Locking eyes with an attractive stranger is a regular occurrence on New York City public transit. In a city with a population of over eight million and out-of-state commuters adding around 600,000 more people to the MTA’s already congested tunnels, the odds of finding an attractive face in the commuting crowd are pretty good. When I began working in the city five days a week, I discovered that fleeting feeling of serendipity came every day with certain strangers, the people I saw on my daily commute. I couldn’t help but create imaginary relationships with these beautiful straphangers. These visions would only last until I got off at my train stop — until the day I actually spoke to one.
My Commute Boyfriend was a tall, lanky guy with dark, wispy hair and tattoos that looked like pen and ink drawings. I had noticed him getting off at the same stop as me for awhile, but had never made an effort to interact. I would see him walking around the neighborhood during lunch and I’d try hard not to stare. The whole thing felt super stalker-ish, but I couldn’t help it. What if this was the beginning of our very own Nora Ephron love story? What if we were meant to be, goddammit?!
Each night, my Commute Boyfriend and I would end up on the same subway headed into Manhattan. I would read, occasionally glancing up to make eye contact with him. He would smile, and I would hide behind my book like an idiot. At the time, my commute took me up to 14th Street, while he would get off at Delancey/Essex.
Finally, on one of these nights after work, we locked eyes as I strolled down the platform. He smiled and we kept staring back at each other down the platform as we waited for the train to come. He started making his way toward me, slowly, as if he were pretending to just be passing the time. As I felt the wind pick up from the oncoming train, he stopped one pillar ahead of me on the platform. Before I knew it, we were standing across from each other in the subway car.
I sheepishly smiled, while he half-laughed. I cleared my throat and asked if he was following me, to which he replied, “I should ask you the same thing.” I immediately regretted saying anything. Oh God, I thought. Is it really hot in here or is it just me? Why am I sweating? Does he have an accent? He definitely does. Fantastic.
He came over to my side of the train and introduced himself. Josh was a South African artist working in a studio down the street from my office. I listened contently as I attempted not to stare, completely dumfounded as to how I should proceed in this interaction. He bypassed Delancey/Essex, his normal stop, and he told me he was meeting friends in Williamsburg. I told him I was getting off at 14th Street.
He followed me off the car and down onto the L train platform, where we said goodbye with a half-hug as crowds of people bumped into us in their rush to get onto the subway. He kissed my cheek, catching me by complete surprise — it was one of those cheek kisses that was a little too forceful to have been just a European (or, in this case, South African) goodbye, He told me he’d see me around, got onto the train, and I headed up the stairs and onto the PATH train headed to New Jersey. And that was that. No phone number exchange, no invitation to grab drinks. After such a suspenseful buildup, all I got was just an awkward exchange that boiled down to, “See you around.”
In the following weeks, my morning routine unexpectedly changed. My train started getting delayed pretty consistently, leaving me to catch a later subway ride than usual. Commute Boyfriend had all but disappeared into the dense subway station air. I started taking these later trains in the morning, and even later ones at night. I no longer saw him walking around for lunch, tattoos slightly peeking out from under his rolled sleeves.
During those later commutes, I started to feel something building in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t tell: Was it disappointment over finally talking to him and having it be not only underwhelming, but also unremarkable, and with an added awkward goodbye? Or was it over having finally lifted the curtain of mystery only to have him disappear a short time later?
I had finally broken the fourth wall between myself and my Commute Boyfriend, only to have a lackluster experience. The problem was, Josh was now a tangible person — a prospective suitor with potential and a name — and not just a wonderful idea that made my mornings spent on public transit a little easier to get through. Maybe Commute Significant Others are better left to the stuff of loaded glances from between packed bodies on subway cars. Maybe this time, it wasn’t actually better to have Commute crushed and lost, than to have never Commute crushed at all.