She’s a shy student with messy brown hair. She’s layered. She has pale skinny legs under sheer black tights under short shorts under an oversized bomber jacket. Tight in certain places, loose in others. Her knees and toes point toward each other, her eyes droop and she frowns. She looks down.
She listens to music, her headphones the size of her head. She’s in her own world. I enter the train and sit directly across from her. I look at her, look for what seems like forever, sure that everyone except her is noticing. She finally glances up toward me, then darts her eyes away quickly.
I’m listening to music too, but I can’t tune her out. I keep looking. I look at her mousy face and her fidgety legs. She has pointy features and slender fingers. She holds herself up just barely with her thin hidden body. Her hair is in her face and she tries to move it, fails, sighs as if her whole life is an exasperation. She glances up quickly again.
How sad is she, exactly? Is it possible for her to be happy? Could she be happy with me? She can feel me looking at her, can’t she?
I want to stand up in the train and take that step up to her and look into her eyes and touch her chin and put my hands on her legs and kiss her in the corner of her mouth as our eyelids fall. I want to sit next to her and whisper into her ear there there. I wanted to hear her tell me anything, hear her voice, hold her, kiss her with tongues and play with her clothes and I wonder about the unbridgeable abyss between us.
She will vanish. One day, if not now. I can already feel her go.
I’m on the U8 from Kottbusser Tor to Alexanderplatz, still new to Berlin, feeling slow. I’m taking the UBahn from Kreuzberg to my Prenzlauer Berg, from one neighborhood to another, transient, moving. It’s Friday night, past 9pm and I’m running late. I’m going to meet someone I don’t really care about meeting. Making plans just to have them made — the business of the lonely.
The train reaches the main transfer station. I stand up to get off. She rises also. I let her out first and watch her walk ahead of me, watch her walk up the stairs, her hips swaying. I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. I turn toward the U2 line, trying to behave normally, to ignore her like she probably wants to be ignored — I can feel her saying no somehow. She turns too. She’s going my way and for a moment I feel something. Interest! Reciprocal desire! But just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.
There is a long corridor at Alexanderplatz — the Union Square of Berlin — and it seems like we will walk the length of it next to each other. I turn my head, make the effort to face her, wanting to say something to her, anything, but can’t do it, can’t interrupt her, speak over her music, mumble over her bewilderment, convey all these stupid feelings, be heard. It would come out wrong. It would be embarrassing, awkward. We’d be scratching our skin off, scratching chalkboards, too self-conscious for it to work.
She’s closed off, anyway. She gives me nothing. I pretend to be interested in everything else in the entire world. My music is talking to me: If you want me, then come on and break the door down. The wise advice of my future self. But instead: Normalcy! Politeness! Coward! My head. I swear I’ll explode. I leave her alone.
I veer left when she goes right, up opposite stairs to our same platform. Please let the train be arriving, let us separate, let her disappear completely. But no, the train is 10 minutes away and I panic. What to do for ten minutes?! I turn around and walk down the platform to where she is, lean on a pillar near where she leans. Let’s keep this going. Again, I’m watching.
She moves around, almost dances, dancing in self-conscious twirls around me. Please give me a sign, come this way, look up, look at me, smile, anything. Smile at me and make my day. All the conversation we could be having and me with nothing to say. Nine minutes of waiting. Eight. The countdown display mocking me. What can I do? I do nothing.
People wait restlessly. All the normal folks of the city, shuffling around, extras in my world. And then another significant player — another girl appears. New feelings! She’s more experienced, more posh, more worldly, with dark skin and clothing, put together nicely. She enters slowly, positions herself right at the pillar in front of me. She’s pretty.
But this new person doesn’t have the magic. She isn’t as elusive; I can’t shroud her in romantic mystery. She’s more typically attractive but less interesting. She looks at me. I can’t look back. I glance up and darte my eyes away quickly. I feel vulnerable, shameful, hyper-aware of my gaze, where my eyes face. I can feel my heart betray my crush for seconds at a time.
