Sally Bucey finds herself one step away from disaster on the city’s subway: I watched the beige doors close and the underground train began to move, leaving the Carranza station along with my last chance to save myself behind. The stuffy air was worse than I had expected and worse than I’d encountered while waiting at the platform. Between two middle-aged women I stared at the occupied seats in front of me, one by an elderly woman and the other by a presumed daughter or female relative. I didn’t get a very good look at them as the blackness set in; at first the man to my right disappeared and slowly additional people disappeared from my periphery until there was nothing. I couldn’t see. I knew what was coming.
I’d woken up this morning almost as usual, except for a sluggishness that I couldn’t quite shake. Within an hour I was resigned to my bed. My headache set in and I began to think about classes soon to start, a city I’d just met, another life I’d just said goodbye to. Buenos Aires had surprised me with graffiti covered architecture, littered streets and countless obstacles of dog crap on any given walk. The next five months would be an adjustment, starting with finding out where to buy soy milk. I thought about my program advisor and mentally added that to my list of brewing questions. If I felt better by 4pm, I would go to my program’s weekly mate session a subway ride away. Laying down on my tiny mattress, I slept.
Sun shined through my heavy wooden blinds and I registered the daylight while trying to remember where I was. Ah, the Paris of South America. How could I forget? Stretching my limbs, I climbed out of bed for a glass of water, feeling refreshed for the first time in a long time. Back from the kitchen, refreshment in hand; I grabbed my sticker-covered laptop to check a few emails. The light shined blue, yet nothing happened. I tried again to restart my computer, this time with annoyance and while pressing a few keyboard keys. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I was below ground already, sitting on a dingy bench in front a Milka BonBon advertisement when I first realised, this is a bad idea. Already I was weary from my two block walking commute and as I waited for the subway to arrive, I wondered how I would make it the next 7 stops. I’d already paid my 1.10 pesos and probably out of foolish pride, I refused go back. Questions about my now-broken computer, how to fill out a post office form that I didn’t understand and where to find some soymilk in this city drove me to stuff my body into the crowded subway car and position myself near some seats. If I was lucky, I’d snag one and spend the rest of the ride staring at the Porteños’ fashionable boots.
Alas, I wasn’t lucky. There I was, five and a half subway stops from my destination, holding onto the rail above me for dear life and contemplating if I would get robbed when I passed out in a few minutes. The blood had already drained from my face and I felt chilled. There was no exit for me once my vision had disappeared; I could barely ask “how are you?” in Spanish, much less ask someone for a seat. I concentrated my fading energies into staying conscious, holding onto the metal above me, and standing straight up. “Plaza Italia” said the loudspeaker, “Palermo” reached my ears although I didn’t hear it. The metal slipped away from my fingers and I searched desperately above me. Despite my best efforts, my body buckled.
Her hand rubbed my back and said something in Spanish as she nudged me to put my head down. The hard seat underneath me was a pleasant surprise despite not having any idea how I’d managed to finally grab one. My vision returned, slowly, and a comforting voice said things I didn’t really understand, but her tone of voice assured me that they were kind words. I registered the scene as I cautiously sat upright again. An empty ring of space surrounded me and the place I had been standing was now vacated, the way ants avoid repellent. Every eye within 10 feet was glued to my face, watching my every move, listening to me stumble through “gracias” and “lo siento” like the foreigner I so blatantly was. My purse was still attached to my body and a younger girl with long, brown hair held my hand. Her eyes were a matching deep shade of brown and she smiled at me, saying something along the lines of “compañera.”
We sat on a bench underneath Avenida Pueyrredon, in what I would only later realize is the worst-smelling station in Line D. I felt ashamed to have put myself in such a helpless situation and simultaneously eternally grateful to have been helped by a complete stranger. “Carolina,” she said and pressed a black stone into my palm. My fingers closed around it and she explained, in Spanish, that it had healing properties. I only had to concentrate my energies into it. It was a load of bull as far as I was concerned, but even so, I appreciated the thought and squeezed the tiny rock; it jabbed my skin, but I felt better.
Her eyes searched for a word among the C’s in my Spanish-English dictionary, as I tried to get to know my subway savior. My thoughts were still hazy and my legs were still weak, but we laughed at the failed communication attempts anyway. It felt good to laugh. When we made our way up to street level and looked at a map of the city, she looked at me with concern, not wanting to go without assurance that I wouldn’t get lost. The fresh, above-ground air brushed my neck and I held a recently-purchased apple juice. Only an hour before, I’d felt the same rejuvenation after a long nap, only this time I only had a few blocks to go before the next couch.
I think back to that day sometimes, when Carolina and I enjoy an authentic mate in her apartment, laughing at my still-botched, but improved, Spanish. I had sent her the most gracious email I could think of that next day, half Spanish, half English, and 100% bad grammar. Be it by a stroke of fate or coincidence, she’s my neighbor and we now spend time together, no longer two strangers but now as two friends. Her kindness is never-ending, offering to help with whatever she can think of and sharing any knowledge she might lend me. Her boyfriend, whom I met later, is the same, unbelievable amount of kind. They are a breed of people you don’t meet very often and value when you’re lucky enough to stumble across, or in my case, collapse in front of.
The wide, crowded streets of Buenos Aires are now a temporary home to me. Each day I pass a staggering number of strangers, but I know that among the seemingly indifferent faces exist people who will do the right thing when presented with the situation. These people will give up their seat on the subway when you ask, “Me permise sentarme? Me es malo.”