I sat bolt upright, sending a borrowed copy of ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ flying to the floor. I don’t know how long I’d been asleep. I open and closed my eyes a few times, adjusting to the dim lighting of the carriage in the night. I cracked my neck unintentionally as I gawked around the rest of the cabin. Most of the other passengers were sleeping also; a few were reading by their overhead lights, one senile looking woman was attacking a tapestry, but apart from the train rushing through the night, there was quiet.
I picked up the book I had just ejected, opened it to the page I had been reading last, and re-read it. At the end of the novel, Eugene leaves home, which I didn’t know when I talked an old friend into lending it to me. That had been a long time ago though, and I had since read it many times. Somehow it seemed to validate my continuing existential crisis.
“Do you know why you are going, or are you just taking a ride on the train?” “I know! Of course – I know why I’m going!” Eugene said angrily, confused. He stopped abruptly, bewildered, chastened. Ben continued to scowl at him. Then, quietly, with humility, Eugene said: “No, Ben. I don’t know why I’m going. Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I just want a ride on the train.”
I looked at the empty seat next to me.
My stomach twisted with the reminder of my friend’s absence. Leaving him behind was different this time, it felt like maybe I wouldn’t be able to just turn up again. It felt like a cruel metaphor when I let go of his hand while he slept.
I was really letting go of him.
I suddenly had no recollection of saying goodbye. No memory of his face, oblivious as I slipped out of his motel room. If I had let myself, I would have cried. James was the only good thing I had ever been able to hold onto. He was the only person that I could always go back to, no matter what. It didn’t matter how badly I’d hurt him the last time, or for how long I didn’t get in touch… He loved me in a way that I was incapable of accepting, in a way that no normal human being should be able to. I’d let him down so many times, and he loved me still.
He deserved better than that.
I twirled the silver band on my left thumb absent-mindedly. James had the bought the cheap trinket for me from a Saturday morning market on my nineteenth birthday. I had berated him and berated him for having never bought one gift for anyone, in his entire life. So on my birthday he handed it to me unwrapped, with a little paper, hand-made card.
A ring is round, it has no end. That’s how long I’ll be your friend.
In that moment we didn’t exchange words, or hug, or cry, we shared an entire conversation in just one exchange of eye contact. Thank you. You’re welcome. I love it. I thought you might. I love you man. I love you too man. Often there was nothing more calming that not having to speak because you are in complete understanding. I put the ring on my thumb and we continued walking into the market maze, as if we had not stopped at all.
The carriage began to rustle with movement as the foul-breathed ticket-taker made his way down the aisle, followed closely by a refreshment trolley. But it wasn’t being pushed by the same short, fat woman as earlier today. I figured it must be shift change or something. I reached into the shallow pocket of my jeans and retrieved four, crumpled dollar bills. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d eaten and laughed internally at the disgustingness of my now violently grumbling stomach.
The ticket taker skipped straight passed me as I waited in anticipation for the food to reach me. He smiled briefly, having already checked the ticket for my cross-country trip, for which I was grateful. A conversation or even a few brief words would have left the entire cabin unconscious. Out of courtesy, more than anything else, I smiled politely back, even though I actually wanted to grab him and scream in his face to turn the train around. He didn’t deserve the desire I had to be rude, despite my primary instinct to look away and ignore the friendly gesture. He continued down the aisle, leading the man with the refreshments behind him.
The new bringer of refreshment was a young, lean guy; he was tall but not giant, and his hands were masculine, like he hadn’t always worked pushing a refreshment trolley. He ambled in my direction without looking at me once. I couldn’t see why he would possibly have a problem, so I assumed he was just one of those guys. One that didn’t think he needed to put on any display of manners, or customer service skills. I donned a so-female scowl and didn’t speak as he stopped at my seat.
“Do you want anything from the cart?” he asked me in his best monotone.
I was irritated that he was not displaying any kind of friendliness towards me either. His wild, dark hair stuck out from under a dark blue baseball cap. The peak was curved and tilted down, so that I couldn’t see his face, and his lips did not curve into a smile as he waited for my request.
“Coffee. And that pack of Doritos.” I ordered, pointing to the last pack of corn chips, unsure whether or not the stranger was just mute.
He hesitated for a second, before asking me, “Decaf?” My eyes jumped suspiciously to where his eyes would have been if they weren’t being masked by the hat. There was a familiarity to the subtle hint that regular blend might be a bad choice. It also determined that he was indeed not mute. I couldn’t tell his nationality but his rudeness was not due to ignorance of sound, which annoyed me more.
