Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The El

I was on the El traveling toward downtown. Only ten stops to my destination. I listened as the electronic voice rattled off the various stops. I counted for a while on the map. I couldn’t sit down, nervous energy in me. I hadn’t taken the El in more than a dozen years. It was strange to be riding on it again. The train moved and swayed and my body moved and swayed with it. I kept my head down. I was a surge of thoughts.

The El took me to doctors.

Poking and prodding, trying to figure out what was wrong.

The El took me to a hospital. I cried at five a.m. as someone tried to get my twenty-year-old self to sign a loan for a life-saving surgery. I had no one to call.

The El took me to despair.

The El took me home again.

The El took me to the city for a thousand follow-up visits.

Once I was raped on the El.

I once commuted everyday on the El.

The El was a friend and a foe. The El was this ever-present part of any number of hard-and-harsh memories. The El was necessary, and maybe a little evil. But I rode the El anyway. When I left the country I left the El.

But I got on the El.

And somehow getting on the El felt important, like trying to come to terms with who I am in this now, this place. And I’m not sure I’m ready, but I’m not sure I’m willing to keep avoiding it.

You slid the card in and it reads the number and the dollar amount and counts up how many trips you can take. I wonder how many trips it will take. I climb the stairs as wind whips around my jacket. Two people rush up next to me, hearing the train pulling up, but I don’t want to hurry. There is a time for reflection on the walk up and I don’t want to lose that. Crusty handrails trail on either side of me and I am afraid to touch them.

I get to the top and walk across the wooden platform. The clomp, clomp of steps on a lonely platform in the middle of a Chicago afternoon as I wait for a train. The sky is blue with high clouds, and the sun shines. I can hear the birds chirping as I breathe in, inhale the smell of it. The El is a strange mix of scents, both human and disgusting, wood and steal, iron and oil and electricity, and the sharp smack of ozone as the train nears.

I look down the track and I can see it pulling in. There is a moment, my heart beating fast and I find myself alone, captured on the platform of the station on a chilly Chicago afternoon. I stand and stare at myself in the reflective glass of the sliding doors. Metal and glass and there am I standing and looking back at me. Black curly tendrils drifting on the wind and dark glasses cover my eyes. I look into me and then I open up completely and step inside.

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