two strangers

“Excuse me, what book are you reading?”
She looks up from the page and removes one earbud. “Did you say something?”
“Oh, yes. Your book.” He points down at it. “I was asking what’s the title.”
“Umm,” she flips the book over to see the title, “it’s called After The Quake. Did you recognize the author or something?”
“No, not really. I just couldn’t help but notice you smiling at the book as you read it.” He responds.
“Oh!” She lets out a chuckle, “the man in the story, his wife left him. She said living with him is like living with a chunk of air.”
He laughs, “Wow, that’s a little bit harsh. Don’t you think?”
“Is it?” She takes off the other earbud. “Well, I guess I’ve just never heard anyone described as a chunk of air before.”

The train comes to a stop. Some people get off, and some people get on. A massive exhale, and then the doors shut. An older lady, heavyset and carrying a purse, struggles to make her way to a seat in the middle of the crowded train. As she moves between the two strangers, the woman with the book gets up to offer her the seat. They trade places, and the train accelerates, causing everyone to tense up a little to maintain balance.

“Are you going to read the book?” She asks, now standing beside the woman with the book plopped open.
“I don’t know; it sounds a little too depressing for me, so I don’t know. A book about a breakup? I’ve read too many stories like that, and they kind of just leave me sad.”
“It’s not entirely about the breakup. It’s not even about the breakup, and there are more short stories in this book. This is just one of them.” She explained.
“What are the other stories like?”
“I don’t know. I’ve only read parts of this one so far.”
“What if the other stories also about breakups?” He asked.
She smiled. “I guess you’d have to read them to find out. You can’t just avoid a story because it’s probably going to be about something that makes you sad. The stories in this book all have to do with the Kobe Earthquake in Japan in 1995.”
“So people die too?”
“I guess,” she said.
They both turned quiet as the train slowed to a stop. The woman stores the book in her linen tote.
“This is you, huh?” He asks.
“You’re very interesting.”
She looks at him again. “Oh, stop. It was nice talking to you too. I hope you get to where you’re going safely.”

Before he could say a word, the woman was dragged by the current of bodies exiting the train.

He thought about her for a while. What was her life like? Would he ever see her again? Then he put on his earbuds. The sounds of Joy Division drowned out the noise from the train, and his gaze centered on the old lady who had taken the woman’s seat. He watched as her eyes drooped like heavy curtains, indecisive they seemed, whether to stay here or there.