Ariane de Gennaro
Today I sat opposite to the direction of the train. Oddly enough, I’m glad I did. And I’m not just saying that to be different. People tend to prefer the front-facing seats, which are usually all occupied by the time I reach the station. I get it. A lot of people complain that it’s nauseating to be thrust backward. Most tend to avoid the disorienting sensation of not knowing what comes next.
But from where I’m sitting, I see things differently. All the passengers face me, so I have the delight of observing them.
As I tilt my head onto the red pleather headrest, I scan my surroundings. The tracks clang with a somewhat predictable wobble. A little girl to my left learns how to count from a high pitched Spanish cartoon. It looks like she’s fighting the urge to nod off onto her mother’s shoulder. I rub my own eyes, sharing her fatigue.
I notice two women in tortoiseshell glasses engaged in a lively conversation, visibly repressing their laughter. I assume they’re old friends. Next to them, a couple makes plans to grab Ethiopian food for dinner. I assume they’re in love. Here and there, a monotone recording cuts through the noise to announce the stop we’re approaching over the loudspeaker.
Every song on the radio pales in comparison to the music of Metro North on a Sunday evening. The trending titles on Netflix can’t hold a candle to people watching. I can fill in the gaps about everyone around me until I’ve lost myself in their imaginary lives. I could have just as easily plugged my ears and listened to an indie playlist or watched a cinematic coming-of-age film, but the rhythm of reality is what really captivates me.
The little girl nestling into her mother’s lap. The two women sharing inside jokes. The couple holding hands and making plans. I see echoes of my own family and friends at home who don’t carry over into college life. On this train, I am everywhere and nowhere, speeding through the liminal space between my two homes.
Before college, things were stable yet uncertain. I devoted myself to my school’s literary magazine during free periods. I shared cinnamon sugar pretzels and boba with my friends at the mall. I’d spend the evenings with my parents, heating up microwave pizza and curling up on the couch with a cat on my lap.
Most days were the same, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that my life was headed toward some unknown destination. Despite this, my peers and I felt pressure to curate our extracurriculars so they implied exceptional career paths and to apply early — strategically — to a school that might be the “right fit” even if we weren’t sure. I could not have even conceived of where I’d be going to college or what it would be like. When I heard back from Yale, I felt like I finally had some sense of what was on the horizon.
My first semester lived up to the name. Recently, I found a detailed list of “firsts” I recorded until mid-October. Reading it back, I remember how my life was constantly fluctuating between the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The first time I spent 5 hours straight in a library resulted in the first A+ I got for a paper. The first college birthday party I attended was immediately followed by my first heartbreak.
I reverted back to not knowing what would come next. But somehow, everyone around me seemed to. They looked forward to pre-professional career paths and selective summer internships. All I could do was try to stay grounded as I braced for the exhilarating and emotional journey ahead of me.
In an effort to rekindle the stability of my childhood, I spent winter break at home. Nothing feels complicated when you’re watching a Knives Out movie marathon with your parents. There is beauty in talking to your kindergarten best friend about rooming together postgrad. I almost missed the train for a reason. After settling back into my home routine, I wanted to feel okay not having figured everything out. I knew that when I arrived at Yale, I’d immediately feel alone in my unsureness.
On the trip back, I made the definitive choice to sit with my back against forward motion. But really, it’s because I feel out of control in the grand scheme of things. So I spent my trip repressing my fears about the future, and instead I constructed imaginary lives for passengers I’m facing. And I notice that, even though we’re all moving in the same direction, they’re looking forward, and I’m not.