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Our parents constantly reminded us to stay away from the tracks. Parents are always nattering on about things to avoid—eating before exercise, eating before bed, eating in bed, crossing the street without looking both ways, acquiring a lover who is ten years older with an addiction to Xanax, not getting grossly drunk at a wedding and peeing in the azaleas—that it eventually becomes hard to imagine they had any fun in their own probably non-existent childhoods. It’s tempting to imagine them eating gruel after putting in eight hours at the factory, or scrubbing dishes in the afternoon and copying out their names in perfect cursive before falling asleep at seven. And thus, as any child knows, adults are always to be feared, but not always to be trusted. To trust them would be to accept the adult world, which every child knows is full of seriousness and obligations that have very little to do with joy.
Naturally, whatever a parent forbids becomes alluring. We could not fully conceive what was so dangerous about the tracks. We were children, not stupid. We understood you did not stand directly in front of the train for fun. And yet we knew some further danger lurked beneath the surface, because it was forbidden to us. And so, this journey, though it only spanned a couple of blocks, was a childhood passage of rites. We understood that we were not traveling through a hole in a fence into waist high patches of grass to stand near the tracks that cut like a black scar behind those suburban fences. We knew instead we were traveling from the safe land of mother’s skirts, of milk and cookies and bed times into a foreign and dangerous land. And parts of ourselves we didn’t know existed wanted to court danger. Parts we’d rediscover later in life, chasing strange lovers, girls with gaps in their teeth who smoked unfiltered cigarettes, where we’d watch them against a blue horizon, blowing smoke into that same blue. We’d stare at these women for hours, losing ourselves in them, when all we’d intended to do was pass time reading about epistemology.
We were out by the tracks to see if the train would flatten a penny. We’d seen these pennies before, cupped in the palms of adults or more fortunate children. We were determined to make that particular day the one of our own becoming, a day we’d share with less fortunate children in our own unknowable futures.
We often pass childhood off as a fairy tale, thinking of the fun and games. And yet, my childhood, like many others, was more like something from the Brothers Grimm, enchanted and dangerous both. There was a possibility the train would derail, or that we, through some act of stupidity or bravery, would wind up on the tracks. We did not know then that all of life was to be like that afternoon, that the mere act of existence is a risk—driving on a freeway, waking in the morning, taking the late train home, talking with a stranger deep into the night.
I’ll never forget the enchantment and fear of that day. We ached for arrival and absence, yearning for the train’s whistle and fearing it, wanting our parents to remain away forever, so we could experience something for once, and wanting them to gather us in their arms, tousle our hair, and assure us we would always be safe.
What if things had gone on a different track? What if the train had come earlier? Or we’d decided to throw rocks at it? Or placed the penny down at the wrong moment? Perhaps a universe exists where the train did come; where the solid black cars flattened the grass and slid over a penny. Perhaps a universe exists where the train never came at all, where we stood with muddy shoes waiting in silence for something absent, like love affairs with women whose faces are now gone to us. Perhaps a universe exists where I stepped out onto the tracks and discovered the mystery. In that universe, the train exists, but I, and this piece of writing, and therefore you, no longer exist. Instead, we are riding along together into another place.
She wore white that day, as is the contemporary custom. Apparently, we’ve Queen Victoria to thank for the tradition. We’re also to thank her for the presence of bridesmaids to carry the train. And, it becomes quickly apparent why the woman had an entire era of western literature named in her honor. She’s commandeered at least two major elements of the most momentous day in people’s lives, or at least the day with the most riding on it. Samuel Johnson said of his friend Thomas Carlyle, “It was a blessing he and his wife Jane married one another: thereby making only two people unhappy, rather than four.”
My wife wore a semi-cathedral length train. I can only discern that from the pictures. The memories of my wedding day are scattered, like the page of a magazine that’s been put through a shredder.
I’m not usually one to balk at tradition. I married a woman who wore white, drink moderately, and celebrate Christmas with a tree and Midnight Mass. And yet, it seems to me that the tradition of carrying the wedding train into the church was a false step, an apt metaphor lost.
Marriage is a mixture of the sacred and the profane. The train, dragged along the floor, gathering bits of grime on its route is symbolic of what’s to come. A person can call another his love and still almost hate her on certain afternoons. Marriage is not clean.
Here is my ideal wedding: I’d like to see an argument over whether divorced parents are sitting far enough away. I’d like to see the bride and groom argue over how much they’re paying the band followed by a conversation about contributions to a 403b. I’d like to see a first dance where the groom breakdances and the bride waltzes around him in perfect timing. In short, I’d like to see people begin that damned honorable and difficult pastime of being married for all of us to see. And let the train’s dirty hem be the first sign.
