There are some people you can always spot in a crowd, even from a mile away...
Like a personal radar that goes off and draws you to them.
And there are others who blend in, masters of stealth, weaving in and out of the spotlight at their leisure with precision. Sometimes, on the oft-crowded subway carts of NYC I find myself connecting with strangers, pulled to them inexplicably before we are then lost to each other forever.
These moments, which I cherish deeply, are never really about an introduction or an interaction, but the magnetism of a single look, how it can be mutual and potent and yet still ephemeral; brief but not meaningless.
(It's the pulse of the city that lends itself to these kinds of encounters. There's the bittersweet gift embedded in it, appreciated best by the likes of any hopeless romantic, because what screams "fate" louder than a wordless exchange between a pair destined to (perhaps?) never cross paths again.)
For me, these moments always managed to transpire despite me bursting out into the world with my tools of Armour, otherwise known as A Woman's Guide to Ignoring Unwanted Attention 101. My best weapon? A playlist and a quality pair of headphones.
Headphones: the adversary of social interaction, often the greatest asset in subverting unsolicited conversation and attention in public.
Time and time again, I would find myself persuaded or compelled to abandon my first wall of protection and let somebody capture my focus, and pay them attention...
A Series of Five-Minute Love Stories:
I was waiting for the train one night, and while waiting on the platform I made eye contact with this guy. He smiled politely at me, which really just made me blush with embarrassment. Then he walked away and I turned up the music on my headphones.
I didn’t notice him sitting across from me when I boarded the plane and found myself standing, very tired. But he got up and let me have his seat. It wasn’t till I sat down, facing him now, that I realized it was the same guy.
As luck would have it, we exited the train at the same time, but he was in front of me and didn’t realize I was behind him until he held the door out of habit and saw me there. I smiled and walked to the bus stop. He walked across the street, going the other direction, but I saw him turn around to look back at me and watch me for all of three seconds before disappearing forever.
I should’ve waved.
She sat next to me on the train. It was starting to fill up; she wiggled over to make herself comfortable.
Her voice was raspy and soft, in the way that a lot of black New York lesbians sound. She was cute, with permed brown hair slicked in a back ponytail. I didn’t mind that our arms lightly grazed against each other.
Later, a woman came walking through the doors at the end of the train cart wielding a bag of free food for the homeless and hungry. When she had left, the girl beside me struck up a conversation about it. I took out my headphones to listen to what she had to say. I never do that for anybody.
We spoke casually about the pros and cons of the MTA and soon enough we arrived at Brooklyn Bridge. “This is my stop,” I said apologetically. We shook hands and exchanged names and wished each other a nice day. I’ll never see her again.
I like playing the eye contact game with men on the subway.
First of all, I think I have a “type”. The guy was cute. He had short, soft-looking curly hair and he was dressed in dark colors–a long-sleeved gray shirt, dark jeans, gray sneakers. Very inconspicuous. He stood out because he was reading, and his book, from the cover, seemed to be about something occult. “He’s one of those,” I mused. So I looked at his eyes. And then he noticed me staring. So I looked away shyly.
I noticed then that he was wearing crystals around his neck, and that made me even more drawn to him. I kept looking up at him, and there’s the trance of it: I look, he looks back, I look away.
I was with my friend, and so I used her as relief, laughing, and talking to her to distract myself. Performing for him, in a sense.
Halfway through the ride, he swapped the first book for a second one, and I was able to catch the title: “Origin of Inspiration”. I wanted to ask him what it was about. I wanted to. I thought about it. But that’s not really part of the game, is it?
And so it went on like that, neither one of us saying anything, and then his stop came and he took his skateboard (I only noticed it then) and got off. And that was all.
I was sitting on the train, alone in one of the two-seat chairs. Headphones on. He gets on at Franklin, maybe. Soft hair, glasses, holding a painting. I take a peak at the painting.
He doesn't see me at first. Gets on and stands in the middle of the cart holding one of the poles. I notice when he walks down and stands by the door near me. I notice again when he comes closer and holds the pole attached to where I'm sitting. This is when we make eye contact (the first time), which requires me to twist all the way to the right and look up.
Eventually, he turns to me--finally having worked up the nerve--and asks what I think of his painting. I'm used to the serendipity of artsy types. I adore artists. I smile. I tell him I like it. It's this black and white painting, mostly gray, with a purpley reddish center.
"is it finished?" It is, yes.
"I was gonna give it away originally," he tells me. "But I think that would ruin the meaning of it. So I'm gonna keep it so it stays like this." I understand not every piece can be for sale. For a split second, however, I almost thought he was going to give it to me. He then pulls out this coloring book of Van Gogh sketches. I love Van Gogh, but I don't say that. He shows me a page of flowers, another of a multicolored chair. I look on with awe and interest.
As the train pulls into Fulton, he asks if I was at the Brooklyn museum.
"No, why? What was over there?" A party, he tells me. He looks at me. I feel his eyes rolling over my figure, my outfit. Not quite undressing me, just drinking me in. "I'm headed to a party right now," I say.
"Where?" Delancey. On Ludlow. "I'm getting off at the next stop." The train is slowing down. I want to say more, almost. I want to stay on the train, ask him more questions. We haven't even exchanged names. But he's handsome. Gentle but bold, which is enough for me.
I pull out one of my business cards and hand it to him as we arrive at Brooklyn Bridge. He turns it over. "You're a poet," he remarks.
"I'm a writer." The door of the train cart opens. "It was nice to meet you," I whisper as I walk away. I have no way to guarantee if he'll call me. Or text me. Or send me an email...
(I hope he does, though. I hope he does.)
The Strength of a gaze
Often it only takes a look. Sometimes a shy grin, an invitation--but it begins always with that mischievously expectant glint. My eyes tell all: my fears, my desire, my secrets.
When I think of soulmates, I think mostly of the ease with which we fit into each other, and less of the way we meet. But eye contact is a language all its own, equipped with gravitational pull. To me, the potency of the gesture is the boldness of it, daring to match the gaze of a stranger, daring to lock eyes as you speak. When I do it, there's always this feeling of searching for something--an attraction? understanding? the truth--your truth?
When people look at me, I feel like they look into me, and I think in those gazes, for a split second, we glimpse the power behind the eyes and choose to harness it by mustering up the courage to introduce ourselves, by inching closer and striking conversation. The intention is never to lock our paths as intertwined, but to illuminate the path itself.
When I see you, I trust that you will see me too, and if we're lucky, we may share a moment. Five minutes or five seconds, we give something of ourselves to the other to keep; our departures are wholesome and fulfilled.