Waiting for Subways

October 26, 2023

Graphic by Vivian Montoya 

When I was younger, I could never time my sleeping correctly on planes. Especially on 24-hour journeys to India, I would be awake and asleep at all the wrong times. I would miss the meal and my brother would steal my dessert. I would wake up randomly when the flight attendants had dimmed the lights and knocked everyone else out with sheer will.

I would sit, awake, at first excited to watch movies by myself. My mother couldn’t give me a weird look about the kissing scenes scrolling across the screen beside hers. My family would be knocked out, peacefully, and for the first hour I would relax.

But soon, I would grow antsy with boredom and too much time alone with my thoughts. At just 10, I knew a bit too much about myself. After obsessing over enough fictional characters, I was prone to introspection.

On a plane, surrounded by those closest to me in the world and a hundred strangers, I felt lonelier than I thought a small child ever could. My attempts to fall back to sleep failed. For the first time, here, I found a liminal space — an in-between moment I would come to despise.

On the short train from London to Oxford this past summer, following the much longer Eurostar from Paris back to England, I couldn’t sleep.

I rested my head against the streaky open windows and watched the city roll into a deathly green countryside. My phone was off, to conserve battery, and the copy of Wuthering Heights in my bag seemed more like a threat than a distraction from my wandering mind.

I’d spent the last few weeks at Oxford on the green lawn, always moving to lay where the sun touched the grass with new friends. We’d finish reading for class or toss around a frisbee, and I would dirty my long, white skirt with grass stains either way.

I was studying French in school, and had been doing well on paper, despite knowing nearly nothing when it came to comprehension. Two months of summer had also destroyed my memory of the vocabulary. Paris, before I visited, was my dream city. But the things I’d liked best in Paris had been far from Parisian: the mango gelato near Le Marais and Thai food when we couldn’t take flavorless food any longer. Tourists and vaguely racist Parisians had turned me off to their city. I wasn’t sure I would be back.

When I was younger, I often found myself on Zillow. At 12, I’d look up brownstones in New York or apartments in Paris, jobs as a reporter in a small Oregon town or a professor at a liberal arts college on the West Coast. I’d imagine myself in each of these places and picture: who would I live with? Would I find a lover? Would I wake up early or sleep in late? Drink coffee or matcha?

When I visited these places, though, I decided whether I liked or disliked a city based on how it fit with me, how I envisioned my future life there. The places I visited were defined by a few salient moments of a short trip: India, Singapore, and Bali; Arizona, New Mexico, and Washington D.C.; London, Paris, and Edinburgh. In my visions of these cities, I was different; I was more fashionable, had a better taste in music, and somehow was always hosting dinner parties. So when I went places, naturally, I was disappointed.

At Oxford, however, I couldn’t envision. I would wake up for 8 a.m. breakfast and class, but fall right asleep after. I almost never got the reading done on time or visited all the coffee shops in the city. I said slippery, sarcastic things to people I really liked and argued about politics because I didn’t want to talk about politics. I hated the rain despite the beautiful atmosphere it lent the campus. My month in Oxford wasn’t the life I’d envisioned for myself, and I wasn’t any better because I’d run away from my failing friendships and difficult life. It was, and always will be, myself narrating every mistake in my life.

This time, I was waiting to get off an empty train. As the last rays of sunshine came through the massive windows, I hated to think that the problem lay within myself — my lifestyle, my argumentative tone, and my mind. Oxford was the last stop — still a long way to go, and a lot of time to think.

When I came back to Austin for school, a few days in Dallas packing, I planned to be alone for some time in my apartment.

My mom drove me and would move me in, but my roommates wouldn’t arrive for a few days. We sat in comfortable silence for the three-hour drive while I worried about being alone for the first time in a long while. I stared out at the busy I-35, full of students who turned into the campus at the same time as us.

Graphic by Vivian Montoya

I had been ready to journey by myself over the summer, to dodge creepy men and drink responsibly, but I wasn’t ready to go back to a reality where everything I did mattered. I thought of all the texts I had ignored and the brush-off replies I had sent when asked for updates. I thought of how I believed that  the bridges I was burning did matter. They would matter this year. When the bottom dropped out from under my feet, which it inevitably would, and my mother wouldn’t answer the phone to hear about my life, I wouldn’t have anything or anyone. At least my summer of glamor, or travel, wasn’t over yet, I thought as we moved the last of my things into my new apartment. I would go to New York to spend a weekend with cousins. Maybe there I could start anew.

As I descended the steps at the Port Authority Bus Stop on Labor Day in New York, I watched the E Train to JFK pull away and leave me behind, just seconds before I reached the platform.

Earlier that morning, I had woken up hot and sweaty in a noisy Midtown apartment. Somehow, my body was wrecked: three days of partying and good food and nothing else except hangover cures, clubs, and that’s all.

So I took a seat, the only open spot left because on it was an empty seltzer can and some kind of battery pack — remnants of the weekend past. The Sunday scaries transferred to Monday. Careful to not catch the scent of alcohol at 9 a.m., I leaned forward to not place pressure on my faulty knee, which had stiffened and failed me earlier on my way down to the subways.

I had no cell service and no book to occupy me. It was just myself and the other weekend visitors waiting for something to take us away, back to reality. This was yet another liminal space, disconnected in the scary way that travel can feel from daily life.

After experiencing a city vibrating at a frequency that felt out of my grasp — only until the music was just right and I wasn’t worried about how I looked while dancing — it felt wrong to sit here and do nothing. Just sit here and wait for the subway. In my headphones, tinny over the roaring trains, was the album I’d downloaded before I left Austin: Norman Fucking Rockwell! In “Fuck it I love you,” Lana del Rey sings “Everywhere you go you take yourself That’s not a lie.”

I’ve been waiting for subways my entire life to transport me to places, in hopes that they’ll change me — make me an earlier riser, make me casually kind, make me live the life I’d always dreamed of. But each time I visited a new city, I returned home the same person I was before. I still got into arguments with my friends. I still worried my mother.

Days of travel are always intense. Something lingers in the air. I expect a city to change my being, like how drinking alcohol makes me more outgoing and giggly. That never comes, and these moments of waiting for buses, trains, or airplanes after traveling are the difficult comedowns of remembering all the embarrassing moments that I found funny earlier.

I’d just lived three days of straight partying — three days of a thrilling life that wasn’t my own. I was still returning the same. I inspected everything I’d done in the last few days, remembering bar hopping when a Drake song ended and fitting six people around a table meant for two at a Schezuan restaurant. Now, I’m returning home to friends who need maintenance, unfinished assignments, and my unkempt apartment. Nothing new. Nothing has changed.

Graphic by Vivian Montoya

I’ve been waiting for subways my whole life. But if they don’t come, when they don’t come, what am I left with — who am I left with?

For a long time, I’d taken subways, Ubers, planes, trains, and buses as protection from myself, to escape the consequences of a life I’d made for myself. I will probably continue to do this. The only epiphany I’ve had during my recent travels  is that I’m not happy with who I am — who I still am.

Perhaps it’s time to stick to one place. Perhaps it’s time to grow roots branching from a still-growing, still in movement version of myself — because that’s OK. If I keep getting on these subways, keep waiting for just the right stop to come, it never will. The possibilities of where I can go, who I can become are too infinite, too endless. I’m not sure what I want. Perhaps it’s time to press the button, get off at the next stop, and walk home. ■

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