Take the green line to Clark and Lake, then transfer to the orange line and ride that to Quincy, and then walk the rest of the way from there? Or was it transfer at Adam’s and Wabash and ride the brown to Quincy?
I stand in front of the gate, tapping my heels in excitement for my first big city job interview. I realize that I should have written down the directions my aunt Mary gave me, or at least asked her more questions about how to get there.
“Mary, what’s the number to call a taxi?” I had asked my aunt, after living with her for a couple of days. Mary, absorbed in her magazine, paused from her browsing to sigh,, “Honey, you don’t have enough money for a taxi. Just take the L.”
I had ridden a taxi during my first day in Chicago. In the moment it had been exhilarating. The driver had rolled down the window so that I could let the wind blow through my hair and I stared up at buildings that seemed to pierce the sky. Once I paid the driver I didn’t stop to think about how much it was taking out of my small savings. Now, at that moment I also thought about how much I had spent on my outfit for the interview and the sum that Mary had demanded in exchange for letting me stay in her apartment.
I blushed, “Well, I don’t know how to get there by train,” I said, “Could you give me directions?” Aunt Mary sighed and gave me directions in the usual way she conversed: blunt, to the point, and with plenty of sighs and “honeys” mixed in.
Now I stand at the loading platform waiting for the green line to Clark and Lake, hoping that it’s the right one. My feet hurt just from the walk to the station and the climb up two flights of stairs to the loading platform. I had wanted to impress my prospective employer but maybe I shouldn’t have bought the five inch heels. I hear a distant clanking sound as the people around me begin to move towards the edge of the platform. I jump as the train rushes by at a speed that doesn’t appear to be slowing. I feel dizzy as each car passes one after the other, blurring my vision. I blink as the train screeches to a stop. Ding, Whoosh, and the doors open. People block my way as everyone rushes to be the first through the doors. Another ding and a man’s computerized voice says “doors closing.” I rush forward; people pass me from both directions. I queeze past an Indian man and a girl wearing a crop top, and at last I am on the train.
I sit down in the closest available seat. There’s a small oriental woman sitting next to me who talks loudly on her phone in a language that just sounds like gibberish. An old man with a gray mustache sits in the seat across from me reading a newspaper and humming through his nose. A moment later the car is full and the train lurches forward. The computer man’s voice says, “Welcome to the loop. This is the green line to Adams and Wabash.” He continues to rattle off safety rules as I watch the apartment buildings of Roosevelt move slowly past us. I think back to when I had boarded the train at the other side of the lake. Michigan City was just a few miles from the farming town where I grew up.
When my mom drove me to the train station she had said, “Now, Alyssa, I won’t have you calling asking me for money when you run out. You just come on back home if things don’t work out. And tell your aunt Mary I said hello.”
Although I’d never really known my Aunt Mary she had been my idol since I was little. She was beautiful and fashionable, she was on tv as a news caster, and she lived in a big city full of people. What made the thought of her even more appealing was that she was nothing like my mom, who had married a farmer when she was my age and settled for the mundane life of a stay at home mom. When I was a little girl, aunt Mary had sent me a book full of pictures of all the popular Chicago landmarks. I spent hours looking at the book, day dreaming about running away from home and going to live with my aunt. In my imagination she would take me in and let me live with her. We would go shopping together and she would show me in person all of the things that were in the book. Aunt Mary hadn’t turned out to be the way I had imagined her. She didn’t care about me in the way I had wanted. But it didn’t really matter, the pictures had been true, and I was finally here.
The rattling of the tracks get louder and faster as the train picks up speed. The woman sitting next to me has finished her phone call and we all sit in silence, except for the man with the mustache who is still humming his pitch-less tune.
The train slows again, we come to a stop and the computerized voice says, “this is Adams and Wabash. Transfer to orange, brown, and pink lines at Adams and Wabash.” I’m confused. I don’t know which line I’m supposed to take. Mary didn’t say anything about transferring lines. But the doors open and everyone starts to move, so I follow.
As I step onto the platform I see hundreds of people moving in different directions with no apparent destination. Meanwhile, I can hear the sounds of the Chicago streets beneath us. Buses spead past, people shout, and cars blare their horns.
