The following is a work of fiction.
I’ve always found the ocean to be a great source of renewal. That is why, after a weekend spent by and in the sea, I walked down 33rd street to Penn Station feeling like the whole world belonged to me. The traffic lights aligned and I held a steady gait, walking by billboards and aimless midtown tourists who had all been carefully placed to make me feel that I was important, because I had somewhere to be and a particular time to be there.
My destination was so consuming that I kept my eyes down, weaving through drunk and disappointed soccer fans pouring out of bars after an anti-climactic finish. I had been, like them, watching our boys with rising anticipation of victory. Our elation was premature, and instead of electric afterglow, the streets gave off a meandering in-betweenness, not quite indifference nor celebration. It was a draw. Certainly could have been worse, but we were all thirty seconds away from an exuberant eruption.
I kept my head down through the cutting glow of brightly lit but locked down storefronts, tributes to humanity’s insatiable desire to sell things, kept alive by the reciprocal and equally insatiable demand to buy things. I watched my fellow pedestrians, drowsy from a few beers and the jarring shift from a loud tavern to a nighttime city block, endeavor a bit too far into the crosswalk only to be warded off by a taxi or garbage truck bouncing down the street.
I walked around the train terminal, stunned by how early I had arrived. Satisfied by my prudent planning, I felt mature and adult. I looked at magazines at a newsstand, stunned by how many things existed that I simply did not want to read. There was a wall devoted to pornography. I wondered who was buying that before boarding a train. It couldn’t be to read while on board, I thought. That’s probably illegal. I imagined someone doing that and laughed, equally disgusted by the vulgarity of it, and a bit jealous of the absolute disregard for convention such a person would have.
The departures board in the train terminal is an imposing thing. It’s your only source of information in the whole place. Ticket holders stand there staring, waiting for the shuffling clicks of its mechanism. It is exalted – we look at it as though Moses himself is carefully descending Mount Sinai with the train schedule. Our devotion to it is telling. We live in a world of instances – minutes, seconds. We are spoiled rotten by immediate access to unlimited information, and we expect that immediacy and precision in everything. Even though we, as people, are not capable of giving it.
As I stood there, a girl who I assume is about my age joined the crowd in being consumed by the board’s enchantment. She was wearing a blue shirt and white pants with some kind of overly elaborate sandal that had about four more straps than necessary to remain secured to her feet. That combination has become a uniform amongst women of my generation. It is satisfactory and doesn’t require much thought – the couture equivalent of scrambled eggs.
I didn’t pay much attention at first. As I was fidgeting with my luggage, news of our train’s delay elicited a groan that identified who my fellow riders would be. The girl was one of them. Several times, I did an exaggerated visual sweep of the terminal with the intention of getting a better sense of what the girl looked like. It’s a common tactic. I have a feeling that despite my attempts at concealing it, my intentions in looking around are obvious.
Finally, our train boarded. Masses of people gathered at either escalator, jockeying for position to get down to the platform earlier in hopes of securing a seat alone. Everyone always wants to sit alone. It’s an unspoken goal of travel to have two seats to oneself. You have to sit down, and arrange your body and luggage in a way that conveys “don’t even ask”. Then you have to hope that the train remains uncrowded or that you look sufficiently surly to discourage anyone from entering what you’ve claimed as your space.
I found two unoccupied seats and began the “don’t sit here” dance, sitting cross legged with my back to the window and opening the adjacent tray table. I took a notebook out and pretended I was deep in thought so people would think they’d be interrupting something important if they asked to sit next to me.
The girl from the terminal walked down the aisle and we glanced at each other briefly. She sat down in the two seats across from me and arranged her things. She hoisted her suitcase into the overhead rack with about as much grace as is possible in that situation, making me regret not reaching out to help. Feeling inconsiderate, I offered my assistance to some other passengers, who thankfully accepted gracefully. It’s embarrassing to offer help, especially in something we’ve always been taught is a basic gentlemanly thing, and then to be refused. She sat by the window, and placed a large tote bag on the aisle seat. Embroidered by the handle was the name “Mary”. Probably her name.
I looked at my notebook, and started writing gibberish in a misguided effort to look interesting and enticing. It was silly, but around strangers you can be anyone. I decided to be a guy who wrote things in a notebook while on a train. She laid down and went to sleep. It was about eleven at night, and I’d had a busy weekend. I contorted myself into as comfortable a position as was possible, and dozed off.
