I'm standing on the subway with my boyfriend. We have just come from an amazing Italian dinner with some friends downtown, and we're looking forward to getting home to our own bed.
And as I'm standing on the trai
n, I look over and noticed this woman, Chinese ethnicity, possibly mid-twenties, well dressed. She has a black pair of pumps beneath her feet, a black dress coat, as if she had expected the night to be filled with glamour. What I notice first, however, is not her attire, but how red her nose is.
I smile at her, the thing to do when you meet eyes with someone for the first time, a stranger. She half-smiles back, and turns away, looking out the subway window and into the concrete tunnel we are flying through.
I’m not sure if it is female instinct, but at that moment I feel as though she has just hinted to me that she is sad.
My boyfriend and I were smiling upon entering the train, laughing about the night, waddling with the pasta that filled our bellies, but after meeting eyes with this woman something changes. I feel guilty for being so happy, for having someone to share the small nothings on a subway with.
The boyfriend finds a seat and rushes to sit down. I stand by myself for a few seconds, contemplating what to do. Should I go and see if she is all right? Should I just ignore the fact that she is clearly upset?
I look over again, just like any human looks at the site of a car accident as they are driving past – we know we shouldn’t, be we feel compelled to see what is going on. She is speaking on her cell phone with someone, and she is crying. Quietly, probably hoping no one will notice. Probably wishing that at that very moment she could just disappear and magically reappear at home, where she feels slightly safer.
I feel so awful inside, staring at the sad woman. I’m not sure what it is that sparks inside of me. Maybe it is noticing that everyone else on the train is ignoring this woman’s quiet sobs. Maybe it is that if I were her, entirely alone, I would want someone to see if I was going to be all right. Maybe it is just me being me. Either way, I walk over towards her and put my hand on her shoulder.
“Are you okay?” I ask, hesitant. I don’t want to intrude and offend her for being so up front.
She nods her head, trying to compose herself.
“I’m fine…” but she can’t finish her sentence because she is afraid that by doing so she will become more vulnerable than she must already feel.
“You just had a bad night, didn’t you? It’s okay,” I say to her, now moving my hand over her back to console her. She nods again. I tell her everything will be okay, that when she gets home and goes to sleep, and wakes up in the morning, she will be fine.
I’m not sure if it’s a lie, or if I’m telling the truth, but I tell it to her anyways. Because at any moment people can become vulnerable. Because, whatever the reason for her being upset – whether it be a date gone horribly wrong, a friend kissing the man you came with – we are all confronted with bad things and they happen at the wrong times.
This was her bad thing and it happened at her wrong time.
I sit down with Ben, the ever-happy boyfriend, and though some people may feel triumphant for having just comforted a stranger, I feel even sadder.
Why was I so hesitant at giving out the simple phrase, “are you alright?” Has it come to this? Where people may visibly see someone extremely upset, angry, frustrated, lonely, and do nothing about it?
There is no doubt in my mind that others saw this woman on the train. There is no doubt in my mind that these people noticed she was upset. And yet even I was contemplating whether or not to soothe her.
How many other people out there wish, while traveling home late at night by train, taxi, bus, that someone would notice their sadness and offer a few comforting words? And is that all it takes… a word here, a hug there? I think if we all took the time to observe and tried to be less embarrassed to offer help, the world and those living in it might feel a little less sad. They might feel like I hope this woman felt after she got off the train – still sad, but comforted that there are people out there that still want to care.