There’s another set of tracks across from where I stand, maybe that’s where I’m supposed to get back on. I rush over to a large board centered in the middle of the platform, the map of the L looks like an enormous multi-colored octopus with its tentacles stretching out over the city. I am at its head: the loop. Adams/Wabash printed next to pink, green, orange, and brown lines determined my location. White arrows printed over a brown line point in the direction I needed to go. That looks like it will take me there. I look around and spot a sign saying brown line so I walk over to the platform. Pointed high heels tap the edge of the blue caution strip as I wait.
A few minutes pass, another train goes by on the platform behind me, and I begin to worry that I have chosen the wrong one. Maybe I should go look at the map again. But suddenly I hear it, the sound of wheels clanking against tracks. A dozen metal cars wiz by, the train stops, the doors whoosh open, and a voice affirms my decision. I smile. My mom was wrong I will make it here after all.
I look around for a place to sit but the car is full. Dozens of people stand, either holding onto metal bars for balance or standing by the doors with arms crossed. Before I can decide what to do the train lurches forward, I lose my balance, my spike heels slide out from under my wobbly ankles. I fall down onto the floor of the train. People shuffle out of the way as I struggle to my feet. A large cold hand grabs my arm and helps to pull me up. “You okay, miss?” I hear a voice say. I turn to see a tall, fair skinned man with brown curly hair. “I think I hurt my ankle,” I say in a voice that sounds more pitiful than I intended it to.
He grabs my other arm with another equally icy hand and leads me to an empty seat. “Here take my seat,” he says. Crouching down he pulls off my shoes. I look to see if anyone is watching, but no one seems to care. “Can you move your ankles?” he asks.
“Yes, but my right one hurts when I move it like this.” And I show him. “Are you a doctor or something?”
“Something like that,” he says smiling. “You’re going to be alright. What is you’re name?” He places a cold hand on my shoulder.
I shiver, my arm hadn’t felt so naked until now. “Thank you for the seat,” I say, shrugging off his hand. “I’ll be alright now.”
He stops smiling and takes his hand away. “You’re welcome,” he says as he stands and takes a few steps away.
I’m afraid that I’ve embarrassed him so I try again to be friendly. “My name is Alyssa. What’s yours?”
“Luke,” he says, smiling again.
The train slows and comes to a stop. “This is Randolph and Wabash.” The woman who was sitting next to me leaves the train and Luke sits down in her place. “Do you mind if I sit here,” he asks. I can’t say no now, so I swallow and nod my head. Ding! “Doors closing.” And we lurch forward.
I spot his hands out of the corner of my eye. The thought of their icy touch makes me uneasy and they’re only inches away from my leg. I shift in my seat and fix my gaze at the window in front of me.
“Welcome to the loop,” the computer says. The tone of his voice calms my nerves. “This is the brown line to State and Lake.”
“Where are you headed?” Luke asks. I say that I have an interview for a hostess position at a nice restaurant. He asks which restaurant. “Charlie’s,” I says. Smiling wider he says that it’s one of his favorite places. Maybe he’ll see me there after I get the job. I laugh and say, “If I get the job.”
“Did you just move to this area,” he asks.
“Yes… I just moved away from home,” I say reluctantly.
“You’re awfully young to be on your own. Where did you move from?”
“Michigan. And I’m not too young,” I say, trying to sound mature.” Besides I’m not alone, I live with my aunt.”
“I apologize,” he says laughing. “You just have a very young, pretty face.”
I blush and a girlish giggle escapes without my permission. I hadn’t noticed until now that the pinky of his right hand is brushing against my leg, ever so slightly. I tell myself that I don’t mind. I can’t feel the coldness of his hand anyway.
“Tell me about Michigan,” he says. “I’ve never been there myself.”
I talk about the farm I grew up on. He asks me about where I went to school and what I liked to do growing up. He keeps asking me more and more questions that I feel overwhelmingly compelled to answer. I end up telling him about my family, especially about my mom and how she hadn’t believed that I could make it on my own. Suddenly I realize that I’ve told him more than I intended to. I suddenly wish he would go away or that the train would arrive so that I could somehow lose him in the crowd.
I can feel the train slowing down now. Luke says something but I’m not listening anymore. I can feel his fingers brushing up against my leg. I sit up rigidly in my seat. My heart begins to pound. How am I going to slip away? Will he try to follow me?