In a moment I’ve spent a lifetime with my new love — we hibernate in the approaching winter together, travel, learn about each other, listen to each other’s music, share our pain, and then maybe comes the fighting, and then cheating on her with this new girl, this safer, more stable person maybe, maybe crazy, maybe I’m the one who’s crazy.
Surely the girls become aware of each other, on their own or through me by proxy. The new girl can probably feel the energy, something percolating around her, unsure of what it is exactly, but surely something. I move around, go to stand somewhere else as if to stir the air, position myself in just the right way so that I can remain open, protected, interested, aloof, all things at once and nothing. Don’t mind me. The girls move too. The new one goes further away like she’s conceding space and the first one comes closer, takes over the space, reclaims my heart, my gaze. It is a dance and I am sober, anxious, paralyzed like a middle-school wallflower. I drown my self-doubt and fear in whatever song is playing in my ears. I’m not here. This isn’t happening.
The train finally comes. I hold back as everyone gets off. I wait more as the movie extras all board and then the leading ladies and finally me. My crush and I stand in the same doorway, in either corner, looking up, pretending still to be in our own worlds, each of us perhaps hoping that the illusion of obliviousness can be shattered.
The new girl sits. She entered from another door but ends up right next to us. There aren’t many people standing. Just the two of us, still dancing, and an old lady, placed there like in a movie: and so the other girl gets up to offer the lady her seat. Now it’s back to our triangle, standing, suspended in this drawn out drama of waiting. And then my crush, so coquettishly oblivious, leaves her corner of our door, shuffling her feet, moves to the center of the space between the doors, looks around ambivalently at nothing in particular, timid and bored and amusing. The corner next to me, now temporarily empty, gets filled, of course, by the other girl.
And then something happens. Action! My crush returns back into her corner, backward, unaware that her place has been filled. “Oh excuse me! I’m sorry!” She bumps into the other girl, the two colliding quite literally. They each excuse themselves, apologize, laugh at the clumsiness, at this awkward, obvious dance. What are the chances? And there I am, smiling. She takes off her large headphones, faces the other girl, and smiles. She’s open now. She stands there, waiting for a conversation or something, wonders if anything is coming. And the new girl wonders too, stands there, wonders if words will fill the air.
The most pregnant of pauses, where everything happens, all the possibilities and our futures, balancing precariously in these split seconds. Like accidents waiting to happen.
You girls alright? What is your name? I could say this. I would have… I won’t. I can’t. Maybe tomorrow, when I feel less lonely; maybe if things were different in some way. But not now. Not today. Instead I just lean there, look at them but then averted, toward safety, then periodic glances, enough to see her put her headphones back on her head, back into her own world, gone, away.
It’s too late. If I open my mouth, where should I point it? I think of feelings. I would snub one by talking to the other, would have to admit my desire to one in front of the other, would be vulnerable from every direction, multiple cameras, feel the scrutiny of my desires from within and inside this train. What is this desire and this shame?
I want to escape, to get off this train. There are two more stops, though. We must live in this tension for another few minutes, our heartbeats and the way time freezes and forever keeps going. Listen to music, just listen to yourself.
We reach Eberswelderstraße — of course both girls are getting off here too. The long, painful dance of isolation and possible opportunities continues out the door, toward the stairs, which stairwell to pick, how slowly to walk, how quickly to get over it all. Shed off all the weird energy. The other girl does so the quickest. She bolts. And again it is me and this student, this sad wonderful stranger, in a final moment of realization that nothing happened between us. Forever.
She’s typically frazzled, stumbles toward the other staircase, down the crowded stairs, her visage turning into a blurry silhouette. She looks back, you look back. No. She doesn’t. I could follow her. I could run after her. I could have run after her at any moment and never did and won’t now. Still not yet. Not ever. It doesn’t matter to me. I walk away like it’s nothing. I turn my head back… for something else, some other reason… Because we separate, like ripples on a blank shore, in rainbows. No. I watch her go.
Keith Telfeyan is a storyteller and editor of words & pictures. Local in California, New York & Berlin. Likes: art house cinema, whiskey, staring out windows. Dislikes: early mornings, disorder, time passing too quickly.