We’re packed together, like sardines in a can. The gentle motion of the subway rocks us back and forth. There’s no service down here, so there’s no excuse to be on our phones. Sitting across from each other, we try to avoid eye contact, even though we can’t help but glance over furtively when we think the other isn’t looking, or catch each other’s curious reflections in the window. I smell the pungent perfume radiating off the woman next to me. There is a small hole in her stockings. She is wearing boots, but I can tell she has a pair of heels in her large handbag to change into later. I can hear the man next to me chewing gum. He has large headphones on and is moving his head up and down, up and down. The woman across from me has two children sitting next to her. She’s fussing with their clothing, trying to get them to sit still. Once in awhile, she’ll peek over and give me a look, as if to say, This might be you one day. I give her a sympathetic smile. I watch the struggle ensue from Lafayette Avenue to 14th Street. She gets off the train and gives me one last glance.
In high school, the loud shrill of the bell indicates that class is over. I walk through the crowded hallways, pushing by backpacks that are more like mini houses than anything else, and avoiding pointy elbows. Walking past the water fountain next to room 238, I see her familiar curly brown hair and dirty Doc Martens. I don’t know her name, or even what grade she is in. We give each other slight smiles as we walk past, the usual exchange at approximately 10:32 a.m. The blurred faces of people I don’t know, but to whose presences I have become so accustomed, move past.
The stale, oppressive air on the airplane is already too much. I shift in my seat, bumping the guy sitting next to me. I think he’s my age. “Sorry,” I mutter, since I’m not sure if he noticed. When the flight attendant comes over, he orders a coke. “With ice, please,” he adds, even though I can feel the vent blowing frigid air on him (I closed mine as soon as I boarded the plane). He’s also wearing a T-shirt and shorts. I wrap my sweater closer around myself. The older man sitting to my other side orders a V8. I remember reading an article about how tomato juice tastes better at higher altitudes — something about how the change in pressure affects our taste buds. I wonder if he read that article too.
Why is it that I still remember these small interactions, seemingly trivial and unaffecting? There is so much about a person that remains unaccessible when we sit across them on a subway or see them moving furiously through the hallway. Yet there’s a sense of interconnectedness that forms when we are exposed to them continuously, or for extended periods of time.
What are their stories? What do they do? Where are they going? Do they have significant others or families? These questions arise as I sit on the subway, watching the woman I don’t know give me a look that implies that I know more about her than I may think. They come to mind when I pass the dirty Docs and see the copy of Othello she clutches tightly in her arms. These questions run through my head when I sit next to the strangers on the plane, wondering if their drink preferences have anything to do with what they’re like.
I remember first learning about this phenomena, labeled the “proximity principle,” in my high school psychology class. My teacher explained that the concept of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is false, since the three factors that influence why people develop relationships are similarity, physical attractiveness and proximity. The proximity principle describes the tendency for humans to form interpersonal relations with those who are close by. People who encounter each other more frequently tend to develop stronger relationships. The mere exposure effect is related to this principle, since it refers to an individual’s tendency to like novel stimuli more if if they encounter them more repeatedly.
It’s not exactly as if we’re developing deep relationships with the people we sit next to in class everyday, or the ones we spend long rides with. But at the same time, we experience a brief connectedness with others that almost seems tangible. We get a little sliver of another person’s life through the ways we unknowingly communicate — stolen glances, quick observations, short exchanges. These interactions we have with others, on the subway, in the hallways, in a large lecture class or on a plane, show how little we know about others’ lives — we only catch a small glimpse of something we aren’t completely sure of, but can attempt to know and understand. But above it all, there’s an underlying similarity to our experiences. No matter where we come from or where we’re going, we’re able to find ourselves in the same place at the same time.
Gaby Leung is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.