Every morning, Cassandra’s alarm clock yanks her from her gentle dreams and plunges her into the nightmare known as reality. Sighing softly to herself, Cassandra lies perfectly still in her mahogany framed bed, contemplating whether today will be any different. No, she decides, with a meek chuckle. Her dry eyes find the ceiling, where she stares at the coffee spots splattered across the off-white stucco like some rotted constellation. She counts them in her head. Seventeen in total. There’s no reason to count—the coffee spots never change.
Cassandra has gotten used to it by now, the ceaseless waiting. Time is her friend, and waiting is by far the hardest easy thing to do. And so, every day Cassandra yanks on her same pair of red high-tops, the dingy shoelaces long past frayed, and tiptoes to the bus stop on Eighth Street. There she stands, a small frame much too short for the plastic awning. A slight frame, always stooping to shoulder such a dignified name. She sits on the far right edge of the metal bench, nestling herself like a piece of paper neatly folded against the graffiti-speckled wall.
At precisely eight o’clock, the women who wear pencil skirts grace the bus stop in a flurry of palaver and perfume. Casandra is a speckled moth, a completely different species from these vibrant monarch butterflies. She hardly understands a word they exclaim. Cassandra glances at them for just a moment, her dark eyelashes fluttering up like a feather, then down in the same instant. Mostly, she just stares at their assortment of high heels—stretched leopard skin, peeling alligator scales, and polished chrome so bright she can see her reflection.
“Did you hear the news about Paris?” one of them gushes. “I think I’m going to cancel my trip.”
The others nod in agreement, acrylic nails clinking away at cellphones. They seem too polished, too perfect to be breathing the same air as Cassandra. They swish their platinum blonde hair, their cherry-stained lips stretching across million-dollar smiles.
Cassandra is not like these shiny women, no, Cassandra is a special type of forgettable. She is nothing, really. Just a few graphite lines, quick, hard strokes, sketched onto a blank page. Smudged eraser crumbs mar her complexion. Her eyes are puddles, two unyielding black droplets that reflect the colors of the world back to you. Her hair falls flat against her forehead, her ears the only outcrops interrupting the waterfall of black. Cassandra’s thin lips are chapped, flaking with the stale words she’s never uttered. She fades away, engulfed by her own shadow.
True to schedule, the old man from around the corner shuffles towards the bus stop, brandishing the day's newspaper. His clothes are all the same shade of beige, even his scent smells like the dusty drawers of someone’s closet. Today, it is drizzling and he takes extra care to shield the newspaper from the sky’s tears. Cassandra glances at the pages out of the corner of her eye. She is an expert at this, swiveling her focus without moving her head, dreaming without taking the first step. The dates shift, the headlines change, but the essence is always the same, the words merely rearranged into new patterns. As far as Cassandra is concerned, yesterday, today, and tomorrow’s news are all just recycled bits of history.
The bus rumbles down the avenue like a splash of red against a black-and-white page. Its doors fold open, wheels splashing up puddles of water as they squelch to a halt. Cassandra waits until the others have boarded, and then she creeps behind, soles barely kissing the glistening pavement. Her pale fingers clench the cold handrail and her feet drum down the aisle in a well-rehearsed melody. Every part of this routine is ingrained into the fibers of her soul, each step a banal part of her daily choreography. Cassandra sinks into the bus seat, her blue uniform fusing into the frumpy indigo fabric.
Here in the bus, the world outside feels distant, like a movie being fast-forwarded too quickly. The pane of foggy glass is a barrier, a shield from the cacophony of sounds whirring outside. The bleary faces of traffic lights—always red, sometimes yellow, rarely green—blink at her, ripples distorting their luminous glares. The red and white pinstripes of the barber’s awning, the fuchsia walls of the bakery. The barren limbs of trees reaching for the cloudy sky, their vivid leaves lying clustered at their feet. Cassandra clenches her knees and leans her head against the cold glass, droplets of condensation trickling into her ear. Bullets of rain pound against the window. The raindrops never fall in straight lines but rather drip in sinuous rivulets, leaving small flecks of themselves behind.
Once at work Cassandra nods a cursory hello to her boss, who never so much as grunts in reply. The bosses are always changing—no one works at a train station for long. Cassandra trudges to her ticket booth, flicks the sign to green, and perches on the spindly stool. With her navy cap low on her brow, she assists passenger after passenger. Two college students headed to Boston. A woman with hair the color of fire. A man who reeks of mildew and smoke. Cassandra’s fingerprints are everywhere and nowhere. They handle brochures, process papers, and double-check schedules—yet she never makes the slightest imprint onto anyone’s memory. The hand of the brass clock swings itself around and around, and maybe this is all time is—just an infinite loop, a circle of drudgery leeching the flavor out of life until it becomes dry and difficult to swallow. Times change, trains leave, rain falls, and Cassandra works. Train tickets slice into the flesh between her fingers, a thousand tiny paper cuts coalescing into a deeper wound. She bleeds blue ink from stamps, the ruck of the train station stains her clothes, and motes of the ordinary cling to her hair. Sometimes she fancies that she’s merely a statue, neither sentient nor tactful, gathering dust as she waits for fate to reveal her hand.
Cassandra is always waiting. Waiting for the world to notice her, waiting for a promotion, for some random stranger on the street to glance at her and say, “Hi, do you want to grab coffee?” She reads tickets. She traces the names of places she’s never been to. Far-away lands that sound like heartbeats, words that scintillate with foreign smells and sights and burst with strange colors. She waits on customers, abasing herself before them, praying that she will carry the answers they seek. The train station is not a destination but a channel, and Cassandra’s life is confined to being a conduit. This place of in-betweens, sealed between two pages of a book, trapped behind a plexiglass wall through which she sparingly interacts with the outside world.
Cassandra harbors dreams, but her aspirations are stapled to her finances and are mailed away at the end of each month with the rest of her bills. She is the flighty sparrow, searching for a soft place to land in a city full of metal spokes.
When Cassandra finishes her shift she flicks the sign to red, nods at her boss, and boards the same bus. There is no one at the bus stop to greet her, save for a cold fluorescent street light. There are no twinkling stars. A biting breeze nips at her collar, and Cassandra crosses her arms over her threadbare shirt, fingers digging into the flesh of her sides. She will spend the night wallowing in pools of sorrow—all the high-heeled girls will be at happy hours.
Cassandra wakes up the next morning and begins the routine of tallying the splotches on the ceiling. Except this time, she stops counting at sixteen. When she arrives at the bus stop, Cassandra stands tall, upright, next to the platinum girls. She does not possess their natural aplomb but feels like an imposter, wearing her pride as a cloak—a shabby imitation of a fancy dress. Nevertheless, she lines up her red sneakers with their high heels, and when no one rebukes her, she feels a new sensation unfurl within her. Boldness.
For a month Cassandra tests the boundaries of her life, blurring the lines she’s so painstakingly laid down for herself. She rips up the blueprints and builds a new foundation, one with organic angles and incandescent windows. Each small act kindles a spark within her, a catalyst to do the unexpected. She is no longer the girl who believes in fate, who lets constellations dictate her journey. She is no longer the girl who waits for a golden ticket to be sent her way. The days go by and life hums the same tune. The same fundamental melody entwined with hiccups of an upbeat harmony.
Until one day, Cassandra abandons her station and boards the next train.