In this life, I am the Q line’s keeper. Without thinking I can recount how many stops there are (23), how many buses are in rotation at one time (at least seven and at most 11), the length of rides between stops (around three minutes and 12 seconds). The color of the seats from both the original batch of bus cars and the remakes (purple and blue, and then gray and teal). The grimy pale yellow of the standing hand grips. The air conditioning that never worked. Outside of the Q, there is nothing else for me.
When I got back into LA from up the coast, I sensed the Q line was gone — I didn’t see it linger around corners, hovering in turnout blocks — but I didn’t look for it immediately. I told myself I’ll get to it eventually. Secretly, I hoped I was wrong. But I ran to the stop near my apartment when my lungs felt like they were exploding in my chest one night and the stop wasn’t there. The bus bench was removed. I felt heavy with the memory of what seemingly never was. It seemed like everything in my life had come together to make me find out where it went.
A rational person may say that the line was decommissioned or the name was changed. After some intensive online sleuthing and a contentious call with the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, I unfortunately have to say they are wrong. I looked through all my photos; I somehow never took one of the Q. Not with it in the background, nothing. I drove by every intersection it would stop at; no sign of life there. Nothing.
Sherry on the 4th floor of the LACMTA Central Office helped me solve my problem quite quickly. She was soft-spoken and hot, a little too hot to be working in the government. Was she flirting with me? Did I just want her? The highlight on the tip of her nose was luminous.
After I explained myself, she leaned an inch closer to the plexiglass divider between us in the hall to ask:
“So, can you tell me where this bus is?”
I thought that was her job.
I outlined where the Q went on the map like it was leading my finger; starting a bit over Fig, across 6th, a hair up San Vicente to Burton, then straight down Santa Monica Blvd until you hit Sepulveda.
“Oh, that’s where the A will be.”
“I’m talking about Q.”
“Well, that’s where the A is meant to be.”
“Okay. But where’s Q?”
“I have no idea what above-ground Q line you’re referencing, but as we speak they are building a new underground metro line — line A. Forget about Q, this is much better.”
I was living a different life before and after the Q’s existence. No, its disappearance. It’s starting to bleed together.
I first started taking the Q when I was 23. It was, objectively, the year in which I peaked. I was working at a very hip bookstore, I went out every other night. My pixie cut was starting to grow into something soft, shiny. I pushed myself to meet a lot of people, talk to anyone who would look at me. There was something new every night. Variety hounded me and I let it bite my heels.
I’ve had a hang-up on being likable, having enough friends and I tried to scrub that off of me this time. I was barely keeping up, but when I did, it was enough. Everything felt like enough.
I think Ritchie knew he never had enough, but he made it feel like enough, and I was envious of that. He drove the Q line heading east after 7pm on Tuesdays – Fridays, and west before 7am on Saturdays – Mondays. He had large tattoos that peeked out under his uniform, always ironed perfectly but he would burn his cigarette butts out on his cracked boots. His skin bubbled on his right cheek, the side I would see from my seat.
Our relationship arose out of pure proximity; the seat near the front was the cleanest and often empty. I built up a routine, craved the perpendicular seat facing west so I could see the morning sun rise on the Art Deco public storage building.
We sat in silence in the beginning. Then it was saying:
We exchanged these platitudes to each other every time, but not just how other people said it in passing. We said it with intention. I did have a good morning. I was welcomed.
I had a nasty cat’s cradle habit at the time. I was on edge constantly but I didn’t have a hard reason to point to, which made me all the more stressed. Doing it during my work break wasn’t enough, so I tried to do it solo on the metro. It was in vain, since it’s not possible with just one person, but I was so painfully optimistic and full of life. Nobody noticed on the Q, except one person.
We never went back to strangers after that.
At some point, the point of inertia I guess, everything started to feel like too much. Did I like anything I was doing? I felt like a fraud, that everyone liked a puppet version of me. If I was normal, it would all go away. I liked myself best when I stopped thinking.
I got desperate for my rides on the Q. I brought Ritchie pastries from the end of my shift; cinnamon rolls, bagels, bear claws. In the months right before I left town, I talked to Richie more than anyone else in my life. And we barely said anything. I think because we didn’t say much, my words had more potency than anything I told my friends for that month when I did speak. I don’t know if he even listened half the time, which was the perfect response.
I think the last time I was alive was when I carefully laid an apple fritter on the thin paper napkin one Friday night, holding it in place as we made the turn under Pico and it moved before Richie could turn around and grab it. When he turned around to give me a thumbs-up, I was back at my cat’s cradle. He asked:
“Will you teach me how to do that? I learned a long time ago and forgot.”
