The change in my office hours compelled me to join the early morning rush hour, a trip requiring two different train rides from my neighborhood. I quickly grew to hate it. Each morning was like a picture postcard, in the worst way: the same train platforms, the identical gathered throng of morning commuters, all of us trapped by damned clockwork of it all. The same image, day after day after day. Going home in the evening was like having the clock wound backwards. I missed the looseness, the unpredictability of my previous open-ended schedule. And the ready presence of elbow room.
With beguiling ease that abominable schedule seeped into the rest of my daily life. Mental timetables for sleeping, eating, social hours. Grocery runs on Thursdays. Laundry on Sundays. The abominable regularity of it felt like a cage I could do nothing but fling myself against, all while telling myself endure, endure; soon the project would end, and life would return to normal.
In the way of such things, it didn’t, of course. Deadlines were pushed back, timetables extended, budgets reconfigured. And each day I packed myself into the the train, just another faceless member in a horde of zombie commuters, trying not to be reminded of the myth of Sysiphus.
And then one day a new face appeared in the crowd. I glimpsed her out of the corner of my eye, there on the far side of the platform: a girl about my age or a little younger, blonde, clad in a red sweater and burgundy scarf. Just standing there like a splash of spring color across a backdrop of winter gray.
She didn’t belong there. She was a tourist, or a student who’d taken the wrong train, a beautiful abberation that just made our surroundings look all that drab for her being there.
She caught my eye, and somehow, despite the throngs around us, I caught hers. She looked up, her smile leapt across that jumble of bodies directly to me.
A scant handful of seconds, that’s all it was. It was enough. I knew that if I did not cross that platform right then that I would never find myself out of this trap in which I dwelt. And no sooner did I think this than our train rattled into the station, the doors opening to disgorge even more passengers onto the cold concrete.
Like a salmon I pushed against that stream, winding and shouldering my way through, leaving a trail of curses and invectives in my wake. I was close enough, it seemed, almost close enough to touch her.
My fingers felt only empty air, and then the gentle whoosh of the train doors closing less than an inch from them. The girl stood on the other side of them. There was time only for her to smile at me once more before the train rattled off down the tunnel, leaving only the visual echo of her in my vision.
I was alone on the platform, having missed my train for the first time in months.