I am standing on the platform of Branch Avenue station, studying my first route of the day. A Washington Metro employee spots me and inquires, hospitably, where I’m going. I don’t know how to answer him, so I don’t. I merely blink and shrug, sheepish.
“Just riding?” he offers.
I’m relieved. “Yeah, just riding.”
He responds with a perplexed smile, and I board the train feeling rather like a child whose mother has asked her why she decided to strip naked and paint her body with peanut butter.
My destination that day was everywhere and nowhere at once. A few days prior, I had made the decision to ride the entirety of the Washington D.C. Metrorail system in twenty-four hours. Monday, August 11, 2014 seemed as good a day as any to be taken along for a ride. So that morning, after stuffing my bag with notebooks and my face with a few fistfuls of Honey Nut Cheerios, I handed myself over to passivity. For one day, I was just a passenger.
And yet, my choice to travel the metro map was not aimless: riding the train that day was a task, a roundabout pilgrimage to tie up loose ends. I had spent years scrutinizing maps posted throughout the metro, as I mentally ticked off the stops I had frequented or passed on my way to somewhere else. I learned the names like a poem, reciting them with schoolgirl discipline as my eyes deliberately traced each Crayola-colored route. L’Enfant Plaza. Archives. Gallery Place. My body knew which stations exceeded the limits of my experience; it reacted to their foreignness. Eisenhower Avenue. Huntington.
At base, I am a completist, a woman who yearns for a neatly packaged universe. I prefer full albums (digital booklet included) to orphaned, downloaded singles. I stack glasses in pairs. On my walks home, I time my music selections so that the last note of the last song will dissolve just as I reach my front door. I relish moments like this, when I can inhabit a fleeting fantasy that the scattered plot points of my life exquisitely align.
Taken to its logical conclusion, however, my predilection gives way to addiction, a visceral craving for symmetry. If my hand grazes my right knee, I need to feel that precise sensation on my left. I check electrical sockets, locks, and knobs until my bones tell me to cease. Maybe it’s obsessive-compulsive disorder; probably it is, in some mild iteration. But while I’ve sought therapy for a platter of other afflictions—and while my neuroses do, at times, make their way into those conversations—I accept them. I’m really not suffering, after all—only grappling, from time to time, with the insistently entropic universe.
When I first entertained the thought of a metro sojourn, I imagined a boozy, convivial joyride with friends. Recently the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) cut the ribbon on its sixth line, and my friend Leigha and I contemplated riding it together, just for the hell of it. But that Monday I decided to ride solo. I needed to “finish” the metro, and I needed to think. My anxiety, rarely a quiet houseguest, had been manifesting itself in especially pernicious ways. I cannot always trace the reason. But after months of nightmares, mornings where tears prefaced consciousness, and anxiety attacks accompanied my morning coffee, I scheduled my metro trip.
According to maps of the system, the structure of the DC Metrorail is pleasingly symmetrical, with all routes leading either to the aptly named Metro Center or L’Enfant Plaza. Its depiction strikes me as a multicolored mélange of octopus and snowflake. Lines are distinguished by color, and with the exception of the new Silver Line (a glittery name that ensures disappointment upon encounter) the selections are practical and basic—red, blue, yellow, orange, and green. I am soothed the map’s simplicity: it is approachable, easily mastered. It is a thing that I can do, a thing I can finish. And so, even though four dollars is not chump change for a graduate student like me, I paid the toll and made my way.
Like so many people, I am a contradiction. I both crave and loathe control. Riding the entire Metrorail system, it seemed, would accommodate this prickly contradiction. I could revel in the sensation of completion—the empowering feeling that comes when I reach previously unvisited stations—while the metro carried me onward. This is my version of being queen for a day: feeling securely in control without the exhaustion and vexation of returning to check the stove another damned time.
Long metro rides are, for me, pleasurable experiences in and of themselves. An extrovert, riding solo enables me to be alone the way I like best: in the presence of strangers. That Monday, I prescribed for myself a day of introspection, but one where I could peep out from my cocoon of self-involvement to speculate on the life raging around me—inside the man serenading us on the opposite side of the train, the creamy-skinned woman gazing at her own exquisite reflection, the ruddy-cheeked pair of boys in matching Spiderman baseball caps. I am always comforted when I remember that, on the inside, everyone is as alive as I am.
Early in my trip, I rested my head against the window, lost inside myself until the tunnel spit us above ground, and I felt a shock of thick, hot light against my face. “We Used to Be Friends” by The Dandy Warhols filled my head, sultry, electric, and brash by turns, and I thought, “I’m glad I’m doing this.” I was riding the metro because I sought tranquil security. Theoretically, it would indulge my appetite for control, completion, and symmetry as I grappled with the pieces of my life that evade order. But for the first hour, I couldn’t summon a single coherent thought. This was the best that I felt all day.
Gradually, however, it became clear that this protracted metro ride would not shore up my vulnerable sense of control. On the contrary, it began to usher in reminiscences of a near-decade of missteps and fraught memories. They assembled at stations like passengers; they rushed into my car, filling it to capacity as I bore their weight.
Memories of my ex-husband awaited me in Arlington, where we lived after I graduated from college. I had not hurt him yet. At the fringes of the District I recalled, albeit hazily, a frenzied car ride to the hospital. I had swallowed too many Tylenol before changing my mind about dying and telling my landlady what I had done. I stayed three days in a hospital that you cannot reach by metro.
In Maryland I passed the home of a fading friendship I couldn’t salvage. Union Station called to mind the last time I saw my ex-husband—the time I realized firmly and painfully that I needed to leave him. Downtown there was divorce; further downtown there was the night my current husband almost proposed. He thought better of it after the food at Elephant and Castle made me sick (it’s hard to a propose to a woman while she’s vomiting in a public restroom).
Not all of the memories ached. We passed Waterfront, walking distance from the first home my current husband and I shared—still share—together. We passed Clarendon, the site of many rhapsodic nights dancing with a favorite lady friend. Sometimes those metro stations weakened me with re-ripened joy; sometimes they tore open my scars. I succumbed to it all. Really, I didn’t have a choice. I have spent my twenties texturing this city with memory; I have made it a vessel for my pleasures and my pain. As I revisited old haunts, I collapsed under the weight of emotion that seemed, that day, everywhere present.
Ultimately, I became acutely aware that my unwieldy thoughts are themselves part of the bevy of things that I cannot control. Perhaps an undisciplined mind is what makes me so desperate for a regulated world in the first place; sometimes chaos within and without is too much to bear.
“But you can still finish what you started!” I thought, feebly, “You can conquer that map. That can be your stupid little victory.” At the end of the Orange line, I checked my phone, largely neglected that day. Robin Williams had committed suicide; people were tossing buckets of ice onto their heads in the name of other people dying of a vicious disease; and police, decked in militaristic riot gear, were threatening unarmed, grieving citizens with violence. The world seared white hot with fear and fury, and I all of a sudden felt small—as small as I should have, under the circumstances. What had I done with this day?
I didn’t finish the metro.
Rumpus original art by Claire Stringer.