The other day I got on the L-train at Third Avenue, hair still wet from the gym, molars cemented together by the last bite of my post-workout protein bar. Grabbing the nearest pole, I quickly scanned the occupied seats, knowing that if I parked myself in front of the nearest pair of Converse, I’d probably get a seat at Bedford or Lorimer. Listening to a recent NPR podcast and rifling in my bag for some gum, I quickly spotted her. The ex-girlfriend of an ex-boyfriend of mine.
We were never friends, despite, or perhaps because of our many similarities: age, occupation (writers), both petite brunettes who probably bossed around the same man in the same manner. I mean, who ever befriends the most recent exes of one’s current lover? Similarity becomes liability in such circumstances—too ripe for comparison, even without such a parallel profile. I kept close tabs on her back then, and now, years after that man has exited both my life and this city, she remains in my peripheral consciousness. Our careers have both progressed in the last five years, and the glare of inferiority dimmed enough that I note her publications with some warmth. I find myself recommending her work frequently to my students who aspire to a similar brand of smart and sexually frank humor. Given that I’ve met at least one fan of my work to whom it was suggested by her, I assume my remote friendliness is reciprocated. All of this is to say that we share one of those non-friendships that are particular, I think, to New York. We know each other plenty well enough to recognize on a crowded train, but not enough to acknowledge it. I had just invited her to an event via Facebook, but I wasn’t ready to say hello.
Forgoing the gum, I pulled my book out of my bag instead. She was too close to simply pretend to not see for who knows how many stops; I needed a shield—a way to feign engrossment in something other than the occupants of the train. In all likelihood, I’m guessing she did the same – became suddenly compelled by the shoes of a nearby passenger, or her own chipped fingernail. These moments happen sometimes in this city, and they have the air of a tacit agreement: not here, not today. It’s not that I wouldn’t approach her under different circumstances—at a reading, or party, when I had some advance notice; perhaps even on the subway, on a different afternoon. We are due for an actual conversation. But an impromptu interaction, held captive under the unflattering subway lighting? No thanks.
It’s not only with such ambiguous persons either. I don’t have to have a muddled history with someone to ignore them on the train. That friend of a friend who was so friendly to my dog when we met outside that restaurant that time? The woman I was BFFs with for the length of that poetry class in college? That friend of my girlfriend’s with whom I’ve shared a dinner table? That cutie across the aisle reading one of my favorite books? Not today.
It makes sense. I’ve lived here for twelve years, had innumerable impromptu train conversations, many of them pleasant. I never used to skip the opportunity. But I’m not afraid of missing out on something. And I’m not really looking for new friends. In the past decade, my life has consisted of an increasing amount of communication. As a teacher, writer, iPhone wielder, and social networker—there are few moments that I am unavailable for connection to other people. It’s no surprise that I’ve grown more protective of my silence. I guess that explains it, mostly. Though it wasn’t always the case. There was a time, not too long ago, during which I feared overlooking that chance meeting, the one that might change my life.
“Dear tattooed girl jogging in McCarren Park: your dog may have tried to eat mine this afternoon, but when I looked into your green eyes, I felt something more tender than bloodlust.”
Back in the first half of the Aughts, when my computer still had a mouse, I pored over such missives with a fluttering heart. Tattoos? Check. Anti-social running partner? Check.
“As your blond ponytail bobbed away, I wished I’d offered you my number, or at least that of my dog-trainer. Do over?”
Blond ponytail? Nope. I’d scroll down the rest of the page, and then the next, and the next. There were scads of messages for tattooed girls in Williamsburg, as well as for those with green eyes, making my daily patrol of Craigslist’s “Missed Connections” a real rollercoaster of possibility. A close friend introduced them to me around the time I graduated college, in the form of a forwarded email with the heading:
“Busty hotness in Duane Reade this morning – m4w (6th Ave & 8th Street).”
My friend headed the inside message with: “You’re boyfriend is looking for you.”
The below posting read:
“You: in pink spandex with booty to spare, checking out insoles. Me: leather jacket, duct-taped headphones. Hope you didn’t slip in my drool. Call me.”
