I watch them part outside the BART station. The younger guy is middle-aged, dressed like an every-dad in a tech running shirt and sneakers. He hugs his father first. They hold onto each other for a long, long time. Then he turns to his mom and hugs her too, and then he waits on the curb as his parents roll their suitcases past the barrier and into the station. If this were a movie he would stand there for another minute, starting at where his parents used to be. But this is real life and so he gets back into his car, slams the door, and drives away.
Inside the station it smells like weed. I move farther down the platform and the smell seems to drift along with me, cloying. I wonder absently if second-hand weed works like second-hand smoke.
The train screams up to the yellow tiles. Probably not, I decide.
Inside the train, a stocky guy with a ponytail sits by the window. His wraparounds are glowing in the not-quite-setting sun, almost like he has fire for eyes. A plaid blanket stretches across the two-person seat. No one sits next to him. At the next stop, a group of three gets on–businesspeople, probably. Two men and a woman. They want to sit together but they don’t want to sit next to the guy by the window. It’s their only option, though, so one of the guys stutter-steps and hesitates and tries to make his attempt to sit down last until the the train reaches their destination. The woman sits down instead, smiles at the guy with fire for eyes; everyone laughs a little at the guy who hesitated.
I get off the train at a transfer station and a family asks me for directions to “the mall in San Francisco.” I tell them Powell–they want the Powell Street station.
Afterwards I check a map, hoping that I told them the right station. I did. It feels good.
Another train screams up to another set of yellow tiles and I get on. The sound of the wind rushing past the train’s smooth sides is pleasant white noise, and I’m spacing out when the doors to the next car open.
“I’m homeless with disabilities,” the guy announces to my car. His white hair makes him look like Santa Claus but he walks steadily through the swaying train. I keep my head down, staring intently at my lap. He passes me, but the family that asked me for directions gives him a few dollars. I bite my lip; he moves on to the next car. I wish that I’d given him something.
The train zips into a tunnel and I watch the lights on the wall flick past. I catch sight of my reflection in the window and we lock gazes. This face is mine forever, I think, and then the tunnel vanishes and the train is baptized with light for what must be the hundredth time that day. My reflection isn’t really mine forever after all.
When I get off the train for real, I curl up on a cement platform and wait for my ride.
I make up stories to pass the time. The straight-backed woman with the white hair is from the East Coast, maybe Massachusetts, and she’s just finished spending the holidays with her son and his wife and their two kids. The young blond woman with the tiny suitcase is here from L.A. to see her sister (a red car pulls up and there’s an excited blond reunion and a baby in the backseat and I decide that this story is probably at least a little bit true). The teenaged boy with the baseball cap and duffel bag is on his way to a Boy Scout trip. He turns back and bangs on the car door a couple of times until it opens; he pulls something out and then runs into the station. This is real life, and he’s late. His mom (or whoever’s driving, anyway) pulls back into traffic and soon the car disappears.
I’m still waiting for my ride as I watch the sun set. It’s unusually gorgeous and for as long as I can, I watch the bleeding sky darken. This is real life, I tell myself.