I had forgotten I ever lived in the city proper until I remembered you.
And when I did, I wondered if I would recognize you if I ever saw you on the street. I probably wouldn’t, but I remembered your hair and beard weren’t quite red, but tinged with it, and I think you wore glasses because I remember you had this intellectual look to you, like when I’d try to guess what you did for a living, watching to see where you went every day after you got off the bus, I’d always add academic to the list because you looked nerdy in a good way. But I don’t think I’d be able to pick you out from anyone else meeting that description.
The thing is I don’t even recognize myself these days, or rather who I was back then. Those six months I lived off of 18th street seem like they belong to someone else’s life, not my own like they’re part of a story I just know in detail. Like how I moved out after arguing with my mom, how I was constantly worried about money living on my first ever salary, trying to stretch everything I ate into multiple meals, even if it was just a pack of ramen noodles.
How I was convinced he’d break up with me any day after that move. Because I could tell he didn’t like making that drive, didn’t like the city, didn’t like my neighborhood after his car got dinged. It was just a matter of time before he’d decide he didn’t like me either.
So instead of exploring the city, which I didn’t have the money to really do anyway, I spent every weekend taking the train to and from the suburbs, sometimes coming back to my apartment just to shower and turn around, not even stopping to eat. I put all my energy into trying to make it work because at that time when everything felt terrifying and uncertain, on those days it felt like I had nothing, I had him. He was there for me even though I see now how that is way too much pressure to put on anyone, too much dependency, but I appreciated it, so much so that the appreciation turned into a loyalty I stuck around for after things stopped working.
Which is why I didn’t let myself make extended eye contact with you or smile, why I only stole the shortest of selfish glances to confirm what I could already feel like a sixth sense while staring down at my book. You were looking at me.
There were days you’d sit directly across from me, and those were the days it was hardest to pretend to be reading. Thank god I think I was in the middle of The Far Pavilions back then, and its thousand pages would have hidden the painfully obvious fact I wasn’t making any progress during my commute.
But despite all my bad acting, I started looking for you, however inconspicuous I tried to make it seem. I noticed when you were there, noticing me, and when you weren’t there at all. I wondered if you’d ever say anything to me, ever try to take the connection further than our noticeably regular eye contact in public. I was young enough back then to imagine you being forward enough to ask me out out of the blue like real life could be a 90’s rom-com.
But the only time I remember us speaking is the day you stopped me in between buses and I was shocked to see you there when I turned around, returning the umbrella I had left behind. I must have mumbled a thank you and scurried away. Because this was before improv, or sales, or talkative Uber drivers, before Uber even existed. Before I felt comfortable making small talk with strangers.
And you were never more than that to me – a stranger. A stranger who took the same bus I did and paid attention to me and had a kind face. You can tell a lot of things like that about people just by looking at them. I wonder what it was you saw in me. I wonder why you even looked in the first place – I mean I wore dress pants back then.
But I doubt you saw any of what was really going on with me. I’m sure I hid it well. I would have had to tell you. I would have had to open up, to confide in you. Which is why part of me was glad you never said anything to me. Because I would have mentioned him at the earliest possible opportunity as if to say – I can’t let you get to know me. I would have drawn an emotional line, but I never had to, and I enjoyed your attention for what it was. Because it feels good to be noticed, to be seen. It feels good to have someone catch your attention, that curiosity to wonder who someone is or where they are going.
And the funny thing is that none of it matters anymore. Not me, not you, not him, or any of the worries that I had back then. They belong to another time, to another me. I’ve gone through many me’s and many more worries. I live somewhere else now and don’t have to take a bus anymore, which means I’m much less nauseous every day. The book I’m reading now is only 600 pages, and sometimes I take myself out and eat enough food for two meals in one sitting just because I can. I’ve learned that all the loyalty in the world can’t stop you from falling out of love, and when everything feels terrifying and uncertain, for an entirely different set of reasons, I come to my mom with my most personal feelings, to a circle of people I trust and depend on, and to apartment that feels like home. Because love doesn’t live in one person or one relationship. It is in family, in friends, in me. It needs to be.
That’s ultimately what determines what matters at any given moment – our needs. Whether we get technical with Maslow’s hierarchy, arguing over where exactly on the pyramid sex belongs, or we quote the evergreen Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems”, the idea is the same – as our needs are met, our problems don’t disappear – they change. And what keeps you up one night, isn’t what keeps you up another.
Which is how I forgot an entire period of my life that once caused me distress – because it doesn’t matter anymore. But I remember you, after all this time, because what keeps me up these nights isn’t money or food or a support system, it’s the fact that I’d kill to have an interesting stranger to wonder about. To quote a really great Emma Stone Netflix monologue (the internet has changed a lot in a few years), “it’s really hard to just connect with someone.”