I saw a girl.
She hauled herself onto the El at the Belmont stop, clumping down the aisle weighted with self-awareness. Or self-consciousness. They're pretty much the same thing at nineteen. My age.
I was sitting in a seat that faced inward, rather than forward or backward, so I could read without setting off a twinge of motion sickness from the blur of shoddy grandiosity that forms the commute over the streets of Chicago. She sat across from me, in a seat facing forward. The city didn't distract her. She let her messenger bag—black, packed, and ribboned with a pattern hinting at the Union Jack—drop to the seat beside her. She didn't slip the strap off. Her shoulders were a stretch of bare, pale skin interrupted by two vivid lines of red elastic sliding down past the collar of her low-slung black knit blouse.
With aggressive ease, she kicked her legs up and planted them in the corner formed by the graffiti-scratched window and a prominence holding some locked utility box. Grey khakis ran up at a fourty-five degree angle to the soles of her black boots, thick-treaded and with two bright orange Harley-Davidson logos centerset. This movement hit the trigger of my attention. I glanced up to watch her, conveniently placed, and to suck in the details I have trouble holding on to otherwise.
Her hair was a dry, desert-clay color and wavy, cut just below the ear, hanging over her black-rimmed indie glasses all in her face. Conscientiously messy. Like mine. She had headphones on, not iPod white but traditional black-wired earbuds. As she dug through her bag, she pulled out a retro discman and thumbed a few buttons before dropping it back into the clutter and continuing her search. Eventually, found it. The Not For Tourists Guide to Chicago. The one that doesn't neglect to map and explain the dangerous neighborhoods south of 35th (for example). The one sitting in my blue-black messenger bag.
She rifled through it, squinted at something, rifled again, back, forward, then shoved it into the bag and started another search. She unearthed a book of Sylvia Plath poetry, paused to give me a look—I flicked my eyes back down to my book of Dylan Thomas poetry—then wrenched open her paperback and started reading.
The fingers sliding beneath each page and turning it carefully were dotted with traces of chipped blue nail-polish. On both indices she had a silver, celtic-knotted futz ring. She did not futz. Her attention was intent, her lips slightly open and lined with some indeterminant shade of pink lip gloss. Occasionally, they moved. Mouthing words. The way I catch myself whispering when I forget verse is inappropriate in public.
Quite suddenly, she kicked her feet down, tossed the book in her bag, and stood. She grabbed one of the greasy steel hand-hold poles next to the door and swung around it by force of momentum as the train lurched to a halt at Berwyn, my stop.
The doors slid open just as she reached them.
I sat, watching the empty space where she'd been, till the sing-song voice of the prerecorded announcer said, "Doors! Closing!" I frenzied to pack my things and get myself across the aisle. The doors slammed against my shoulders and bounced back as I shoved myself out of the train.
"Please! Stand clear! Of the doors!" said the announcer with a touch of automated annoyance.
By the time I had stumbled down the stairs of the elevated stop to the street below, there were only people again, in plural, innacurate ellided details of faces and movements and languages and clothing sparking short term memory, then dimming within moments.
She mattered no more than any one person does.
Which is to say she matters more than any wealth of words could do justice to, ever.