Winter 2012, #18


Trains & Spaces

     by Meghan K. Barnes

She says she believes in mermaids, but not in God, because she''d seen a mermaid at Ripley's, during her first week away at college. That she'd never seen God, not even in lowlands where her mother and father were buried. She tells me that she lived with a great aunt for while, in a big city, nothing as big as this though, she whispers, nudging my hand. But that it was big enough, bigger than what she was used to. She says she's moving here to make something of herself, because if there is a God, maybe her parents are still watching. And maybe if they are they won't be upset about the things she'd done when she was younger, that maybe she would be able to make up for that. She smiles when she tells me this, and looks me in the eyes, and I know that I love her. I love the imperfection of her smile, how it slowly peels further back on one side as she holds it - how she sometimes bites on the tip of her tongue when she's trying not to do it. She has been sitting next to me on the train for the past four days, and seems to tell me important personal information, but has never mentioned her name. I try to remember if I had told her mine, and she may have possibly whispered hers in exchange. But I am unable to remember if this ever happened, and I don't want to be rude by asking her for her name.

He sits next to me on the train every day. He was waiting with the paper already divided into sections, and an extra scone when I saw him. He says that it's because he missed me over the weekend, and because it's Monday. Who really likes Mondays? He smiles and dunks his scone into his drink. He pauses for a moment and tells me that he was married once, to his high school sweetheart. That it would have been seventeen years this Friday, but he lost her somewhere along the way. Cancer, he whispers, patting my hand. His eyes tear and he takes a moment to steady himself. I wonder if I should ask him how long it's been, and then ask anyway. He seems shocked, but able to speak about it. Almost seven years, he says. I nod, and ask if that's what brought him to this town. He says that they used to say that they would move here one day, that they would make something of their seventy-thousand dollar college educations, that they would be happy. He says he figured once she died, he owed it to her to at least try. That he wasn't sure about the happy part, but he may be able to make something of his education. But that he hadn't moved up the executive ladder as quickly as he hoped, that's why, he says, he has to take the train.

She doesn't get on the train for two mornings, then after the long weekend she's back sitting next to me. She looks tired, dark rings have formed around her eyes. She says that she must have eaten something that turned in her fridge, but that she didn't have the time or money to go grocery shopping in the past few weeks because she always had to pay for these damn train tickets. I told her that you can buy monthly passes, and she looks somewhat grateful, then shrugs. She says they shouldn't charge you for transportation, not this kind at least. She is much more bitter than usual. I ask her if something else is really the matter, and she gets up and walks a few seats away. I want to call her, and ask her to come back, but remember I don't know her name. She looks like she is ready to cry, or scream, whatever emotion it was that is going to spill out of her is going to do it quickly. I decided to get off a few stops early, so we don't have to stand together as the doors open. But I leave the comics in the seat for her. She's much prettier when she's laughing.

He won't stop pushing me for information after I tell him I am sick. I figured that telling him that would end the conversation. That I wouldn't have to tell him what happened. There are certain parts of yourself that you are willing to share with a stranger on a subway. Some of them are intimate, but universal, so you know that they will understand. And you can usually tell ahead of time if they would be the type to judge you. In a town where the only people you know are the men and women you work with, all who live a 40 minute train ride away in the city with their families and their children in some different world that is so distant to you— well then sometimes it feels good to have a conversation with a stranger as if they're an old friend. Lonely people have a way of seeking each other out, if it is only an understanding nod or look as they pass each other. But this conversation seems to be never ending. Each morning we pick up exactly where we left off. He divides the paper between us, and we talk as we flip through the pages and sip on our coffee. He looks at me like he knows me, and understands what I'm speaking about when I talk. But he doesn't seem like the type that understands that sometimes I just get sad, and call out of work with the flu. Sometimes I just like to be alone and not talk about it. But then he gets off the train two stops early, half-smiling at me as he exits. He leaves the comics folded loosely on the seat behind him, along with half his scone.

