I boarded the T and sat across from a woman working on the crossword in The Metro. Her wet hair was tied back in a low bun with two pens sticking out. Another one was pressed against her bottom lip. She was wearing a forest green sweatshirt from a summer camp and no makeup. She sat with a messenger bag in her lap.
She looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back and diverted my attention to the magazine in my hands. She took my smile, however, as an invitation to talk:
“Would you say your pecs are above you abs?”
“Yeah,” I said, pouting slightly as I nodded my head, trying to reassure her I was thinking hard about the question before answering. I returned my attention to the magazine, now uncomfortably aware that someone on the train was aware of me. I felt the top of my head to make sure my hair was tied back smoothly; I centered my scarf on my neck.
I’m not particularly adept at social situations. I always respond with too short answers, notice that I stifled the potential conversation, and add a qualifying statement three minutes late. I nod when I don’t hear someone, rather than asking her to repeat it. I’m not sure why this is or how it came to be. My family is quick to note what an outgoing child I was—always telling strangers about my fleet of imaginary friends. And though I’m still just as comfortable with my real friends, locking eye contact with a stranger makes my head snap down to examine my nails. Still, I resisted my urge to completely ignore the woman and attempted to solve any strange clues she read to me.
At Washington Square an elderly woman sat to my left. She was everything I, and the woman with the crossword, were not—flawlessly dresses in a sweater set, poised with perfect posture, donning a miniature, leather purse.
The woman with the crossword asked me another question as soon as we were moving, one I knew but was hesitant to answer for fear of being wrong. I stuttered some as I responded, looking out the window past her head. The next question I didn’t know. In fact, I wouldn’t know another question until I disembarked from the train at Boylston, but the woman next to me knew them all. At first she seemed irritated that she had to supply the answers for a woman who had elected to do the crossword, but with each clue, she became a little more interested.
“How many letters is it? And there’s a ‘T’ in the third square? Are you sure it’s not ‘gourd?’”
The T is a great equalizer. Everyone, no matter his grace or lack-there-of, boards in a bit of frenzy with a little agitation from waiting so long, and with some degree of dishevelment. There are no places in Boston that are more public nor more private. Everyone aboard has his own agenda and destination. He boards the T with a flurry of thoughts, making mental to-do lists, planning his weekend, yet he is thrust alongside forty others, his elbow ramming into a woman’s face, someone’s backside flat against his. The experiences he has on the T are the experiences of everyone else in the car.
Here we were, four strangers (my roommate sitting on my other side) trying to solve one weekly crossword puzzle. I hadn’t read more than a sentence in my magazine since I got on the train.