“I have to go,” I say as I stand and the train comes to a stop.
“Wait,” he says and I gasp as his icy hand grabs my arm.
“Let go,” I say a little too loudly. I yank my arm away and squeeze past a group of people who are getting on the train. I dodge and weave between people as quickly as I can with my hurt ankle. I have to find a place to hide. I follow the crowd down a flight of stairs, wincing as I grip the railing for balance. When I reach the bottom I steal a glance behind me, there’s no sign of Luke in the crowd. But I can still feel his cold touch on my arm. I turn and run for the ticket gate, a train is pulling up to the platform. Wallet in hand I scan my subway pass and run for the edge of the platform.
Pain suddenly grips my ankle and I trip and fall. Another cold hand grips my arm and I scream, trying to pull away.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” A girl’s voice says. “You ok?” It’s not Luke. It’s a girl about my age, her eyes are red and coated with dark makeup.
“Um, yes. Sorry. Thank you,” I stammer as the girl pulls me to my feet. “Excuse me.”
Ding! “Doors closing.” I limp away and board the train. The train begins to move as soon as I step through the doors. I grab the metal bars and the backs of chairs to steady myself as I make my way to the back of the car and sit down. I want to be able to keep my eyes on all of the passengers in case Luke followed me after all.
My heart is still beating fast and my skin stings from the cold hands. I sit in the aisle seat hoping that no one else will bother to ask for a seat next to me again.
I take a moment to close my eyes and breathe deeply. I feel the train car swing back and forth as we go down a hill. The tracks rattle, clank, clank clank, clank clank. I jump and open my eyes as I hear air whooshing past us for the first time. We’re going through a tunnel. I notice the time: 5:30. What time was my interview again? I look down and notice that my shoes are gone. I must have left them on the train with Luke. What will my manager think if I show up without any shoes on?
As the train swings back and forth: Whoosh. Clank, clank clank, clank clank. Whoosh. I breathe and try to think.
Ding! “This is Monroe.” I hear the subway voice say. I gasp, that’s not where I’m supposed to be! I feel around on the seat next to me for my wallet. It’s not there! I search under and around the seat, nothing. That girl with the red eyes must have taken it when I triped.
Ding! “Doors closing. This is the red line to Jackson.”
I look around frantically for a map. The red line runs through the loop, back towards the direction I had come. I stare at the map and try to figure out how to get back to where I’m supposed to be. Then my heart sinks as I remember that my interview was at 6:00. I’m not sure if I can make it back in time.
Ding! “This is Jackson.” I limp wallet-less off the train. If I can just get back on the brown line maybe I can make it there in time.
This underground station is strange compared to the ones that I’ve seen so far: aboveground and on high platforms. The fluorescent lighting against the dirty brick walls gives me the creeps. I spot a sign declaring “brown line” which ushers me up a flight of stairs. I rush up them as quickly as I can, but stop when I spot a ticket gate. I can’t go any further. I’ve lost my pass and my means of buying a new one. I don’t even know how to get back to my aunt’s apartment; I’m lost.
I spot a woman sitting on the ground, leaning back against the wall, not far from the top of the stairs. Her eyes are closed, she must be asleep. With no idea of what else to do I go and sit next to her, about an arm’s length away.
The woman opens her eyes, “Do you have any money, girl?” She says rattling a tin can containing only a few coins. “I need help.”
“No, I don’t have anything,” I say, “I need help too.” My nylon stockinged feet feel cold on the cement floor.
The woman makes a face, lies back against the wall again and closes her eyes.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
“I don’t have a job,” she says. “I need money.”
“Why don’t you have a job?”
“Because I lost it!” She snaps.
“Sorry!” I snap back. “I’ve lost a lot of things today too, you know.” So I tell her my whole story, about how I moved away from home and was looking for a job. I told her about how I met Luke while I was on my way to a job interview. I also told her about the girl who stole my wallet. “And now I’m lost,” I start to cry. “This is it, I’m going to miss my interview and I’m going to have to go back home because I don’t have any money left, and my mom’s going to say I told you so…” I bury my face in my hands.
“Girl, it just sounds like you ain’t smart enough to be living in the city. Did you think it would be that easy? Here, everything and everybody is out to get you.”
“I even lost my new shoes,” I say.
Photo by Hannah Reinke