The Midnight Train

June 18, 2008
It’s half past one in the morning. I don’t know how I know that. I just know it’s cold. It’s the kind of cold that seeps into your skin and wets your nostrils with the smell of rain and damp concrete. It’s dark too. Not the real dark, it’s the dark of an urban city, where the neon lights have polluted the sky so even midnight seems an orangey-purple. The wind catches the lace on my black dress, making the hairs on my shins stand up, bumps erecting themselves over my skin as I shiver.

I am standing at the station, under the overhang to avoid the wet drops of the rain drain. The train station is practically empty, not just because it is late. No one takes the train anymore. It’s just me and this other guy. A man wearing a thick black trench coat, his dark head bent against the breeze, waits in the distance for the same train. Where it goes, I don’t quite remember. I don’t quite care.

I rub my wrist, the pockmarks and indents from where a pink plastic bracelet had been wrapped earlier that evening. My thin jacket doesn’t compete with the chill, and my black dress, well, it’s pretty much crying for indoors. I wish I had that man’s coat. I wish that train would come.

The nighttime express arrived soon after, spewing steam and shedding stray droplets of water. I hurried to the conductor.

“There’s only one cabin open on this train,” he says. “You best get on that one.” He directs me to the next unit and I enter, handing him my ticket. A blast of warmth and the vibrations of the train greet me. The man in the trench coat enters from the rear door. He smiles at me, gesturing to the empty seat across from him and a table. I suppose I might as well take it. His dark brown eyes seem good-natured enough.

“Cold as the Dickens out there, isn’t it?” he says, sitting down and stripping himself of his thick coat.

“Yeah, definitely,” I say, whatever a Dickens is. “You’re lucky you’re not wearing a dress, though.” The man looks up and down, taking in the textures of my dress.

“Tell me,” he asks, leaning an elbow onto the tabletop, “what is a pretty girl like you doing on a train in the middle of the night all by yourself?”

“Well, it’s a long story.” I rub my wrist.

“Well, we have a long way to go.”

The waitress attends us, the only two on the train. She asks if we want anything to eat or drink.

“Coffee,” we reply together in a strange chorus. His voice is low and husky, while mine is softer and lighter. The waitress smiles and nods to us.

“Only I’ll have mine with two servings of cream and sugar, if you please,” I add.

“Of course. And for you sir?”

“Just black, thanks.” He grins at me. The gray sweater he wears matches the few gray streaks I can find peaking through the dark brown mane. “You take trains often?”

“Not as often as I like,” I tell him. “I love trains. Most people don’t. Most people think they’re slow, pollutant, and inconvenient, which is kind of true.”

“Why do you like them, then?”

“I don’t know,” I sigh, “maybe because they are nostalgic. I took trains to the city all the time when I was a child. Maybe because I like the way trains only go one way, down one path that was laid out just for them. Maybe I enjoy the view. The people.” I glance at him and laugh. We touch knees, conversing in muted voices. Our coffee arrives in cheap, paper cups. His is the color black, mine is a chocolate brown.

“So, what is your story?” he asks, pointing to the black dress underneath my flimsy pink jacket. “You promised to tell.”

“I was at a party in the city. It was for a family thing, you know, a yearly get together to remind you of just how many relatives you have, and how many strangers you share your blood with,” I say, sipping my coffee.

I tell him that I normally don’t go to these family reunion things. I never have much to say to those people, and those people feel too strange to talk around me. I live a seven-hour train-ride away, out in the hick towns, the farmlands. It’s hard for city folk to understand why anyone would want the rural life. It’s too quiet, too slow, too boring for them.

“Maybe they find it too lonely,” the man interrupts. “Maybe the rural life doesn’t fulfill their need for people. After all, it’s pretty isolated in the farmlands. That’s why all those horror slasher movies take place in the ‘burbs. The mad axe man comes to your house and there’s no one for miles to hear you scream.”

“Thanks,” I reply. He chuckles and I smile back. The blur of sleeping cities pass by outside our window.

Well, I continue, I haven’t visited my relative family in years, five or six at the least. I never liked attending those fancy parties at gallant bars, where it’s so uptight that they have to tag you with a pink plastic bracelet to keep check on you. It is always so awkward being reunited with those people, to see their faces with more wrinkles, ready to spew new facts into my face about “who married whom” and what’s going on with them. They comment on me all the time. My, have I gotten thinner. The new hair color is working out for me. It’s funny that, in these five years, I could have gotten engaged and disengaged, published my first novel, sent my baby to kindergarten, but the first thing that comes out of their mouths is “dear, you’ve lost some weight!” To add to the discomfiture, I used to have a relationship with one of the guests. It was an in-law of an in-law sort of thing.

