I’m at their will. Standing across from me on this screeching, careening subway beneath the streets of Brooklyn, the stranger holds my emotions in their hands. One squeeze and I’ll start to cry, becoming the random person who lets tears flow down their cheeks in public without a care. In this moment, the stranger has more control over me than my mom ever had—more than my boss ever will have. And they don’t even realize it.
The old man’s eyes are down, focused on the New York Times crossword puzzle he works at with a tiny, grubby pencil. A barking chihuahua does nothing to distract him. When the doors behind him slide open, he calmly steps to the side, allowing passengers to get off and on while he chuckles upon finding what I imagine is the correct 11-letter word for the deprivation of liberty.
For I’ve lost my independence. Watching the stranger, I’m frozen in place. I’m unable to move. Unable to look away. I’m unable to escape the torture of what the old man is doing. Unable to escape the torment caused by how he looks while doing it.
Because the stranger isn’t so strange at all.
I recognize the tall, full frame beneath Black skin younger looking than it is. I recognize the bright eyes and brighter smile he shares with crying infants and their mothers, soothing the one as much as the other, before returning to his brain teaser. I recognize the callouses on the left hand he writes with, and the bald head reflecting light like an engagement ring.
I recognize my Granddad.
My late Granddad.
The subway squeals to another stop. This time, it’s the doors behind me that slide open. This time, the all too familiar stranger folds up his paper and starts towards me. I hold my breath, an involuntary reaction, and then…he’s gone. And I don’t turn to see where he goes.
A moment later, the train is moving again. A moment after that, I resume my breathing. Right or wrong, I’m relieved the stranger left.
I wouldn’t have been able to.