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  • Alexandra Hillenbrand

missed connection

At 10:56 on Tuesday night, I hustled onto the train platform. Entering into a nearly empty car, I walked toward the middle and slid into a seat. The person walking behind me stopped too, sitting in the chair in the aisle right across from me. I looked up, wondering who had annoyingly chosen to sit so close to me when I locked eyes with a curly-haired boy smiling at me. I gave him about a split second of an outstretched soft smile before I immediately turned away.

Had he sat across from me because he wanted to speak to me? Of course not, I shook the thought out of my head. Besides, that would be egotistical of me to think, wouldn't it? The train carriage was empty though, he could have chosen any seat. So why did he follow the girl in the hot pink puffer? Why did he smile at her? I was beginning to think I was certifiably nuts.

I had a book with me, having received it from the event I attended. I was already planning to read it on the commute home, but now I had the opportunity to look mysterious and intellectual. As I read Eli Rallo's writing about how she had spent a period of her life chronically in relationships, I began to do a comparison to mine. I had always been the opposite - chronically single - constantly seeking validation in my female friendships as opposed to my romantic relationships. Not necessarily healthier or having any less risk of heartbreak. However, it's true, that romance is an unchartered territory for me and something I have always been afraid to try. Unless I'm reading about it in a book, then that's easy.

Two stops into my ride, the train became crowded. A woman sat in the seat directly next to the dimpled brunette boy. Had his stomach dropped in disappointment the way mine had? If he was going to be the one to smile at me first, then why was I the only person thinking so deeply about this? I crossed my silver cowgirl boots and then uncrossed them, entirely too aware of my physical perception. I sat up straight and read Eli Rallo discuss being brave enough to take herself on a date. If she could do something as terrifying for herself as that, then why couldn't I similarly face a fear of mine? I side-glanced in the boy's direction, but I only caught the peripheral of the woman.

Two more stops and the woman was getting up to leave the train. I didn't look at him, but I cast a glance in his particular direction. His body was facing mine, away from the window. Was he hoping I would look at him? Was he just getting comfortable? I swear to God I was losing my mind and this poor dude was just chilling on his phone. But you know when you can feel someone looking at you? It's like a sixth sense that only comes out to play when you desperately need it. But what if I was wrong? What if I was, not surprisingly, delusional?

Another stop and I held my breath. He stayed on the train. I felt safe enough to look. Brown eyes. But he wasn't looking at me. So had he never been looking at me? Or was it just this one time that I looked? I readjusted the gold star clips in my hair. I unclipped them and then put them back in. Then, I took them back out, tucking my hair behind my ear. I crossed my silver boots, facing him. I took out my right airpod in case he wanted to catch my attention.

Should I speak first? I knew Eli Rallo would tell me yes. At least then it would be a hell of a story. I never put myself out there. What's the harm of this one time, with this one boy, on this one train ride that I'll never be on again? I risked another look. I gave myself a full second this time before I turned away. He's cute, which I knew, but now it was confirmed. I had been texting my friend to explain the situation. "What does he look like?" she asked. "Is there a subtle way for me to take a picture?" I responded. "I don't know that there is," she answered. I don't even bother, I know that without a doubt I'll be the person to accidentally have their flash on.

One stop before mine and I was antsy. I wish he hadn't smiled at me. Not because the smile meant anything. Because now I had to wonder if it meant anything. I was prepared for a peaceful and fulfilling ride reading my book and then, all of my thoughts were hijacked by a smile. And not even because I knew anything about him or even knew his personality. Although, of course, I decided he was perfect and kind. Mainly because I was wondering if I would ever not be afraid of something like this. If it was a girl, I would have complimented her and found immediate camaraderie. A cute boy and suddenly my personality had reverted to that of an embryo.

Then, I realized what it was. I had missed the moment. If I had smiled back, sincerely and openly, maybe we would have spoken about our evenings on the late-night commute. Maybe, instead, when that lady was looking for a seat he would have given her his row and moved to mine. He would have asked me about the book and I would have said it was called "I Didn't Know I Needed This," and I would have explained what that meant to me.

That maybe a year ago I didn't know I needed to apologize to my best friend, Eleanor. And when I finally did see her again, I would realize that true friendship feels like days haven't passed, even if years have. Us in front of a stage, synchronously writing down the same tidbits spoken by Eli Rallo, without being given a cue from the other. "If you care about making a mistake, you already won."

So the boy on the train who smiled at me didn't matter. As Eli told her audience, "Being single is not a waiting room." A relationship isn't some cure. A smile is just a smile or maybe more, but it doesn't always matter. But, friendship, that's the kind of shit you should never let go of. I think that's one thing I'm so afraid of. That people will tire of me, become bored, and realize that I'm too much. But that does a disservice to the people who know me. Thoughtful, kind, and intelligent as they are. Losing someone not meant to be in my life, that I could survive. Letting go of someone I love, that is not something I'll ever do again.

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