“Really?” he says, raising an eyebrow. “No blood relation? Because I’ll tell you, those recessive blood-transmitted diseases are the killer of most royal, inbred families.”

“No, no blood relation,” I say. “I used to live in the city. Hated it, but I had to get schooling. He lived there, too, in the apartment complex across from mine. It’s not that we had a bad relationship; it’s just that… well… he was so much older than I was at the time. I was sixteen, and he was literally twice my age. It only made matters worse when I got pregnant.” I sigh, hugging my belly as though my baby were still in me.

“So you went away?” the man predicts. “You took the first train out into the hick towns?”

“I went as far as I could from the city. From him. It was just too much to imagine my relatives’ faces if they ever found out. They did, of course, but I wouldn’t hear of it. I’d be in the countryside, where silence is really silence.” I stir my coffee with a rod, as the train blurs through the dormant urban lands, giving way to sparse trees and grass.

“You must have really hated the guy,” the man remarks, “to have left him so fast.”

“It’s not that!” I say, “I didn’t hate him… well, not all the time. He was a kind guy, would always buy me breakfast at the local diner. He wasn’t a creep or anything like that. I was completely attracted to him.” I look up. “I am attracted to older men.”

I tell him about my old love. I could run my fingers through his short, bristly brown hair and it would still stick up so jauntily. Many times he would take me around the city and we’d see the sights, while he nuzzled his stubble into my neck, the roughness of his skin against mine. I would always joke that he was a dirty old man, taking advantage of a young girl like this. I knew, though, and he knew, that we were both too infatuated to do much. When I found out I had a baby, however, things took on a whole new reality.

“He became more possessive,” I tell. “He wanted to know what I was going to do with the baby. Whether I was going to keep it. He said I should move out of my apartment and into his. He said we should get married. All this time, I couldn’t imagine what my parents would think. Teen mother. Teen mother to a man almost old enough to be her father. I panicked, so, I ran. I kept the baby and I ran to the countryside, where I could be alone. That’s the story.”

I finish and he’s done with his coffee, leaving only a dark ring at the bottom of his white cup.

“That’s quite a tale.”

“Yes, well,” I shrug, combing a hand through my tangled damp locks, “I came back, finally. Everyone sees me. They nod and smile. Asks me how I’m doing. They don’t mention my old flame. It bothers me, as if the absence of his name only makes it worse. But thanks for listening, because I needed to talk.” The man’s hand has made his way into mine. His fingertips are calloused and rough.

“Now that I’ve told my story,” I say, staring into his eyes, “it’s time for you to tell yours. What’s a handsome man like you doing on a train by yourself?”

“Ah, that story is a long and painful one,” the man says. “Longer and perhaps more painful than yours, though by no means of disrespect. Giving birth sounds like a pretty painful ordeal. Trying to push a seven-pound bowling ball out of your body—” he shudders and asks the waitress to bring us more coffee.

“Anyways,” he continues, leaning closer to me so I can smell the java and smoke on his breath, “my story is, believe it or not, also a tale of love and loss. An old proverb once said, ‘the axe forgets what the tree remembers.’ ”

“Spare me the theatrics,” I say.

“Well, when I was younger, I fell in love with a beautiful young woman. Most men will brag that their women have the most gorgeous bodies, but my girl, she had an amazing mind. Smart, clever. Maybe that’s why I fell for her when most men wouldn’t.”

“Was she attractive?” I ask.

“Not in the conventional use of the word, no. She was a different kind of beauty. I was certainly attracted to her. She and I would have the most lovely conversations.” Our coffee arrives, and the man pays the lady for both. I insist on returning him the money, but he waves it away and continues his story.

“Not everyone wanted to see us together. Can you imagine the looks we would get? From friends and neighbors, when we would meet each other. From passersby on the street, when we would kiss and hold hands. She didn’t care and I didn’t care. We were together. It was us against the world.”

“That’s very romantic,” I comment, “but where is the loss in this tale?”

“You just can’t wait, can you?” he sighs. “Very well. If you must know, then I will tell you. My girl left me, just one day out of the blue.”

