It rained that morning. Not a soft, raindrop by raindrop, rain. But rather a windy, more sideways than vertical rain.
That was an important fact, worthy of note, because it made Martin step inside the waiting room in the old brick train station. Most days, he got there just minutes before the 7:10 train arrived. Enough time to situate himself on the platform and be one of anywhere from 20 to 30 passengers peering down the track to where the headlights of an incoming train would soon show up.
Today he went inside the old station building’s waiting room to escape the rain. It wasn’t jam-packed, but most of the would-be passengers were in there. A plethora of soggy umbrellas and humidity drifting in every time the door opened made the room feel more crowded. Martin debated whether to wend his way over the one of the few empty seats or just stay standing near the exit door. Given that the train should soon be here, he chose the latter.
Standing in a waiting room with strangers is unsettling. Because what to do with your hands? Where to look?
Martin was still fairly new to this whole commuter game. It was early fall and only about a month earlier that he’d started taking the train into the city each morning to his new job. Then back home each evening. It was a new phase in is life of 30-something years.
A woman standing near him was deep into reading her newspaper. Even though every person walking by bumped the paper and most likely made her lose her place on the page.
A man standing on the other side carefully held his briefcase in one hand, while busily checking something important on his phone with the other. Though it didn’t seem that he was all that skilled at holding the phone and typing with the same hand.
Martin couldn’t help but look around the room. The variety of people catching the train from here to go downtown every day fascinated him. Maybe because the crowd seemed much more diverse than he’d imagined before he started commuting. Not just the business types he’d expected. And as many women as men.
There was even a mother with a couple of kids.
He was jolted out of his daydreams when people around him all of a sudden stopped whatever they were doing and shuffled out the door to the platform. Into the drifting rain. Apparently the train was fast approaching.
As Martin turned to follow, he noticed a woman, sitting on a bench halfway across the room. She looked up from the book she was reading. He noted her expression on her face of realizing that the train was here. Quickly she threw her things into a backpack. Next thing she was rushing towards the door.
Martin went to follow, when he saw she’d left her umbrella behind. At least he assumed it was hers. Anyone who’d been sitting near her was already gone.
He started to call out after her, but she was already out in the rain. He saw the train now stopped at the platform. Without further thinking, he stepped over to the umbrella on the bench and picked it up. Then hurried out the door.
Most people had already boarded the train. He caught a glimpse of the woman about to enter the next train car over and pushed his way toward her.
“Miss,” he called out. “You forgot your umbrella.”
She was already in the doorway of the train car as she turned around. He waved the umbrella at her. She automatically stepped back onto the platform. A couple suits with briefcases came hurrying to board the train car and he could just manage reaching the umbrella to her over the shoulder of one of them.
She took the umbrella.
“Thank you!” He more read it on her lips than actually heard the words.
Then she was being pushed onto the train by impatient commuters. From somewhere along the train a whistle blew.
If there ever was a moment of connection, it was over now.
Martin was the last to get on, just as the doors closed. He found himself crammed in with several other people in the vestibule while the train headed towards downtown.
The next morning he was at the train station just a few minutes early. For no reason. Well, maybe he wanted to see if the woman with the umbrella would be there again. It wasn’t raining today. Rather a spectacular autumn day with leaves virtually glowing with an array of reds and yellows.
He scanned the people standing on the platform. Didn’t see her. Of course he wasn’t entirely sure he’d even recognize her. Everything had gone so fast yesterday. Then a quick look into the waiting room. No one in there, except a mom with a couple kids. Did she really travel downtown with her kids every day?
He went back outside.
The train came in and everyone boarded. Martin waited until the whistle blew before getting on himself. Didn’t see her anywhere.
It wasn’t until about a week later that one morning, while standing on the platform, as the train was coming in, he saw her again. There was no doubt. It was her. The same curly, long golden brown hair. It was another sunny fall day. No umbrella today.
She stood maybe 50 feet away, focused at her phone. Then she looked up and he realized she saw him look at her. He smiled a bit awkwardly. She flashed a smile and went back to her phone.
The train was in now and everyone boarding.
The next time he saw her, was on the train. He got to the station at the very last minute that morning. Ran to the nearest open door on the train that was already at the platform. Even so, he managed to find an empty seat and dropped into it.
As the train rolled out from the station, he looked up. A sea of early morning faces. Some nodding off. Most reading a paper or studying their phones. And there among them all, she was. Definitely her. Several rows away and across the aisle.
He tried not to stare. Even so, the woman sitting just across the aisle, glared at him.
“What are you staring at?” she barked.
