I'm sure that anyone who has ever had a commute can attest to at least once, recognizing, then becoming distantly familiar with the people they commute with--a familiarity which eventually changes our perceptions about those people to a point where we begin to acknowledge their existence as actual characters, and more than just set-pieces to our own lives.
Myself included, I've gleaned stories from silently observing almost everyone I've ever shared a commute with in my time here. Like the sweaty, suit & tie samurai whose crazed ten-speed tore headlong down the wrong side of the street, ridden by a demon fifteen minutes late for a rendezvous with Japanese Lucifer. His polar opposite; a plump, stern-faced woman who wobbled her lazy mamachari up the sidewalk. Rain or shine, summer or winter, always clad in the same green spotted apron and faded pink blouse. Without a doubt, a local middle school cafeteria lady if I ever knew one. Both characters visually ripe with enough backstory for me to conjure up on my 20 minute ride to Handa Mountain.
But then there came "red scarf." I was never able to give Her a story.
She was always on the last train home. 11:55 from Kurashiki, on the Sanyo. Without fail, every Friday night, for nearly six months. Always boarded from the same place at the end of the platform, standing quietly nearest the doors, burgundy lips pursed as she stared blankly ahead out the window at the scattered glow of the passing countryside. Raven hair always pulled taut and pinned back, slim black overcoat stopped just shy of brown leather knee-high boots. And wrapped around her neck, always a red scarf. Burberry if I had to guess.
The colors of her character's existence in my commute created something of an anomaly--a subtle hiccup in this gray concrete matrix of Japanese life. It wasn't the ambiguity of her dress or the way she maintained a total disconnect to the floor she stood on. And it wasn't a typical world weariness for her young age either--something I've grown accustomed to witnessing in this country where 80 hour workweeks are the norm. Her baggage was different. Not Coach, not Marc Jacobs, but rather the palatable air of sadness she carried with her.
When my position at school shifted early last year, I was forced to cut back on my non-contractual obligations. Since the Kurashiki private lessons were the first to go, so went the weekly Kurashiki commute, and any other chances of finally understanding what this strangely emotionless character could see in the lights beyond the window.
And then out of pure coincidence last night, I saw her again, but on an entirely different 'last train.' This one, hundreds of kilometers, and dozens of stations away from where she always got off. This time, neither expressionless nor alone. In the same coat, boots, and scarf, she was at the arm of an elderly, well-dressed gentleman who led her carefully by the hand down the shinkansen aisle. He finally chose an empty row of seats in the back of the car. They both seemed happy. Him, perhaps more than she.
Suddenly, a small fragment of her elusive story made sense.
It was the first time I ever saw her smile.
"Small world," they'd all just say.