(untitled, a short story)

When I was a kid, I used to look at the people passing me by on the street and imagine a story about their life. I would think about what it would be like if I was that person and if I’d be content with their way of life. As if I were in their shoes, I would wonder who I hang out with if I were them and what I’m thinking as I’m crossing the street across from some quiet observing child staring at me intently with wide eyes. I’d play the tape in my imagination for hours to pass time in public areas. When I went on walks near my house I explored the life of my neighbors that might as well been strangers. To avoid reminiscing on my own life absent of story-worthy moments, I spent time in coffee shops imagining the lives of the employees and the customers. The game would travel everywhere with me, from the bus to the airport to the screen in the living room at home. It was a neverending game and it would go something like this…

Waiting at a bus stop I see a man in his mid-30’s with a balding head and newly formed wrinkles towards his eye creases wearing a tidy salmon-colored dress shirt in corduroy pants. He carries a sophisticated metal pencil in his hand as he floats his hand across his notebook in effortless marks that appear as perfectly aligned 90 degree angles from my gaze. He must be an architect, I think. He seems knowledgeable. Smart. Put together. Architects are like that, aren’t they? My mind keeps wondering, but as the bus stop arrives my imagination halts as the need to follow the man arises.

Swiftly, the old man puts his notebook away so elegantly that he must have rehearsed this movement a thousand times over. No, he’s a designer. His sense of fashion is on par with the magazines I see at the local library. Then my mind wanders to books and the librarian. I can’t help but notice how short my attention span is sometimes. But then I hear a ringing and my mind is back to the man sitting two rows in front of me. Removing his phone from his pocket, he takes the call on a technological device I know all too well. It’s the newest iPhone and it’s in the Apple Silicone case. He must like technology like me, I think. 

“Hello, it’s Matthew”, he says. Maybe he’s talking with his partner, a boyfriend, or girlfriend, you never know these days. But instead, it’s just work calling. Apparently Amanda the new hiree requires some training and Matthew has volunteered to show her around. Kindness towards others is a nice trait to have, I note. Soon he’s speaking of computers and software and I think about whether I’ll be happy in his shoes, or rather, his sneakers. On his feet are a pair of Veja sneakers imported from France. Expensive taste, but materialistic. He must be unhappy. First off, would I be content if I were balding at such a young age? I don’t think so. Oh, and he’s on the phone too much. Why would he answer a work phone call? It’s Saturday! I think I would be better off if I were somebody else. 

And just like that, I move on to the next nearby stranger, an androgynous person wearing loose neutral clothing. I question their gender. Are they male? Female? Does it even matter? Then I see they are carrying a baby and my head goes for a spin. Why would you want children?! In your mid-twenties! Live your life, for God’s sake! Now I see a college student with over-ear headphones reading a seemingly scholarly book that must be Marx or something. How interesting! I wonder who Marx is.

With curiosity and naivete, I would continue to imagine the infinite possibilities of life for every person that passed through my line of sight. I could write essays on a person based solely on their shoe color. Years would pass. Years did pass. And just the other day on the crowded bus ride home, I was thrown off guard. When the train halted for a new load of passengers to board, I held my belongings tighter in my hands knowing that my stop was next. My gaze shifted toward the small wide-angled mirror on the side of the bus and I noticed a new silhouette of a person wearing a worn-out hazel-colored coat. The brown piece of cloth was weathered with time and memories. I could tell their life was an adventure. Their hair was neatly cut and patted down from wearing a hat of some sort, so I guessed they must’ve gotten it cut last week and worked as a chef, or maybe a psychologist. Although I could only see the back of their head through the mirror, I could tell they were contemplating something. The stranger was lost in a trance of thought. I bet they’re wondering about their family. No, their dog could be in the hospital. Or maybe it’s a patient they’re currently seeing.

Before I could make up my mind about what this new passenger of my imagination was thinking about, the train halted and it was time for me to head home. Nobody else looked like they were going to leave, so I felt like a sore thumb as I raised myself from the seat clumsily and raised my bag toward the front of the vehicle. I hoped to catch a glimpse of the stranger’s face so I could improve upon the narrative I planted in my head, but the seat was bare. I looked around and towards the mirror where I first spotted their figure but didn’t find them. It was saddening to realize that their story would no longer grow into a tree near the other lives of strangers I imagined. Instead, this intersection of neurons firing in my brain dedicated to them would cease and I would move on from another uneventful narrative.

Desperate to keep the story alive, I glanced up at the mirror one last time in search of the stranger and made a new connection to the empty seat that left me feeling disappointed. Confirming my suspicions, I looked back towards my seat and saw the person who I sat next to was in the mirror’s frame. Next to them was an empty seat, the same empty seat I was observing from a distance just moments ago. That day, I realized I was the stranger in the worn-out hazel coat. I had memories of my own and a family to share them with. My patients at the clinic relied on me to care for them and I relied on them to claim a sense of shared humanity amid the brokenness of this world. I left the bus with a more nuanced sense of awareness and with a story to tell about a stranger on a bus with a faded hazel coat.

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