“Well, first you need to stop driving the bus.”
A smile, then:
“I’m serious. Could you?”
“Of course. Let’s do it on Monday, I’ll get off work early.”
My sister had a seizure the next day. I left town that night.
I came back to LA as a tired body with a cold mind. I left the city for a while; there was that wave of panic from fear mongering, people moved, came back, things went out of business. When I came back I was so tired I changed everything I ever did. I took a job as a remote data analyst for one of the big law firms in town. Rarely did I leave the house. I texted people back after a week, no sooner and often way later. I tried to take care of the fiddle leaf fig tree and it kept dying under the best conditions. I didn’t know my neighbors, what day it was, our current president, what war we were in. I was bored. Then I remembered my promise to Ritchie.
It’s one thing to make up a metro line, but I wouldn’t just composite Richie as a walking talking reprieve for myself. I didn’t need everything in my life to make sense, but c’mon. Someone like him had to exist. If not, I would have to start making the rest of my life logical and that would actually end me.
Searching for Ritchie was relatively quick. I never looked him up when we talked; it would have felt like I was intruding on his life. Upon investigation, there wasn’t much to intrude on. He wasn’t online much. His parents and kids, his aunts in Minnesota and Texas, his entire genetic background was pulled up with one click on a scammy site. His passport information got leaked a few years back but everyone’s social is online anyway. In a way, it helped convince me to purposefully never live off the grid. I could have deranged suitors looking for me and I would never know the compliment.
Finding his most recently-listed apartment was easier than I thought it would be; it was at the far east end of where the Q should have ended. An old dingbat apartment building, monotone and concrete, I walked past it three times before I realized it was there.
His name was still on the mailbox, though the place seemed deserted; maybe he went on a vacation. I came back the next day, and the next.
At work one day, we did an icebreaker on a call where we had to say what we were most looking forward to for the weekend. Instinctually my answer was going to be:
“I’m looking forward to stopping by the empty apartment I’ve been visiting for the past month.”
I needed to give up on Ritchie. I was starting to get heartbroken.
For my last visit to Ritchie’s old apartment, I wanted to make it ceremonial. I brought in my last pack of Coke Starlight, which Ritchie never tried because it only just came out but he loved carbonated water and I thought he would like it. Or if he hated it, he would come and find me and say so.
As I walked past apartments 3, 4, 5 to get to Ritchie’s, I noticed a small woman in a hoodie standing nearby. Judging from the way her arms draped over the railing, it seemed like she owned the place. I tried to avoid her eyes, in case she knew I wasn’t meant to be here.
“Dropping it off for him?”
There goes that plan. I looked up.
“Oh, yea, I…”
“I’m going down to see them now, him included. Want to give it to him yourself? I would grab it myself but it looks kinda heavy. And I just smoked, so I’m a little lazy. Sorry.”
She scuffled towards me.
“What’s your name? Do you smoke?”
“Great, I’m Maya.”
She lethargically explained that she knew everyone on the block who was “down there,” and regularly dropped off gifts and food for them. The government was supposed to drop off food regularly and when they didn’t, that’s where Maya came in.
“Useless, they are,” she said.
“Maybe they just forgot?”
Maya laughed really hard at this.
I thought maybe they were in an elderly center and I needed some good karma, so I agreed.
Maya’s a really fast walker. You notice those kinds of things about people when you follow them through a construction site.
I merely thought trespassing onto this dirt lot was a practical shortcut, or childish hazing. Most of my energy was focused on carrying my Starlights. But I wasn’t too out of it to notice that we were not heading back towards the street, and instead towards a gated fence. Maya turned around:
“This is just the station box. We’re halfway there.”
The station box is actually the opposite of a box, to my surprise. It’s a giant hole in the ground about 8 stories deep and a mile wide. A small staircase hugged the dirt walls as Maya lead me down deeper, away from the sunlight that ensured visibility and any promise that I wasn’t about to get murdered.
It was only when I got to the bottom that I got a little nervous. One side of the box was an archway high and wide, promising pure darkness after a few hundred yards of entering. So naturally, we entered. If I was a sheep that saw others jumping off a cliff, there I went.
She turned on a flashlight shortly after we entered, but it was almost pointless. What the light picked up was all askew: machinery and dirt covering tracks on the ground, concrete panels on the wall, dust floating. The air felt heavy, dirty, sorry. A large crashing noise came about every few minutes; in between was mere grinding, a white noise in comparison. I should have turned around.
