“On the Train” — the original draft

 On the Train

 When Mom calls from Toledo to say my great-uncle in Denver died, I’m not exactly sad. He was eighty-nine and smoked a pack a day and never sent Christmas or birthday cards, so I wasn’t sure if he was already dead and someone forgot to tell me. My mom can’t go to the funeral, but I need a reason to get out of Chicago and my apartment. The round-trip train ticket is cheap. I want an overnight ride and an evening of thinking.

 I take the morning off teaching to sleep in and wander down the street to the Swedish bakery for blueberry muffins before packing a weekend’s worth of clothes and a few granola bars in my duffel bag. I scratch my cat good-bye. She yawns, licks my hand, and walks over to curl on her fur-covered corner of the couch. I love cats since they’re self-cleaning and mine knows how to be alone for three days with three bowls of food and not gorge herself.

 My ex said I could keep the cat, which sounded like a gracious gesture but wasn’t since I’d brought the cat into the relationship and would have made a stink if he’d tried to take her away. A tiny part of me is mad he didn’t care enough about her to fuss. Like many other things that happened between us, my emotions make no sense. Though I’m in a different apartment, I still expect to turn around and see him on the couch opposite my cat, but there are only pillows.

 At the gate in Union Station. a line of passengers with suitcases and backpacks snakes around rows of chairs. A station attendant announces everyone should sit down since there’s been no call to board. Nobody budges. I sit, page through a newspaper without reading, and muse that people are too damn impatient. I wonder if the sub made it through the math lesson with my first graders and if Ben is behaving. He’s the smartest kid in class and a loudmouth. Any teacher can tell you he’ll be a brilliant scientist or a bank robber. I know where to draw the line, but he crosses it anyway to see if I’ll keep him in at recess. I give him books to read that are at the sixth-grade level, so he’s started cutting up to stay inside with me. It’s almost touching.

 2:10 PM: On the way out of Chicago

 The guy next to me on the train asks where I go to school. I tell him Michigan State even though I graduated five years ago. The guy says he’s studying photography and environmental studies at the University of Nebraska. I say I plan on teaching first grade. He asks why I’m heading west. I tell him my grandma died, which sounds worse than an uncle I didn’t know well. He gives me a sympathetic frown, doesn’t have a wedding ring, and must be four years younger than me. I’ve started looking at guys again but don’t have the guts to ask if they have girlfriends. Once the train starts moving he pulls out an MP3 player and a book and retreats into his head.

 I’m glad I look young for my age. The only people who think I’m old are my first graders. They’ve called me Mrs. Stannard for four months and that’s what I’ll be until the end of the year. Next September I’ll introduce myself to a new class as Ms. Hinesman, but I don’t want to confuse the kids now.

 I love my students, but I don’t mind a couple days away from them. We went back to school after winter break last week, but already I was coming home so tired it made me rethink having kids of my own. They require too much energy. At least I can put off that decision for a while. I tell myself this is the bright side of separation. I stink at lying.

 3:50 PM: Leaving Princeton, IL

 Illinois in winter is very white. There’s a lot of not much. The train smells stale and sanitized, like the air in the car has been sitting here for weeks, but someone recently sprayed fabric cleaner on my seat.

 I’m looking forward to mountains like I did every year when I was a kid and we traveled west to see my grandparents and aunt and uncle in Boulder. We visited Great Uncle Clarence in Denver, too. I never knew my Aunt Henrietta, Clarence’s wife, since she died before I was born. She and Uncle Clarence were married for forty-eight years. Her picture smiled on his wall, on top of the TV, and from the coffee table. It wasn’t spooky because she looked nice. The only other thing on the coffee table was Aunt Henrietta’s ceramic chicken collection. Great Uncle Clarence let me gallop the chickens across the couch while mumbling for me to be careful. Mom and Grandma made sugar cookies with orange icing for him, and I got to eat five or six while they chatted with Clarence. Mom never watched me too close when we were there.

 6:10 PM: Waiting to leaving Mount Pleasant, IL

 A couple days ago I bought a book of useless facts and trivia because it sounded fun and distracting. On the train I learn that to ward off other males and declare their territory, orangutans in southeast Asia burp very loudly. I’m sure I’ve seen human males in bars perform a similar ritual. I also find out that 8,800 Americans are injured by toothpicks every year. They’re probably the same guys who sit in bars burping loudly.

