In the middle of the night, during the second leg of my train trip across the country, someone snatched my phone.
I was in route from Chicago to New York, half asleep but still conscious on a crowded car. I fought my disbelief and fumbled for my glasses. Two men had just walked down the aisle to the back of the train. I cornered them and my voice grew loud. I was sure I woke up the whole train. But as they protested, I worried that I was falsely accusing them. The train conductor I rushed to find was unhelpful, murmuring that he would check up after our next stop.
I borrowed a phone from a passenger and called my parents in the empty dining car. My voice broke when I tried to explain what happened. The absurdity and hopelessness of it all came out in sobs. A moment later, one of the men I suspected came into the dining car and sat across from me. Look, he said. I am really sorry about your phone. But it wasn’t me. I wouldn’t steal.
I tried to breath and feign calm. He was pale, with a face peppered with acne, tall and skinny in baggy clothes. He told me he had been through a lot in his life, that first his mother, then his father died recently. He was newly divorced. All he had left in the world was a sweet 6-year-old daughter, the only thing worth living for.
I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this, he said. I guess I just really wanted someone to talk to. It sounded like a line out of a movie. A moment in a short story. I wanted to believe him.
He took out a stack of crisp, hundred dollar bills from his pocket. He said the three hundred dollars were all he had left, but he felt so bad that he offered to give me the last of his money.
I said no. I have to go, I told him. I went back to my seat. I was crying again. The British man next to me offered me tissues, and his kindness made me feel worse.
I was more upset than I should have been over a phone. But it was three AM in a narrow dark compartment, and everyone around me seemed a possible suspect. I had given up.
The man from the dining car came back, unexpected. He began to accuse my neighbor passenger of stealing my phone. He was drunk and belligerent, yelling tense, frightening insults at my neighbor, who stared back at him with cold eyes. He was provoking my neighbor to fight. I wanted it to be over, for him to go away.
He did, finally, with his hands in his pockets, still muttering curses. I was afraid he would pull out a knife. I didn’t expect him to come back with the conductor, who took my neighbor away for a talk, and then came back for evidence from the rest of us. He collected signatures on a notepad, testimony that the man from the dining car was the one who instigated it all. When the train stopped at the next remote, upstate New York station that wasn’t his destination, the man was escorted off.
The conductor returned to our car. He dropped my phone and my earphones, still wrapped around it, on my lap. He confessed, the conductor said. Or, he hadn’t confessed, exactly — he said he said he saw my neighbor, the one he provoked, throw the phone into the trash, in the narrow alcove at the back of the car where I first accosted him. My phone smelled like cheap, packaged train food. But it was functional, mine again. The entire car clapped.
I didn’t know what he was thinking, my phone thief. Maybe he felt a moment of remorse, watching me cry across the table, listening to his unlikely story. Maybe he saw an opportunity for an easy crime, and instead got enwrapped in a drama. Maybe offering the cash was a test of my morality. Maybe he reacted instinctively, defensively, not thinking at all.
On a long train ride, strange intimacies formed easily, and rituals quickly became established.
On the first two days of my trip, on the scenic California Zephyr, I settled into an oddly familiar ritual as the train passed through plains and mountains and grass fields and rivers, through states I might have forgotten — Nevada, Utah, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming.
I slept curled across two Coach seats, and woke early, when the sunlight fell through the window. In the tiny bathrooms with the folding doors downstairs — barely the size of a small closet, I performed a morning routine with facial wipes and a foldable toothbrush. I spent most of my days in the lounge car, with its floor-to-ceiling viewer windows. The land outside was riveting, but my fellow passengers were as fascinating as the view.
Some had tangled hair and burnt orange skin, and lined up at every stop to chain smoke frantically. Some had charming Southern accents. One man, a farmer from Illinois, marveled when I told him I was a writer. I watched stains accumulate on his gray t-shirt over the next two days. One day, he found me at a smoke stop and read me the poems he wrote. One was called The Raven and the Dove, a simple poem with a bright, simple rhyme scheme, about the triumph of love and optimism over darkness. It seemed childish, and yet, sweet.
One afternoon, I sat next to a cowboy who had been to 48 states of America. He was a tractor operator, and a bull rider in rodeos. He had just left California after a cleaning up an oil spill. In California he lost everything — his car, his new laptop, his wallet, his cowboy hat and cowboy boots. I cried like a baby and got out of there, he said. He spoke slowly, with a hesitation between his words. He spoke of how he wanted to travel to Italy, have his honeymoon there. His simplicity was endearing. I wished that I had talked to him more. I developed a retrospective crush, though he wasn’t particular handsome, imaging a different life, in which we rode away into a marvelous sunset.
I spent most of my last day on the Zephyr with a precocious 10-year-old boy and his family. They were moving to New York, and blogging their train ride and big city adventure. They had roomettes sleeper cars, and were train aristocracy. I helped the boy compose blog posts and a poem about the boring fields of Iowa, and in Colorado, we picked rocks to bring to his little sister as souvenirs. His parents were smartly equipped with liquor, and shared a French 75 with me before they went to dinner. I watched dusk settle outside, tipsy and delighted.
Shortly before we arrived in Chicago, the boy asked if I could wait for them on the platform. I looked for them at Union Station. When I finally spotted them, a divide had already sprung up between us. The easy intimacy on the train dissolved in the busy station, and our goodbye felt strained. We exchanged contact information, but though we were going to the same destination, I knew it was unlikely that I’d see them again.