I’ve only ridden the train once and I wholeheartedly desire to keep it that way. I rode it back in June of this year, I was to take it from Denver to Hastings in order to complete registration for my first semester of college. It was a plan well thought out and carefully coordinated by me and my parents. One could say it was foolproof. Despite the fact that I wouldn’t board the train in Denver until 7pm and consequently arrive in Hastings at 3am, I was excited. Not necessarily for the train ride itself but for what it stood for: independence. I was thrilled to ride the train alone because it felt like I was riding it into adulthood rather than Nebraska (although they would become one in the same by the time August rolls around). It was my defining moment to prove to the world that I am able to keep myself alive through the night. All by myself.
As an introvert and an overall awkward person, this moment proved even more pivotal because I knew it would come to test my social competency. My father came to send me off but after that I was completely on my own until I reconvened with my mother and sister in Hastings. I pictured myself being in one of those old movies where the man goes off to war on the train with all the rest of his guy buddies, leaving behind his wife that he just married and with whom he was so desperately in love. I boarded the train with the same confidence that those men might have had, I believed for an instant I could do it. I left my father behind to wave his white handkerchief in farewell as the train rolled away. I was prepared to encounter war, yet it still surprised me when it came, for I was seated not with an ally, but with the enemy herself.
The war began as all wars do: with the first battle. Immediately after boarding the train I went to go find my seat. The turmoil arose upon locating it, for I found that it was already occupied. Although no one was seated, the chair was reclined and the folding table was littered with miscellaneous possessions of a previous inhabitant. I checked my ticket 10 more times, consulted the hippy sitting in one of the two seat across the aisle with the raise of an eyebrow (he responded with a tilt of the head), and debated simply abandoning the whole idea and returning to my father before the train started moving. I eventually just sat down and hoped that whoever it belonged to had simply left in a haphazard fashion and that the mess was simply the aftermath of a train ride past. That didn’t come to be the case. Only a few moments later and the occupant returned.
“You’re in my seat,” she said and poked me with her metaphorical bayonet. I glanced at her from where she stood in the aisle beside me and I could see rage in her eyes. I did then what awkward people do best. I hastily stood up and whacked my head against the ceiling, then began to scramble about in my pockets for my ticket, for the proof that my existence should not be unwelcomed. All the while I was mumbling incoherent excuses and desperately trying to ignore the throbbing pain in my head.
Once I provided her with the ticket she reluctantly took her place in the seat beside me. It was then that I was able to get a good look at her. She was a woman of about 50 years in age but no taller than your average 6th grade boy. She was squat, seemingly form-fitted to the chair that she sat in, but it was not her body that made her stand apart from anyone else, rather my eyes were drawn upwards. Upon her head was hair so greasy that she could have surely one-upped BP if she decided to take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico. It was cropped short and pinned back with sunglasses that Guy Fieri would be proud of. She looked at me out of the corner of her glazed eyes, it looked as if she might begin to cry at any moment. To keep the length of this narrative within reason I’ll end the description like this: I was glad that at least she had all her teeth.
We began to talk shortly thereafter, beginning with the mundane but crucial topics that every conversation must begin with: the weather, the inconvenience of the train ride, etc. But the monotony of the conversation suddenly died away with the mention of college. She launched into a rant of sorts about all of the things I must know for college, and she did so with such a vigor that made me believe this was her sworn duty in life, to educate all that she could about the dangers of the college experience. There were three things in particular that I clearly remember and will now pass on to you, my reader, in hope that you get more out of it than I did.
Firstly, she told me never to get involved with boys. I didn’t take this as literal as she intended me to. I thought she was simply saying not to sleep with boys, but she meant it more literally. She told me not to touch, look, or even think about boys. In her words, “get a dog instead, dogs won’t leave you for other women.” I thought this was difficult task to undertake considering the fact that I have two brothers and a father but I did not mention it and gave her the benefit of the doubt.
Secondly, she told me to avoid partying. This was a tip easily taken seeing as I am as unsocial a creature as they come, but she left me with one final tip that I believe I shall never forget as long as I live. She said that if I do party I should take my own drink, namely a bottle of wine. But not only a bottle of wine, a bottle of wine with pieces of fruit in it. She said, “the fruit will soak up the alcohol so you won’t get so drunk when you drink it, but you can also save the fruit to get tipsy at a more convenient time.” A more convenient time? Like during class? When I get up in the morning? Before an important engagement? I guess I never realized there are better times to get drunk than at a party.