“Oh dear.”

“Yeah. Just like that, she was gone.”

“Why did she do that?” I ask.

“I did not know. I assumed she must have fallen in love with another man. She probably eloped with a man younger than me. I didn’t know where she went. She left me with nothing.” He puts down his coffee cup leaning back into the cushioned seat. The sky is lightening outside the window. I see the watery film coating his dark eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I tell him.

“No, it’s all right,” he says. He is trying to keep his façade. His masculinity is at stake if he cries. “You would know what it’s like to lose a loved one. I moved to the beach in hopes to rid myself of the loneliness. For a while it was difficult. No matter how many beautiful bodies you see, how many wonderful women in the sand, it’s not enough. You get lonelier. Every day for years, I thought I saw her on that beach. That one glimpse of someone who maybe looked like her, walked like her. I would run, only to find a stranger staring at me. Everyone was a stranger. This time of the year the water is freezing, so no one goes to the beach. I am by myself.”

“That’s sad,” I say, sipping my coffee, “and you never forgot her. Quite the wounded tree, you are.” We sit in silence. My coffee cup leaves a crescent-shaped stain on the table. The train is slowing down to another stop. It’s early morning, but no one comes on this train. No one takes trains anymore.

“My stop is the next one after this,” he tells me. I nod. We’re back in comfortable silence, our knees still touching, his hands in his pockets, and my hands around my foam cup. The train begins to move again, slow and clunky, gaining speed.

“There’s an end to this story,” the man says, looking at me again. “Would you like to hear it?”

“Yes,” I say, leaning toward him.

“I remarried after a while. The healing process was slow and painful, but I finally found a woman who took me away from that. Her name is Rita.” He pulls out his left hand and fumbles the golden band around his left ring finger.

“Are you two happy?” I ask.

“Sure,” he says.

“Well, you’re lucky,” I sniff. “It’s been down right hard for me ever since I set out on my own. Engagement fell through the cracks. Always taking care of the baby and never a moment for myself. Book’s not selling too hot, either.” I see a trace of a smile on his face, but for what reason, I don’t know. Sympathy? Schadenfreude?
“You know,” he mutters, “I never really forgot the first girl. I figured she would have forgotten me. But one day, I returned to the city where I met my first love. I returned and I walked the same routes that we used to walk. Things change fast in a city, even in a couple of years. Chain brand coffee stores replace the family-owned diners. Every block there’s a new opening. Big names pop up where little names used to be. I came back wondering if I might find her again. I wanted to see if she had changed, like the city. I wanted to see her one more time.”

He lifts his wrist and his gray sweater slips. On his wrist is a pink plastic bracelet. I choke, the coffee scalding my throat.

“I thought I would find her at her family reunion. I searched for her everywhere.”

I stare at the man’s face. Five years. Five years of difference. Or was it six? So many years ago, and I had not recognized him.

“I saw her, leaving the party. She was storming out of the bar into a taxi. I followed. I ended up in the train station where I met a girl. She told me her life story, of how she left her man because of the baby. She told me her love story, and I told her mine. You know what? I’m glad this is how the story ends. This is my stop.”

He gets up, shrugs on his coat. The doors are hissing open. He’s walking away.

“Wait!” I call. I grab at the cold leather, but he just grins, tips his head at me and walks out the door. I want to follow. I want to run off the train and back into his arms. I cling the edge of the train door. The station leads into a rocky shore. It’s cold outside. It’s the kind of cold that seeps into your skin and wets your nostrils with the smell of salt and seaweed, that signature tang of the ocean. It’s foggy, too. Not the city smog, it’s the kind of pure white mist that you can almost touch with your fingers. It’s the mist that seems to thicken as the train moves farther and farther away. As the man disappears into the mist, I can’t help but think: “the axe forgets what the tree remembers.” I’m not sure who is the tree anymore.

Join the Discussion

This article has 2 comments. Post your own now!

Dsisco said...
Aug. 14, 2008 at 5:02 am
Oh, by the way, my story is called The First Day Out
Dsisco said...
Aug. 14, 2008 at 5:01 am
This is really good...i like the style of writing and the somewhat predictable, yet, really innovative story-line.

I hope i didn't offend you with what i just said. I really enjoyed reading this. If you want, you can read my story and maybe even leave me some similar "constructive criticism".

In any case, great job. You're a terrific writer.
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