 The guy beside me takes off his headphones when he discovers that he left one of his books at his friend’s house in Chicago. He ruffles through his backpack and pulls out a pillow shaped like a stingray. I say it’s neat. He smiles and says his ex-girlfriend gave it to him. The smile suggests he and the ex may still be friends, but he might be available.

 I try to think of a response to his comment that could get us talking about relationships but I don’t come up with anything before he returns to his headphones and the little world in his novel. Dammit. I need to be faster with witty comments, though boldness has never been my strong suite. Still, I was bolder than my ex. Mom says Uncle Clarence and Aunt Henrietta were the same way. Henrietta was a talker, and Clarence spoke when necessary. I don’t remember him saying anything to me except “Be careful with the chickens,” so I figured it was possible to be married for forty-eight years without speaking much. This was a comfort when I married my now-ex who could get through an evening on two and a half sentences.

 I wonder what will happen to the chickens. There were a lot of them. Not that I need more stuff in my apartment. So many of the things the ex and I shared started out as mine. Like the dishes. I kept the dishes. He’s probably using paper plates, but I doubt he cares.

 8:25 PM: Just outside Osceola, IA

 Two middle-aged guys behind me eat cheesebugers from the snack car. I smell the mustard and onions as I listen to them gossip about their kids’ marriages. Funny. I thought only moms did that. One guy says his daughter married a real asshole but she doesn’t have the sense to divorce the bastard. The second guy says the same thing happened to his sister-in-law and it drove his wife crazy, but women are going to do what they’re going to do so you might as well kick back with a beer and watch.

 11:35 PM: Omaha, NE (running almost an hour late)

 The train stops in Omaha for a half-hour and nobody tells us why. My seat mate is irked and calls random faceless people on his cell phone to say he’ll be getting home later than he’d like. A missed hour from my life is no big deal. We’ll make it to Denver by eight tomorrow morning, so it won’t matter that we were supposed to be there at seven. Clarence won’t care.

 I should talk with my seat mate about something, but he returns to his book. I sigh and return to mine. Of the sixty people who have been shot out of cannons, thirty-one have lived to tell about it. I don’t know if this is the best conversation starter.

 1:07 AM: Lincoln, NE (still running an hour late)

 My seat mate gets off the train while I’m trying to sleep, so I don’t say good-bye to him.

 I’m too used to quiet people. Two and a half months ago my ex and I we were having breakfast, eating cereal from my bowls, when he touched my hand across the table and said, “Something’s not right. We need to talk.”

 At first I liked that he only spoke when he had something important to say, but later it grated on me, like there was a big part of his mind he wasn’t telling me about. After a half-hour discussion and twenty tissues I called the office at school and said I was taking a personal day.

 “What the hell do you expect me to do?” I yelled at him after hanging up. “How am I supposed to change to make you happy?”

 “There’s nothing to do,” he said. “You can’t fix this.”

 I threw a wet sponge at him, heard it thwack against the wall before I ran outside and kept going and going for something like ten blocks. I found a bakery and ordered three glazed donuts and ate them in one sitting.

 3:05 AM: Indeterminate field in Nebraska

 I wake up. The train has stopped but the engines are running. I’m warm since I dressed for Colorado cold in a sweater and two pairs of long underwear and flannel-lined jeans and two pairs of socks and a heavy coat and mittens and boots. There are no announcements from the conductor. The car is dark. Wind gusts outside. I hate waking up in the middle of the night because my mind wanders to things I try not to think about during the rest of the day.

 Being a divorcee at twenty-seven makes me feel stupid. Three of my friends are planning spring weddings. When I go I’ll have to explain to several people I haven’t seen for a year that I’m single again. They’ll nod and open their mouths and close them again because they won’t know what to say, but they’ll wonder why we split.

 He wasn’t mean. We had differences. I wanted to stay married. He didn’t. The divorce would be easier if I thought he was a dick, but I can’t bring myself to believe that. Yet.

 I slip in and out of sleep and think about the guy who teaches multi-handicapped kids at school. He was hired the same year as me. I think he had a girlfriend but they broke up. We talk in the lounge sometimes. He seems like a nice guy. A patient guy. He gardens and builds model airplanes and plays drums in a jazz quartet that performs at a local bar on the weekends. He says I should come see them. He’ll get the guy at the door to wave the cover. It’s been forever since I’ve gone out. I don’t know when to tell him about the divorce, can’t make it sound like a pickup line, though that might not be far from the truth.

 5:10 AM: Same random Nebraska field

 People wake up and float whispers around the cabin. Why hasn’t the conductor made an announcement about why we’ve been stopped for two hours? I wrap my scarf around my head to shut out speculation.

