By Regina Hong, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio
Taking the train alone at night enlightens you about loneliness in a way all the dictionaries of the world cannot. It teaches you about the true meaning of being an isolated island, where your presence is as insignificant and unnoticeable as a speck of dust on a handrail. For you become a mere spectator on the fringes of mainstream society, watching groups of friends chat, a businessman bark in anger into the phone, a pregnant lady slump tiredly in the reserved seat, a drunken stranger collapse onto the floor to be helped hurriedly to his feet by his friends.
You are not welcome to step in and talk to them, not welcome to be an active part of their world. But you can play a passive role and watch distantly as the night coaxes them to reveal the selves they sequestered away in surrender to the harsh glare of day.
The disheveled man with a shock of grey hair reminiscent of some other more eminent scientist from another time, with the top two buttons of his collared shirt unbuttoned in a devil-may-care manner sighs, gulps and looks around as the bell sounds cheerily to announce the station the train has arrived at. His bespectacled eyes swing wearily around to the doors to check if it is his station, as his hands worry at the strap of his worn grey sling bag. Nothing in the sag of his shoulders suggests it’s a home he is returning to. His shoes dance around to maintain his balance as the train comes to a sudden stop.
The pregnant lady shuffles into the carriage, carefully placing one foot before another as she struggles to peek beyond the bulge of her frame. A fellow commuter spots her, identifies her as one of the four stick figures helpfully pasted on the blue sticker above his seat and rises to give his seat to her. She mumbles her thanks, steers herself into the vacated seat and shuts her eyes. Beneath that veneer of tough corporate armour and camouflage, she is but another person trying to find her way in life. The dark circles beneath her eyes shout of physical fatigue, but it is the lines of her mouth and the listless manner she holds herself that informs you of the tiredness that is eating at her marrow. You cannot truly fathom what has caused it. You can only watch and wonder.
A thud on the floor as the doors open to swallow and eject another flow of jaded travelers. Everyone is momentarily jolted out of their respective reveries as they turn to inspect this unexpected drama. A man not in possession of his faculties lolls about on the floor as his embarrassed friends attempt to get him to his feet and mould him into a semblance of respectability. They manage to press him into the corner seat where he groans and grips his forehead with his hands. Everyone turns back to their phones as the excitement is over, Tweeting or Facebooking about this random event that has fallen out of step with the clockwork order of their days. The man groans again from his corner seat and slumps against the panel. His friends look sheepishly at the floor.
An old man wanders into the carriage, looking up in surprise at the blast of cold air. The sterile lights of the carriage are a stark contrast to the inky depths of the night sky he has just been looking at and he doesn’t know what he should expect. He walks past the reserved seat, where a young woman texts animatedly and the seat next to it, where a young man looks fixedly at the captivating images flitting on his phone screen. As he is about to walk past the third seat, a middle-aged man leaps to his feet and proffers his seat, after giving a reassuring pat to his wife’s hand. The old man nods his thanks and sinks to his feet. He is still lost. He stares at the green lights indicating the trajectory of the train. You begin to wonder if he ever had a destination in mind.
Then the bell reminds you that it’s your station. You exit the carriage. It’s as if you were never there, the same of which could be said for everyone on the train. For that brief moment, you were all part of the same shared experience. But they don’t remember. And neither will you.
But sometimes, when you take the train again at night, you see other jaded travelers and somewhere in the recesses of your mind, you recall. The same emotions wrap themselves like a second skin around them as they remain lost in their thoughts. Little pockets of isolation, in the great coat of a train.
Hello, stranger, maybe we are not as different as we thought.