It was just after five oâ€™clock. I stood in the aisle of the crowded Metro train, clutching the steel bar overhead, trying to sway with the motion of the bus's stops and starts. We emerged from a tunnel--en route to Vienna--and afternoon sunlight poured through the windows, warming the passengers, who were warm enough without it on this day that had reached 100 degrees.
You wouldn't have known he was tall if he'd stayed sitting. But the man rose from his aisle seat and shuffled his way toward the exit, near where I stood. He wore bright blue shorts that barely reached halfway down his thighs. A fanny pack hung around his waist, and a yellow hat struggled to contain tufts of gray hair.
"I speaks Russian--does you speaks Russian?" I didn't realize he was addressing me at first. It was quiet on the Metro, everyone withdrawn into his or her own world of headphones or books. I pulled myself out of my daze enough to shake my head.
The man in the blue shorts directed the question to someone else standing nearby. "I speaks Russian--does you speaks Russian?" Another negative response. The man took small steps down the aisle, repeating his question to anyone who didn't avoid meeting his eyes--his eyes which revealed a quiet, un-named desperation.
And then the Metro did what it does--it lurched. The man in the shorts--still ambling down the aisle, now without a handhold--never had a chance. He fell backwards, landing on his backside with a thud. We all stared. But he didn't move. Instead, he leaned forward, resting his forehead on his knees, taking deep breaths.