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Prose Spring 2021

Sonder

by Kyla Figueroa

I didn’t expect to see him there on the A-Train, that afternoon, like most strangers you never expect to lay your eyes upon, but there he was. I was heading to Brooklyn, just let off from my job. New York was a disappointment at this point of my stay, surprisingly. Even people who hate NYC say its name with a whisper of awe, like it’s destiny for everyone to end up here someway or another. It was one let down after another: colliding into people when I stepped foot outside of my apartment, papers tucked to my chest flying everywhere, throwing up on the elevator of the Empire State Building, and a pigeon shitting on me at Central Park.

Everything I saw when I first got here was through rose-colored glasses, even the subway train, which was sleek and exciting at the time. I was fresh out of college, fingers crossed and dampening the just used airplane ticket and subway card I had, and the last memory with me was Mom, Dad, Eva, and Carter waving good-bye to me at the airplane terminal. Mom was crying, partly because she would miss me and partly because she was concerned that I was taking one suitcase to New York. (It was all I could afford after the hefty price of a 4-year university.) Dad’s smile was bittersweet: the machismo was getting to him, and I knew Mom would find him later with his eyes puffy. Eva and Carter both looked upset to see me go, but I know they both had plans to turn my room into their gaming hub. (The only person stopping them was Mom.)

“Bye guys. Love you.” I gave my parents one last embrace before I boarded the plane, not looking back. A five hour flight was ahead, the drive from Oakland to San Francisco nothing in comparison. Practically skipping to my seat (yes, a window one with no one else in my row), I settled in with my neck pillow and laptop. I opened the hatch that let me peer outside, and all I thought at the time was that the sky was the limit.

Now, though, I watched through the creaky car’s window, my chin on the back of the chair. We were enclosed in the tunnels of the subway. The walls outside changed with different signs, posters, people, and atmosphere, and everything blurred into one continuous streak as the train moved toward my apartment. A strand of hair landed on my cheek, and I blew it away with a sigh. This place hated me. The 10 million people here somehow wanted me out of their world, never to know their stories. Maybe I should book a ticket once I’m home? To where? D.C.? Boston? Boston seemed nice. The harbor, the history, it’s near Harvard. It may need some writers to inhabit its brownstones. Even some decent sports teams.

I slid around and let myself survey the rest of the train car and the few passengers. A man a few seats over banged on congos with a beat that sounded like Bob Marley’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” Further, and there was a man with a hot-dog stand and a sign that read “Pete’s Hot-Dogs: Best hot-dogs ever for Pete’s sake.” He’d just picked up the phone and began talking loudly in Spanish. Hello? What’s up? What do you mean I should know? I’ve been at Central Park all day, working … unlike you. Excuse me? I swear, if you don’t … give the phone to Melissa. I’m done talking to you. A few seconds passed by. Hi! It’s Dad … I love you too sweetie. How was school … The conversation soon melted into white-noise.

On my left was a man spouting words from a dictionary, thumbing into a random sliver of pages, furiously flipping to the page, and finding the perfect word to deliver his sermon. Some were simple. Prose. Noun. Written or spoken language in its ordinary form, without metrical structure. Others were … strange? Ambedo. Noun. A kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details. I think he was high. Absorbed. Verb. Strongly attracted and interested. He sounded like one of those hippies who spouted their incoherent work at the Corner Café every Saturday evening, where sometimes I took shots of coffee spiked with liquor every time a writer had an existential crisis. This logophile’s words bounced off the walls of the train, leaving an echo that mixed with the clamors that arose every time we turned.

My attention went to my tote bag, and I opened it for an issue of the New Yorker, a subscription I bought for the “NYC spirit.” I wanted to see myself in these pages, but each week, when it showed up in its plastic protective packaging and some cartoony cover, it mocked me. I usually read at home: on my recliner, a dim lamp on my left, a mug in my right hand, a blanket wrapped around me. Now, though, everything turned into a hum as I read, even the word-lover, and I kept doing so until they announced the third-to-last stop before Brooklyn. The doors opened, I felt a single pair of footsteps get on and stop across from me, and the doors closed. When we began moving again, I looked up at the seats from across from me.

There he was.

