Decmber 5th, 2022
Story by Aaron Schultz
Photograph by Elena Dressler
The hum of his headphones is enough to drown out the din of the passengers boarding the 8:15 eastbound.
An older woman with close-cropped curly hair hair hurries across the grooved tile floor, a straggler reaching forward pleadingly with her yellow-with-pink-polkadot bag towing close behind. At this time of night, the next train is 20 minutes out. A hand, whose owner hides behind a newspaper ad campaign, holds the door. A momentary inconvenience, strangers exchange a wave of relief at the close-but-timely connection for a minor delay and at most a bit of good karma. The 8:15 pulls out of the station two minutes behind schedule.
He pauses the music, listening to the clicks and groans of the engine as the eastbound train departs the opposite track. There’s something soothing in the sounds of an empty train station. The fluorescent light shines dull agains the concrete walls. Even though he can’t hear it, the flickering light on the opposite platform seems to create sound out of light alone.
He has a bad habit of filling a silence, listening to music or scrolling through the news on his phone. To just sit there, quiet, seems so simple and yet so unnatural anymore. He centered his focus on allowing himself to think.
When you allow yourself to take it all in, waiting in a train station is full of small details to savour. The combination of sensory information create a complex concoction that can be rolled across the tongue like a sip of fine whiskey: the dull plastic of the station clock, ticks on the clock face illuminated from behind; the tubes and wires running above the tracks and into the ceiling with utilitarian elegance; and a lone glove, striped with grit and other non-descript stains resting below on the ground next to the tracks.
The station is peaceful, which is a consolation. He can only make the 7:53 westbound if he closes early and the train comes late. Even so, the cars are often full and he stands holding the strap and bracing for the jostling at each bump and curve. But if he waits for the next train, after the stations clear out, he’s even had the car to himself on occasion. He feels wrong to have a car to himself, an imbalance of self and space. Yet, at the same time, there is something powerful in it.
He stares across the platform to a row of seats and at the fingerless glove gripping a mass market paperback with the front cover folded around to the back. The other glove tucks neatly under a stranger’s chin holding back and oversized scarf that is itself fighting a messy mop of hair. He adjusts his glasses at his eyes travel upwards, studying the strangers face, just as the strangers eyes look up to meet his.
He looks away, caught. Subconsciously, he returns his gaze after a few moments. The stranger continues reading with only minimal emotion registering on their face. Once again, the stranger’s eyes meet his briefly, but this time he is determined to hold his ground. The stranger’s eyes stay locked for only a moment, but long enough, then return to the next page.
He yawns and lifts his wrist to check the time. He glances the clock about the timetables, calibrating.
A couple of other passengers wander in, each claiming their space on a bench or against the wall. The westbound train will be arriving soon.
His gaze returns to the platform. Once again, his eyes catch the stranger’s. He registers a faint smile and politely returns the gesture. Reclining, he crosses his arms and allows his mind to wander until he sees the headlights of the train as it enters the hall.
He waits for the train doors open as an automated announcement calls out this journey’s final destination. Inside the train car, the seat is soft yet cold as he looks through the window back to the stranger, who is looking at him.
There is a bond, the fleeting kind between passers-by: brief but at the same time understanding. Once again, the corners of the stranger’s mouth curl almost imperceptibly upwards. Their eyes remain locked as the doors close.
The train accelerates onward into the night in the direction of the night’s dreams.