Strangers don’t speak to each other on the street.
They don’t smile and greet each other as they pass by, ask how the other is doing or make small talk about the rain.
Strangers don’t chat on the train.
They don’t introduce themselves say hi and talk about the basic identifiers of their lives. They don’t ask about each other’s jobs they don’t pass on messages to the other person’s wife, they don’t exchange numbers, add each other on Facebook, wave or smile goodbye.
Strangers stand millimetres apart, they share a train table for an hour without making eye contact once.
And I should know this by now. I spent the first 18 years of my life doing exactly that. Seeing the same people on the bus without ever learning their names, leaving my house every day barely glancing at my neighbours. But in the six months, I’ve been at university, not speaking to strangers has grown to feel as alien as speaking to them once felt.
I was on the train this morning, one of six in the past four days and it was crowded. The Monday morning rush. Squeezed between a man around my age and a woman just a little bit older and as we stood there, being pushed together and apart by the turns of the train, all I could see where our similarities.
She and I both had suitcases, both about the size of a 32-inch screen. She was dressed for work, he was dressed for comfort and I was somewhere in between. He looked as if he was on his way to college, had gotten on the train at the same stop as me and presumably lived near my parents’ house though he was a face that I’d never seen. I liked his hair but I never told him that, I liked her dress but I never asked her name. The carriage was a wave of missed connections, hundreds of people that would never be in my life, thousands of perfect conversations never begun.
At university, I talk to everyone I encounter, for at least two minutes. A girl with brown hair and the perfect pastel jacket I sat next to once in a lecture. The boy who looked just as lost as me on the way to a 5 pm seminar. The baby-laden mother who walked in smiling at work and the man behind the counter who I talked to while trying to find my purse.
Maybe it’s the small-town mindset of a campus, the feeling of safety that surrounds every encounter, the familiarity of seeing the same people in different settings all around town. The sense of community I never quite felt in the city I call home.
Or maybe it’s a new version of me, one who speaks to strangers and lives on my own, one who would now rather speaker to a stranger for an hour than sit at home with living through characters alone.
Lately I’ve been slipping into rhyme.