She's at the platform before me that morning, sitting on the bench outside of the compartment that we always ride in. She has two bundles of greasy wax paper and a pile of napkins sitting next to her, and motions for me to come and have a seat. I sit on the far edge of the bench, and place my coffee in the space between us. She slides a bundle my way and begins to unfold hers. Steam rises into the cold, dry air and I could see what appeared to be a breakfast sandwich of sorts. Bacon, eggs and cheese ooze out of the sides of a roughly formed dough ball. They aren't as good as my mother's, she says, or maybe they are. But they're much uglier. I ask her if she made these and she nods, causing a string of cheese to fall from her mouth. Sorry, she says, wiping her mouth. I tell her that it's all right. That sometimes I'm a messy eater too. She looks at me funny and beings to laugh. I can see small particles of partially chewed food stuck to her teeth, but I love her laugh anyway. It is a hearty laugh, one that starts in her stomach and forces its way out through the world. It isn't a laugh you make fun of, even though it is quite distracting at times. It is the laugh your hear in the middle of a particularly unfunny part of a movie, that causes the rest of the theater to begin to laugh. She says that she means she is sorry for yesterday. She is sorry for being snotty, that she had just had a rough weekend and didn't want to talk about it. She asks if that is okay. I nod and ask if that's why she made the sandwiches. She blushes, and crumples up her waxed paper. She tells me she grew up very poor, but that her family always had food, and that she didn't realize she was as poor as she was until she moved into the city. That whenever her family upset someone, or wanted to thank someone, they would bake them a dish, and bring it over to the other family. She says she isn't sure if I have a family, because I never speak of them. And that she isn't sure where I live, so she thought this would be the best solution. I thank her, and promise to upset her more in the future if it means getting a homemade breakfast.

He slips into the train as the doors are sliding shut, carrying a folded brown paper bag. He says it won't measure up to the breakfast I made yesterday, but that he thinks we have the beginning of a new tradition here. He suggests we start new. Forget that we have ever had a fight. I'm Robbie he says, extending his hand with a smile. Rowan, I say. He tells me that he left early this morning to get the bagels, that he planned to wait in line. Not a line as long as the one he waited in, but a line. He tells me to take a bite that he got his favorite for me: blueberry nut-wheat with strawberry cream cheese. I try it and smile. What did I tell you, he says, smiling back at me. It's all in the Philly cream cheese. He tells me how his mom used to make him these when he was a kid. Except they didn't get cream cheese like this from the store. His mom made it. They were dirt poor too, he says, but that he did know it. He tells me how the kids used to make fun of him because they all knew that he was a scholarship student. That they would put special marks in their old suits before taking them to the goodwill, so they could check and see whose he bought. I tell him that I'm sorry, but that it must have been a good education. That he seems to be doing all right for himself now, despite everything he's faced. He smiles, says that he wishes he was still young, and reads the newspaper for the rest of our ride.

She tells me that she would like to buy me a drink. She says that she feels weird only seeing me on the train in the mornings. She blushes when she says this, and doesn't let her eyes meet mine for a few moments. I tell her that I understand, and that I wish I had her number so I could bring her soup when she was having her panic attacks. She tells me that she has never told anyone about those before. She says she's glad she finally told me, and is sorry it took her almost three months to do so. She reaches into her small purse and pulls out her card. She says that these are her old cards, she doesn't have a job that she would need a business card for now, but that she had been saving this last one for when I asked for it. I blush and ask if tonight is too soon to call. She says that she wouldn't mind, and asks for my card in return. I tell her I don't have a card— that I have nothing to write on, but will give it to her soon, and ask where she works. She mentions some place a few blocks from my office, and I smile and tell her I know it. She looks nervous, but smiles anyway, and tells me that she still wants to meet me for drinks.

He is waiting for me at the train stop and I feel ridiculous. I never see him on my ride home, and now I am carrying an oversized bouquet of flowers that he sent to my office with his number. I wonder if the girls I work with think that he's a one night stand. I bet they are questioning why I don't have his number. I would be too if I was sitting with them, but maybe I would be nicer. Maybe I would say, 'Hey I bet they met at a wedding,' that they danced all night and he had to call the mother of the groom to get her number. That it's not creepy, it's romantic. Then they would say, no, she must have met him on the internet. That's how lonely women meet men these days. I would nod, and lose my voice, because I, too, had tried to find someone on the internet, but found that even there, no one was looking back for me. He smiles and helps me with my things, says that he wouldn't mind walking me to my apartment, that he thought I would have left some of the flowers at the office, or given some to the girls that I worked with. I tell him that I did, that there was a large bouquet still on my desk, and that I didn't want to share with the girls because they had been jealous. Good, he says, claiming a four-seater aisle for us to sit in. He tries to grab my hand, but I slip it away. He tells me that he bought flowers like this for his wife once, that she didn't like it either. He apologizes. Says that he thought we were different, but the more he gets to know me, the more I remind him of her. He says that I would like her if I met her, that we would get along grandly. I smile, and tell him that I'm sure we would. I tell him that I'll see him tomorrow, and that I'm fine walking home alone with all these flowers.

