Beneath the city of Santiago there runs a network of tunnels. It’s not particularly vast or complicated, and it would be extraordinarily difficult to get lost in them. The subway system, known locally as the metro, has five individual lines, and they are labelled Line 1, Line 2, Line 4, Line 4A, and Line 5. I suspect that the person who named the different lines might also be the same person who labelled vitamins.
By global standards, the Santiago metro is still quite young and simple. There are no abandoned tunnels or hidden treasure. There is no space for smugglers to build secret hideouts or for children to go off on adventures. As far as I know there are no ghost stories attached to the metro, and the place has absolutely no air of mystery at all.
The one oddity that the metro possesses is that when I am inside it, the social strata to which I am quite accustomed becomes inverted. I am young, I am healthy, and I am male. This usually affords me so many benefits in the world of sunlight. These qualifications get me to the front of lines, allow me first choices when shopping, lend more weight to my opinions, make me a priority guest in restaurants. Yet on the metro I am pushed to the back of the line. I am a third-class citizen. Even if I am collapsing from exhaustion I know I will not be allowed to sit down unless all the women, the mothers with their children, the infirm, and the elderly have all been seated first. Even if I’m lucky enough to find an open seat, I can never fully relax because at every stop there is the chance the someone who is not young, not healthy, or not male might get on. Put simply, the metro is a place where I have no control at all.
But all these social obstacles aside, I have never felt more out of my depth than I did a few days ago, when I found myself on a metro car next to a young lady who was trying very hard not to cry. I first noticed her look of distress when I stepped onto the train and rotated 180 degrees to face the door. The muscles in her face were struggling, and failing, to keep her features in order. Deep lines were forming around her mouth and eyes, painting years of heartache over a countenance that should have been no older than I was. She was clasping a bulky jacket tight to her chest, as if it were a security blanket, and in her hand she held her cellphone. She kept her other hand pressed over her mouth to prevent herself from sobbing in such a public place, and at regular intervals she would remove the hand from her mouth and type vigorously on her phone. I hoped that she was in an argument with someone, because arguments can get resolved. If she was hearing bad news, well, then that’s far less easy to deal with in a public space.
The lady made almost no sound, save for the occasional sniffing noise. At times she would bury her face into her jacket or rub her tiny fist under her nose, sniffing all the while. I gleaned all of this through my peripheral vision and by noticing her reflection in the door to the metro. I dared not look at her directly, because if there was any acknowledgement of her distress then perhaps there might be pressure on me to comfort her. I couldn’t run away either. While there weren’t too many people on this particular subway car, there were still too many to allow me to move more that two feet away from the her. The longer I ignored her, the longer I could claim ignorance, and let her grieve in peace.
But I couldn’t ignore her, and the demonic face of Santiago’s twisted underground culture began looming up at me. If I was above ground, I wouldn’t have to deal with this problem. Above ground, the young lady could have easily moved to a private place. Or I would have had space to run away. But now I was stuck in a tiny metal box next to an emotional woman who wasn’t going away. I also knew for a fact that I had an entire pack of tissues hidden inside the backpack that I was currently holding in my hands. I had materials that could help, and I started feeling that I would regret not doing something. So, with measured nonchalance, I brought my backpack up and casually unzipped the outer pocket. I could still abandon the plan if I wanted to. I could easily pretend that I was simply checking that everything was in order, zip up my bag again, and pretend that nothing had happened. But by the time my hand reached inside the pocket and closed around the pack of tissues, I knew there was no going back.
“Quieres?” I said awkwardly, using the pack of tissues to touch her lightly on the shoulder.
She looked at me and then at the tissues, and while keeping her eyes downcast she smiled and nodded in a way that seemed to say, Okay, you’ve caught me crying. But don’t worry, it’s nothing serious.
She took the pack of tissues, removed one, and passed the rest back to me. I wanted her to keep them all, but my Spanish escaped me at that point and I didn’t want to hassle her about it. So after a second of protest I took the tissues back from her and tucked them away in my bag again. I thought the worst was over, but it had only just begun, because what I had forgotten during that whole process was that I was still trapped inside a tiny metal box with the poor lady. I’d caught her out, exposed her vulnerability, and there was no place either of us could run to. I considered getting out at the next stop and jumping into the adjacent car. But what if we were both destined for the same stop anyway? It would be quite awkward to run into her many minutes after I had supposedly left.
I also felt bad because I had totally derailed her sadness. Now she had stopped crying, and was instead dealing with this entirely awkward situation which I’d thrust upon her. I’d stoppered the grief that needed grieving. I’d plugged up her outpouring. I’d left her emotionally constipated. The whole thing was a mess really, and I felt bad for interfering in her life. And worst of all was that deep down I was afraid that she was afraid that I was going to hit on her. It was my own skepticism about male culture that planted this idea in my head. I could quite easily imagine a scenario where the charming stranger on the metro, having just offered the damsel in distress a tissue, uses the moment as a conversation starter: Someone break your heart, little lady?
I didn’t want to be that guy, but there was no way that I could let her know that I wasn’t that guy. Even if I leaned over and said, “Don’t worry, I won’t hit on you,” then that would already be crossing the line. So while things were pretty awkward as is, I could also feel a mounting tension as the woman waited for my next move. We’d had a connection and now each second that passed would wind that connection another notch tighter. It was unbearable, so I did what any 21st century person does to escape – I fished my phone out of my pocket and began staring intently at it. I wanted to hide away, make myself disappear. I wanted to communicate the idea that I am done with you. We won’t interact anymore, but without saying any words. But the more I tried to ignore the woman, the more aware I was of how hard I was trying to ignore her. Perhaps she thought that I was gathering the guts to say something to her.
Someone break your heart, little lady?
Finally, after eons of awkwardness, enough people got off the metro to allow me to shuffle away to the back of the car. I felt that by that point it was clear that I was no longer going to interact with the woman. I still wasn’t entirely at peace, but I was far enough away from her to continue to my destination without worrying her.
It was an entirely new experience for me. Normally, I am fairly adept at negotiating social situations, but the Santiago metro is a whole other world. I’m still figuring out the rules, but one thing that seems to be a constant truth is this: If you’re young, healthy, and male, stay out of the way, leave people alone, and don’t sit down. Otherwise, you’ll just make people uncomfortable.