 He never explained why he wanted to get married, but we’d talked about weddings for a while. Did my quiet Uncle Clarence ever talk about weddings, or did he just buy the ring and ask Aunt Henriette the question because he didn’t believe in wasting words?

 When my boyfriend and I went out for Chinese and he gave me the ring, I was more pleased than surprised. We’d dated for three years and lived together for two, so I’d adjusted to his quietude and his need for three jars of green olives in the fridge. He’d adjusted to the fact that I bit my nails and never threw clothes in the laundry hamper. What more did we need to know?

 A few train rumors solidify. The guys behind me say we’re stuck in a snowbank. The intercom is silent and scary. Where’s the conductor? The half-lucid side of me believes we’ve been hijacked by outlaws on snowmobiles. Soon two men with helmets and ski masks will parade through the car and demand valuables.

 One of the guys behind me keeps kicking my seat, but I’m too tired to protest. I try to sleep and fantasize about the multi-handicapped teacher kissing me after school in the lounge. I imagine him talking, but not what he’s saying. I don’t know him well enough for that.

 8:03 AM: Nebraska field identified as being near Hastings

 Like the voice of God or the voice of Satan, the conductor announces that we ran into a snowdrift in the middle of the night. The first engine went out, then the second engine went out, then some other important train parts that weren’t supposed to get wet got wet.

 We’re stranded.

 The crew has been working on the problem, but no one made an announcement earlier because they didn’t want to wake people up. The conductor says this is company policy, but the guys behind me mutter that there’s company policy and there’s common sense, which involves telling us what the fuck is happening.

 The conductor keeps talking, says two freight train engines are driving to our rescue. They’ll haul the train backwards ten miles to a juncture in the track where they can drive around and attach to the front of the train. Everyone takes out cell phones and beeps calls to family and friends, informing the world of our situation. I think about calling the ex, but I can’t get a signal on my phone and flip it closed. I don’t know what I’d say to him, anyway. I’d probably have more to say to Uncle Clarence, questions about marriage dynamics, but now I apologize quietly for missing his funeral.

 In the new sunlight we see white whirling around the train like we’re trapped in a huge snow globe being shaken by a three-year-old. One of the guys behind me wonders aloud if we’re on the news yet. The woman across the aisle calls her daughter and hisses profanity when she finds out about some fight the daughter had with her boyfriend last night. The daughter let the boyfriend in the house to get some of his clothes. They started yelling at each other and he smacked her around.

 “Why the fuck didn’t you call the police?” hisses the lady. “You should have shoved his ass outside.” After several more phrases of love and profanity, the lady hangs up and makes a second call to inform someone’s voice mail that he better be glad she’s trapped on this fucking train or she’d whup his ass.

 I wish I were mad enough to tell my ex I’d like to whup his ass. I wonder if the lady across the aisle would do it for me. There’s a ninety percent chance he’s reading yesterday’s Chicago Sun-Times and eating cold takeout pizza right now. I wonder how long it will take before I quit wondering what he’s doing at any given moment.

 10:17 AM: Same Nebraska field

 The loudmouth guy behind me repeatedly calls the conductor a jerk-off and kicks the back of my seat. I’d like to tell him to shut up since it isn’t the conductor’s fault that we’re wedged in a snowbank, but I was raised to be Midwestern nice so I keep mum and move to the empty seat beside mine. It doesn’t stop the tremors from his boots.

 Loudmouth says he needs a cigarette break. A bunch of people nod. I hate the smell of smoke but wish I had a pack of Camels to hand out. When the freight engines arrive to pull us out, it feels good to be moving even if it’s backwards through a snow globe.

 The conductor walks through the train, pausing to tell us they’re doing all they can. He has a beard and mustache and middle-age-guy paunch and looks like one of the fifth grade teachers at my school. There are tired half-moons below his eyes.

 After I came back from my three-donut jog, my husband was still in the apartment, looking out the window and petting my cat. I told him we shouldn’t move too quickly, maybe just live apart for a while and see how it felt. He said a separation would be okay, but I knew he was thinking about finances. Divorces are expensive, and we didn’t need a lawyer to decide who got what. But after a while I wanted a legal fight, to crush some passion out of him. The only thing I got was a smaller apartment three doors down from the Swedish bakery.