Or something like that. I laughed, followed the link, and was hooked. It went from an ongoing joke (we routinely emailed each other the day’s most appalling pleas) to a habit, to borderline compulsion.
I remember Missed Connections being well known at the time—evidenced by Adrian Tomine’s illustration that graced a cover of The New Yorker in November of 2004. It was titled “Missed Connection,” and boasted two white twenty-somethings, eyes meeting through the windows of passing subway trains, both holding the same book (whose cover was unidentifiable). A few months later, the Times published an article profiling the offshoot of Craigslist personals, citing 7,000 postings per month in New York City.
In general, I was more fearful of missing things back then. I think a lot of people are when they come to New York—this is where “it’s” bound to be happening, whatever it is. For years, I never missed a conversation with an acquaintance on the train. I even entertained the conversation of friendly strangers on a regular basis—much more so than I do now. Who knows what I might miss otherwise? For years, I kept going to bars and not having a good time, because I was afraid I’d miss the one night it was just like it used to be. I’d been in love like that, too.
It’s not that there was a lack of connection in my personal life, however. When first introduced to Missed Connections, I was in the midst of wooing back a girlfriend I’d wronged terribly in college. For months we sent long, late-night emails that were eventually discovered by her live-in current girlfriend, thereby ensuring my success, and completing a kind of cycle of selfishly inflicted pain. I hadn’t really changed, and so the outcome of our second time around didn’t much either.
After that was a much older guy—funny and easy, nothing too serious. But when I wanted out I didn’t know how to say so, and I just stopped coming around.
Then I met the man who’d just broken up with my future train-acquaintance. I’d stopped drinking by then, so we lasted longer, but I didn’t know how to tell the truth yet, and there were things he didn’t learn until I published them after our breakup. The pitfalls of dating a writer, sure. But also someone with a lot of growing up to do.
This is not a list I’m proud of, but one that may explain a fear of missed connection. Through all these relationships, I kept visiting Craigslist, scanning strangers’ anonymous pleas: I should have said something. I shouldn’t have walked away like that. Do over?
And then, I found one meant for me. “You: holding court outside the record store with your dog, black sweatshirt and bangs, 4pm. Me: smitten.” I replied to the anonymous poster, and within minutes we had a plan to meet outside the same record store a day later. What were the odds?
The following afternoon, I hid in the clothing boutique across the street, peering through the window for his arrival. As promised, my admirer arrived wearing a green t-shirt. Leaning against the storefront with an iced coffee, he lit a cigarette, looking studiously nonchalant. He was cute, but watching him sip his coffee, glancing casually up and down the block, I was consumed by an overwhelming disappointment. I felt inutterably lonely, peeking over the clothing rack at this stranger across the street. What had I been hoping for? I can’t claim to have known then, though I do now. I’d been hoping for a familiar gait coming down the street to find me, a familiar face smiling in recognition. All that time I’d spent scanning those thousands of hopeful cries, I’d been looking for one meant for me, not a tattooed girl with green eyes, but Melissa, who’d acted ungracefully, and wished she could do it over, do it better this time. I’d been looking for the connections I knew I’d missed, and those weren’t going to be found on Craigslist.
My interest in Missed Connections waned after that, and ended completely a couple years, and a lot of growing up, later. There is a moment in your twenties when you know what it means to love rightly, but not how to do it. Your fears are still stronger than your beliefs. I don’t think it makes sense to regret those wrongs, because how else do we learn? Usually, we can’t repair them, and we don’t need to. But we do have to feel them, and it doesn’t always feel good; we might owe some amends, but no one owes us forgiveness.
I’m less worried about missing something these days. I’m not worried about missing the party. I’m not worried about missing a connection with someone I don’t know. And I’m a lot less worried about missing a connection with someone I do. I haven’t been in a bar in eight years, and my choices are more conscious now than ever. The other day, I chose to keep reading my book until my exes ex-girlfriend got off the train a few stops later. I don’t greet every acquaintance I see these days, not out of fear, but because the time just isn’t right. It’s a clearer choice now: who I talk to and when, who I love and how well. What matters most is who I come home to when I get off that train, and how she smiles when she sees me. We don’t get do-overs, so I want to get it right the first time.