He looked away. Out the window on his side at suburbs passing by.
Later when he dared to look back into the train car, he caught a glimpse of umbrella woman looking in his direction from across the seat rows. She smiled and didn’t look away.
Getting off the train at the downtown terminal, he waited at the end of the platform, where it connected with the concourse. Maybe he’d see her again. Umbrella woman. He didn’t know how else to think of her. After all, the only words ever spoken between them were: “Miss, you forgot your umbrella.” And “Thanks.”
Not much for getting to know each other.
He saw her briefly as she came along, walking together with a man and a woman. They were engaged in an animated conversation. Suddenly he realized he knew nothing about her. She could be married with children for all he knew.
The next couple weeks, Martin made sure to get to the station right before the train was due. Didn’t want to hang around and didn’t go into the waiting room. Not even on the cold, windy and rainy mornings that there were plenty of that fall.
He kept that up until it got really cold. This morning it was sleeting. Horizontal sleet. No matter how much he’d intended to wait outside, he still ended up inside the waiting room. Especially as the train was running late today.
Once again standing against the wall, near the exit door. Looking out over a very filled waiting room. Thanks to all the people in there, dressed for chilly commutes, and wet weather, the indoors was hot, stifling and muggy.
With all the people in there, he couldn’t even really look around the room and see if She was here. Besides it had been long enough now that most likely he wouldn’t even recognize her, all bundled up for winter. There were certainly plenty enough hats, scarves and heavy down coats in here today.
Then he saw her across the crowded room. Just a glimpse of her face. She sat on a bench, squeezed in between other travelers.
Without thinking, he started to move forward towards her. At that moment, the collective migration out to the platform started. Because the train was here. Moment lost. He couldn’t get across to her now.
Instead he was being shuffled outside. It was only by the door on the train that he managed to step to the side for a minute and look back at the crowd. Didn’t see her.
He boarded as the last person and the train left the station.
Another several days went by. Martin had now started to show up a few minutes early again, without being entirely sure why. Maybe mostly because one morning he cut it so close, he came onto the platform only to see the red tail lights of the departing train already well down the track.
His boss had not been amused when he finally turned up for work over an hour late.
This morning he was outside, stomping his feet in the snow on the platform. It was cold. But fresh. And sunny. Really nice after several days of freezing drizzle.
The train came in and he looked around as it stopped. There she was. Further down the platform, just out from the waiting room. He hadn’t realized he’d stomped his way well down the platform while waiting. Now he was already walking towards her before his mind formed any clear thoughts.
She was about to get on the train when he got closer.
“Hello,” he blurted out. Not the greatest opening line of all time. He felt instantly stupid.
She looked at him.
“Hello yourself.” She smiled.
The doorway of a commuter train with passengers eager to board is no place for a conversation. Except maybe in some romantic movie. But this wasn’t one of those.
She had to keep moving and the moment, such as it was, was gone.
He managed to push his way on. Didn’t immediately see her in the crowded vestibule. He turned his attention to the seating area. Spotted two empty seats several rows into the car. One on each side of the aisle. He quickly made his way over there and dropped his bag down onto one seat. Then he looked back in the direction he’d come and saw her by the door to the vestibule. He gestured at the empty seat across the aisle, just as a business type with briefcase and mobile phone attached to his hand tried to sit down in the still empty seat.
“That seat is taken.” Martin was surprised at his own words. So apparently was the business man, who glared at him, but did move on.
Then she was there. She slid into the seat and he sat down on his side. The train was already up to full speed, heading towards downtown.
“Thank you,” she said. “That was nice. Thought I’d be standing all the way downtown.”
“You’re welcome.” He looked at her and smiled, totally not sure what to say next. She returned the smile.
“I’ve seen you at the station, off and on.” Another stupid opening line. Where did they all come from? He could kick himself.
“And you actually smile occasionally.” She looked at him across the aisle.
He looked around quickly. Everyone else in the full train car seemed thoroughly engrossed in their papers, books or phones. Not a single smile.
“Yes, that.” He wasn’t sure to to continue. “Not trying to be weird or anything.”
“Human maybe? A smile is a good thing.” She was smiling now. “Anyway, you rescued my umbrella that one time.”
Wow, she remembered.
“Yes.” He paused, not knowing what to say next. The image of her walking out of the station downtown together with those other people flashed before him.
She started to pull a book out of her backpack.
“I should introduce myself properly,” he finally said. “I’m Martin.”
She looked up at him, letting the still closed book rest in her lap.
“Hello, Martin. I’m Sandra. So what brings you downtown every day?”