She doesn't know that I am walking behind her, or that her sweater hangs lower than her jacket. I bet she doesn't know that she walks with a bit of a bounce either, or that she nervously places fallen hair behind her ear as she fidgets with the flowers. She doesn't see me as she reaches a row house and enters the key in the door, or as she halves the flowers, leaving a pile on her neighbor's door. I tell myself that this must be an elderly lady, one that she helps cook dinner for, one she invites over to watch Jeopardy on particularly lonely nights. There is no name tag on the mail box, or distinguishing features about it, besides the flowers sitting crookedly on the small stairwell. I pause for a moment and decide to look through her mail, to see if there are any conversation starters. I am able to tell that she likes to garden from the coupon books she receives and that she doesn't check her mail often, the contents are overflowing. Past due letters are shoved in with free magazines and flyers for the pub down the street. A bank statement falls out as I try to close the box. I can't help but read the bold print on the envelope. Action Needed To Be Taken. I slip the envelope into my pocket and walk away.

He doesn't know that I saw him follow me home from the train station, or that I watched him rifle through my neighbor's mail. I think he thought the house that I went to first was my own, but I am just house sitting until they come back from Europe. He tries to start a conversation with me, but I am unable to reply. So, you like to garden, he asks. I figure you liked to garden because you always switch your shoes when you get onto the train. I don't have the heart to tell him that my heels are just uncomfortable. I tell him that I love to garden and that my grandmother and I have been doing it since I was a child. That she lives next door to me, and that we eat together every night. He seems impressed with this lie, he asks if I think he'll ever get to meet her. I tell him that he might, that she is ill, and that she doesn't have much time. He pats my hand and switches the conversation. Is anything new? he asks. I pause, trying to buy time. I met a man, I tell him. On my ride home last week. He called me and now we're meeting for drinks. I'm excited, I think he could be it, I tell him. He seems calm, and sad. I'm glad you met someone he says. His eyes are concentrating on the floor. I know you can't be the one for me. You remind me too much of my wife.

She hasn't sat next to me since the day she told me that she met someone else. She reads her book, and eats breakfast alone. After the first day I thought that it would only be for a day. After the second day that it would only be for two, and by the time the fourth day came, it was too late, and much too awkward to have that conversation. I slip the stolen piece of mail, still unopened on the seat she has been sitting in, exactly nine days after she has moved. I want her to understand that I didn't mean any harm, that I am all right with being train-riding friends. She frowns when she sees the envelope and slides it into her purse without looking at me. I can't trace the happiness that would be in her face if there was another lover in her life. I can't see anything but stress and loneliness. I want to tell her, that she really isn't alone, that we could make it together that I could love her. But I know that she knows that we are only strangers who shared a few weeks worth of moments riding from point A to point B. That the secrets that we shared might not even be real, they might just be there to fill the time and space that are created when strangers see each other every day. I suppose just because you walk past the same man, on the same street every day, and say hello, or how's the weather, or how's your dog, it doesn't make you friends. It doesn't really even make you acquaintances. You're just two foreign souls, taking up the same space, not expected to co-exist.

He doesn't know that I watch him from behind my newspaper when the train is moving, when he is pretending to look out the window, but really looking at my reflection. He looks sad, in the way that a man can look if he has not only lost his lover, but just realized that he will never take another. I want to give him half of my bagel, because I've realize that he's stopped bringing breakfast, but it has been almost two weeks since I stopped sitting next to him, and it's much too uncomfortable to admit he exists. I wonder if maybe he has struck up a relationship with the local barista when he stops bringing coffee as well. But then one day, a complete stranger falls when the train jerks to a stop in the middle of the tracks, and he helps her up. She is younger than me, wearing a homemade scarf, and holding a pile of books. She tells him that she just started working at the library, and it was her first day reading to the children. She said that she couldn't pick which book to read, and asks if he can help. She sits next to him every day after that, and they begin to share breakfast. I overhear him telling her that she reminds him of his wife when she was in college. She smiles, and says that it could have been her if she had been born a generation before. She says he must be the same age as her father. He frowns and slouches into his chair. She smiles and tells him not to be upset, that she still looks forward to their meetings on the train every morning. That she tells the children at the library about the nice old man she knows. She sits next to him every day after that until I switch to another route, and take up going to the gym before work. She sits and talks to him, but he doesn't talk to her, and I wonder if he still thinks she looks like his dead wife in college. If every woman he meets on a train will look like her. If every man on a train will become this important to me. If we really weren't strangers. If we had crossed that line, and just didn't know it.