into a square of paper, digging furiously for any vestiges of the unwanted visitors who had taken up residence there, but with each breath she takes she is inviting more to follow them. Her ears are full of plastic, screaming favourite sounds into her brain. My neighbour’s ears are full of plastic. My ears are full of plastic. My fingers work plastic keys and mirror the demands of fingers around me, adjusting the output of the artificial life forms we all clutch, desperate for them to fill the empty moments that we may not be left alone to allow what is inside of us to awaken and pose questions of its own.
Another stop. Keys jangle and straps pull taut. Bags are searched to ensure the sanctity and totality of their contents. Frowns beget swishing hair as heads follow eyes in cartoonish circles before the hands are set into motion and something essential to survival is discovered hiding under a coat or trapped beneath a leg: a pen is located, a bookmark freed, the cap to that all-important USB stick emerges to protect the data that manage our sanity, and life can continue once again.
More strangers, strangers stranger than the last for their inherent newness. Seats recently emptied groan under the bulk of them, lamenting a fate that sets them the responsibility of supporting weighty waste-makers, providing comfort and receiving nothing in return. Or perhaps these are in fact sighs of relief, the sounds of pleasure at finding that they once more have purpose and can perform the task for which they were created. Rather than longing for freedom, they crave fulfillment and the oppourtunity to serve and protect the asses of humankind. Or perhaps each seat is different, violently defending its point of view and joining with the voices of seats that share its enlightened perspective: red seats and blue seats who demand satisfaction but never see eye to eye.
I am arriving at my station now, a city empty in name only, as it is filled with memories of long ago, memories of strangers transformed into friends. And though some were to become strangers once more, the ties that bound us blurring and letting go, most of them remain–be the connections fuzzy or firm–very dear, if seldom near.
I disembark, excusing myself silently from strangers with whom I have never spoken. That chance was taken back as it was given: it is falling away unused. I do not regret it, as I imagine those around me would not. To them I am the stranger, just as they are strange to one another. We have our own worlds surrounding us, filling our ears and our eyes, and the need for a friendly smile or a listening ear seems far away.
I catch the faces one last time before I go. Some of them will accompany me on the last leg of my journey, traversing the remaining few kilometers toward an adoptive home half a world away from my first, but most of them travel on, into lives of their own, futures bright or dim but ultimately as blurry as the lines that connected us for our brief time together as fellow strangers, hurtling along on a westbound train, as divided as we were united by bits of talking plastic that whisper a common melody that we each interpret in our own unique way, as hope that the strangers inside of us are as familiar as we want them to be, and that we will be alone no longer than we desire.