Twelve Stops on the Blue Line
Joe trudges up the stairs to the El platform, just as he does several times a week. Not sure why he is there or where he is going, his excursions usually include some time at a downtown Starbucks. His job lets him telecommute most of the time. So normal, for Joe, is a somewhat lonesome affair. And solitary rides, even in the midst of rush hour, on the Chicago Transit Authority, are his way of venturing out among the working masses. He rarely speaks to anyone, except on the phone. One day he had tried to start a conversation with the pretty girl in the seat next to him. She never even knew he spoke. After all, it’s hard to compete with iPod ear buds for attention. At this moment, Joe has no idea his life is about to make a major turn.
On the approaching train, sixth car from the front, rides Nicole. She occupies one of the side seats, one that lets the occupant see everyone who enters the car. She squeezes her pink suitcase between her knees to prevent it from rolling away as the train jerks to a stop. “This is Irving Park,” came the announcement. “Doors open on the left at Irving Park.” Nicole glances up from her iPad. Four people wait in a huddle on the other side of the closed door. I should go in to the office, but catching that early flight means no one even knows I’m back in town. Her stop, Washington, is just twelve stops away and she is already craving the down time with which her twenty-fifth floor studio apartment would welcome her. Down time.
Their eyes meet for a moment, the way it often happens as two commuters decide whether sharing a seat with the intruding stranger before them will be tolerable or worse. No one ever expects it to be pleasant. Nicole’s taut smile silently grants Joe permission to lower himself into the seat next to her, which he does while swinging his courier bag onto his lap. Comfortable fit. Nicole’s eyes refocus on her iPad. Joe’s are stealing admiring glances at the reflection of his seatmate, visible in the window straight ahead. “Addison is next. Doors open on the right at Addison.”
As the train pulls away from the Addison station, the muffled exterior sounds of the train’s wheels on the track break through with clarity for just a moment. A young man, in baggy, hip-hop garb, including the backward facing White Sox cap, makes his way into the car through the door at the end. The one the sign says not to open while the train is moving. No one really cares or notices as Hip-hop screws up the courage to commit his crime. “Belmont is next. Doors open on the left at Belmont.”
Hip-hop chooses his mark. There’s really only one. He positions himself near the door, arms length from Nicole’s iPad. “This is Belmont.” The doors open. With that, Hip-hop places a firm grasp on the iPad and gives it a yank on his way out the door. Instinctively, Joe gives chase. Nicole follows, screaming, “That’s my iPad!” But it proves unnecessary as within ten paces, Hip-hop runs into the clutches of two waiting Chicago police officers. Several similar crimes had been reported following the morning rush, so the cops were deployed in every station on the Blue line for the afternoon rush. The train remains parked at Belmont as the police sort out the circumstances. Ten minutes later, Nicole has her iPad, Hip-hop is under arrest and Joe is Nicole’s new best friend and hero. “Logan Square is next.”
By now, Joe and Nicole know each other’s names even though there have been no formal introductions. Joe extends his right hand and Nicole meets it with hers. He notices with approval the tattoo on her inside wrist. Words seem useless to both of them. Magic.
“Well, I think I should probably put this away.” Breaking the handshake, Nicole shoves her iPad into her large purse.
“You’re lucky you got it back.”
“I’m lucky you were sitting next to me. You’re my hero,” she teases.
Joe feels a warm blush surfacing as he become conscious of her Italian accent and her broad, genuine smile. “I guess we’re just lucky all around!” Is that your best line, Joe? She nods demurely, attempting to suppress the smile.
Even though time seems to be standing still, the train keeps moving. Their reverie is broken by the announcement, “This is California.”
Joe shudders. He realizes that this is a moment of consequence. These moments don’t come up that often. I go through most days, maybe most weeks and months, simply handling the routine. Whatever routine I have to go back to after today, I want her to be in it. He looks straight ahead at her reflection. “Western is next. Doors open on the right at Western.”
Her green eyes meet his reflected gaze in a hopeful connection. Ask me out! Ask for my number. Anything! She moves her thumb across her forehead to push a wayward wisp of hair away from her eyes. Does he even see me? “This is Damen. Doors open on the right at Damen.” Washington is now a mere five stops away.
Joe is giving himself a mental version of fifty lashes for his contribution to this awkward silence. Hip-hop showed more courage in stealing her iPad, for crying out loud. That was the moment that created this moment. Step up! “This is Division. Doors open on the right at Division.” Okay, here goes. Joe draws a breath.
Strains of electronic Moonlight Sonata interrupt him before he starts. Nicole reaches into her bag and pulls out her Blackberry to examine the display and then answers. “Hi, Alex.” Joe’s heart sinks. Of course she has a boyfriend. I mean, look at her. “Chicago Avenue is next. Doors open on the left at Chicago Avenue.”
“I have to tell you about my intense trip in from O’Hare. You won’t believe what happened.” She pauses. “Okay! It’s a date.” She presses a button and puts the phone back in her purse. The stops are closer together now. “This is Grand. Doors open on the left at Grand.”
Nicole speaks. “I am so grateful to have such a wonderful person in my life.” That’s why I have this tattoo. She holds it up. Joe reads the words to himself. Thank God.
Joe forces a smile. “I’m sure Alex feels the same way.”
“I hope so,” Nicole answers.
Joe is almost grateful for the announcement. “This is Clark and Lake. Doors open on the left at Clark and Lake.”
Nicole stands up, simultaneously pulling up on the handle of her suitcase. She smiles at Joe and mouths the words along with the announcement, “Washington is next. Doors open on the left at Washington.”
Sure enough, the doors did open. And Joe watched Nicole disappear onto the crowded platform. Go after her! “Doors are closing, doors are closing,” blares the conductor over the intercom.
Joe springs to his feet to reprise his earlier heroic moment way back at Belmont. Only this time, the doors close in his face. He clutches the pole near the door and hangs on for the next stop where he gets off. He can’t believe his lousy luck. Even though he knows the neighborhood, he wanders aimless and lost for the next hour.
He finally steps into Starbucks and is able to stake out an overstuffed leather chair in which to nurse both his dejection and his Grande Caramel Macchiato.
The Italian accent! Joe looked up to see two women greeting one another with hugs and cheek kisses. They were speaking Italian to each other. Nicole caught a glimpse of Joe and brought her friend over. “Alex, this is Joe, my new friend from the train. Joe, this is Alex, my best friend. May we pull up a chair?”
Lucky all around. Thank God.
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