Now, before I go further I must bring it to your attention of the potential inaccuracy of my memory. Although this proves to be a rather traumatic event in my life, I cannot possibly remember all the details. I do remember her casually mentioning that she had recently been released from prison (for what I didn’t dare ask) and that she was headed back to Lincoln and to her husband. I do also remember that she fell asleep… eventually, but only after a few hours of her non-stop jabbering. I was done with the conversation 30 minutes after it began (and, more importantly, after the mention of prison) but this lady was not. Even though I began to read my novel she still proceeded to talk. I tried to listen to music with headphones over my ears but she would just tap on my shoulder to regain my attention here and again, to remind me of her existence. No, this isn’t necessarily traumatic, but it was annoying. I wasn’t relieved of this discomfort until she curled her legs up under her, turned to face the other way, and fell fast asleep beside me. Then I had peace.
As previously stated, I don’t sleep. Instead I read my novel, On Writing by Stephen King. The train was then consumed in a vast interlude. When the lights dimmed and the laptops and phones were packed away the entire ambiance shifted to peace. Gradually everyone began to close their eyes and soon I felt as if it was only me who stayed awake. All was blue. All was calm. I felt at last like I was in comfort and I looked out on the train almost affectionately.
I glanced over to see the hippie on the other side of the aisle asleep. An old man was sitting in the seat beside him and I recalled overhearing their conversation earlier. They had dived into an intense talk of the effects of Socialism in history after the hippie mentioned he supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election. The old man bestowed his wisdom upon him, launching into a lecture of sorts of socialism in the world. I noted how the two were so completely different. The old, enlightened war veteran and the peace-loving, dreadlock-growing hippie beside him. They disagreed, sure, but that didn’t stop the hippie from fetching a blanket for the man when night fell. They sat beside one another in a silent consensus. I looked at the woman and wondered if I should fetch a blanket for her. While she slept she writhed about, at one point she had her feet resting against my lap, but I did not shove her off. All was happy and calm, all was peaceful and right, until the woman beside me awoke and revealed to me the monster she truly was.
Never has the story of Jekyll and Hyde been so relatable. She awoke, at first, quite subtly, but then she was thrown into a panic. She tapped me aggressively on the shoulder, once again interrupting my solitude, and blamed me for taking her sunglasses. After denying her claim she continued to tell me to stand up, to search my things. I was far too baffled to even begin to fill her request and before I could fully understand her accusation she found them. They had fallen from her head and into her lap where they migrated to the meager space between the seat and the back of her pants while she slept. I recall noticing a change in her eyes. They no longer looked teary, no, they looked corrupt. Her pupils glowed like hot cinders in reflecting the dim lighting.
The series of events to come might seem to you quite sporadic in nature for they don’t quite connect as they should. In between each of these conversations I attempted to return to my novel and return peace to the train, but the woman would not have it so. The first comment she attempted to strike was in regard to my height. I remember her looking me up and down, then saying, “you’re tall for a girl.”
I thought this comment was strange. Sure, I was tall, but for a girl? Later, after looking back on the situation I wish I had said, “well, you’re tall for an ass,” but my tongue was not so quick in the moment. I nodded in response.
“Do you play basketball?” she asked and I launched into the usual response.
“I used to in middle school but stopped in high school. I’m not much of a team player. Now I ride horses.”
“You don’t look like you ride horses,” she said.
“I do, I started in elementary school and I own my own horse now-” I began. I love talking horse, it’s the question I always love to be asked, but the woman would not let me finish.
“Have you ever broken a mustang?” she asked, interrupting my narrative.
“Well, no. I’ve never had a horse from the wild. But I work at a stable where we rescue-” I began, but am cut short again.
“Why are you lying?”
“Why are you lying? It’s obvious that you’ve never ridden a horse before. I used to ride horses all the time and I know a horseback rider when I see one. You’re lying.”
“I am not lying,” I said, bewildered.
“Yes you are and you’re horrible for it,” she insisted.