I could not grab onto anything that sunny August morning, nine years past when I made the most important decision of my life. It was as if my younger self was somehow aware the fabric of his reality was about to shredded, and so he wanted to observe the whole thing from afar, as if to say, so this is getting married, I wonder how that fool down there will feel in the morning.
Perhaps the day is better described in this way: It was like boarding a train in the middle of the night, finding oneself a comfortable seat straight away and leaning against the cool window, falling into a deep slumber. And then slithering through the night, passing through cities with names you don’t know, passing by the darkened windows of cathedrals from another era and arriving at the end of the line, awakened by a shake on the shoulder, quickly wiping the drool from the window, hoping only you were privy to the indignity of existence before stepping out into the caesious morning light, trying to make sense of this new city, with gables on all the doorways, and serpentine streets with peculiar names, and all the women walking quickly in large straw hats. Here I am, you say, and begin walking across the cobbles.
We took the train from Bologna to Venice. Either I hadn’t been on a train in years, or I’d never been on a train. It’s disgraceful how as one ages it becomes hard to corroborate memories with reality. And, this being my first ride, everything appeared as new—hillsides dusted in houses, skeins of sunlight filtering through tall grass that lined arterials mad capping their way through the countryside. The clothes strung across lines were not just clothes strung across lines, they were Italian clothes strung across Italian lines.
It is precisely that unfamiliarity, which wakes us in travel, making it a joy akin to romance. Travel provides the fiction of being someone else. No trip has been ruined with more rapidity than by the reminder you are still traveling as yourself: irritable most mornings, slightly vain, given to laziness, and cursed with stale opinions you’ve not cultivated but stolen from whatever magazine you’d read that week. Being oneself can spoil all the novelty in the world.
The trouble with trains is they are too slow. I’d pay any amount to be able to travel fast enough to leave behind this sad husk of a self that I’ve cobbled together over the past three decades. I wonder what speeds would have to be reached to turn this collection of molecules into something more useful?
I remember the skeletal outline of ships as we approached the station, sails stowed, lines cutting through the sky—and the narrow strip of rail, like an exposed vertebrae guiding us in to the brain stem of Venice. This is precisely why a person rides on a train: to see the countryside in a different way—no distractions of crying children, speed limit signs, quick on and offs, or a wife who keeps telling you it’s not okay to look at the sunset rather than the road, which ends with an argument about aesthetics and ephemerality.
The question is whether the countryside is always romantic, and we just don’t take the time to see it, or if the countryside is rarely romantic and it is only the train or the vacation that makes it so? I.e., are we merely creatures of perception who live by illusion?
I’d like to believe the train has some magic, but I’d be a fool. Whether it’s the ships in Venice, or the back lot of a McDonald’s in Cleveland, what we see is one microscopic bit of an entirely unimaginable whole, and our small bit has been colored by our upbringing, our parents, our ethnicity, our mood, how stiff our coffee was that morning. We’re contingent creatures viewing the world through kaleidoscopes. The only rational proposal is that we all continually board trains to cities we’ve never been in so we might occasionally escape ourselves.
When trains first arrived people were decrying their use as degradation when compared with the quality of the world as seen from the top of the coach. Society is never short on curmudgeons or people who see the past as idyllic and the present as rubbish. The present is rubbish, but we’ve not the time for that. What has changed with each new mode of transport, and I’ll grant the curmudgeons this, is our relation to the world around us. It changes our perception to pass over a city, five hundred miles above, as opposed to traveling through it at five miles an hour. In this way, Kansas City becomes a string of lights, and though one can imagine the thousands of lives there, it is only in the abstract, for a few minutes before the lights fade into darkness. But you see, these trains of thought are only loosely connected, and it takes only a slight detour to end up in a new car.
On the possibility of making love with a French woman on a train
Make your way into the dining car. Ask the woman with the golden hair who is staring out the window if there is room for one more: order caviar and toast. Tell her you are American. Take your time looking out the window. Mention the countryside and the clouds. Have a glass of wine. One is enough. Ask after her children. Tell her about your grandmother’s farm. If you do not have a grandmother, feel free to embellish. Meet her eyes every ten seconds or so, hold her glance for a millisecond, then blush.
When you are touching the leg of a French woman on a train begin with the pointer finger on your left hand. Place it just above the knee of her left leg, extending your middle finger to join it. Move your two fingers in small circles, moving further up her leg with each passing comment. Maintain eye contact throughout. Do not look away. This may be your one chance to make love to a French woman on a train. When she asks if you’d like another glass, look deeply into her eyes to determine the answer. Look away without answering. Comment on the simple beauty of the countryside, how it reminds you of time passing, the small intervals of lives you see beyond the window, how it reminds you of all the things you haven’t done. Say, “I need to get something from my sleeper car.”
