[This post is part of a series, Imagine All the People. These posts aren't sequential or essential to one another. They're just about people who have come into my life and taught me something, or changed the way I saw the world, or simply made me laugh.]
As I was coming home today from school, I saw on the platform a group of middle school, maybe high school, boys. I don't think they are really feeling, thinking people yet. I think middle school boys are shells pumped full of hormones and misdemeanors waiting to happen. And they were laughing. And it wasn't the laugh where somebody just let out the most excellent fart of the year and almost killed their entire peer group. It was the kind of laugh directed at someone. The kind of laugh that always hurts. And I thought about our capacity for hurting each other. And then I saw him.
He was standing a few feet away from the laughing boys, their age and their size. But he wasn't wearing their school blazer. He was wearing a heavy blue coat that was a too big and sliding off one shoulder. He had a smile on his face. He was absorbing their laughter. He slouched forward as if their ridicule had smacked him in the chest. But something about his smile wasn't right. There was an emptiness around his eyes that let me know how things were. Perhaps he was just weird. Or, perhaps he was the boy I sometimes heard talking too loudly to his mother on the phone in the subway car, his mind straggling years behind his adolescent body. All this in a few seconds. My eyes watered as I made my way down the platform, away from the pain we give each other for no reason at all.
And I was reminded of someone else. He had been on the subway with me months ago. How could I have forgotten him? I'm not sure how many days he had been on the same train in the afternoon as I was. I'm not sure how many days it took for his courage to grow, if any. But he was carrying a duffel bag and he said, "Excuse me." I looked up from my book with wonder because no one in Korea says Excuse me.
"I just learned English." He said it like it was done and over. Finished. He learned it and now he's using it. The transaction had taken place. He was wearing a black jacket and his cheeks were round and reminded me of the dinner rolls we sometimes had at Thanksgiving.
"Oh, well, you're very good at it."
"Thank you. I want to be your friend."
My eyes widened a bit as I tried to take this in and figure out what he meant. "Oh?" was all I could manage.
"Yes, I'd like to be friends and talk."
"Okay, well, I'm a teacher and a private tutor so I don't really think I have time to teach another class."
"No. I don't want a class. I want to be your friend. Forever."
"Yes, I want to be your friend forever and talk to you."
What was I supposed to do with this? I had never had anyone ask me to be their friend forever before, not in a genuine way and not with those dark eyes shining at me like that. I had the thought that he could be dangerous, but no. He was sincere.
"Well, I don't have very much time. I work kind of far from my house and I commute and I have a boyfriend here. So, I'm quite busy." What was I saying? I had NO life outside work and Kenny. None, whatsoever!
"That's okay. I can meet you every time." I knew he meant any time. So I tried to change the subject and imagined meeting him for coffee. What would we talk about?
"What do you do?"
"I work at a bakery. I bake things."
"Oh, that must be nice."
"No. I bake things."
"Oh. Well then..." He just kept looking at me as if changing the subject hadn't worked and he was still waiting for the answer to his question. It was my stop. I had to get off and transfer. He transferred with me, but stayed a few steps behind me. On the next train, he got on few cars down and smiled at me. I smiled back.
And walking home from the station, I thought, "What was I thinking? Of course I want to be his friend forever!" I looked for him everyday after that. I saw him once. He was carrying his duffel bag and walking quickly. Maybe he had things to bake.
So many times I cite language as a barrier. And that time it wasn't. And today, on the platform, I wished so very hard that I knew enough Korean to go up to the boy standing alone looking at the group of students mocking him in some way I couldn't understand. I wanted to go up to him, hold his hand, and ask him to be my friend forever.
Ah, but the things I want to do, and the things I do remain separated. They only write long letters to each other and never seem to meet face to face.