Sarah feels bricked up, even though she's riding her bike. She feels caged, because of where she's riding her bike: to a coffee shop to meet an ex she's not sure she wants to meet. He called her to ... [+]
This morning, like any other, she had stuffed her lunch into her bag and scrambled to the station, dodging bicyclists and clambering onto the northbound train with dozens of other commuters. She grabbed a window seat on the second level of the train, eager to watch the world as it sped by, wanting to see the trees that stretched out their branches as if to wave at the passengers. As the train pushed onward past apartment complexes that faced the train tracks, she saw people on their balconies who had long grown used to the rumbling of the passing metal giant. They stretched out their laundry on clotheslines or watered their plants without distraction. When they hurtled past one building, she glimpsed a couple eating breakfast together on their patio, laughing together, a small brown poof of a dog at the woman's ankles. In a flash of sunlight they were hidden behind foliage again. She took it all in as if in slow motion, snippets of their lives cut together into one discordant mixture, a beautiful collage set to the cacophony of rattling and screeching of the train.
Yes, these train rides were her daily respite, one of the few peaceful spaces in her day where she could breathe, relax, observe. Her boyfriend had gotten angry at her again last night. This time, her offense had been chopping the vegetables incorrectly, and he had again gruffly taken over all of the dinner preparations. They had eaten their dinner in uncomfortable silence, and he had resigned to work at his computer for the rest of the night without a word. When she peeked in to offer a dessert to share, he yelled that he was working, couldn't she see that? When they went to bed, he had said a curt good night without much further conversation. She had turned onto her side, facing the window, eyes threatening to overflow, wondering how things had gotten this way. It had been like this far too many nights, for one thing or another. This morning, she had gotten ready as quietly as she could to avoid disturbing his sleep and slipped out the door to make it to the train station without further stress.
Her commute into the city only took about thirty minutes, and when it ended, reality would come rushing back. She would have to step off the train and walk to the sterile office and spend eight hours being pulled in all directions. Her manager had a smile that didn't reach her eyes and which fell at the drop of a hat, a practiced laugh that rang in corporate dishonesty. One of her coworkers had his nose so far up their manager's ass that she wondered how he could breathe, and he threw her and her colleagues under the bus whenever convenient. She was barely being paid enough to afford rent, utilities, and food, and every day seemed to pull a little more of her soul out from her chest and stamp it into the ugly, brown office carpet. Her boyfriend's only words of comfort were that when they got married, he would provide for both of them, and having separate money wouldn't matter. He reassured her that they would get married and have their first kid before thirty, that she could be a stay-at-home mother, and everything would be just perfect. Even if she voiced that she wasn't entirely sure that was what she wanted, it seemed to fall on deaf ears, for the plan he proposed never seemed to change, and her voice dwindled when she realized he wasn't truly listening.
Sometimes she had wished that she could ride the train all the way to the end of the line and disappear, start from scratch. Sometimes she wondered if things might have been different if only she'd made different choices. She didn't want to die, but instead wished she could start a new life, one where she wasn't commuting every morning to a job she hated or going home to a boyfriend who was inattentive, seemingly always angry, and increasingly making her feel incompetent. Every night, she had prayed to a god she was losing faith in because it was all she had ever known to do. Every night, she was met with silence.
But today was different, yes, down to the very air she breathed, because of a conversation she had had last month, right here on the train.
A young woman about her age, another regular passenger she had seen every day who got off the train at the same stop, had sat next to her today. The woman was trying and failing to hide the fact that she was weeping. When she asked the woman if she was alright, the woman surprisingly glanced up and smiled through her tears and confided that yes, she was going to be alright, but she was leaving her boyfriend of six years that day. The woman said it broke her heart to do it, but she had had enough. She was shocked at the woman's straightforwardness, but struck by her tears. These were the tears of someone who had carried far too much for far too long, had finally been relieved of a heavy burden. And as they talked for the remainder of the train ride, it began to occur to her that all of their problems sounded far too similar.
"It wasn't any one thing, you know?" said the woman through sniffles. She offered the woman another tissue from her purse. "It was everything built up, the walking on eggshells, the disrespect, everything he promised and never fulfilled."
She nodded. She knew all too well.
Before they knew it, the train had started to pull into their station. They had both risen from their seats like clockwork, walking down to face the doors together. Suddenly faced with time running out, she had asked the woman a question, one that had slipped out before she'd even realized it, her voice shaky.
"How...how did you find the courage?"
She would never forget the tiny, knowing smile that had stretched across the woman's face, the spark that rose behind the tears in her eyes.
"I remembered that it's okay to get off the train when you realize you're on the wrong track."
They parted ways, and she never saw that woman again, but her words rekindled a fire inside, giving oxygen to the embers and exploding them into flames. Over the past month, she realized that perhaps there was no god to pray to anymore, no savior returning in three days' time. No one was coming to save her, but instead of helplessness came a sense of strength from within, a reminder of her own agency. For so long, she had resigned herself to this track, figuring that she had made her bed and needed to lie in it. For so long, uprooting her life had been a terrifying suggestion, but now, so was everything staying the same. Staying meant a quiet, slow death of hope, the resignation to a cruel fate of misery and of crushing loneliness while sharing the same bed as someone who had said he loved her yet made her feel utterly small. Yes, all it had taken was a spark. It was life returning.
Today, she had a resignation letter in her bag signed Evelyn, an interview next week. Today, she was going to view a room for rent. Today she was going to leave and pursue happiness despite the fear of what laid ahead.
Today, when Evelyn got off the train, she was walking once again toward her freedom.