He wore a black business suit, the blazer and dress pants, and tie that contrasted with white sneakers that were so clean they looked like this was his first outing in them. A leather briefcase sat beside him on the bench. The way his lips curled and his hair tossed over his head, like Leonardo DiCaprio in the Titanic, I would not trust him around my grandmother’s jewels. He was endearing: his brows furrowed as he concentrated on his thumb fiddling, and he slightly slouched against the back of the seat. I realized I was staring too long when our gazes met, and I quickly went back to reading, pretending nothing happened when, suddenly, he cleared his throat.

“Jaime,” he said. I glanced back up. He was looking straight at me.

What?

“My name is Jaime.” He smirked at me, his eyes gleaming with the train car’s overhead light. Shadows from the shifting exterior danced around and painted his face.

“Lilian,” I said quietly, not looking directly at him. When I finally did, though, the smirk turned into a smile that showed his teeth. I loved his smile.

We struck up a conversation, at first awkward but soon a pleasant melody of introductions and life stories. He radiated charisma, from the way he told me about where he was at (Manhattan) and what he was doing in the city (consulting) to one of his drunk college stories from undergrad at NYU (after I told him what I do at the Corner Café). All I could do was laugh, and, somehow, when we got to his stop, his number was already in my contacts. The shadows followed him on his way out.

The poet delivered another line after his exit. Sprout. Verb. Start to grow.
That Saturday, I texted him after my reading. The magazine was open, its spine bending at the half-way point and faced-down on my lap. I typed eagerly, wanting to see his smile again.

Me. You, Picnic by that one big fountain in Central Park. In two hours.

He replied not even a second later:

Bethesda?

I beat his time:

Be there or be ■.

My phone pinged once more.

Most definitely. 😉

He brought his guitar, and what began as a picnic and guitar strumming between the two of us ended as a concert with a crowd. He stood on the edge of the fountain and people clapped and moved to the rhythm of his smooth voice. At one point, while he sang, he hopped off, walked over to a bush of flowers, and came back to tuck a carnation behind my ear. When we returned to my apartment, we rushed up the stairs and shut the doors behind us.

A year later: our anniversary date. He’s smiled the whole time there. When we arrived at Bethesda, a Spanish band was there, playing music that comes out loud on speakers and gesturing our way. The people around us cheered, and when the speaker boomed our names, he got down on one knee. The light from the heavens basked us, masking out the dark of the early evening.

Not too long after, we are married. We spun and spun the entire night, the spotlight on us the entire time.

I eventually pop out two kids, and we buy a bigger brownstone in Brooklyn. We scrap our jobs and open a diner, which, miraculously, becomes a neighborhood staple. We go to Coney Island once a month, where the kids press their faces against the glass of aquarium habitats, eat fried food and pray we don’t see it again during roller coaster rides. Summers are for Montauk, a beach house that hangs our family photo, and we greet ourselves every year until the kids go to college in California.

Years and years later, and the diner is still alive. We are alive, all wrinkles and crinkles, and sit at the counter, waiting together at dawn for the pies to bake. I read; he enjoys his coffee. The sun penetrates through the window, shining on us, and he looks into my eyes and says something between a sip of coffee that makes everything perfect.

“I love you.” He smiles his smile, this time with dentures.

“I love you.” I look at him the same way and go back to reading.

I turned the page and blinked, the train’s shadows, lights, and rattles all returning back to me. I glanced up again, but he didn’t look back this time. Instead the phone in his pocket buzzed and he picked it up.

“Hello?” he asked into the phone. It was the first time I heard him speak, and he didn’t sound like he was supposed to. “Oh hi Sophie, my love … dinner at you parents tonight? Sounds good. What’s on the menu? … I love your mother, but you know pie has never been my favorite …”

The New York train car continued on, my life along with it. The overcome soon announced the last stop before Brooklyn, and I only heard his footsteps once more as he got off the train. To my left, the dictionary hippie was still preaching. He would later get off at my stop, with off into a different direction, maybe to the café or a community center or even to a family of his own, where they owned a pie shop or wrote stories or did consulting. But for now he left me with one last word:

Sonder. Noun. The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own; a story that continues invisibly around you and without you.

I let Jaime, him, and New York go, leaving their world as a stranger.

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