Stranger on a Train


The first time I saw her she was going the wrong way in Union Station. Or was I going the wrong way? Either way—

‘The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along’

After we passed each other for about the fourth time, I got the idea that we were both going opposite wrong ways in a tunnel with only two ends.

‘I can’t tell one from the other
Did I find you, or you find me?’

She would stop at each gate to squint at the departure signs through her thick black frames, and I would stop and do about the same. The only difference was that I’d had eye surgery a year earlier and didn’t need corrective lenses anymore, making me look inherently less lost.

‘Out of all those kinds of people
You got a face with a view’

I thought about offering her my help, or maybe my condolences, but her white satin hair was twisted in a french rope and pulled off to one side—my side—effectively tying up her ear. My time was occupied by earbuds anyhow, a Talking Heads song going on and on on repeat.

‘I’m just an animal looking for a home
Share the same space for a minute or two’

And no matter how many times we met in the middle—six—I would still end up facing that same deaf knot. It wasn’t until well after we landed in the same car of the same train in the same row that she would finally let her hair down, tousling gently as it spilled over her spine and crept by her shoulders, while she stared off into the night through my reflection in her window—

‘Eyes that light up, eyes that look through you
Cover up the blank spots, hit me on the head’

Then I do it all over again…

These are the great love affairs of my life:

Olivia, the platinum blonde stranger on a Pacific coast train; Antonia, the pixie patisserie at Austin’s most punnily named bakery, Sweetish Hill; a chem student I met in Thai Town who’s name I can’t remember.

There are more. These are not the ones that got away; they’re the ones I never got at all.

— — —

DREW: So I’ve been thinking…when he asked about your tattoo he already knew those weren’t your initials because even I know they’re not your initials…I know that because earlier he said your name. He called you ‘Olivia.’

OLIVIA: Right, yeah, that’s— I was just worried he was gonna to tell me to put my feet down.

Her bare feet are up on the seat, legs crossed, the letters ‘SB’ carved in her ankle.

DREW: I’ve come up with two possible explanations.

She removes her remaining earbud.

DREW: Well, first, he could have just been trying to be nice. Although he wasn’t very nice to me, not at all. Then again, you’re a girl, you’re a pretty girl…but I’m not even sure he’s even interested in— his voice was— Anyway, that’s not what I think it was.

Olivia: No?

DREW: No, I think he was trying to get you to admit that you’re traveling under a fake name, an alias. This, ‘Olivia,’ or whatever— He knew what your ticket said and it didn’t match the initials on your ankle and he wanted you to slip up and say your real name…yes…let’s see…Sarah Barker…or is it…Sandra Barbara!?

OLIVIA: You think I’m named after the city where the train’s going?

DREW: Yes, that would be pretty convenient wouldn’t it? But no, I think your name is Olivia.

OLIVIA: You’re right, it is. Can I trust you to watch my stuff while I go away for a minute?

Drew nods like a eager puppy. She leaves.

— — —

Later she says something about dressing as a lobster for Halloween because she won’t use “Satan’s day” as an excuse to “dress like a slut”—something every girl probably says before she puts on a bustier and bunny ears—and I say something about how lathering herself in butter sauce could, maybe, appeal to a certain brand of seafood fetishists, and she laughs because it was funny and flirty without being too forward. Who know’s, maybe we could go have a fuck in the handicap toilet above the dining car.

But that won’t happen because she’s getting off at the next stop, and having already assessed the likelihood of my ever ‘bumping into’ her again without a number, a last name, or at the very least a hair sample (Shit! should have checked her seat), I know this will certainly be the last time we see each other.

So I convince myself it’s better this way. More romantic. Look here while I stare my next great (tragic) romance in the eye—emeralds slit wide behind paned glass; it’s raining in Ireland—and to escape without turning a significant portion of anyone’s heart to stone—whether mine, hers, or both—is all I can hope for when we have only so many false affairs to start before the strings responsible for pulling feelings to our outmost extremities give up. Enough, they say. You can cry wolf over love too many times before the bloody fist in your chest punches itself out. Unballs. Leave me the strength for one more clench! She’s probably not the one I have to hold, so I must say goodbye.

As the train slows down and the conductor says “Ventura” and her feet point at the aisle and she collects her bags, a predictable yet no less devastating wave of paralysis takes over my limbs. All of sudden they’re not there. I’m as useful as a wet log. I’m not even sure if my lips can move when she says, “Nice to meet you,” but I suppose they do—to the tune of two sweet syllables spoken with such emphasis that my “You too” penetrates not only the blonde film over her ears, but are able to melt the wax sheath protecting her heart as well, I presume, leaving her with no choice but to look back at me and smile.

Here’s my chance: she disappears down the stairs, but her eyeballs, having ejected from their sockets, are left hanging in the air, fixed like limbo laser beams on my pupils, daring me to blink, or not, as they etch yet another silhouette of fantasy on my already over impressed mind. Meanwhile I concentrate all the world’s unused energy on lifting so much as a disenfranchised pinkie, or a long begotten toe, but to no avail. With the whoosh of an vacuum-sealed door, the glowing orbs are ripped out of sight in the undertow, and before I know it, we’re up and moving again. I’m up and moving again, out of my seat, going god knows where, afraid to look for fear that she’s still there.

‘Eyes that light up, eyes that look through you
Cover up the blank spots, hit me on the head’

Then I do it all over again…

These are the great love affairs of my life.