Please welcome today’s guest writer, Matt Leistra. Matt is a 2017 political science and journalism grad currently living in Washington, D.C. Though he’s working as an editor at a review platform for technology companies, he has his eyes set on M.F.A programs and the riches that career path entitles him to. When he’s not trying to convince his parents that writing fiction is a real job, he reads, spends too much on coffee and rum, and tries to decide if flying back to Grand Rapids for one more wedding is going to be worth it.
Because I sit at a desk for eight hours day, I have a small appreciation of what it means to be trapped. Ironically, my daily metro ride acts as an antidote to that feeling. Here’s a taste of why.
Imagine that your train comes to a stop, and you realize—shocked—that you’re already at Gallery Place. You stuff your bookmark—a square black coaster with gold writing from a coffee shop you like on H St.—into whatever you’re reading that week and swear at yourself for not moving earlier. You can’t make the perfect escape today—one where you aren’t forced to break your stride or change speed or juke around someone less skilled than yourself.
The goal is to launch yourself out the doors as soon as they open and reap the rewards of an empty platform. On good days, it’ll stretch and unwind before you like a private highway through the desert, cutting a safe path through a stifling, oppressive landscape. Today, however, your book blocked everything out; you didn’t hear the teenagers blasting Instagram stories, or the children stumbling around the cars because they refused to anchor themselves to chrome rods, or the conductor announcing, “Next stop, Gallery Place/Chinatown. Stand clear, doors closing.”
Therefore, you’re the last onto the platform, and there’s nowhere to go. Faced with a sea of shuffling feet and resigned looks you mutter, “Oh well” under your breath and inch your way through a left turn to join the depressed march.
Suddenly, you see a gap between a black backpack and a tan messenger bag, which feeds onto a two-foot-wide ledge on the edge of the platform. Your eyes widen, and you shoot through it. You’re racewalking down an express lane bordered on the right by a relatively stationary human traffic jam, and on the left by a silver train whose doors are now closing and will soon be racing ahead toward Metro Center.
There are three inches of space between your left shoulder and the train, and you suddenly realize why there are only a few others ahead of you. Your heartbeat picks up as the conductor takes the brakes off and the train lurches forward. You’re trapped on a high-wire, where leaning one way or the other means likely death, so you stare straight ahead and walk down the line of blinking, dusty spotlights set into the floor that signals an approaching train.
As the train and your pulse both speed up, something happens. In the middle of a step, between the time when your back foot leaves the ground and lands in front of the other, you seem to be weightless. For the length of a blink, you and the train are moving at the same speed. Your relatively small size, compared to the eight-car locomotive, makes you feel like you’re floating, light as a straw wrapper in a swirling breeze. As you rise and fall in the span of your pace, everything lifts off and you know what flying feels like.
But then you come back down and start to feel overwhelmed. The windows whip by faster and faster and you can’t help but look sideways. The train continues to accelerate, and you see freeze-frames of the people inside, riding along in air-conditioned capsules where each detail of their faces is scarily visible under harsh, artificial light.
You start to panic as the train keeps on accelerating and you don’t know how much more of this blustery claustrophobia you can take; the wheels crunch along and magnify the pulse pounding in your ears so that you can feel it throughout your body.
Just when you lean unconsciously to the right to avoid the vortex of wind being thrown off the train, the last car disappears down the tunnel.
With a flash, calm is restored. A hush like a blanket being thrown over a speaker falls on your ears, and you seem to be sprinting along the edge toward the escalator. With only the snail-like pace of the massed commuters as a reference, you fancy yourself Usain Bolt. A smile crawls over your face.
Emerging from the escalator into the muggy, Monday morning light, you look to the right, down the street in front of you, and see the sun trying to burn a whole through the overcast, gray curtain that hangs in the sky.
A warmth that has nothing to do with the temperature settles in your chest, and you know that you’ll make it through the day. Even though you’ll be trapped in an office until 5:45, you’ll survive because you know what it’s like to soar free of gravity, to be squeezed and buffeted by a wormhole, and to come out the other side into the eerie yet comforting vacuum of space.