I have always enjoyed a deceptively simple word problem. When used in this context, the adverb could mean both that the word problem is deceptive in pretending simplicity, but also that it is simple despite its deceptively intimidating appearance. The former iteration is the case, here.

There is a pleasure in satisfying the stipulations, in the growing confidence that one is in possession of if not the most brilliant mind, a mind capable of impressing here and there. A mind capable of answering a word problem or two. As one ages, riddles suddenly reveal hidden contours, crevices one would have never identified let alone anticipate when a mere student. Take the following, for instance:

Two trains leave different cities heading toward each other at different speeds. When and where do they meet?

We have all surely come into contact with such a formulation. This seems safe to say. Take the given details, however:

Train A, traveling 70 miles per hour (mph), leaves station M heading toward station N, 260 miles away. At the same time Train B, traveling 60 mph, leaves N heading toward M. You are sitting upon a particular bench, reading a certain story at the station where they will converge, consulting your watch every half hour, or so. When do the two trains meet? How far from each place of departure do they meet?

To solve this problem, you must use the distance formula:

Distance = Rate x Time

You understand, intuitively, that you can divide distance by rate in order to learn the precise time and divide distance by time in order to learn the rate of speed. You were once a student obligated to learn mathematics, after all. The facts, when divorced from narrative form, are:

Speed of Train A: 70 mph
Speed of Train B: 60 mph
Distance between M & N = 260 miles

After a few moments of relatively mundane arithmetic, you think to combine the speeds, divide the distance by this number, and arrive upon the conclusion that each train will arrive at your station in exactly two hours. You use this partial answer to discover the second partial answer, multiplying 70 by 2, 60 by 2, and so determining the two trains will meet 140 miles from M and 120 miles from N. Never mind that you don’t understand, exactly, why there is no standard rate of speed across all such trains, given that they are presumably operated by the same organization, given that they each seat an equal number of cars and are expected to accommodate an approximately equal number of passengers. You have answered both questions. Congratulations! But do not fret if you have not noticed the following essential details (you are certainly in good company) carefully hidden just out of sight until only now:

Train A contains Z, your fiancé. He is desperate for your reunion, for your company. You have lived together for but three months, with stretches of a few years at either end of this expanse (first school-related, then work-related), having dated intermittently for nearly a decade. In order to refrain from abandoning the relationship during this last separation, he required a promise of marriage. And so you did. Train B, meanwhile, is heading for the outermost edge of civilization.

Living as you do in this era of relentless consumption divorced from ethical considerations, you begin by adopting a tenet of the field you most despise and evaluate the opportunity cost: on one hand, whereas those of the nineteenth century dreamt of Antarctica and those of the twentieth longed for the moon, historians will note that the inhabitants of the twenty-first century bore no such illusions regarding our ability to achieve true solitude, and so retreated into the self instead (if not, I hope historians ascribe my error to not naivety but only a lack of confidence in humanity’s ability to transgress every possible boundary, if for no better reason than the act of transgression itself).

A generation of hippies had abandoned city life and moved into the woods decades ago, supplied their own heating, consumed an entirely self-sustaining diet with the help of a few chickens, a few plants and herbs, a single rifle and a few rabbits and deer here and there. A generation of children birthed to these hippies have abandoned the life of isolation and moved into the city. You were born to urbanites, and so are sickened by the cosmopolitan life of wage slavery, small talk, and hedonism, whose combination seems to require a regular cocktail of chemical indulgences in order for an individual to persevere. You lack personal experience with the secluded life of meagre living, no talk at all, and hedonism, whose combination seems to require the regular murder of other living creatures (life forms with no more or less inherent value than your own, it should be said) in order for an individual to persevere. And so you are tempted to move into the woods to begin this cycle anew (fully aware that you are not so much beginning a new cycle as continuing the second oldest cycle there is, really, having already been born but still awaiting death).

On the other hand, you have known this fiancé for half of your life and known of him for its entirety. Still, you are young. You think you love him but are aware you might be mistaken. You think you love him but are aware this love might not be enough. It is nothing personal. It is rather simple, really: love itself might not be enough to sustain you. The tedium of the everyday does not lend itself to passionate emotion, and with time comes familiarity, and with familiarity comes resentment. You are concerned you will lose not just him, but yourself. In this way you are hardly alone. It is a common sentiment whose banality should not detract from an understanding of the stakes, should not undermine the importance of your individual response, your answer. Living is banal, after all. 7.5 billion lives are being lived, and some 93 billion lives already have. Nothing could be more so lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring. And yet the consequences have pronounced emotional ramifications, for you and your fiancé at least.

When spotted gazing out the latest window, lost in thought . . . when prompted on how you feel, you offer an inadvertently pained smile, insist you are fine. But, secretly, you are not so sure, and do not feel particularly fine. You used to feel acutely, as those with developing brains and emerging hormones do. But, secretly, you are not so sure you could be called sensitive, not so sure to what extent childhood and circumstance and adapting to the expectations and constraints of modern life has warped your understanding of self. You have been conditioned to prioritize only what life needs from you: a job, a home, a warm smile and willingness to defer to superiors in name only. And so you have forgotten what you need from life, if you ever really knew at all. You have always struggled with projecting yourself far into the future, have always struggled to answer deceptively simple word problems whose scope extends past calculating time and distance and speed. Try as you might, you cannot find a formula for this predicament.

Should you ultimately decide to greet Z on train A, you’re aware that you might part at some point in the future. Whether before the wedding or after. Divorce is not so terrible, you’ve been assured from those with the experience. Should you ultimately decide to greet solitude on train B, you’re aware that you might abandon these woods at some point in the future. Whether to find some other life partner if your older self gradually begins to suspect you might require people more than your younger self has predicted, or to find a sort of compromise between these two alternatives. To live the solitary life you’ve chosen for yourself, but from within the amorphous crowd’s anonymity, perhaps.

So, you’re given this prompt. You’re given a blank sheet of paper on which to write your answer. The risk of failure is more severe than a disreputable grade, and the rewards of success far outstrip a few star stickers, a pat on the back from pleased parents. Perhaps you are not limited to these two hours. Perhaps you have five minutes, perhaps a day, perhaps a week, perhaps a month. Perhaps your fiancé is a woman. Perhaps there exist other minor deviations between your life and the essential details once concealed within the deceptively simple word problem. Nonetheless, you’re given this prompt and expected to answer in the space provided below:

Two trains leave different cities heading toward each other at different speeds, heading toward you as you sit upon a particular bench reading a certain story consulting your watch every half hour or so. When they meet, who (or what) ought you greet?

Samuel Rafael Barber
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