Things I’ve Written About Waiting-Places

Manhattan Bridge Tower in Brooklyn, New York C...

Image by The U.S. National Archives via Flickr

By Alexandra Milak

    Every time I ride the train into the City, it comes to a grinding halt underneath a bridge, and stays there for about ten minutes. [But the train leaves on time, for the most part, and arrives right on schedule, so I guess those ten minutes where we’re suspended underneath this huge bridge in the Meadowlands is included in the estimated time of the journey.  Time spent being stuck under this bridge counts as time spent moving.]  When the brakes screech and the old tracks groan underneath the weight of the hundreds of us on board, I know we will be stopping in the same place, like we always do: underneath a bridge, high up from the ground, supported by colossal brown cement columns. The ground beneath the bridge is hilly, pebbled, freckled with neon-green water and broken glass, spray-paint cans, and weeds.  It looks like a tiny city for tiny people. Whenever we stop in this particular spot, we just pass something that for me, has become a landmark.  This bridge towers above the ground, supported by cathedral ceiling arches and columns.  If you look between the nearest arch, you can see the next arch behind it, and the one behind that, on and on, growing smaller and smaller.  But the infinity of that picture only lasts for a second, since the slowing train always manages to stop a centimeter after it, where things don’t line up any more and all I can see is swampy wasteland, colored with neon graffitied words that always feel like part of a language I’m not meant to understand.  And then I’m stuck.  Headed forward but slowing down, moving on but pausing for a breath. And then I have to close my eyes, because the feeling of shielding safety and looming danger of the bridge above, the repetition of that dull picture, and the tiny, dirty, vibrant world below is too much. Overwhelming. I spend more time on that train than I do anywhere else, I think. Waiting to get from one place to the next.
    My little sister had a brain tumor this summer.  When she had to get it taken out, my mother, father, and myself camped out in perhaps the most evident waiting-place I’ve ever been to.  Fingers tap tap tapped on wooden arm-rests, doctors breezed past, their deliberate focus ahead of them and away from us more meaningful than a glance our way.  Tired from nerves and questions, dizzy from the smell of antibacterial lotion and the sound of my father turning the pages of his book, I closed my eyes in the waiting room, sunk back into the unfamiliar teal leather and dreamed.  I returned, floating, stuck in that in-between place in the shade–I was running through the murky green water pooled sinisterly beneath the arches. And no matter how far I’d go, I was just…under another arch, buoyed but heavy, running as fast as I could but pushing through water, thick and light like seaweed and garbage.  I woke up before I drowned, just as the doctor came out to tell us we could clamber down to Recovery to see her.  There we walked, armed with our strong faces, limping with stiff discomfort, down those sterile, neon-white halls that smell like nothing. And I saw it: the snapshot of the place from the window of the train.  I felt heavy and light at the same time, stuck traveling on a treadmill of memories and white.  
    I woke up in the more familiar teal leather seat of the train later that night.  The doctors told us we should go home, that’d she’d be okay, and so we left to go lick our wounds in secret. The train stopped a few minutes after we left New York.  Ten minutes paused on the track, and then, a slow lurching to speed. I closed my eyes and sunk back into the seat, and in the blackness of my mind I looked into the mirrored tunnel of brown cement, and the little rocks below of the microscopic city I’d always pass over and never know.

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