A story about fear’s unexpected antidote.
On my subway ride home last Friday evening, I shared a crowded car with a woman who was beginning to cry as we jostled through the tunnel between Manhattan and Brooklyn. They were the timid sort of tears, quiet and fragile. It was a lonely unraveling in the raucousness of rush hour. When I saw her, my first instinct was to look away — to pretend not to notice. That’s what the rest of our neighbors were doing. In between us, a teenage boy in drooped jeans bobbed a Converse sneaker up and down against the current of the careening train, nodding sleepily to the bass beat of whatever song was pounding through his headphones. A seated, white-haired woman thumbed through her book, the kind with a fat spine and thin pages like you can buy at the airport, peeking ahead to the end of the chapter. Others numbly pressed their phone keys or simply stared at the way their hands were gripping the silver poles for balance. The subway is a strange place where speed and stimulation are disguised as menial routine. People tend to disengage from the scene in different ways, like they’re blowing invisible bubbles around themselves for protection, pretending that they aren’t surrounded by the smells and sniffles and sharp tongues of strangers while hurtling through darkness at rapid rates they can’t control. As I glanced around and then back at this particular stranger’s sad face, my second instinct was to say something to her, despite my first instinct. I leaned past the teenage boy in drooped jeans and reached gently — nervously — to touch her arm as we pulled into the station. “Are you okay?” With a gloved hand, she removed her earbuds and covered her mouth in a sudden, soft sob, looking up at me with glassy eyes. “Thank you. Yes. Thank you. Thank you. I’m okay,” she said. I had burst her protective bubble of silent, solitary sadness, but she seemed genuinely grateful. “Are you sure?” “Yes. Thank you. Thank you.” As she nodded, the tears rolled down her cheeks, painting Rorschach drips of mascara across pink skin. That teenage boy continued bobbing to his bass, and that old woman continued reading her romance novel, and still, nobody else spoke. “You’re welcome,” I said. “Thank you,” she said again, as we exited the train together. “You’re welcome. Can I do anything to…
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