“Regular’s fine,” was my short reply.
I craned my neck slightly, trying to sneak a proper look at the man’s face, but in the act of picking up the Doritos, he turned away. “Keep the change.” I muttered as I reached to hand him my humble, four dollars. I recognised a scar on the palm of his right hand; I had one similar to his on the palm of my own hand that I had received from James a long time ago, on a spontaneous whim that we should be blood brothers. He’d sliced my hand with a kitchen knife, did the same to his own and grabbed my hand in a symbolic gesture of unity. It was cheesy, but our little scars really seemed like they connected us.
As the jerk guy took my money, our fingertips connected with a jolt of electricity. The lower half of his face did not seem surprised, but every single hair on his bare arm was standing on end, giving him completely away. I sat motionless, letting him continue on to the next hungry passenger, not once looking back at me. I knew him somehow, from somewhere even though I couldn’t for the life of me remember where from. We’d met before and from the way he was, I gathered he knew who I was too.
I tried to forget about the captivating stranger for a while and focus on arriving in the next city. I hadn’t really given any thought to what I would do once I got there, though that wasn’t unusual for me. Either, stay on the train for another leg, or maybe get off here and find a job for a while. James had mentioned that fruit picking might be a useful idea. It was only a commitment of a couple of months and as far as fresh starts went, it was the best I could hope for.
I closed my eyes momentarily, allowing myself to feel a portion of the sadness I had been trying to keep at bay. I didn’t really feel like I had the right to miss him. I had done nothing other than expect him to be there for me, always, without ever offering him the same in return. And it was never that I didn’t want to be the friend to James that he was to me. I just didn’t know how to love him the way I knew I should. I wasn’t stupid, I knew that in a perfect world, maybe James and I would have… There was no point to finishing the thought. This wasn’t a perfect world, and I was not the great wonder James often made me out to be.
I wouldn’t have wanted to be alive if he didn’t exist, but I didn’t know how to let myself mean that much to someone… I didn’t know how to be loved.
My eyes flickered open a while later, to the sound of the train slowing. I knew we were nowhere near my stop, but I pushed myself to my feet, to stretch my legs quickly at the next station. As I rose, just about every other passenger did too. The carriage bustled to life with the sound of overhead compartments opening, zips and buckles moving as belongings were re-packed, and short “Excuse me’s” were exchanged. The group crammed together, almost unnecessarily, as we waited for the train to stop and the doors to open, everyone clearly used to the rush, as those with connecting trains to catch, leaped off first.
There was a loud whistle as the train slowed to a crawl and the passengers crammed together even tighter. I turned myself slightly to my left to escape the heaving bosom of a large, asthmatic woman, with breath that could have been a combination of week old chilli dogs and rotting lettuce. I adjusted my grey denim jacket as best I could in the small space.
I was well aware of several bodies pressed up against me, but the body I noticed the most, was the body not pressed against mine. Somehow he held himself away from me, only by an inch, so that we were in no way touching. The hat masked his face still, but I could tell now that he was much taller than than I had initially realised. His lips were full and level with my eyes. The smell of his aftershave rushed at my senses. I was taken so off-guard that if I hadn’t been held up in a wall of people, I may have lost my balance.
I was surprised at myself for being so taken with the stranger.
The man’s intention was to get passed me, and the rest of the wall. I had forgotten that he was here working, this was his job, and he would be on the train for a while at least. I could feel his breath on my nose, coming in short, fast bursts, as if his heart were beating a matching rhythm.
He shuffled his feet, murmuring “Excuse me” as he placed his hands on my waist. He bit on his bottom lip, as if he were angry for having given in, which I was intrigued by.
My skin was on fire underneath his fingers.
I wanted to be closer.
As if in response to my unspoken thought, he curled one arm around the small of my back. He moved passed me very slowly, my breasts grazing against his chest as he did. He seemed to be just as captivated by me as I was by him, as I brought my left hand up and placed it on my waist, on top of his hand; he toyed with the tips of my fingers as he slid passed.
Too soon the brief moment was over and his face disappeared into the crowd. I linked my fingers playfully with his, relishing in the last moments of physical contact, gripping only minutely tighter as his hand slipped out of mine.
The body of passengers lurched slightly, indicating that the train had stopped. Three sets of double doors opened and as if a dam had been opened, the sea of bodies rushed onto the platform, washing me with it.