Nobody Tells You

Image of Long Story Short Award - Fall 2020
Image of Short Fiction
I never learned his name. Never got a chance to properly thank him. Five years later and here I am, wondering if he ever knew.
Five years ago today, I was stepping off a subway in New York with everything I owned packed into two suitcases and a duffel bag. Landlord had said to leave or they’d call the police. Can’t pay the bills when you can’t sleep or work or breathe when you’re haunted by everything in the apartment with memories of how she used to laugh or sing while cooking or when she would come home with the biggest smile about the cutest dog she’d seen and...
Nobody told me how bad it would all hurt. So there I was, just another person in another subway station. Ready to give it all up. God was a fake who didn’t answer prayers.
I was standing too close to the yellow line by the opening of the tunnel where the train would show. Where it would be going fastest. Where it would be over with quicker. Two suitcases standing right next to me, my duffel laid across them like a limp body bag when finally, horrifically, headlights flash down the tunnel.
I remember hot tears in my eyes as I watched those lights come down the tunnel. If only everything would just stop hurting. My hands were shaking as I took them out of my pockets until I realized it was my entire body wracking with silent sobs. A mantra went through my head that this was to make everything stop hurting. For the stress, the pressure, the grief at her loss, for everything that piled up until the proverbial straw broke my back.
No one ever tells you how terrifying it is. Looking over a bridge that’s hundreds of feet tall. Watching the train come down the track as your entire body shakes, one half of you screaming to get it over with and the other half begging that there has to be something worth sticking around for. No one ever tells you how badly you just want everything to stop hurting, or how convinced that first half of you is that taking two steps forward will make it all go away.
Nobody told me.
I never got the chance to take that first step. Somebody clapped a hand on my shoulder and said, “Hey man, do you need some help with those?” A bright-eyed college student was pointing to my bags. “They look kind’ve heavy.”
I tried to make sense of what he said and shoved my hands back into my pockets so he wouldn’t see them shaking. “You – you want to help me carry my bags?”
A brighter smile with a shrug and then, “Yeah! I’m headed up that way anyway to class and you looked like you might need some help.”
The train roared by as the brakes wailed. He... he was offering to help. Some cavity in my chest cracked in half and I nearly fell to the ground crying right then and there. With some wordless gestures, I motioned from the bags to the train that had now stopped and he eagerly picked up the duffel and a suitcase and went aboard.
Nobody tells you how you’ll tremble with relief. I dragged my other suitcase onto the train next to the student and thumped into a seat next to me feeling the most exhausted I’ve ever been in my life. This kid was so naïve and yet... so full of light.
He didn’t ask where I was going. I didn’t have an answer. He didn’t ask why I had two suitcases and a duffel bag or where I was from. Instead, he talked to me. A stranger in New York. He helped a person he didn’t even know and I’ll never know if he ever fully grasped how much he helped carried my burdens, physical and emotional, on that day five years ago.
I never got his name. He apologized when he helped me off the tracks six stops later that he couldn’t do any more for me, even when I had made him late for class. Leaving that subway station, everything seemed a little bit more possible, and he would never know it.
Nobody ever tells you how helping someone else warms you. I would need a lot more hands to count the number of people I’ve talked to that have looked a little desperate while waiting at the yellow line for the train or while staring over the bridge wall, and I’ll never know if they needed it or not.
But one day, when I needed it the most, someone reached out to me and asked if they could help. Somehow in the space of fifteen seconds I went from being lower to the mud in my shoes to thinking that there was something worth living for. And I still don’t know his name.
Nobody told me how happy I would be to get a second chance.