"Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance; everybody thinks it's true." (Paul Simon - Train in the Distance)
The whistle calls, “We’re on our way, we’re leaving you behind.” The roar of the wheels on the rails comes closer, louder, more urgent, and then fades away, promising new places, new romance.
I love trains. When I was at boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts, I took two trains home to Ann Arbor - Boston to Albany, Albany to Detroit. It was Christmas, and the Boston train was filled with kids going home from prep schools and colleges. We took over the club car with our guitars, pocket flasks, and bags of sandwiches and cake. From Boston to Albany it was the great traveling Honey Hunt.
At Abbot Academy in the sixties there wasn’t a lot of boyfriend activity. Twice a week we could walk in pairs to town, so if we weren’t too scared of getting caught we could meet a local boyfriend. On Sunday afternoons after church we could have a caller in the parlor. At dances with boys’ prep schools we could pair up with a boyfriend if we had one, or we could love the one we were with. “Love” meant dancing as close as we could get away with, or sneaking off to make out behind the bushes.
So sex was hard to find. Of course there must have been lesbians, but I was never aware of them. Though a few of the teachers were long-time housemates, lesbian love seemed so exotic and unreal. Surely these dowdy spinsters weren’t involved. The teachers were in the same category as parents and other impossibly old people: we shielded our minds from any thoughts of their sex lives.
At the same time, we were obsessed with sex and romance. I had barely been kissed, but I was a virgin with aspirations - the only girl in the tenth grade dorm who admitted she wanted to get laid, the expert in sex who told the others everything I had learned (from books) about free love.
I had two boyfriends: Charles, a lanky senior at a progressive prep school in Vermont, and Toby, a pudgy Harvard sophomore. Until we moved from Cambridge to Ann Arbor I could see them on holidays - Charles and I went to a street dance in Boston, Toby took me to a night club. But in boarding school the point of a boyfriend was letters - after lunch we crowded around the mail slots hoping for something other than a letter from our mother. Both Charles and Toby obliged.
With a love affair that was essentially epistolary, we could have as many boyfriends as we wanted, or could get. So I sat in the club car on the train from Boston, singing harmony and hoping for romance.
Jamie McPherson* went to Groton. He was suave and preppy, with tousled hair and soulful eyes.
When we learned that we were both going on to Detroit, we were a natural pair. He was joining a friend for the two hour layover in Albany; so we agreed we’d find each other in the club car on the Detroit train.
Union Station in Albany was like a smaller Grand Central: vaulted ceiling, crowds of strangers. No one knew me - I could be whoever I wanted. I loved to try on characters and lives. Once in a restaurant I pretended I was a French student and spoke no English. On a plane I presented myself as a thirty-year-old mother of three; this struck me as glamorous. It was modeled on my sister-in-law Esther, whom I adored.
I bought a ticket for a couchette for $11 and then wandered around with an ice cream cone, people-watching. When no one spoke to me and gave me a chance for role play, I sat in the waiting room with my novel, happy to know I had a date for the night train.
ALBANY UNION STATION
Jamie and I found each other, and went on to the dining car. White tablecloths, stemmed glasses, flowers, and the black night with flashes of light. The waiter was smiling and benevolent, but we didn’t have the nerve to order a drink. Though I wanted a steak, I had a salad. If Jamie saw how I liked to eat, he might think I was fat. Coffee was sophisticated so we ordered two demitasses, but barely drank it, and then made our way through the swaying cars to my couchette.
The couchette was a child’s delight. The seat unfolded into a narrow bed under a big window; the sink unhooked from the wall to cover the toilet. The sleeping car porter had unfolded and made up the bed. We explored all the cunning devices, and then lay on top of the blanket and began to explore each other.
I had a problem. Of course I wanted to go all the way - wasn’t I a proponent of free love? Jamie was as cute as they come, and I could lose my virginity on the night train! But I had my period. I had to tell him before he got past my bra, but then he would think that I thought that he thought...oh dear.
Somehow I told him, and we both agreed we would simply have to stop above the waist. If he had heard of fellatio, he didn’t have the nerve to ask me. So we cuddled and kissed, and for me it was True Love. He’d never seen a bra in full light so I let him examine mine. I showed him how a tampon worked, though I didn’t demonstrate on myself. We tried to sleep for a while, tightly spooned, but the bed was too narrow, and eventually he went back to his coach seat.
I woke in the middle of the night in Canada, warm in my bed, and watched the tall pines rushing past, the snow lit by moonlight. Alone, I could savor every word and kiss and touch, and dream of what would come.
I didn’t see Jamie in the morning, and he was going back to school earlier than I. Maybe there would be a letter when I got back to Abbot. My father met me in Detroit, and we drove to Ann Arbor. I didn’t know a soul there; we had moved from Cambridge just before school started, so I spent a lonely Christmas with my annoying family, waiting for my real life to begin again.
After a long three weeks I was on the train again, but this time the club car was full of boring businessmen, so I ordered a Coke and settled in with a novel. A Creep sat down next to me, a balding blonde with a red face and a gray suit. He bought me dinner and two rum and sodas, then followed me to my couchette. I opened the door, slipped inside and closed it securely behind me. I have a clear image of him standing stunned, open-mouthed - but it must be an imaginary memory
I spent the night dreaming, awake and asleep, of Jamie. In the morning I dressed in jeans and a sweater, and went back to the dining car for breakfast The waiter brought me water, offered coffee, and said, “Where’s your friend?” And so completely had I obliterated the Creep from my thoughts, so entirely had my dreams been filled with Jamie, that I said, “Oh, he’s not on this train, he’s traveling tomorrow.”.
Back at school I waited for a letter from him - a week, two weeks - and then it came, on high class cream-colored notepaper, black ink, a small clear script. “I’m glad I met a girl like you.” I puzzled over that line like a biblical scholar, trying to wring from it some pledge. I consulted with my friends - were they words of love or was he calling me a slut? I clung to his closing: Love, Jamie. I wrote him back, pages and pages of witty stories of my Christmas at home, full of scorn for my parents and stupid teachers, warm accounts of after hours revels in the dorm, and probably a bit of poetry.
I never heard from him again. It was a romance as beautiful and brief as a bubble. Charles and Toby’s letters kept coming, and there were more dances, more trains. Jamie was a game, Charles and Toby were games. Men only ceased to be a game when I began raising a son, and realized that these aliens beings were simply human.
I took a train from Jacksonville to New York a few years ago - a nightmare of crying babies, a seat designed to prevent sleep, and a club car full of drunken middle-aged people joking about penis size. Trains aren’t what they used to be, but then, neither am I.
*Fake name of course
NEXT WEEK: THE BLOG BIRD
I'd love to hear from you! Click "comments," below.