An Ode to Fleeting Meetings
She beams at me expectantly. I look back confused and unsure of what she is saying.
Damn I wish I spoke Japanese.
I step onto the train carriage and dart towards the only available seat. Seats on trains are a hot commodity in Tokyo, so I am feeling pretty stoked. I peel my raincoat off and stuff it into my backpack. The humidity on this train is overwhelmingly sticky and ridiculously warm for early winter. My ankles are meeting the full extent of the heater under my seat, so I manoeuvre them as far away as I can without nudging the person next to me.
I look up and notice a Japanese woman who could easily be in her early eighties hunched over and gripping onto a metal pole close to the train door. A brown overcoat is draped over her small frame and a colourful knitted scarf smothers her neck. The train jolts as it speeds along and I try to acquire her attention by giving a small wave and standing up.
“Sumimasen,” I say.
She doesn’t appear to hear or see my attempt so I repeat myself. She looks up, slightly startled and shuffles over, thanking me. She gives me a cheeky grin and sits down gingerly. She is clearly as chuffed as I was when I found a seat, maybe moreso.
As the train stops, the person next to her leaves. She enthusiastically ushers me over to join her. I sit down and we exchange a pleased look. Unexpectedly, she begins speaking. I smile politely and nod, studying her face, trying to figure out what she is saying, but I have no clue. She stops and waits for my response.
After a few seconds, a blonde woman nearby says, “She is asking where you are from.”
My eyes widen and I look at the Japanese woman. “Australia!” I exclaim.
Thank god, I wouldn’t have figured that one out.
The Japanese woman repeats it back to me, grinning and nodding and continues to speak. I look back at the blonde woman, hoping she will continue to translate.
“She says, um, it’s um… it’s very rainy today.”
I nod in agreement. I thank the woman for translating and ask her where she is from,
“Russia,” she replies and smiles at both of us.
I try to think of something to say while we sit in silence. I am not usually someone who struggles to continue a conversation, but this language barrier has me stumped. The older woman sits back, very happy with her ability to communicate with me. I look out the window at the changing billboards and signs on the buildings, trying to think of something, anything to say. We all look at each other intermittently and share a few grins.
The perfume and kindness of the Japanese woman strangely reminds me of someone I met on a train ride from Boston to New York five years ago. Gloria.
Gloria had thin and short, vibrant red-and-blonde dyed hair, with pointy, drawn-on eyebrows. She wore a T-shirt that had several types of fabric stitched together and some kick-ass red boots. For the four-hour train ride, she shared her life with me.
She told me fantastic stories about living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and how all her ex-husbands (three in total) had passed away. With equal pride, she showed me pictures of her adult children and their children, as well as her clay food collection she had made herself. She is the most interesting and wacky person I have ever met.
However, when we reached Manhattan, the craziness of everyone grabbing their bags and hurrying off the train meant I left without even knowing her last name. I hate that I didn’t ask her that. She has stayed in the back of my mind for years. More than once I have found myself Googling her name and naively hoping to see a picture of her smiling face. She sparked my interest in people and their stories.
It’s odd that only a day before meeting the Japanese woman on the train, I had been in one of those Google-search rabbit holes, still looking in a hopeful attempt to find Gloria.
A small, sparkly object catches my attention and I look down at the Japanese woman’s hands. She is untying a charm from the inside zipper of her bag. It is glass-like with various smooth sides that make it sparkle. She hands it to the Russian woman, who puts out her hand and says, “Presento?”
The Japanese woman nods and reaches towards her, giving her the charm. It’s beautiful.
A small bell rings and I look back to the woman’s bag. She is now untying a gold charm from her coin purse. She carefully gives it to me and I thank her. I hold it carefully in my palm and examine the gold swirl etched on one side and the Japanese characters on the other. I cannot stop smiling. I love moments like this. The train stops abruptly and Shinjuku is announced over the speaker. I say goodbye to the two women, grab my things and jump off the train.
Fleeting meetings. They can happen anywhere at any time. They can be forgotten or remembered years later, leaving a lasting imprint in your mind. No longer did I care about the heater on the train. My perspective and thoughts had changed. I know these interactions are not a rare thing, but they are special. They charge us with positive feelings and a new outlook. Unexpected, but most definitely welcome.
Cover by Don Fontijn