I moved to the big city with big dreams. I would land the perfect job. I would have the perfect group of friends and life would just seem so much, well, bigger. Instead, I found myself changing in dramatic ways. I’ve learned my boundaries, what I’m willing to accept and what I am truly capable of accomplishing. With so much change compressing and shaping me, I’ve found stability in serendipity.
Having lived the majority of my life in the Southeast, I grew up smiling at every person that I passed, waving at strangers and striking up conversations with just about anyone. Here, I’ve become a little colder, harder. The sheer amount of people is daunting. Smiling becomes a thankless chore. You concede to losing yourself to the motions and become another face someone passes on the train.
While riding the El on my way to work — avoiding eye contact — about seven teenagers boarded the car I was on. They were loud, running up and down the aisles. I didn’t think anything of it, except perhaps that they had just left school and were full of energy. It wasn’t terribly different from the rowdiness that generally occurs on any other given weekday. That is, until one of them snatched the phone right out of my hand.
I was all reaction.
I bolted toward the open train doors, sprinted after the pack running from me. I screamed a vomit of obscenities after them. Adrenaline shot through my body. Step by downward step, my legs pumped as hard and fast as my heart would allow. My vision blurred. Everything blurred.
Winded, I watched them bound up the stairs to the opposite platform. I would never catch up; I had lost them. Above me, I heard the doors close and the familiar sound of a train churning forward. There was no point in continuing. They surely melted into those same motions and became nameless faces with no history in that northbound car.
I paced the terminal, seething. White-knuckled and looking to fight the nearest vending machine, a voice chimed behind me. She spoke encouragement and light. She had the brightest complexion and wore feathers in her hair. “I saw them,” she declared. “I saw everything that happened.”
I followed her out of the station and to the nearest police officer. He was busy talking to several other passengers about the incident. They also had items stolen. My head buzzed while I listened to the other accounts.
My mind was muddled and distant, but her timbre broke through, “That’s them.” She pointed to the group as they slinked out of the station, hoods drawn tightly around their faces. I followed her with the faith that she would not steer me wrong. In our pursuit of the teens, we argued and screamed. They threatened while I pleaded, “Why?” They denied their involvement. The clouds inside of my head darkened and I wondered if maybe we were wrong.
She remained steadfast at my side the entire time. Without her bravery, I wouldn’t have had the will to continue. I could chalk it up to sheer instinct and groupthink in such a fragile state, but I would like to believe greater forces were at work here.
For whatever reason, the group of teens turned around and went back to the station. After one long angry drag of a cigarette, we followed, defeated. We were surprised to find the same group that we’d pursued now sitting in the back of several patrol cars, their faces angry and hard against their situation. The stolen phones had been found in their pockets.
Through the gamut of emotions that I’d endured, a wash of gratitude fell over me. Without her, I wouldn’t have had the ability to reach my limits and channel them. I wouldn’t have found out what I’m able to accomplish. Without her, I would’ve given up in the station and let the teens go without pursuit. I’m sure that if it weren’t for her speaking up and nudging me to continue, the stolen items would not be back in the possession of their respective owners. I asked her then, “What is your name?”
She replied, “Hope.”
A bolt shot through my body. Instantly, my head cleared and I understood. It’s so easy to forget that for every gaze you attempt to avoid on the street or in a bus or train, you’re shutting out the human experience. You draw the curtains on a chance at something greater than yourself. There is a truth in the stories of smiles saving lives. I had forgotten about the little pieces that make up the whole of humanity. It’s the people of this city that make it great. Behind glazed eyes and stoic expressions lie stories of elation and tragedy. Everyone had means, a history and destination. I wasn’t prepared to find what I hadn’t realized I’d lost. I’d forgotten that I could have hope.
After that, I thought about Hope rather often and how coincidental the whole situation was. I pondered its greater meaning and why our lives crossed paths. I was humbled that day. I needed a reminder of who I was — friendly and compassionate — the kind of girl my mother raised me to be. I chose to be more outgoing in that expression. I helped when I was able to help. If nothing else, I smiled genuinely at all of those people that surrounded me.
Yet all that changing takes time. While I was trying to be a better person, several family emergencies left me stressed and feeling pitiful. I didn’t have time to smile anymore. I had become all seriousness and rarely did any more than work and sleep. Once again, I’d lost the will to carry on giving that little bit of myself to others.
When the news got worse, I called out of work. It took me three hours to compose myself enough to leave the apartment. I decided to visit the zoo strictly on a whim. There was no rhyme or reason to it. I simply knew that I would go. It wasn’t until later that night while I was at home on my couch that I realized the significance of wanting to go to the zoo. What a terrible visit that was, with me somber and on the edge of tears.
On my way back home, dejected and hungry, I stopped for a sandwich. That’s where I saw her again. It took us a minute to recognize each other. A part of me still believed that she was a figment of my imagination, a projection of Emily Dickinson’s poem. It’s as if a part of me knew that she would be there, had a way of finding her in my darkest times.
As she rang up my order and I handed her my card, I asked, “Hope?”
She smiled and said that she remembered me too.