 12:25 PM: Nebraska field ten miles further from Hastings than we’d like to be

 The freight engines secured to the front of the train tug us past snow drifts. We move slowly. For about a half mile. Then the conductor announces an electrical switch ahead of us has frozen and needs to be thawed. Loudmouth asks why none of the jerk-off train employees thought of this before. I figure it’s because of the negative twenty windchill and blowing Nebraska snow, imagine poor swaddled men bearing a very large hairdryer and a hundred-foot extension cord. I burrow deeper into my coat.

 I was sure we’d never get divorced because we’re nice people. Nice people don’t get divorced, not without arrests for domestic violence, and when that happens everyone figures those people were only pretending to be nice. In Uncle Clarence’s time, people didn’t get divorced unless they wanted to be social outcasts. I don’t know if that made couples work through their problems or drag through years of marital misery. Mom said that once you were hitched, everyone figured you’d made your bed and had to lie in it.

 I wish my bed were smaller.

 1:18 PM: The Nebraska field where we stopped ten hours ago.

 When the conductor announces that we’re back where we started, I tell myself this is progress. Loudmouth calls the conductor a fag. I ignore him in the hopes he’ll go away. To speed the process, I put on my headphones and turn up the volume so his words blur behind Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Good enough.

 When we sat across from each other at the kitchen table, my husband said there were no other women, he just didn’t want to be tied down.

 “Did I push you to get married?” I said.

 “No,” he said, “I thought I was ready to be married, but I wasn’t. It’s my fault.”

 A lovely phrase, but it didn’t make me hurt less. I was dumped because he needed time to grow up. He was three years older than when we got married. I thought people only aged in a forwards direction, but I also thought he was quiet and I’ve revised that opinion. In my new apartment I realize all the tiny noises he made. I miss the sound of him typing and yawning and coughing and opening the fridge and microwaving pizza.

 Car by car we file to the snack bar and receive rations—a cold cut sandwich with cheese, a bag of chips, a tiny can of soda. I feel like a refugee, though I shouldn’t whine. We have heat and food and soft chairs even though that dick behind me keeps kicking the back of my seat and threatening to sue the train company.

 3:35 PM: Hastings, NE

 We stop to let off some passengers, collect new ones, let people have a smoke break, and allow a couple mechanics to examine the freight engines because they’re not working. The conductor explains the passenger and freight engines don’t have compatible software. I wish for the days of coal shoveling. Loudmouth returns reeking of cigarettes and says this is a plot to make us buy expensive train food because we should have reached Denver nine hours ago.

 I don’t know how many other people brought food and how many will need to shell out for a four-dollar ham and cheese on white and a two-dollar can of pop, held hostage to hunger. I live off apples and granola bars and wonder who will be at the funeral to mourn Uncle Clarence. He didn’t have kids, Grandma died five years ago, and Grandpa is in a nursing home since age is nipping at his memory.

 Grandpa is alone and Uncle Clarence was alone and my ex wants to be alone and I’m feeling very alone on the train while this bastard kicks my seat and swears about how awful things are. That’s when I start to cry. The lady across the aisle who’s daughter has the asshole boyfriend sits beside me and puts her arm around my shoulders.

 “Don’t worry, honey,” she says, “it’s going to be okay.”

 She smells comforting, like almond hand lotion. I nod and dry my eyes on a clean paper napkin. I want my cat. I want my mom. I don’t know if I want my ex-husband, and that’s part of the problem. My crying makes Loudmouth shut up for a while, though.

 The day my ex moved out of the apartment I had to go to school, had to teach spelling and math and science and social studies, but after I handed out a subtraction worksheet I sat at my desk and cried. I couldn’t help it. Two girls came up and asked what was wrong. I lied and said my grandma had died. When I tried that line in high school to get out of a German test it didn’t work, but suddenly I had twenty-five seven-year-olds crowding to hug me with pencil-smeared fingers. They understood what it was like to have a grandparent die. They understood the idea of ending. They wanted to comfort me so badly they almost knocked over my chair.

 I didn’t realize until then how the separation felt like a death.

 On the train I wish I had someone, even that little imp Ben, to sit beside me and give me an unconditional hug. He could also kick Loudmouth a few times for good measure. Being seven is a good excuse for behaving badly.

 7:25 PM: Holdrege, NE

 The software programs were fixed and we have been moving slowly forward, but during this stop a few mechanics examine the engines again because they’re not working right. The conductor assures us more mechanics will make everything better. Loudmouth kicks my seat. I’d yell at him, but he smells sweet and yeasty and I’m worried he’s drunk off five-dollar beers from the refreshment car. He’d scream at me like he’s been screaming at the train employees. I take a deep breath and maintain my Midwestern Zen.