I woke up about half an hour past Baltimore, with only open track between our train and its destination. When we were about five minutes away, I noticed she was still asleep. I tapped her on the shoulder, gently but with enough momentum to be noticed. She looked up, rubbing her eyes.
“Is this the last stop?” she asked.
“Yeah. We’ll be there in a few minutes”.
She stretched out, shaking off the symptoms of an abrupt awakening and started to arrange her things. The other passengers did likewise, checking their seats and the netted pouches by their knees for any possessions they may have left there. They started lining up in the aisle, forfeiting a couple minutes of watching the passing lights and buildings for a thirty second head start out of the train. I didn’t join. I love looking out the window.
After a few minutes I was walking through Union Station’s ordinarily majestic main hall, now covered in scaffolding and platforms as part of an infinite renovation process. I exited, and saw the taxi line had about one hundred and fifty people with it. Dismayed, I walked away and decided to find a cab somewhere down Mass Ave. Again, I felt like I was on a mission, more determined than those who had decided to stand in line for a guaranteed but frustratingly delayed opportunity to hail a cab.
Normally if I’m awake at two thirty in the morning I’ve had too much to drink and I can’t keep track of my own thoughts. This time, dead sober, I moved with invigorated pace, feeling like I was doing something important. I wasn’t, but the late hour made it feel like I was battling the clock.
Even though there were no cars around, I looked both ways to cross the street. Of all the after-school specials, that one was the most successful. As I took in the panorama, I saw the girl whose bag said “Mary” walking on the other side. As we continued on, she crossed to the side I was on and walked on the shoulder of the road. I was on the sidewalk. I don’t know why she didn’t go on the sidewalk as well. I decided to make conversation.
“Where are you headed?” I asked.
“Just up the street.” She raised her arm and pointed forwards. “That building over there on the corner”.
I nodded as though I knew exactly what she had pointed to. The street had crisscrossing intersections, so there were about fifteen corners and each one had an apartment building.
Searching to continue the dialogue, I said; “You know, I’ve never taken a red eye train before. This is the first time I’ve seen it so quiet”.
“Yeah. I was on a six o’ clock train at first, but then I wanted to watch the game. My friends were going to dinner, so I said ‘what the hell’ and moved it back again”.
“I wasn’t ready to leave either.”
It was true. I’d had a great time. We’d spent the weekend swimming, drinking, and joking. We’d spent too much time discussing the relative merits of the women who had joined us at the beach, and essentially no time actually talking to them. As we walked, I became nostalgic for something that had only happened a day before. We continued our conversation, about what I don’t remember. She thanked me again for waking her up, and I said of course, I would have wanted someone to do the same for me.
As our paths diverged, I said goodnight and crossed the street. I stood in the lights of an apartment building’s driveway and watched her continue along to her destination. I felt regret. I had spent the last six hours within five feet of another person, and hadn’t even asked her name. Her bag’s embroidery was a hint, but I could have at least asked. Maybe we would have gotten along.
There is exceptional lucidity at such a late hour. Every feeling is magnified, and the barriers we normally put up to avoid meaningful interaction are worn down by exhaustion. To me, it’s when we’re most attuned to others, but maybe too tired to manage expectations. I stood there, thinking I had missed a big opportunity merely because I had spoken for five minutes to someone who was decent enough to make small talk with a stranger on Mass Ave at three in the morning.
I got in a taxi.
“Where are you headed?”
“Palisades.” I was contemplating too much, and I forgot to be polite. “Sorry, just past Canal Road on the left. Thank you. It’s late and I was beginning to fear I would have to walk home. I’m glad you’re here at this hour.”
I sat in the back seat, thinking about the girl with the white pants and how friendly she had been. I’d like to see her again, I thought, but I guess it would come down to luck. Luck’s how we ended up sharing those few words anyway. One train earlier and I wouldn’t be writing this. I was tired and I was overthinking. I stared blankly out the window, wondering if I would still care in the morning.
“Night time is a different world, don’t you think?” The driver asked, just trying to make casual conversation without realizing how profoundly those words would strike me.
“I was just thinking the same thing.”