Riding the subway on my morning commute, I play a game to counter the somnambulant effect of the train’s rhythms. I observe my fellow passengers – assessing looks, demeanour, hairstyle, clothing – and try to guess their life story. Single, married, gay, professional, happy, angry, interesting, smart, nice? Would I want this person as a friend, a neighbour, a colleague?
Sometimes, rather than guess about them, I create scenarios and cast them in roles my imagination creates for them. The struggling single mom with a sick child and violent ex. The poet who left his garret to go to the IT job that pays the rent. The frustrated professional who looks successful but surfs porn sites every chance he gets.
My eyes skim over the bleached blond in the tight black blouse, fiddling with her iPod. Over my left shoulder, I spy a pair of students, whispering and giggling, clad in uniforms that scream “city day camp”. The man right next to me, wearing jeans and a wrinkled shirt, is engrossed in his dog-eared paperback. I strain to read the title atop the nearest page: Spirit-soul…something. I take him for a seeker and shoot a quick prayer heaven-ward. Lord, may he find you and not be misled by mysticism and half-truths.
My mind and my eyes wander. Flitting from one to another, nothing, no one, holding my interest for long.
We pull into the next stop. The subway doors open, eject one or two riders, and receive the obeisance of two or three more. I watch a young woman get on the train and position herself a few feet away from me, to lean against a pole. Just another of the morning’s mass-transit travelers. Nothing intriguing about her; and yet, she draws my eyes.
Staring is rude but, as a seasoned commuter, I have mastered the technique of observing unobtrusively. What is it about this young woman?
She has fair creamy skin, gentle blue eyes, thin lips. Her auburn hair is pulled back and up into a loose chignon. Pretty, I think. A bit harried. But then, it’s rush hour on a Friday morning.
My eyes trail downward, taking in her figure as she slumps awkwardly, weighed down by a large purse and a bulky briefcase. Her womanly form is stuffed into a turquoise and white summer dress, topped with a teal-coloured cardigan. Beige sandals – almost fashionable three years ago – add nothing to the outfit but somehow draw attention to themselves, belying their neutrality. Not a good choice. But perhaps only a woman would notice?
What is her story? This lovely, classical, simple creature – Rembrandt might have painted her. Face and hair that would gracefully sit upon the canvas. A woman of substance; not a woman of fashion. With a strength, an elegance that transcends time and place. Form and function and fashion. Place her anywhere in history and she would reside comfortably.
I envy her that. My reflection in the train window shows an aging face, coloured hair and clothes that attempt to camouflage the years they contain. Two more stops then I disembark, trailing musings at where the auburn-haired beauty was going, and to whom she would return at the end of the day.