On Wednesday, I stepped onto a train during rush hour and watched the last few seats fill up.
I thought about needing a seat, needing to preserve some energy to get through the day. I thought about how my knees had started paining on Monday night as I’d settled down to sleep, and how very hard Tuesday had been on them. I thought about being perfectly within my rights to ask someone for a seat.
And then I thought about how I looked, healthy and really young and dressed in a cheerful t-shirt. And how there were other similar-looking people standing around, so how impertinent I would appear if I asked someone to stand up for me. And how I’d never worked up the courage to ask anyone for a seat before.
In the past I’ve rehearsed what to say in my head, ‘Excuse me, I’ve got leg problems/crook knees [or whatever inaccuracy I've decided is most likely to work, because 'I'm fatigued' or 'I'm chronically ill' would cause delays and doubting looks and questioning]. Would someone mind giving me a seat?’ But then the words have never left my mouth. Because… what if they refuse? What if they resent me? But worse than that, of course, is the thought that I might be asking someone who really needs that seat who I’ve misidentified as someone who doesn’t, just as I’m expecting people to misidentify me. And I can’t get the words out.
I stood on the train, trying not to fall over, shifting my weight so my knees both got a turn at breaks, waiting for someone nearby to get off the train, get off the train, why is no one getting off the train, please get off the train. I wished I’d brought some music to distract me. I wished I could overcome the social conditioning and the fear and the shame and just ask someone. I wished I could stop being so silly. And, as ever, remained as I was.
Eventually, a lot of people wanted to leave the carriage, and the only way to clear the way for them was for me to get into a seat someone had just vacated. I sat down at last and settled my legs at a carefully chosen angle. I felt guilty for the couple of minutes before I had to get up for my stop because there was a young man just near me who didn’t have a seat. I hoped I wouldn’t go through the same thing on the bus, and wondered what I was going to do the next time this happened.