This afternoon, I met a woman named Yolanda.
The night before, I met a man named RJ.
And during the train ride home tonight, I met a cool girl named Lily.
Yolanda, in her mid-60's, was visiting New York on a lark to see a friend in Queens. She'd just come here three months ago for this same friend's wedding. She's grown up all her life in L.A. She prefers New York but doesn't want to move.
RJ, I think about 67 he told me, I wasn't quite sure because of his Indian accent. He had been here 7 years, it was an arranged marriage to an American-born Indian girl. He loves New York, America, and denies any sort of native Indian heritage, but his wife wants to see India and he doesn't even want to bother with a trip.
Lily, 19, not-native New Yorker, she moved here because she was in love with a guy. Now she's running.
Yolanda needed to charge her phone and I was minding the gate at the Delacorte in Central Park.
RJ saw me checking my subway map for fun on my phone at the Broadway Junction and needed to know if the J train went to Delancey.
Lily sat next to me on the train because I was the only one without headphones on and she needed to use my phone to call someone.
RJ hates his wife. Sometimes. He forgets things about her, things they talked about.
He says "it's because I didn't know them myself! I didn't hear it on a date, or discover it by accident."
They told each other as much as they could about themselves in the hours before consummating their marriage. It's like cramming for a test, you remember nothing.
He tells me it annoys him when he feels like he doesn't know her at all. I tell him that might be just what happens in every marriage, it may happen to you more frequently, though. Then there's moments where they'll remember they talked about this before, during that "cram session."
"It's the deja vu," he says, "But almost with a different person!"
"He's like a different person!" Lily tells me, after I finally get her to open up about why she had been crying, evident by her puffy eyes, and I could tell just by the way she was coughing.
Lily came to New York when she was just 18, didn't finish high school, didn't see the point. She'd found love, and in her mind that was way more important. His name's Rob, and he's "in between jobs" and he sometimes "drinks a bit."
Then 'a bit' turns into 'a lot.' Then 'a lot' turns into 'also with some drugs.'
Lily didn't even know what the drugs were, she just knew she didn't like them when she tried them.
"Only once, though. I swear to Jesus, I only tried them once!"
"Did he hit you?" I ask rather tentatively.
She doesn't answer. Her silence suffices.
"Just once, just once before I die," is how Yolanda qualifies her desire to see Asia before she dies. She's never been. It's the only continent she's never been to.
"Except Antarctica, you know...Ice."
No desire to meet the penguins? I ask her.
"They're just birds. You've seen one, you've seen them all."
It's a remarkably dismissive statement for a woman who not five minutes before was telling me the importance of seeing the world, the merit of my recent move to New York from San Diego, and the beauty and wonders Europe has to offer.
But "What do I say?" she says. "I hate birds."
Yolanda, like I said, is a woman from Ecuador. But that's not completely accurate. We trade full ethnicities. I don't reveal my adoption, but I tell her my mom's full Filipino, with some Chinese, some Spanish in there. My dad's from Malaysia by way of Singapore, and a lot of Scottish and the British Empire in him. She was born of the islands: one grandparent from each: Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and Hawaii. Her English is good, but she stumbles a bit as she muses:
"I am all of these, and nothing of these at the same time."
She talks about how her heart belongs to Ecuador, though she was told it belonged to one of these four places all throughout the intersection of her life with her grandparents.
RJ keeps asking me about my girlfriend. At first, I don't tell him much, but the more he opens up about his marriage, I open up about her. We're far apart, this long-distance relationship gets strenuous sometimes. It's complicated, and yet with her it's not. It's very simple. We just understand each other.
Despite somewhat of a language barrier (he tells me I talk fast) he says we're really similar. It's a weird sort of parallel. He says he feels far away from his wife sometimes, but for whatever reason, they do just understand each other. He says it's complicated for him because he tries to resist it. He can't believe the possibility he's in love with this woman. I say that it's kind of the same thing for me, in that I resisted for a bit from falling for this girl, only because I was leaving soon, I didn't know what that was going to do, and I didn't know what was going to happen.
