Riding the subway can make the sanest person feral. When someone touches me, I’ve been known to throw elbows or bump them with my bag to assert my dominance. I only remember one time in my suburban life when I felt this kind of rage. I was trying to reconnect with my dad after a decade of not speaking, and we went out to lunch. He kept saying derisive things about my mom and brother. I asked him to stop, but he didn’t see why he should, “I’m just telling the truth; don’t be so sensitive.” he said. When we returned to his office, I was done with his shit-talking. I followed him into his waiting room crying, black mascara streaking my cheeks, and screaming a warning at the couple waiting for him, “Leave now! You don’t want to see a therapist with a daughter who turned out like this. He will ruin you.”
Besides my outburst with my dad, I usually responded one way to attacks both of a physical or emotional nature. I got very still and quiet and waited for the assault to end, a classic freeze response. The subway changed my survival instinct. Instead of collapsing at signs of danger when riding the R train home, I wanted to fight. I won’t tolerate the manspreading, the hogging two seats with all your bags of groceries, and the rubbing up against me with your hard dick.
When I moved here, I was determined to shed my victim shroud. As soon as I started taking long subway rides to Central Park for a bike ride, MoMA for free museum day, or Park Slope for a drawing class, I felt myself shift into drive. Finally, I was steering my own life. I don’t know anyone here, and I don’t need to. For the first time, I don’t feel the weight of other people’s expectations pressing down on me. I feel newly alive and free.
Some days, I feel friendly on the train, and when my eyes meet a strangers’, I smile. Other times, when someone’s gaze feels invasive, I shoot daggers back and don’t worry if that makes them think I’m a bitch. I can make polite chitchat with a young woman at a cafe and, on the same day, shut down advances from strange men trying to hit on me at the bar. I can quietly watch people as we speed over the bridge on the D train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, making up stories about why they look happy, sad, tired, or angry, and I feel a part of their lives in some small way. I am alone most of the time, but I never feel lonely.
Shortly after moving here, I bought a knee-length green leather jacket in a Williamsburg thrift shop. I wear it when I feel too vulnerable and need protection. It’s just the right amount of warmth when the train is cold.
Before I moved to the city, I wore short skirts and low-cut shirts, looking for the love my father would never be able to give me. I got what I thought I wanted in one-night stands and attention wherever I went. It was never enough. I got in trouble, constantly overexposing myself. My new coat is good insulation; I only remove it when it’s the right temperature and I feel comfortable.
I only take a seat when the train is mostly empty. I pull out my book or listen to music and get lost in the beauty of a melody or the excitement of a good story, and suddenly, I look up, and we are on the bridge. Above ground, I watch as we leave Manhattan’s bright lights and tall skyscrapers and head toward Brooklyn’s ugly graffiti and squat cinderblock houses. I yearn to be powerful and rich enough to live amongst the people who walk from their luxury high rises to their jobs in the financial district or midtown. I want to choose to take the subway to the outer boroughs for novelty, not out of necessity. I could buy what I want, and what I can’t buy, I won’t need. I would be invincible, safe, and desirable.
I ride the A train thinking about what my therapist said today, “This will never be resolved. You only get one dad, and yours is not capable of loving you. Remember the story you told me about when you were 6? You said to your mom, ‘One of us has to die.’ He was so cruel to you that death was the only way out you could imagine.” Intellectually, I know that’s true. My dad is narcissistic and abusive and doesn’t want to know me authentically. I know I’m better off without the man who gave me birthday cards about picking my nose and fought my independence by telling me disobedient girls don’t get love. When I’m scared my partner doesn’t want me, when I worry I’m not good enough at my job, when I wonder if my friends really like me, that’s when I see where his love would have made me feel secure. I wish I could have that feeling, but he is not capable of that kind of love, and I am not capable of bending to his will to get an approximation of a relationship with him just to claim I have a father in my life.
I used to let the worthlessness he inspired in me dictate my behavior. An unanswered text would mean the sender hates me, and I would fret and worry about how I could have wronged them and, when they finally responded, punish them with silence for days. Now I can talk myself down and understand I am triggered when this happens like I’ve been triggered on the subway. I’ve learned that when I want to hit the person who bumped into me by accident on the L Train, I really want to beat the shit out of my dad for making me feel so fucking bad about myself. When the train is quiet, I’ve let my guard down and been flooded by the feeling I will never be enough; it’s something I may always struggle with, as do most children with a parent who can’t care about them. There is a heartbreaking honesty that emerges on the subway. I have cried hysterically, curled in the furthest corner of the train car, and watched others do the same. People shoot up, throw up, fall in love, beat their children, make out, and beg for money. As we speed from neighborhood to neighborhood in the underground dark tunnels, we are comfortable being the most needy, brutal, and loving version of ourselves, reflecting the grit and glitter of the city around us.
Seeing everyone living in their truth makes me feel more secure. It’s a relief from the manipulation and confusion of the relationship I’ve shared with my dad. There is a concept in psychoanalysis called repetition compulsion, an unconscious need to reenact early traumas in new situations. It’s an attempt to work through old wounds and move toward healing. I don’t speak to my dad anymore, but I find him everywhere. When I was in grad school, my first mentor called me stupid every time I didn’t know something while telling me and all our colleagues I was her best therapist on staff. She made me feel special, talented, and worthy while undermining my abilities and keeping me tethered to her. When I stopped being useful, she stopped being in touch. My best friend of twenty years spent hours on zooms during the pandemic, talking about her life, family, and troubles. She never asked me how I was doing, even though I had a failing business and a grueling job. When I finally interrupted her to talk about what was going on for me, she called me selfish. Shortly after, we stopped speaking for good. In the 17 years I’ve lived in New York City, there are countless circumstances where I found a version of my dad and tried to have a better relationship, only to find myself on the same hell ride with a new but familiar passenger by my side. With each year that passes and the more I grow and change, the ride gets shorter, but it never stops being painful.
Since the pandemic, I don’t ride the subway much anymore. I have cut people out of my life who cannot care for me. I stopped doing things that made me unhappy. I wear comfortable clothes that make me feel strong and beautiful. I still struggle at times with the legacy of being unlovable; I probably always will. What’s different now is I no longer live as if that is the truth of who I am. I know it’s just a feeling, and if I wait for 2 minutes, just like with the train, another one will come.