It was one of those raw, early days after a breakup — the first day back at work, trying for a normal routine — and I couldn’t tell you who was struggling more: me or the packed train during rush hour.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice rang out over the speakers, “we are experiencing delays with a passenger alarm activated on the train.” The train shuddered to a stop in the tunnel between stations. I glanced at the time; luckily, my anxiety makes me perpetually early to everything, including therapy. I relaxed a little and pulled up a book on my phone, feeling like the millennial version of the middle-aged woman who was reading a paperback next to me in a brown, winter-worn coat.
“How are you enjoying that book?”
I looked up to place the voice, clocked it as belonging to a dapper old man in a Harris tweed coat and matching scarf, and then saw he was speaking to the woman next to me. Instead of being irritated, she immediately engaged him, striking up a conversation about the book. I kept my gaze trained on my phone, but stopped reading to listen.
It quickly came out that neither particularly enjoyed the book in question. He got through his self-imposed 100-page requirement while on a cruise and then left it on the boat. “Better left behind for a future cruiser than chucked right into the Caribbean!” he said with a chuckle.
She’d started it three times before, and only picked it up a fourth (and final) time after hearing the author speak at the public library. I couldn’t tell if there was a spark between the two or if I was just spinning up a real-world meet-cute in my newly single state.
“So tell me, in the end, does the third brother die?”
Before she answered, the woman turned to me, breaking the fourth wall, and asked if I was planning to read the book.
“Not after these reviews!”
All three of us laughed, and she explained the ending.
Then, just as suddenly as the train stopped, it jerked to a start, drawing us back into the big-city normal of being strangers in a crowd. The woman and I returned to our books while the man turned back to his much-younger colleague, begrudgingly humoring the kid’s bitcoin and marijuana investment shop-talk.
My daydream of new love blooming over a mediocre book on the subway was dashed. He could have asked for her number! (Do “real” adults do that?) There was chemistry — I was sure of it — but the magical suspension of subway etiquette inspired by the delay was gone too soon.
If you’d asked me earlier that morning, I’d have told you I needed the self-confidence-boost of some lingering eye contact with a hot dude reading on train more than an impromptu subway book club with people 40 years my senior. But I’d have been wrong. Real human connection was still out there, and that was uplifting enough.
Feature photo by Frederic Meylan/Sygma via Getty Images.