I feel like he's starting to believe in the idea that no love is perfect, we all struggle.
I feel compelled to say this to Lily, though I know her situation is far and away something different. She needs to move, she needs to be free. She's finally realizing that. She was supposed to come home to "their" place tonight (although, she tells me, he never let her actually move in. He helped her find a place to live in Harlem, but he didn't want her to feel "trapped", ironically enough).
She was riding the train, then hopped on a different train, then stood around Columbus Circle for an hour, before happening upon my train, where she happened to get on my cart, and I just happened to be slow putting in my headphones.
I was taken aback by her simultaneous frankness and guardedness. Like talking about my girlfriend with RJ, Lily doesn't want to explain everything at first, but she up front tells me her name, and that she's having one of the craziest nights of her life. But I tell her I can see she's been crying and she immediately cuts back, "I was not crying. ...Pollen."
But she soon tells me, walking around the Circle, she realized she feels trapped. And it's her own fault.
I tell her it's not. It's his. People are capable of doing unspeakably horrible things to each other.
Yolanda would agree with me. She doesn't want to get too much into it, but she keeps checking her charging phone. I never feel like she's disengaged from our conversation, she keeps up the back-and-forth between us, but I can tell there's something important on her phone. She's checking in with her son, who's watching her mother at the hospital. He insisted she go on vacation, but her mother took a turn for the worse and Yolanda is the executor. But her brothers, who are there at the hospital, want to pull the plug. They're trying to convince Yolanda's son, to convince her.
It all feels really horrific to me, even in just the sparse details she explains to me, but she seems rather calm about it.
"They were always bitter, growing up too. I can't believe they act so much out of hate."
I can't believe it either.
Lily is calling her estranged father, who lives in Jersey. She has just one friend, an acquaintance really, in Brooklyn, so she'll spend the night there, but she wants to see her dad, make amends, and is hoping to stay with him.
"I just...I just know you can protect me."
I look at Lily at that moment (I don't like watching people on the phone, it feels too private) and I see a flash of what Lily might have looked like, at half her age. A scared little child, simply asking for her father.
RJ gets a call from his wife while he's on the platform with me.
He laughs, because he expects it's because she's come up with a new, compelling argument for why they need to go to India.
What he confesses to me, what he never told his wife, is that before he moved, he was studying to be a lawyer in India. "She cannot win no matter what rhetoric she uses!"
It sounds manipulative, but he says it with this odd affection. I see his eyes light up for a moment when he answers the phone. And I imagine that I see a flash of RJ on his wedding day, the first time he got to see his wife, the woman he was going to spend the rest of his life with, and I imagine that she is beautiful, and despite not knowing her before, I imagine that same light illuminates behind his eyes as he takes her in for the first time.
And he laughs, and I can hear her laugh a little.
He answers her patiently.
It ends with, "I will see you soon."
As does Yolanda's text message to her son. "Tell her, 'I will see her soon.'"
As does Lily's phone reunion with her father, who tells her, "I will see you soon."
RJ, the reluctant romantic, gives me a strong handshake and a genuine smile before he heads down the platform.
Yolanda, the world traveler, gives me her number and says, "Call me when you are in LA. I will have a place for you to stay. Don't go back to San Diego. Don't ever look back." She collects her stuff, hugs me, and walks off into the Park.
Lily, the enlightened runaway, tired but relieved, returns my phone. We sit in silence all the way to my stop. I stand as the train slows, and just before it stops, she stands and hugs me. It is a deliberate hug, as if she debated to herself whether to hug this stranger. She can't look at me, save for a moment, in which I smile at her, and she manages a smile, and I try to sum up every possible important thing I could say to her in that moment with a simple and sincere, "Good luck," the voice of Yolanda echoing in my head to never look back. I stay and watch the train roll off into the night.
Sometimes, I stop and wonder what purpose crying serves, other than sadness, but it is for moments like this, standing on that platform, a cool breeze blowing through the greatest city in the world.