As you rise, use the index finger on your right hand and slide it across the palm of her left hand. Begin just below the base of the middle finger, and slide it down the center of her hand, finishing at the base just where the thumb joint begins. As your finger reaches the base of her hand, retrace your steps by sliding it gently upwards at a forty-five degree angle. The fingers should be touching for no more than two seconds. It is important that you slide the finger up, not continuing onto her wrist. During the time your finger is sliding down the length of her palm, raise the left side of your mouth slightly, something just beneath a smile, and hold her eyes. Take three steps before turning around to look over your left shoulder, if she meets your eyes, raise your right hand to your face as though you are scratching it. Use your index finger to point in her direction, followed by your three middle fingers pulled slightly back towards your face, though without touching it, to indicate she should follow you. If the woman is looking down or away when you turn over your left shoulder, keep walking: It is not your day to make love to a French woman on a train.
And as you pee in the bathroom and straighten your hair in the mirror before returning to your own seat, notice today has turned out like any other day in your life, and like the many that are sure to follow, an infinite seeming number of days in which you have not made love to a French woman and certainly not on a train.
Einstein used trains, well, passengers on those trains to help elucidate his theory of special relativity. Imagine two people; make them attractive if it helps keep your attention. The first, a woman, mid-thirties, black shoulder length hair, recently cut, is sitting on a car near the front of the train. She is pairing her fingernails, reading Henry James and wondering if she will be picked up by her husband at the station. There is a slight chance he will not be there. Before she’d left, they’d had a fight over credit cards, though something deeper was underlying it all. Secretly, she knew they were both happy she was leaving. And yet, after a weekend away, siting in conference rooms listening to speakers drone on about coming changes in fonts, watching flies bump frantically into screens, or the tinted water slapping the wooden boats gently in the harbor; she missed him.
The second person, Jon, is standing on the platform watching the train pass. He watches the trains pass, ticketless, feeling a sense of stasis. He watches them knowing he cannot leave, but something must change. He knows if he left, nothing would change. And so he watches the trains, thinking about what it might be like to change. The cars slide through the space that was previously empty. Most days, after they pass, he stares out onto a field of clover, limitless green sky.
As the train approaches the platform, it is struck by two bolts of lightning: one of the bolts the front of the train, the other, the back. Jon concludes that the two bolts occurred at the same time. He also concludes time is nebulous, a figment of his imagination, and there will always be time for change. He doesn’t stand by the tracks again for years.
The woman on the train, because she is moving towards the strike at the front of the train, perceives that lightning struck the train on the front first. And the bolt that struck the train in back, happened moments later. Who is correct?
They both are. Two people can perceive the same event in different ways, the synchronicity of our lives is an illusion. Perhaps that is why you look at me with horror when I tell you I could live forever, watching everyone around me die, and taking pleasure in the persistence of life. And you perceive you as some sort of monster, and you I perceive as a liar.
A train is a series of rails, hammered together one tie at a time. You can see how art might turn a train into a metaphor. It is a metaphor for marriage, the ties that bind us together. It is a metaphor for the passage of time. It is a metaphor for man’s need for connection and domination. A train can be a part of a dress, a digression, a means of proving Newton was wrong. A train can be any of these things. It can even be a place where we meet.
On You and I
I think of you when I think of trains, of your purple fingernails tapping the window and the tip of your tongue worrying the inside of your left cheek. The countryside is slipping past—cows, heather, bails of golden hay, celadon skies, trees shaped like the backs of bent pilgrims, everything present to itself—as we glide over the rails. I locked eyes with you before I sat and pulled a book from my bag, something by Mann I couldn’t focus on because I had already been caught in the thick headlights of your gaze.
And now we are sitting here, as time too—a bang, a meteor in the Yucatan, shale, the death of an archduke, certain cloud shapes against a dark horizon from evenings we’ve lived before, listening to the sound of distant rain—passes us by, in a courtly dance. And I keep telling myself after this chapter, this paragraph, this sentence, this word I’ll put the book down, I’ll stop writing this essay, and ask your name. Your name could be anything. The moment is always passing.
Years from now, we’ll tell the story to a disinterested couple over a bottle of port, how we met on a train traveling to the South of France. We’ll leave out the part about my hand shaking, the weak coffee, the waiter’s pencil thin mustache, a chip in the side of your cup, because we’ll have forgotten them beneath the avalanche of days. We’ll lay awake at night after the visiting couple leaves, dissecting the evening like a cadaver, reflecting on how strange it was that we were once nameless to each other, these two people who are now so tired of one another’s hair, skin, eyebrows and harmless jokes. We’ll lie in our bed and wish our bodies belonged to strangers waiting in some distant city for a connection to bring them home.