I was at a complete loss for words. I could feel my face turn bright red in either anger or embarrassment or a vile mixture of the two. Never before had I been so insulted, never before had I wanted to yell so badly. I found that my tongue was tied and all I could muster was a small “okay.” I then returned to my novel and read aggressively. I can remember glancing at the window and seeing not the world beyond the train, but the reflection of the woman instead. I left the light at home and the further east I traveled the darker it became, leaving me trapped. The woman appeared on all sides, wherever I looked she was there. My world was the train and within it was a monster.
A few moments later and the lady spoke up again and asked me to show her what I was wearing. Confused by the request all I did was unzip my jacket and show her the college t-shirt I was wearing beneath. That, accompanied by my best pair of bootcut jeans and my favorite pair of brown Vans. She scoffed, and made some remark on the modesty of it all, and asked me if the shoes I was wearing were men’s shoes. I replied affirmatively.
“How much money did you spend on them?”
“I don’t remember, I bought them about a year ago,” I said.
“Ah see you’re lying about that too,” she said. I didn’t reply.
“It looks like you’ve only had them a few days,” she continued.
“I take good care of them,” I replied curtly.
“Ah well, I think they’re ugly,” she said just as matter-of-factly.
“Thank you,” I said, clenching the binding of my book with a fist of rage. I’m surprised the pages didn’t pop loose under the stress.
“You’re welcome. I’ve had my shoes for three years, I bought them for $5 at GoodWill,” she held up her stocky legs to show off the bright pink Crocs she wore, complete with unmatching socks and mystery grunge. She looked at them with immense pride, the same pride that one looks at their child with.
“I like them,” I said, lying.
“Thank you,” she said.
I tried to return to my book once more but my attempts proved fruitless. This time the woman leaned in close to me, so that her lips were almost touching my ear. I could feel her breath running down my neck, her eyes caresses the side of my face, her chest pressed up against my shoulder.
“Does it scare you that if you died right now I would be able to tell the police everything about you? Does it scare you that I could tell them when you bought your clothes and where you are going to school and what page of your novel you had just read?” she whispered to me.
Yes, I was in fact scared by that truth, but I couldn’t give in. I did not flinch, I didn’t even blink, all I could do was ponder why she had been sent to prison in the first place.
“It’s a good thing I don’t plan on dying,” I said.
“No one plans on dying,” she replied. I pulled my headphones out of my backpack with shaky fingers. For the rest of the train ride I listened to music and ignored any attempt she made to strike up conversation. I contemplated writing a will and checked the front of On Writing to see if Mr. King had set a chapter aside for will-writing. It felt like I had fallen into one of his horror novels. This lady was going to kill me, right then and there and no one would see it because everyone was asleep. I was going to die. In my mind I had surrendered, I was ready for death.
Every minute that passed I reveled being alive.I found that living on the edge of death brings to light to the world. I saw everything in color. No longer was all blue, but I saw the purple jacket of the woman in the seat ahead of me and the green hue of the blanket sliding off the old man across the aisle. The woman’s flaming pink Crocs burned in the edge of my gaze. I was pulled out of the black and white realm to which I was accustomed. Every human on the train was beautiful and for once I was glad for my 18 years of existence, I felt so blessed to be able to experience this world.
It was 10 minutes before three when I finally pulled the music out of my ear and collected my things. The monster, of course, took this as her moment to remind me of her existence once more. She asked me if she could borrow my phone to call her husband and being the weak creature I am I reluctantly surrendered my phone to her. I didn’t pay attention to much of the conversation until she began to swear.
The husband must have said something terribly wrong because she attacked him over the line. She spat swear words at him like bullets and I thought that she might wake up the whole train. Before I could look over and see if anyone had opened her eyes she hung up the phone, opened my texts, and proceeded to nonchalantly text her husband a nasty message through my phone. With my number. I thanked God when she handed it back over. I pulled my backpack up on my lap and held it firmly against my chest as if it were a piece of armor. Since we had arrived in Hastings I began to stare longingly down the aisle for the conductor to come by to relieve me of duty. He appeared like an angel in the mist, a good omen in the dark, and bestowed upon me the feeling of grace when he finally did meander up the aisle. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his face, the dark eyes and prosperous mustache, the face of hope.
I popped up out of my seat and debated whether or not I should hug him. I didn’t, instead I just gave him my warmest smile and a second-too-long stare. I began to walk away with him but before I could take a full step the woman stopped me.
“See you around, kid,” she said.
“I hope not,” I said, then stepped into the Hastings moonlight knowing that I had survived the war.