When I laid my eyes on her in the crowded SF Muni, KT Outbound going towards the Caltrain station, I disregarded her as another of those self righteous people floating carelessly with no concern or regard for the world around them, pushing their way through life, one day at a time.
She struck me as a lazy ensemble of bones, big bones if I may add, with a lot of flesh on them. I could not help but notice the layers of makeup she had on her. You could use it on seven faces and still have some to spare. The thick black eyeliner that she was wearing was accentuating her big black eyes. To the extent that her single stare was enough to silence the kids around her. I could tell from the expressions of their mothers, that they were happy about the stare. And so was I, in a way. She wasn’t filthy, just unkempt. As if she just woke up from a long sleep, put on all the makeup she had on her and rushed out her door without even looking at herself in the mirror.
At first she was standing, like all of us were. Her body swayed with the jerky motions of the train. But she could not care less about the inconvenience she was causing to her fellow passengers. I was glad I was not very close to her. When a lot people got off at AT&T park, she pushed her way through the crowd and grabbed a seat, actually two, next to the door that I was leaning against. I don’t remember exchanging glances or making an eye contact with her at this point. I was contented with where I was. Not many people come as close to the door. And I know the doors open only in one direction and thus had safely secured my position.
As the Muni began to move again, I stood by the door aimlessly wondering about how my day went. It was a strange day to begin with. My team at work is undergoing a lot of attrition and it is impossible to keep the velocity that I need to deliver the project I am leading. But that’s not the only thing that is going awry. There are several other diversions and distractions that kept me outside my comfort zone all day. But there was this surprise bday celebration that I planned for my lead architect at the last minute as well. It was a good break in the day. I recollected my thoughts and reminded myself to focus on what I have and not what I am losing. Some more thoughts surfaced as I gathered moments from the day. Mostly good thoughts. Those of optimism. No wonder I am called the sunshine of my team. Even if deep down I breed fears, I am always there to make the picture look brighter than it seems. I never hide the facts. I just show people another perspective. An alternate window through which the situation seems less ugly. As the train came to a stop, so did my current thought process.
I shifted gears and started thinking of the dragon’s mouth that I had just come out of. Its because of that, that I was taking a train back home today. My ugly meeting stretched and I missed all my shuttle options. In a way I was happy to be on the train with real people and real emotions. I sometimes hear myself in these meetings and wonder where this person came from. Fearless like a warrior, I use words like swords. Knowing that I can count on them. I pick the right ones depending on my opponent. I wonder if it is even me in those moments or a projection of what I could be.
While all these thoughts were clouding my mind I did not realize I had at some point made eye contact with the unkempt missy who now sat on the seat next to the door. I passed a smile, she did the same. I was surprised. I did not expect someone like her to be that courteous.
More passengers entered the compartment at the next stop and I could not keep the door to myself. I turned ninety degrees and was now facing the woman. While she was busy looking at other people enter, and passing scornful remarks at them, I saw her closely for the first time. Her eyes looked tired. The makeup was a pretense. Perhaps to make her look cheerful, or to hide the dark circles. “Who knows what her story is?”, I thought to myself. She did not look homeless. But she did not look very settled either. A quick glance at the bags she was carrying and you could tell she did not cook much. There were frozen dinners and some cans of beverages. There was also some candy and a can of minestrone soup. I wondered if she had come out to grab groceries and was on her way back home. I also wondered if she always ate frozen dinners. That could explain her size and dimensions. I wondered if she had any family.
After becoming increasingly conscious about judging her, I turned my attention to the warmth of my TNF jacket. It’s plush to me. I tried two other styles ever since I lost the original Windwall that I bought in Macy’s in New York many years ago. But none of them even came close to making me feel the same. I feel at home when I wear it. A different type of home. A home where my soul feels warm. Its the warmth you get when you are in your own skin.
As I looked up after adjusting my jacket that I was loosely carrying on my arm, I saw her looking straight at me. I gave a faint smile. She smiled too and then closed her eyes. As she closed her eyes tightly, I saw a few tears trickle down her cheeks. They made strange carvings through the cake of makeup on her face. She then corrected her posture, sat up straight and said to me, “It’s my bday tomorrow. I made it. I made another year you know.”
Nothing about this conversation startled me. I felt like this was a conversation I was meant to have and in fact one that I have been wanting to have. I wished her a very happy birthday in advance. She said thank you and added, “Maybe if the check comes in I will go see my daughter on Friday. I am celebrating though. I’ve been celebrating. I went shopping and got food.” I gave her a big smile and showed some excitement at the thought of her meeting her daughter. I added, ”It will all work out.” She again thanked me. And said, “Yes I hope it does.”
A few moments of silence passed between us and then she shook her head up and down in a resolute manner and smiled back at me. She looked beautiful. By now I had dropped all my prejudices and was sharing her happiness, however short lived it was.
For the next few seconds I observed her sheepishly as she attempted to summon enough courage to say something and then defeatedly looked down, and then her head would rise and I hoped she’d say something more, but she was hesitant and perhaps reflective. She was going through several resolves in her mind and it seemed that she wanted me to hear them out. But her desire to share wasn’t winning against her fear of laying her life out in front of a stranger. But she tried hard. Oh yes she did. Finally she found a few words to share. “I hope this year turns out good for everyone you know.”, she said beaming with new confidence. I showed her my crossed fingers and said, “I’m praying for you.”
I am praying for her? I must be out of my mind. I don’t know where those words came out of. Fact is I did not pray for my own year to be a good one for myself yet. I don’t pray for something or someone any more. Pray to whom? I have been unable to answer that question for last three years. I converse with some higher being. I don’t call it a prayer. Wary of having shared unintended thoughts with a stranger I covered up and said, “Our actions make up the year. We decide how the year turns out for us. Each of us.” She nodded and reached out to my hold my hand, the one I was resting my jacket on and said, “I will be good. I will be good this year.”
Shortly after, my stop arrived and I wished her a happy birthday and a happy new year and we parted ways. I looked back at her after getting out of the train, her eyes were as moist as mine. She too was tracing me in the crowd.
I am not sure who she was and why our paths crossed. I don’t even know if I was myself or if I was projecting someone else in conversation with her. But I know it felt warm.