He spent a lot of time on the train. A two-hour commute, each way, five days a week, sometimes six. His insulated lunch pail had three freezer packs in it to keep his sandwich and yogurt cold. He left a two-liter bottle of diet ginger-ale in the refrigerator at work which he poured into a travel coffee mug and sipped from throughout the day.
He wasn’t an unhappy man. His lips were often pressed together in what might be perceived as a snobbish sneer, but they were actually quite capable of smiling. The hands folded in his lap as opera blared through his headphones could lead his arms into a surprisingly warm embrace. People looked at his pressed slacks and his neatly buttoned shirt and correctly assumed that he was an academic of some sort. The thin, gold, framed glasses helped give that away, too. Those, and the faraway look on his face as he watched the same blur outside the window that he had watched for the last five years.
She had been taking this train for the last six years. As long as they had been riding together, they never spoke; eye contact and a small nod were all they had ever exchanged. She always had a book with her and spent most of her time engrossed in it. Every so often, she would read a passage and look up, thumb and forefinger swinging up to catch her chin as she turned toward the window to think. Sometimes she noticed his reflection.
They only ever rode together in the morning. She was never there when he and his backpack and his half-empty lunch pail got on his return train.
Today, as he looked down the row to find his usual seat, she crossed his mind. He wondered, briefly, how she got home every day, what she did. He didn’t know whether she stayed in the city later than he did or whether she left earlier. It perplexed him that he did not know this, or even her name. He could not recall what her voice sounded like.
This shouldn’t have bothered him. He had barely ever looked at her. Yet here he was, almost in a panic over it. For the last five years, they had spent two hours a day together. That is ten hours a week, nearly two days a month, nearly three weeks a year that they had spent sitting two yards apart and knowing nothing of each other. He pulled the headphones down around his neck and rubbed his hand over his mouth. Something about that wasn’t right. It couldn’t be right.
He had never had such a feeling before. This concern that there was something terribly wrong with knowing nothing about someone who happened to be little more than an ornament in his daily routine. That is the way the world is. People are furniture until they are not.
No, people are always people. He had spent the last five years content to sit and watch the blurs in the window, forgetting.
The next day, he decided, he would say hello.