It was Thursday, and I was standing waiting for the north-bound train with all of the other 4:30 commuters. Underground, it was warm still, and the heat lamps had not been turned despite the snowy weather above. There were a few pockets of people visiting, craning their necks over their scarves so their mouths were visible. Most everyone else had their headphones in, staring straight ahead at the reflective panelling on the wall on the other side of the tracks. A few of the posters have expired – Cariwest was in August.
Even through the music playing in my ears, I heard the announcement for the incoming south-bound train.
“Century Park on track 2.”
There was a gust of wind as the train came into the stop, slowing down. And then a woman screamed.
Like, properly screamed. This wasn’t a little child after attention, or a melodramatic teenage girl. I’ve heard those screams before. This was a woman screaming in very real terror, and it struck right in that primal, tribal part of my brain – and no doubt, everyone else’s. I have never heard anyone scream like that.
Everyone on my side of station wheeled around to see what had happened. The train crawled its last few metres and came to a stop, and into my view came a man. He was laying on his stomach on one of the massive links between train cars. I could only see him for a second before people rushed to help him, fastest among them the woman in the beige toque who ran up from where she had been standing when… Had he jumped? Had he fallen?
The man was shortly back on the platform. The south-bound commuters filtered into the train with a little less haste than usual, everyone trying to watch the couple as they walked together down the platform, past a few open doors before they finally got onto the train.
The woman was holding his arm, and she kept saying, “Why would you do that? You didn’t have to do that.” Her voice was thin.
The man never replied, at least not before the train doors closed. A moment later, the doors all opened again. The conductor had come out onto the platform and was asking our side of the platform where this man had gone. A few people pointed him out and the conductor nodded his thanks. He went up to the man and put one foot in the train.
The man had taken off his coat and was rubbing one hand against the small of his back. Whatever the conductor asked him, the man just shook his head. The conductor stepped back from him and as he turned away, he said, “You don’t have to lie to me.”
As the conductor walked back up to the front of the train, the couple got out of their car. They waited for the train to start lurching forward on its way, and they walked to the escalator and rode it back up to the surface.
Everyone on my side of the platform watched this in silence. Even though I saw that the man was all right – physically, at least – my heart was still wild in my chest, triggered by that scream, that warning that was as old as time itself.
“Clareview on track 1.”
One stop later, I had mostly recovered. And then I did something that I think is common among writers, but no so among most other people. I took that awful, terrified scream and I filed it somewhere where I would remember it. The same place where I keep the various expressions of people’s faces, the details of how it felt when I was in a heated argument, the words from that argument, any level of pain from every injury I can remember.
Most of this stuff is what most people try to forget, but I hold onto it, for the sake of description and authenticity. For my art. It’s odd, but I need to keep it somewhere.
Writers are always listening and watching. We take your fleeting sad expressions, the deeply personal information you share with your friend while sitting a Starbucks, your screams and what was possibly your public suicide attempt, and we keep them. We don’t hold onto them with judgement or to use against you, we just collect them as facts of the human experience.