Then I heard laughter. And then I saw the machine. A speck of light and white in the distance became an intricate set-up of hundreds of light stands, spread out for what seemed like a mile before hitting a huge white cylindrical machine that took up the entire hole. Groups of people were sitting around, sleeping, napping. Playing cards, fighting, skipping rope, gardening. A few yards behind the last group were pipework and stairs that seemed to come out of the earth.
Maya led me over to a group of people – mostly men, mostly in their 30s, all very coarse – playing cards. She introduced me to so many people. I forgot all of them in the moment. I couldn’t ask who was who again because she suddenly:
“Miss me yet?”
She roughly dropped her bags as she introduced me to the group. They said hi in a way that was half-there, but half is better than none. She nodded to a hunched guy: young, filled with a current of energy like a live wire. He was smoking a cig.
“Hey, Percy, say hello. She brought you a gift!”
Percy looked at me, now interested but also very confused. I must have looked the same too. Where was Richie? Was his apartment next to this Percy guy? Oh great, I got involved with some random girl who took me to a bunch of randoms and now I have to give away my case of Starlights.
When you’re miles down a hole with complete strangers, you end up giving them gifts you don’t mean to. Anyone would give in to the situation, just like me.
On our descent into the hole for a second time, she held donuts and cans of corn as she explained what we were about to go back into.
Line A was being constructed under Olympic, which made things a logistical nightmare for everyone involved. Government officials were desperate, as they often are, and a solution that never existed on public record was formed. Quietly, secretly, people with strong backs were recruited to work on construction for the tunnel long before the project was formally approved. When the higher-ups realized how effective this was at hitting their timelines, the red carpet was rolled out: if you worked and lived in the underground tunnel construction area 24/7 until the tunnel was built, the government set you up for lfe.
It’s not the craziest thing I’d heard of. Suffering and living in holes is basically like working remote.
It was my new flossing: I would meet Maya every Monday at the hole, carrying down supplies and food to the same entrance, the same tunnel in process, the same concrete and metallic taste in my mouth. I didn’t have anything better to do.
People warmed up to me the more I came back; maybe because I was just another body. Managing officers from the Metro rarely came by to check on the progress of things, so I rarely arose suspicion. I would come down, strike up a conversation or two, stare at the huge white machine that felt like a mechanical heart of the hole and leave.
After a few trips down, an engineer I never saw before approached me to ask:
“You want to go inside the tunnel boring machine?”
It was clear that Jake – the engineer – said it as a statement under the guise of a question. It must have been obvious, the way I kept looking at the machine. I couldn’t grasp what it was doing, let alone ask to go inside. Jake noticed. I soon learned he was the most extroverted, so this ambush made sense in hindsight.
He adjusted his jacket as he slowly led me to where the stairs and pipes hit the machine. From the first step onward, it was a new form of claustrophobia; it felt like being in a submarine with narrow ledges and lengthy pipes and no room to breathe. Jake kept taking me deeper until we reached the operator’s station off the working platform. He started rattling off names of the machine like it was the last time they could be spoken into existence. As he gestured to one hunk of metal – the conveyor belt that moves the excavated rock back. On the other side of that wall – the gripper pads, which is how the machine braces itself against the rock. At the front of the machine was the cutterhead, a thick metal disc so varied with edges and cuts and angles that Jake joked:
“It has more depth than most of the people down here.”
I sensed that I was seeing the future and the past inside of this sideways skyscraper. It felt timeless, the only infinite being among humans and crumbling rock. When Jake asked me to hold a spare piece for a few seconds, I handled the sturdy pipes like fine china.
Thousands of years of dirt and sediment, gone without a thought by this machine. But I remembered each small act of destruction so clearly. I remembered and I came back down.
Maya was very nice when she was paying attention to me and the second I wasn’t in her line of vision, I was as good as dead to her. That became evident on my fourth trip down.
I was talking to this couple, George and Thomas, about how they grew their plants underground and kept them alive.
“It’s all in what you surround the plant with…”
Someone yelled from across the room:
“Not here! She had left in a rush to put more coins in her meter.”
Oh, that’s a perfectly acceptable reason. We didn’t think much of it and I started berating them on how they could grow beautiful heirloom tomatoes down here.
“Keeping any plant alive seems like a miracle,” I mumbled.
“It’s not hard, if you constantly pay attention to it.”
We talked about that for a while until an older woman, Tina, came over and asked for my help with dinner. It was an excuse, because she was a trained chef and she wanted advice over law matters because she heard I worked in a law firm.
“I just sit there, actually. I can’t stand any of them.”
“Well, they all do! And we all do!”
