I face the first of what will turn out to be many ethical dilemmas on the subway on my first day of work. I had moved to New York less than twelve hours before and would not sleep in a real bed for another four weeks. I leave two hours before I have to report to work, not out of necessity but of nervousness. I am so early that the train is not crowded, a rare phenomenon I should appreciate in the moment. I do not. Instead, I alternate between reassuring myself that they will not fire me on the first day and trying to determine how many different shades of black I am wearing.
A girl steps onto the train. She is not particularly remarkable in any way, and I am struck by the similarities. She could be me. She doesn’t quite look like she belongs in New York either. She wears leggings, a nondescript t-shirt, her hair tossed up in a ponytail. A sweater hangs on her frame at an odd angle, half off one shoulder—the same look I often catch on myself and hate for its sloppy effect. The sweater is this shade of green that I would call moss. My sister has a sweater this color. This girl could be me, I think again. Then, I notice.
Her sweater is inside out. You have to tell her, something inside of me urges. I feel a familiar anxiety creeping up, this phantom paralysis of my vocal cords. The once sleepy silence of the early morning train is cut with escalating sound, this inescapable, maddening rushing in my ears that always envelops me when I stay quiet instead of speaking up. The longer I say nothing, the louder it becomes and the dumber I feel. Just say something, you idiot, the voice implores, but I can’t do anything. I know that I cannot beat whatever this force is, the one that all too often leaves me mute when I most want to speak. As always, the words seem stuck somewhere in my larynx.
The silence on the train is growing louder and it feels as if I’ve been debating this for hours. It’s really just been a few stops, but I can’t stand it any longer. I take a sweaty palm off the pole, ready to extend a finger to tap her on the shoulder when a terrifying thought runs through my head. What if she meant to put her sweater on that way? What if she consciously decided to wear it like that? This possibility—ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous as it is—stops me dead in my tracks. My hand is slightly outstretched, awkward, still in the air. The tag on the sweater—LOFT—hangs out in plain sight, mocking me.
A computer-generated voice jolts me back onto the subway. Where did she say the next stop was? I’m panicking now, rushing off the train in fear of accidentally going to Brooklyn. I squint into the sunlight as I exit, knowing both that I am lost and that I still have enough time to get to where I am supposed to be.
It is not until later that I realize I never did tell the girl about her sweater, and that I will never know what happened to her. I will never know if she found out, if some braver person told her, or if she took off her sweater at the end of the day and felt that mild embarrassment that comes occasionally with being human and fallible. I’ve come to know that feeling well in the moments of my life that have involved sweaters and subways and standing struck with silence, each with its varying degree of consequence. But on this first day in New York, it is comforting to know that I can fix a sweater or walk the few extra blocks easily enough, and that as far as the rest goes, I still have enough time to get to where I am supposed to be. I do not know what happened to this girl who could be me, but I hope she feels the same.