Rushing into the metro station, the train halts in front of me. The air compresses; the doors squeal. Orange and puce padded seats line the walls of the rectangular compartment, and silver bars, coated with the fingerprints of Strangers, wrap around the walls and stretch across the ceiling. I look down at my feet, toes exposed in brown leather sandals. Still recovering from the trauma of avoiding the escalator’s sharp teeth, they are hesitant to cross the yellow line, hesitant to step onto a train full of Strangers. The sign above the platform changes from “1 minute” to “Boarding” and the wave of D.C. commuters behind me pours forward. I am swept along in the current as I take one last breath of fresh air. Here I go.
The lights in the train are a stale yellow, casting a glow on the scattered passengers. For a second I panic, lost, before I spot my teachers and classmates and hurry after them. My group of five settles among the Strangers, between a looming man in a beige suit and a slouching girl in kaleidoscopic garb. Hailing from Milford, New Hampshire, I feel like a fish not just out of water, but also on another planet. Desperate for something familiar, I pull my iPod out and turn to the comfort of my childhood lullaby, Dream a Little Dream of Me by The Mamas and the Papas. Wide-eyed, I scan my surroundings. My after school job as a lifeguard has instilled in me the improper but irresistible habit of “people-watching.” I may be cautious, but I am also curious. The D.C. subway is a coral reef of activity compared to the mundane pool at the local fitness club.
The train is at full speed now, diving down into the dark, but the only sign of movement is the steady screaming of the tracks and the gentle rocking of the floor. Glancing at my reflection in the black window, I notice a boy in a knit cap and a Howard sweatshirt staring at me. When he sees me gazing back he asks, “You go to the University of Maryland?” Caught off guard, I shake my head, drop my eyes, and add quietly, “Er . . . No, I’m here for National History Day.” Peering up at him through my eyelashes, I see him tuck his own iPod headphones beneath his knit cap. I wonder who is singing into his ears.
The train takes a curve, and I nearly fall out of my seat, but the looming businessman swoops in and catches my arm. My shock turns to gratitude as I look up and thank him. He is wearing a name badge that says, “Benjamin L. Cross.” I wonder what the “L.” stands for. At Mt. Vernon Square, Benjamin L. Cross exits, and a young woman draped in exotic fabric takes his place, skirts cascading around her. I follow the pattern up from the floor, entranced, until my eyes meet a pair of dark irises framed by a rectangular opening in the cloth. For a moment, they are blank, but suddenly they catch the light and the corners crinkle into a smile. Instinctively, I smile back at the Stranger.
Later, in the center of Union Station, I find a pashmina at a vendor’s stall. The two yards are woven in threads of every fall color, colors that one can only see from the peak of Mount Washington on a clear fall day, colors that artists will never match on canvas, colors that kindergarteners preserve between wax paper. I wrap it around myself, letting a spiral of hair rest on my forehead. I become a Stranger to everyone else, but I feel comfortable. I feel like I belong.
On the way out of the city, I’m standing in the crowded metro, holding onto a metal ceiling bar. The car smells of sweat and oranges. The train lurches and a woman, thrown by inertia, grabs my arm to keep from falling. Rather than pulling away from the Stranger, I reach out with my free arm to support her. Apologizing, she regains her balance, and I let go, smiling at her. I remember Benjamin L. Cross, and wonder where he is now. The doors open. This time I confidently step onto the platform, leaving my fingerprints on the bar, sharing a breath of fresh air with the other Strangers, and concluding, here I am: ready to fall, to catch, and to launch.
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