Jake and another engineer, Milla, came over when they heard us; Milla used to be a paralegal. They mentioned loopholes in the legal system I’d never even heard of, and may never use. It felt like we were breaking down a game of basketball or chess.
By that point I was sleepy and I had won good fortune in the form of a sleeping bag outside of Percy’s tent. He made it seem like it was a grunt position, but I knew it was one of the better sleeping bags available and he put it out just for me. It was tucked away near some of the clean pipes. The water sounded like a young stream after a new rain. I slept there, waking up in shifts to help the group move machinery or to darn a hole in Matthew’s sweater. I felt dewdrops on my temples.
After she came back, Maya apologized and made a joke about it to lighten the mood. She told me I was down there for a little over two days.
My fear of going down without Maya fell away after that experience, and I started visiting every other day. With every trip I started to learn how life in the hole functioned. Not in the stiff way of an academic studying their subject, but as an apprentice. I learned how the tunnel boring machine worked; how to know from the slight changes in the noise from the slurry machine that it was properly filled, or dangerously near empty. How to keep your body moving when you were contained to the same 5 miles with no sunlight; how to avoid dust and dirt getting into your socks.
Everybody talked about what they would get in their new house, everything being over at the end of the tunnel, a final freedom outside of the hole. But there was a strange form of freedom in the hole as well. We could have done something, anything down there. It was our own snow globe.
I started to understand the hole more, what it means to live down here, and a lot of that understanding came from working with Percy more. It wasn’t intentional, I think. It was just statistics. We gravitated to the same kind of work and talked when we wanted to, not just to fill air. That kind of mutual understanding builds a rapport faster than you’d think. I knew when he started to touch his brow, he was hungry. When I was getting sleepy and didn’t realize it, he could tell because I’d start to repeat my sentences.
I first saw him smile when I was able to weave electrical lines together. He got a kick out of how my fingers could combine, take apart, manipulate one string into feeling endless. I told him I could teach him; he said he liked just watching.
As Percy was showing me how to depressurize the groundwater, a screw came loose and hot fast water shot up onto his face. I rushed to grab my jacket and held it over his face as he cried, moaned into my empty space.
He gripped my hand while gauze was applied to his face an hour later, after he stopped going in circles and yelling. The raw bubbles on his face reflected the limited light in the hole. It was like a new world, a different planet in our universe.
Percy later regarded it as a source of pride. I agreed. Work takes a toll, might as well be visible.
I went up occasionally enough to pay bills, to clock in and out of work. I don’t think anyone remembered me up there. I would call sometimes and they didn’t even recognize my name, my voice. I stopped remembering what date it was, what season we were in. Percy was born on a cool September evening.
Living in the hole took effort, and I kept coming back. Your body breaks down, there’s never enough money or time to get what you need, you know that everyone above you banks on your decay. Government messengers kept bluffing that the city ran out of money to finish the tunnel and it would be an above-ground line, but that was just to divide up the believers and skeptics. It was psychotic to live in a hole, to be miserable like that. It depressed me and drained me and made me remember where I was. There was no technology to tell me I was out of sync. We were all moving towards something, towards a breakthrough of dirt and slurry and concrete and it didn’t care about any of us in return.
It was a Tuesday like any other Tuesday. I was teaching Percy cat’s cradle when we started saying anything that first came to mind.
“It’s weird you came down here. I never expected someone like you down here.”
I was tired and felt honest.
“I was looking for a Richie down here but he was a metro driver, and about 20 years older than you. Wonder where he went…”
“Being a driver used to be my back-up plan but not anymore. I’m guaranteed a house and a pension after living down here. You know.”
He put out his cigarette on his boots, and I knew. I just looked at him.
I think he got it eventually because he just stared back.
I wanted to walk that back:
“What’s your full name?”
“Richard Percy Logan.”
“That’s not possible. Time travel isn’t possible.”
He got up and started pacing.
“You’re wrong, you must be. I’ll be fine. I got a whole stack of papers signed by the Mayor himself, saying I got a house and a yard. That’s worth something. It is. I’ll be fine. I’m gonna have a yard, did you hear me?”
He grabbed my shoulders.
“How did things not turn out fine? I’m doing everything that’s asked of me. More, even. What could have gone wrong? What went wrong? They didn’t give us what we were promised? They never do. I thought this time would be different. Did I do something?”
He started to shake me, slightly. I leaned into it.
The slurry machine was near empty.
“What did I do? What happened? Tell me. I need to know. This is my future we’re talking about, my goddamn life. Do you respect me? Do you? Tell me. I’m stuck here. I’m stuck here. What happened? Why won’t you tell me what went wrong?”
I just sat there, like the useless prophet I was.