 The train starts clicking down those sweet snowy tracks, and Loudmouth Asshole says the jerk-off train company executives will hear from him when we get to Denver.

 8:35 PM: Ten miles outside of Holdrege, NE

 We stop moving. Again. The conductor announces the obvious: our repair didn’t work.

 Loudmouth Asshole spouts conspiracy theories while the guy who runs the snack bar walks through every car with bottles of water and little snack packets of crackers and cookies and dried fruit and cheese spread, which isn’t nearly enough for the time we’ve spent on the damn train. He says they can sell us sandwiches.

 9:12 PM: Still ten miles outside of Holdridge, NE

 The conductor says he doesn’t have good news. Everyone wonders how the fuck things could get worse. The conductor and engineer can’t be on duty any longer because they’ve worked twelve hours and can’t exceed federal labor guidelines. They’re bringing a relief crew that’s waiting on the state border, but it’ll take two hours. And they still have to repair the engine.

 I close my eyes and picture my ex in the seat beside me. I want him to suffer through this. I want him to explain why he needs freedom more than he needs me, why he has to recapture that time when he didn’t have to call home and ask if we needed milk or tell me he’d get back late from work.

 10:37 PM: Where else but ten miles outside of Holdridge, NE

 A member of the on-board staff walks through the cars to explain that a repair crew has arrived and they’re working on the engine but no one knows when we’ll get to Denver. Loudmouth stands up, swaggers into the aisle, and stands six inches from the train employee.

 “You’re a fag,” he yells. “A fag and a jerk-off, and we’re going to take over this train because we need food.”

 He continues the barrage of words and doesn’t realize or care that he’s been kicking the back of my seat for twenty-four fucking hours, but he raises a hand like he’s going to smack the train employee in the face. My fingers have been clenched around the arms of my chair, but I’m unglued from my seat in a blast of anger. Because I’m small it’s easy to wedge myself between the two men. My face is hot with all of the words I’ve been meaning to say to Loudmouth Asshole and my ex-husband (did Uncle Clarence ever break from his quietude and scream?).

 I face Loudmouth Asshole with my hands on my hips, not sure whether to lecture or smack him, but his eyes are the same color brown as my ex’s eyes, and my mind flashes to a small Chicago apartment where my ex sits on the couch deciding whether or not he wants another piece of cold pizza.

 I tackle the bastard in a hug to stop myself from punching him. He releases a woosh of air. I have never hugged someone so aggressively, or yelled so loudly, “Shut the fuck up.”

 This wins me the attention of everyone on the train car. They probably think I’m twenty-one and have serious mental problems. They’re partially right. Loudmouth Asshole peers down at me, cocks his head, and for what is probably the first time today he looks more confounded than outraged.

 “Well.” The train employee pats my shoulder. “It’s been a long night for everyone.”

 I let go of Loudmouth and sink into my seat, facing away from him. Later in the bar car he’ll probably call me a freaking hippie chick who needs to be on Ritalin, but I don’t care. In five minutes we’re rolling. Again. I wrap my scarf around my eyes to shut everything out but my vision of the multi-handicapped teacher who has very nice hands. I dream myself in a cocktail dress going to one of his jazz performances and having a drink with him afterward.

 6:15 AM: Denver, CO

 I wake up as my train crawls into the city. Back home it’s seven-fifteen. I imagine the multi-handicapped teacher sitting in his solitary kitchen drinking coffee and eating corn flakes with bananas and watching the morning news where there’s a seven-second note about a train that got stranded on the way from Chicago to Denver. I bet he doesn’t say a lot at breakfast. That’s okay with me.

 Twenty minutes later I disembark, wrestling my duffel bag down the slim staircase. We should have been here twenty-three and a half hours ago, but I’ll call my aunt and apologize for missing Uncle Clarence’s funeral. We’ll get lunch and she’ll tell me if she’s started sorting through Uncle Clarence’s smoke-scented house. Everything I wanted to discuss with him was said on the train.

 I step into a coffee shop that’s kittycorner from the train station. Yesterday I read that in 16th and 17th century Turkey, drinking coffee was punishable by death. Now that’s a risk I’d take. I order sixteen ounces of sanity, flip open my cell phone, and see service has been restored. I dial my aunt’s number and press Send and take a huge gulp of caffeine. It pulses through my arms to my fingertips. It’s good to have a few priorities in order.