I Was a Voyeur on the NYC Subway, And Now I'm Wondering: Is That What Real Love Looks Like?

I don't have the mental and emotional space to think so deeply about how I don't think so much anymore about ever getting married.
Publish date:
April 26, 2016
Dating, love, dating is hard

What does love look like to you? We're bombarded with so many images of over-the-top or fairy tale "love," prefab romance that—even with all of the efforts of communities like xoJane's, that know love is expressed in all sorts of ways—many of them still end up looking like this:

Fairy tale imagery has its usefulness, but real-life love can look very different. One recent morning, as I sat on the first of two subway lines I'd be riding to get to my destination, I saw what looked like love, and it was beautiful.

A couple got on the train a few stops after I did and sat down right across from me. Riding the NYC subway for me is a largely unpleasant experience, a negotiation between checking out so as not to take on the crowded chaos around me, and wanting to be alert and not live a life that is in any part deliberately checked out.

On this particular day, I was trying but failing to read a book, and the couple's arrival captivated me as soon as they entered my field of vision.

They rushed on to the train and sat down, huddled closely together. The wife (guess/assumption based on traditional gold band finger wrappery) opened the book that was already in her hands, a paperback copy of one of the Game of Thrones books.

She began to read aloud. In appearance and accent, I believe she is Japanese, and her husband presents as Caucasian. She had a thick accent, but still spoke clear and clean English through it. She was somehow both halting and confident in her speech, barreling through George R.R. Martin's long sentences with deliberate phonetic pronunciation and a totally justified hint of self-satisfaction. Her husband leans in closely, offering encouragement and ready to assist but not actually having to.

We already know the potential dangers of assuming or imagining the internal lives and motivations of total strangers. For all I know, they could each be married to someone else, their matching plain wedding bands being a plausible coincidence, and he's her lover, helping her steel up her English to go home to an abusive xenophobe of a husband.

Of course I hope that's not the case, but I know enough to leave room for all that I don't know. Still, to me, it looked like love. And love looked like this:

And of course, I'm projecting. The unbearable beauty of the man's patience as the woman slowly but competently sounded out the words looked like so much love that my heart actually throbbed at witnessing it.

I'm in a relationship that has hit a spot of bother, and that uncertainty casts a pall over my every move. It's not the devastation of abject loss, not yet anyway, for there is the beautiful and foul audacity of hope egging me on and helping me find my smile in the dark moments, albeit sometimes a crooked one.

It's an honest ugliness, a physical hole of questions that only beget more questions, obscuring an answer at the center of the quiet maelstrom that I might be able to see better than I think I can, were I not so afraid to truly look at it. It’s the thread I keep carefully looping around to put back into its knitted hole instead of just pulling it once and for all and seeing how much unravels.

It's a very functional melancholy. It's a practical sadness that doesn't really inhibit my actions, as long as I steer clear of overtly romantic imagery and don't listen to my beloved Adele. It makes little landmines out of life; a Twitter friend's innocent request to see what people might wear for their hypothetical weddings turns into a reason for me to log off immediately. I don't have the mental and emotional space to think so deeply about how I don't think so much anymore about ever getting married.

Still, that tarnished hope can be polished up to reveal its former self. Hope can be a help, it can be a burden, it can be a trap. It can cost us everything if it is misdirected or misguided, and in its purest, most useful state, it can move mountains.

I hope we make it.

I long for a life that does not include taking public transportation. I'm an extroverted empath and New York City is so difficult. I'm interested in what's going on with others, and I feel too deeply the messages I get in the observation of strangers. I am not a passive bystander. I grew up here, blocking out everything I could in public, and I actively don't want that to be my way of being in the world, for even part of my day.

Usually, the observations and interactions are overwhelmingly negative—experiencing street harassment or witnessing injury or harm. On this day, it was the polar opposite. And yet here I am, in a very grey place on a sunny day.

I wish that couple the best. It's such a joyful act of emotional openness to see a couple in such love and claim a bit of that joy for yourself, even if it's only theoretical at the moment—to congratulate them and imagine that one day that might be you, and to imagine it clearly and purely with no muddying doubt or fear that it never will be.

I hope we make it. But if we don't, I hope we can each still someday have what that couple on the train has, with whoever we are meant to.

Fairy tales with castles and princes are best relegated to the world of fantasy. But, though fairy tales hold little value as a model for my adult life, I do believe in happy endings. I don't think they require vanquishing a witch or finding the magic beans, but perhaps just reading out loud on the subway in the afternoon and having someone lean in and truly listen.