Subterranean, amid the frenetic labyrinth of one of city’s biggest station, the gift got to its usual platform along the 6.45 train. Dusty window followed dusty window, each grasping casual reflections of the giant ads saturating the station curved walls – and her own blurred silhouette.
The train started to brake, and then, muffled, an old announcement began.
It was never meant to be a gift. Ages ago – lives ago – water pouring down from the tub had tuned with a laughing voice teasing another. In that life, there had been kisses, and a morning coffee; there had been him, dressed, catching a glimpse of his wife within the reflection of the bathroom mirror.
And long before that, there had also been tears, and whispers sharpen by distress.
– You always say it! You always rely on a change of casting directors to hire you. It’s enough, Jacob. If we are to have a wedding, if we are to have a family… with this unstable job…? How…? I’m… I’m not brave enough for this. I-I can’t. –
There had been resentment. And jealousy. And then giggles, and then tenderness again. There had been them, together, married.
Anticipation chipped slightly between her brows as the train stopped in front of her. Underground platforms are timeless, stuck between one train and the other, one schedule after the other. Perfectly still.
That morning, of those days above the ground, where time does flow, and they were still living in their first apartment, up early for his coming audition, Jacob had spent long time in front of that bathroom mirror.
– How would the Queen say it? –
She had mocked him, trying to conceal the proud smile threatening to slip between her lips, unaware that with each repetition he had been wrapping up her present.
– Mind the gap between the train and the platform –
Flowing out like blurred shadows, absent-minded passengers stepped into the platform. She slowly held her breath. Mind the gap.
It is funny, she thought.
They had buried him with his hat, the same one he had worn in front of the old-fashioned microphone that had made his voice timeless. A voice she had been hearing for the last five years through the station’s speakers.
– Miiiiind the gap. That’s how she would say it. But, darling, I’m going more for a “James Dean authoritative but still sexy, just not too much” kind a sound. Now, listen –
She had come every day to hear her husband’s announcement at the station where it was first transmitted. And now this was its last day.
Mind the gap.
With echoes of his voice floating in the claustrophobic air of the station, it was funny to see passengers walking to reach their next destination, each one of them failing to fall into the gap.
He had been warning her.
Mind the gap.
One of my early recollections of my childhood as an immigrant in Italy revolves around two hands holding each other in a vivid contrast of colours. I, to this day, connect that image to the dreadful, paralysing shame that crept all over my seven-year-old body the day a classmate of mine felt compelled to express her disgust towards the colour of my skin.
In my pain, I labelled her as mean.
Yet, the problem with reducing her whole character as mean is not that it is untrue – I remember her smiling -; it’s that it is simply an incomplete statement. Unhelpful and unscientific, actually, according to some studies that suggest that an empathetic approach produces more beneficial insights into those who we define as mean.
Student who are empathetically disengaged are more likely to drop out of school. Marriages that do not develop empathetic connection are more likely to fail. Patients who do don’t feel cared for suffer from a longer recovery.
It’s all about identifying the dominating emotion in others, considering why and how that person came to feel that way, and acting on the basis on those reasons.
In my case the pattern was age-old: I was dark; I was different. And, as countless studies have found, what it is different is unknown, therefore threatening, therefore repulsive. Hence my classmate’s reaction.
What it is alarming, yet sadly helpful to know is that this pattern applies in all the hate crime society keeps witnessing around. Hate crime that has doubled in the past five years. Religious, mostly Muslims, racial or transgender communities are the most suffering targets. And this is when an empathetic approach comes in handy. We may not be able to protect ourselves from the bullets that a white supremacist is shooting, but by reaching out we could prevent others from dropping out of school and diving into social isolation, from feeling lonely, afraid or insecure – we would, in fact, fight against feelings of aggression, rejection and division.
After all, now that I think about it, maybe my classmate was just making sure I could take her place as one of the darkest in our class, after being thought by who knows who that being dark made you ugly.