I have many stories from my travels in California, from encounters with Redwood trees and wild deer, to tales from the workshops and the poetry salons. Those stories and their lessons are circling, and some are beginning to land, but sometimes it is the simplest and smallest encounters which leave lingering impressions. As news of virus spread goes viral, what I fear most is the spread of fear itself, and of the stranger, and of the other. I am all for hand-washing, but let’s not loose out on the seeing the person in front of us, and the glorious, nuanced lives they hold… and so, a story from an average morning commute, which had a touch of the major in it…
You can listen to this audio essay here (7mins)
It was just past rush hour and the BART was dense with people and noise. The glare of screens illuminated nearly every face, and a proliferation of white earbuds pointed to noise coming from other directions. The morning commute must, I understand, be tolerated, and perhaps for some the only way is to block it out. Of course, travelling only once through it has all the aspects of novelty. I am a people watcher. I enjoy thinking about who is behind the scenes, the lives they carry and the way their days hold them to it. What brings them joy? What of their losses? I scan the faces for scars, and smiles, and the stories they conceal. I like to notice the way light falls on fingers and how each hand holds a myriad of potential shapes and shadows. Perhaps it is the photographer in me, but I like finding single frames, then seeing what moves in and between them. On this morning, there was little interaction, other than jostle.
At MacArthur station the doors opened and a young mother pushing a heavy buggy with her toddler, tucked herself in beside me in the standing section of the carriage. She was on her phone, texting, and as the train pulled out, the child, no more than two years old, started screaming, loudly, the reverberations moving down the aisle, causing a ripple of winches and groans to pierce the commute. The illuminated faces darkened for a moment as disparaging frowns were returned to the mother.
‘Who this young woman?’ I wondered. She was barely skimming the tail-end of her teens, and already looked tired of trying. The screams bounced around the metal carriage. I glanced down at the young child, an attempt to make eye-contact, and appease. I winked, waved, smiled, but the child having none of it, only renewed his interest in his mother’s undivided attention. I feared I had only fuelled the situation, such was my want of trying, but the mother now seemed to sense the increased need for mothering, and took the sobbing, wriggling child into her arms. A heavy-set and suited commuter beside us relaxed his shoulders, somewhat, anticipating the decrease in volume. He had been angry, you could see it in his stance, which was now distinctively softening. With the hold of the mother, and the child in arms finding solace, now calming, I glanced over again at the child, this time my smile reaching him; his hair thick with dark curls; the tears now beginning to dry on his cheeks. He was wearing a Micky Mouse t-shirt, which seemed oddly out of place. We made eye-contact, and a curl of a smile was returned.
The train continued to make its way into San Francisco. I watched for signs of nature; birds taking flight, the wind making patterns, shadows moving across glass, loosing myself in this space of arrival, until I too am awakened by the feel of a little hand nuzzle itself into my grasp, and quickly bury deeper. The touch felt startling but tender; my whole being jolted into a soft kind of life. I looked down at the little boy, his hand still insisting on mine; his head leaning in towards me. Is this a landslide in my heart? It is sometime real, and very very present; this tender touch. Neither of us let go. One minute turns to many more, and I can feel that softening travel too, to the people beside and opposite us, and down the aisle to those next to them.
‘What’s his name?’, I ask his mother.
She is quiet, and proud, ‘Major’, she says.
‘Is he your only one? I ask
‘Yes, and probably the only one. I have many younger siblings’.
We talk about that for a while; the coping, the juggling, the responsibility.
Mayor’s hand wiggles in mine. He has noticed my ring, and seems intrigued with my golden shoes. He begins to explore the new textures with this other hand.
‘You know’, she continues, ‘I am very shy… but he opens me’
‘I have a dog like that’, I say, and we laugh.
The laugher seems to be license. The tall suited man beside us reaches into his shirt pocket, pulls out his phone, skims for something, then flips the screen and shows it to Mayor’. ‘My daughter also likes Mickey Mouse’, he says, beaming.
‘How old is she?’, I ask,
‘Nine’, he replies, then puts the phone back in the pocket closest to his heart.
Outside, I turn to watch the birds take flight, as the blue sky reflects itself back to us, clearly, sharply, rising above the city, as only openness can. Twenty-five minutes go by. I feel that little hand in mine, still holding strong.
‘I’m getting off at the next stop’, I say to the mother.
‘So am I’, she replies. As we leave the train, she going one way, I another, we turn towards each other, look into each other’s eyes, and smile.
‘You’re doing a good job’, I say to her, but just as the crowds take us over, so I’m not actually sure she heard the words I desperately want her to hear. As I walk out of the station, I can feel the sky on my face, the day in my hair and a little handprint still leaving an impression.
Now, weeks later, I rub my palm and find a little memory there. It is shaped like a hand, and it is reaching out, determined. Major’s spell has travelled. All it holds is the alchemy of touch.
And now my skin remembers what the secret is: connection.
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