Half my suitcase catches in the wheezing doors of the metro. I panic and pull, while a bot-like female voice urges passengers to step back from the entrances to the trains. The red bulbs blinking adjacent to the tracks blur as I keep tugging. I recall a poster I had seen from the escalator that descended from Reagan National Airport to the station: a genderless figure was shown, body half in the car, half out. Caution: Don’t Hold Doors Open. Finally, a woman on the platform behind me wrenches the door ajar just enough for my bag (and her thin frame) to slip through, while my travel partner tugs at my wrist to ensure that my body is fully contained in the train readying to barrel through the dimmed tunnels.
The entire scenario took place in less than ten seconds. Maybe five; but by the time I turn to thank the woman who’d helped me, she had already settled at the back of the car on a faded orange seat and was trapped in conversation by a tourist in a “I <3 America” t-shirt.
“So which exit do I take to get to the Statue of Liberty?” the tourist asked with a thick Georgia drawl. She pointed to a map of the multicolored lines languidly sprawling out from the center dot. I couldn’t hear the woman’s response, so I substituted my own. Get off at the next stop and drive about four hours north.
These are typical conversations on the metro, one-sided and fragmented. Everything is blurred by the bustle and by the deafening sounds of trains on tracks, punctuated every few minutes with open doors and the hurried clacking of heels on cobblestone platforms. In such tight conditions, you’re simultaneously in dialogue with everyone and no one in particular, only able to hone in on small bits at a time:
“It’s a World War II miniseries about lost soldiers… We’ve approached Tom Hanks about it… I smell Emmy material…” says a small man with white hair and a bow tie too large for his neck.
“Babe, come on, you know I…. Don’t get up…” A teenager calls after his girlfriend. Moments ago they had been curled up in a single seat, but now she is unsteadily stomping towards an empty spot facing the door.
Bethesda, next stop Medical Center.
A man settles in front of me and is listening to music, but as soon as the train starts moving, he looks panicked and rips out his earbuds. He begins to dig through his suitcase, pulling out plastic baggies filled with phone parts– batteries, old antennas, chargers and wires. He is saying something, but all I can make out is: “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.”
Medical Center, next stop Grosvenor-Strathmore.
“How many more stops?” I ask.
Travel partner holds up two fingers.
A woman across from him in a flowing purple skirt and a faux-fur vest makes a peace sign in return.
Grosvenor-Strathmore, next stop White Flint.
“I’ve always been partial to Guillermo del Toro films, but this one felt too ‘Halloween,’ you know?” a young man in a woolly, tartan checked scarf. His seatmate, who is wearing the same scarf, is asleep, drooling against the window.
White Flint, next stop Twinbrook.
Two men in the next car are poised against the rear window, arms looped around poles to steady themselves, briefcase straps looped around their arms. I can’t fully make out their features, so it’s like watching their conversation in silhouette. They’re both heavy-set and gesticulate. I can’t tell if they are enthusiastic or aggressive.
Twinbrook, next stop Rockville.
I slide out of my seat and push past the small crowd of people thronging the door– the final scraps of incomplete conversation fading behind me.
This essay is nominated for The Flounce Non Fiction Writer’s Award 2015. Contest Rules.