It was her nose. That’s the first thing I noticed.
The night was bitterly cold. I had debated going out into the miserable weather at all. However, a few weeks prior I had committed to supporting a friend who was doing a comedy taping for a TV show that night. It was a long way away in the labyrinthine streets of Toronto: if you were going to get there by public transit, there were a few connections that were necessary to observe: bus, subway and then streetcar. I hadn’t realized the bitterness of the night until ascending the stairs from the subway to the street. The snow-covered slippery steps provided the first clue. The second clue was the wind that bit sharply and suddenly at my nose as I ascended. Halfway up, I stopped, hesitated. “Do I really want to do this?” I could only think of the warmth of my apartment. So attractive, so inviting.
Guilt and a sense of missing out provoked my feet to continue the ascent. The wind at the top of the steps made me hesitate again. I pushed forward. A year or so ago I had learned the value of “the flinch”: whenever you observe an obvious moment of flinching, that’s the time you should push through it. If nothing else, it proves that you are the author of your fate, not discomfort or the unsureness of novelty. I flinched and pressed forward.
At the corner I found the streetcar shelter, and noticed immediately that it was fully occupied. The wind picked up and I had to turn my back to it to endure it. I could feel the cold on my arms, and my teeth began to chatter. The value of committed friendship began to diminish. “I won’t be the only to one to miss this” I thought, my brain struggling to rationalize my gnawing decision to turn back home.
Suddenly a couple left the shelter. Evidently they had decided the streetcar was taking too long. I quickly jumped into the shelter to take their place, to escape the wind. It seemed too late though: a chill had set in and I couldn’t see my way to warmth, not at all. I had all but decided to head back to the subway when I saw her.
My breath stopped. It was only a glance. I turned away from her quickly, the way you do when you see a skittish kitten, hoping it doesn’t notice that you’ve noticed it. The flashing glance revealed so much: she was tiny, she had a delicate nose, her hair was blonde, and her blue eyes were wide behind gold-rimmed glasses. For a brief moment I wanted to truly get away and go home – not because of the cold, but because she represented a challenge that I was sure was beyond me.
There it was again: the flinch. I had programmed myself to face the flinch and so my feet remain rooted in that cold streetcar shelter. I faced the east, the better to keep an eye on any approaching transit vehicle, and coincidentally, to allow me to glance very occasionally in her direction. I noticed she was be-bopping to music, and it was only then that I noticed she was wearing earphones. She was holding a pizza box too, and was looking in the same direction for the delayed streetcar.
Another couple tried to make their way into the shelter, so I attempted to oblige them by moving to the back of the shelter, squeezing in next to the girl. At the last moment, they decided they didn’t want to come in after all, so I stepped forward again with a puzzled shrug. I glanced back and noticed that the girl smiled at my unconscious reaction. I returned her smile and turned back to look for the streetcar again. Strangely, the wind and the cold ceased to exist.
The streetcar eventually arrived, and it was packed with riders. We all struggled to get on and to find a place. The girl and I stood next to each other, her with her pizza held up in order to avoid hitting anyone’s head. She was so tiny, and she had to reach so high to keep the pizza aloft. I debated asking her if she wanted help. The city has its own unspoken rules: strangers tended to send up walls against each other, insulating each of us from the crazies and the creepazoids. It was self-evident and understood: you just don’t talk with anyone.
It was stupid too, and I was short-sighted in my unconscious acceptance of this protocol. My mouth remained shut and I didn’t offer to help her.
A dozen blocks down the road, the streetcar driver blew into his microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen….blah blah….need to turn at Drew St. If you want to get to….blah blah…you should get off here.”
The girl removed her earphones. “What did he say? Did he say something about Osslington?”
He had. I said so. “Yeah, we have to get off here and walk if we want to get to Osslington. That’s where I’m going. Are you?”
She nodded. “I hate this system” she said. “It’s always something isn’t it? They always want you to get off before your stop and wait for the next subway train or the next bus.”
“Or they expect you to walk several blocks with a cold pizza” I added. She laughed.
We got off and walked together in a companionable silence.
There was no past. No future. Just the present. We talked.
She was from Cape Breton, on the east coast of Canada. That explained her ignorance of the Toronto Protocol. She was friendly and open. A refreshing and welcome change from the norm. I learned that she was taking a silversmithing course and that she was artistic. Like me.
We only walked a few blocks when I reached my destination. I gave her my name and she gave hers. I said “I’d ask you for your number but I hardly know you”. Trying to be cute and funny and achieving neither.
She laughed uncertainly and walked off to wherever she was going (I never learned the destination of that pizza). I turned the corner, aware of a lost opportunity.
“Oh well” I thought.
It wasn’t until later that I realized I had succumbed to one final flinch. The flinch that kept me from going back after her and saying “you know what? I was being a doofus. If you’re free I’d really like to get to know you better. As cliché as it sounds – I’d love to have a coffee with you. What do you think?”
The universe has provided second chances before. In a city of millions of people, I’ve seen it happen before. Maybe it will again.
I hope so.