Essays

Goldfish

Amelia Dmowska

My winter boots are soaked in gold; my toes tingle as I dip them into the puddle of light that pours from the lamp above. Miniature suns in golden boxes bob over the wooden boards of the “L” station—artificial suns whose heat sizzles in the cold. Mud and ice are caked into a trimming that borders the planks of the station, lining the edges of the benches and seeping into the crevices between the train tracks. It hasn’t snowed for a few days, but the gray afternoon clouds above are heavy, expectant reminders that the real sun hasn’t colored the light for a week or two.

The Green Line train heading south to Ashland/63rd suddenly roars past me in rapid strokes of dull metal and neon green, interrupting the otherwise quiet dwindling of the meager afternoon light. I was supposed to get on that train, but I just huddle further backwards into the light box, turning my numb nose and cheeks upwards towards the pulsing heat.

As the warmth colors my face, bundled-up figures begin wading into my pool. They spread their gloved fingers through the currents of light and create ripples in my puddle. A woman’s bent-over figure stumbles into the yellow glow, tugging behind her a small waddling bundle of cloth. Splotched with pink roses, her cheeks bloom as she breathes out, adorning her scarf with the glitter of crystallized breath. Her young daughter’s toffee eyes are barely visible between the amorphous wool wrapped around her head. The mother scoops her daughter up into her arms, closer to the heat, and the bundle of cloth squirms until settling there. The beads on her braids clink and chime like miniature bells as the girl lifts her tiny face towards the light, unleashing a bundle of hair and a small nose from the wool’s embrace. She sniffs the fresh air.

Chicago has a strange winter smell. It’s as if the cold erases the entire atmosphere, creating a blank slate that amplifies each distinct scent. Warmth muddles smells, concocting a heavy perfume of flowers and sunlight and breezes into one muggy whiff. The cold, though, is a blank chalkboard that traces the trajectory of each brightly-colored line as it flows by—sharp, crisp, clear. The fragrance of smoky wood gently floats into the train station, and I can almost see it spiraling through the air. Dark green, like a forest, the scent skips along the planks, cradles our noses, and melts into our pool of light.

Another scent slowly crawls towards us like a yellow inch-worm. It smells like decay, like old staircases and sour milk mixed with the tang of urine. A haggard man hesitantly tiptoes into our puddle, grunting something in a heavy breath mixed with the clink of bottles in the plastic bags he’s clutching between the exposed fingertips of his frayed black gloves. He ripples the light, and the waves push the woman backwards a few steps. I try to acknowledge the man’s grunt but my joints feel too stiff to move and it’s so much easier to stand immobile, letting the waves wash over me. Slowly, the yellow inch-worm dissipates with the icy gusts of air as it continues to crawl along the periphery of our circle.

A few more hunched figures stumble in, a few stumble out. People stumble in the winter, it seems. No one assuredly faces the Cold with a head held high and shoulders arched backwards. Instead, arms are crossed, eyes are watery, backs are slumped. The light dwindles further, but I stay, huddled, in the corner of the box, momentarily connected to a few other people by the same yellow glow, like a yellow string that wraps around our ankles.

Sometimes, the distant outline of a figure refuses to enter the circle, standing on the periphery of the station, staring down the tracks into the city’s mouth while enveloped in its frosty breath. When the outline glances back towards the yellow box illuminating this eclectic handful of Chicago, I feel we are less like people and more like fish—goldfish hooked on a line, temporarily tethered together to the yellow lights above. Swimming in a circle around and around in our yellow pool.

The light above unexpectedly flickers and then gives out; the golden water suddenly floods out from beneath our feet, pouring onto the wooden platform and dribbling down onto the tracks. The line snaps, and we disperse, marionettes free from the puppeteer’s string. The other suns continue to bob along the rest of the station, and some begin to stumble towards them. I walk to the edge with teeth chattering as I look at the city’s own jagged skyscraper incisors, waiting for the next train to arrive.

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