On a recent Tuesday I got on the train and immediately tuned in to a ruckus going on in the seats nearby. Three twenty-something men were sat in different rows, grinning and joking and being loud.
“Oh yeah? You’ll be my sponsah?”
They had perfect Good Will Hunting accents and punched at each other good-naturedly across the seats. One asked the other what he was doing at the weekend, and the guy answered: visiting family, probably hitting some bahs…you know. They laughed knowingly at this.
“You’re takin’ a full 24?”
The military? I wondered. They didn’t look like it.
Just then the person sitting next to one of them got up. Feeling generous, I took a quick look around to see whether anyone else wanted the seat.
“I don’t bite,” the guy said, noting my hesitation. It looks a bit smarmy in print, but it wasn’t. It was open. Friendly. Vulnerable, even.
“Oh,” I sighed, plopping down. “I know you don’t.”
“You comin’ from work?” he asked.
“No—the gym. Aren’t I red?” I said, palm to cheek, knowing full well I was.
“Well, yeah, but I figgud you was blushing ’cause yah talkin’ to me.”
“Well, I might be,” I smiled. “But I’m going to get off before you can know for sure.”
He asked where I was from, whether I like it here in Boston. I told him. He told me he grew up on the Cape, and spent some time in St. Thomas a couple years ago.
Doing what? I wondered aloud.
“Being young . . . and dumb,” he answered. He’d taught sailing and rented jet skis until he screwed up and lost both jobs.
His friend tapped his shoulder.
“We’re gonna be so late, bro,” he said. “We’re gonna get there at the cigarette break.”
My neighbor was looking at his iPhone, sliding around a map.
“And this is the train that has the longer walk,” he reminded his friends.
I guessed they were heading toward a Boston University music venue—The Paradise, perhaps?—and they’d have to walk north from Beacon Street. They clearly didn’t know the area.
“Where you going?” I asked.
“We’re going to, um, 32 Harvard Street,” he said, his eyes fixed on the screen.
“But what’s there?” I asked, wanting to help. I know Harvard Street well.
His eyes met mine.
“It’s an A.A. meeting,” he answered.
I looked from him to his friend and back again. Really? I wondered.
Yes, his eyes said. No joking.
“Ok. But what’s the building there?” I asked.
“Oh—it’s a Korean church. I kept telling these guys to hurry up. But I guess it’s the thought that really counts, right?” He shrugged and grinned shyly.
I knew the place. I told them where they’d get off and listed some landmarks to watch for. If they hustled down Harvard, they wouldn’t be too late.
Where did he live? What did he do for work?
He lives in a halfway house—the guys were his housemates— and helps his father with a plumbing business. A 6am bus and 2.5 hours in in transit. Every day.
We swapped commuting stories, laughing.
How long had he been going to these meetings?
“About a year,” he said. “But I’ve been sober of all substances for . . . almost four months.”
“That’s so wonderful,” I said. “What prompted the change?”
“It got tiring,” he replied. “Boring. I needed to—I needed a—” He paused, raking his hair forward. “Change of lifestyle.”
We approached their stop and I pointed out their route.
“What’s your name?” I asked as the train slowed. He put out his hand.
“Garret. What’s yours?”
I told him.
“I think you’re brave,” I said. “I’ll . . . pray for you.”
Inwardly I cringed. How would he take that?
His friends went down the stairs and out the doors. He let go my hand and softly, briefly, rested his fingers lightly against my cheek.
The doors closed, and the train lurched as it pulled away.
Smiling, I realized I really was.