A Train is a Nothing

Design by Karela Palazio

It could be any train, but for me it is the Amtrak Northeast Regional. There are two men standing shoulder to shoulder in the aisle across from me—gray-haired businessmen in blue suits, one rocking pinstripes. Pinstripes has been ordering flights of wine; it’s a Thursday night in December and they’re headed home from a business trip in the city. The other man, clean-cut with Athenian eyes (if I squint, he could be my father), is talking about his first time. Pinstripes presses him for details; he’s the instigator here. The story is that they slept together before they had sex. He calls it a “well, eventually.” 

Athens is a little red, whether from the wine or the story, and they chuckle and settle into silence for a moment. They are almost flirting, I think. It occurs to me that they might not even know each other. New York City is big enough for two separate businessmen on two separate business trips. 

I have been in and out of sleep since we left and just awoke to their conversation and a terrible numbness in my left leg and the Voice of God announcing Trenton is next. Some people are loath to sleep on trains, upright and beside a stranger, but I am not one of them. If you see me on a train and I am not people watching, I have folded my forehead into my lap, settled my elbows atop my knees, and laced my hands directly above my neck as if I’m in a tornado drill. It’s uncomfortable, but I find the strange nature of the rest it brings to be entirely the point. When I sleep on trains, my dreams are always polite, absurd, and topical, and in the interstitial moments when I am jolted awake by the screeching of the brakes or a bump in the track, the thoughts I scratch down consistently delight me with the quality of being entirely unintelligible after the fact. I refuse to drink a second cup of coffee on train days.

Pinstripes offers to share his first time now, and Athens accepts the topic more gleefully now that he gets to be the listener. They seem not to notice that the whole car has fallen silent to eavesdrop. If they were whispering I might have poked my head out to better position my ear, but since the train is quiet and their tone congenial, I decide to close my eyes and treat it as a lullaby. Pinstripes had his first with a lawyer’s daughter in the Chesapeake. It’s a long, complicated, endearing story and I resist the urge to catch some of the riper details in my notebook. Athens has started to poke and prod now—he wants to know everything—and they’re giggling, entirely lost in their own world. Athens says something teasing that I don’t quite understand and Pinstripes gives a mock shove and “if I had a dollar for everything I did that I didn’t want to do we’d be on a private jet and you’d be bringing me bottle service.”

Now they hear the silence. They are suddenly uncomfortable and we are too. We do not know exactly what he meant by this, but we know it’s time to stop listening. Pinstripes looks around, wondering who has heard him, but all sixty-two of us in the car decide it is better to pretend we have been lost in the rolling chorus of wheels against track. Voice of God comes back on: Philadelphia is next. 

Nothing important happens on trains. Despite what the literature may tell you, there are no murders, there are no love affairs. There are those who seek to use the train as a symbol for something—the future or the past or the inevitable or the temporary—but they are wrong. A train is a nothing. It is something to be somewhere else. I am sore on trains, always, and if you ride along with me, I have only meaningless things to say. A child is too loud. Someone scratches at the back of their throat. Everyone is frustrated and content. No one has anywhere to be except where they are going. Sometimes, my station comes too quickly. 

A kid my age asks if this seat is taken. It is purposefully obstructed by my backpack, but this train is too full for free seats, and he has decided that I look friendly enough that our auras can swirl for the next few hours without consequence. We’re both Jewish––he’s wearing a kippah so it’s easy for me to tell––but I figure he has seen my hair and nose and general demeanor and assumed the same. So he sits. 

We are headed South to Washington, DC. The journey from Manhattan is sixteen stops and takes about four hours. Amtrak will tell you three and a half, but they don’t mean it. The train is furnished with blue felt seats, wide with no armrests, two to a side, and positioned at a harsh 95 degrees. The lights are too bright. Microwaved hotdog air wafts towards me from the servery two cars up. I am not hungry. I have a caffeine headache and I’m sweating, which is weird because I was just freezing. The kid is sweating too, which makes more sense; he just got on and to board a train is to run. Trains have the rather impersonal habit of leaving without you, and every station is more labyrinthine than the last, and the closer I get to my track the more likely it is that the train will be gone or worse, I will be forced to leap through its doors as they steam and shudder and slice me in two. 

Behind us, a man starts talking on the phone. He’s Jewish too, it seems. Maybe forty-five, greasy black hair. Big eyebrows. He’s talking to someone close to him, his brother perhaps. They’re not really talking about anything. They are reminding each other that they have existed together before and will exist together again. He sounds tired. They are sitting Shiva this week, I don’t know for whom. He’s talking rather loudly, which I find abrasive, but he can get away with doing so in relative privacy because we’re getting close now and the car has taken to bright, anticipatory chatter.  The silent, dreary fog that haunted us through New Jersey has misted away, and through the window I can almost taste the Maryland air—tender and lightly salted. I owe someone a phone call too, but I have real things to say to him and don’t want my conversation to make it into someone else’s story. There are faces etched in the ceiling. Everyone I know is on this train. I close my eyes. 

Voice of God again: Baltimore is next. The businessmen are gone. Eyebrows behind me leaps from his seat. “Fuck!” He rushes up the car. The kid looks up from his book and I crack him a smile. I ask him if he’s headed to Baltimore too. He does not get the joke, or perhaps thinks it’s impolite to laugh at someone else’s misfortune. “Yes,” he says with a straight face and returns to his book. 

“Well I’m fucked,” the man returns to proclaim. “They never even said Wilmington, there’s nobody working this train, they never said anything, they said they’re headed to D.C. is that where you’re headed?” 

“No,” the kid says. 

“Yes,” I say.

“Well I’m fucked,” the man repeats. “I’m fucked, and I won’t be able to get back tonight, and they didn’t even say anything. There’s nobody on this train.”

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