(photo via visualize.us)
I travel, I read, and I learn new things so that I can write. I don’t write a whole lot of fiction, but in the beginning of this past school year I stepped immensely out of my comfort zone to take three creative writing classes. In my introduction to fiction class our big assignment was a 2,500 word story that would be read and critiqued by the whole class. Months later, I am still working on mine. It’s out of my comfort zone to share my writing but I’m also two weeks away from stepping in new countries with new cultures, new foods, and new languages. I might as well get used to doing things that may seem a little uncomfortable. Anyway, here’s To Pittsburgh. It’s about a train ride.
The train ride from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh would take around five or six hours; something like that. I didn’t care. I just wanted to have two seats to myself. I had a little suitcase for a travel companion, and I wanted to give it a seat. I didn’t want to sit next to anyone; I didn’t want to put in that much effort as a human being. I would have to sit up a little straighter, and keep my legs together, and sit closer to the window, and maybe talk to them. I would have to at least acknowledge their existence. For five hours. This was no subway ride. I had had two hours of sleep the night before. My plan was to sleep as soon as the conductor gave me a ticket; I didn’t know how much the train actually was.
I was able to find a seat toward the back with plenty of leg room and an extra seat for my suitcase. This wasn’t a crowded train. This made me happy. I couldn’t find my headphones that morning, but I had always been good at sleeping on public transportation. I had an early morning train; sleeping would be a breeze.
Twenty minutes after our departure, I heard the woman next to me sighing the word, “Fuck.” Audibly. Loud and clear. “Fuuuuuck.” Like a country rooster in the morning. I was startled into looking in her direction, but I quickly tried to pretend I was just looking behind me. She had bright colors in her hair, makeup smudged around her face, and black clothes on. She looked like a mess. She had four different piercings in her face. I felt her looking toward me.
Please don’t say anything to me. Please don’t say anything to me.
I knew how these things went. I had been taking public transportation in Philadelphia for the past few months. Eye contact is the number one catalyst for trouble. They’ll ask you for money. They’ll make some odd comment and you have to respond because you feel obligated and then you look like you’re with the crazy person and you get off the subway at a stop that’s before your stop and you have to walk. The last thing I wanted was to be her therapist, or for her to ask me for money. I actually didn’t have a lot of money with me this time. She looked like she was on drugs, and we had a long ride without any stops. I didn’t want to walk to Pittsburgh. I closed my eyes, as if that would stop her. I thought I was in the clear; she didn’t speak directly to me. But five minutes later, she let out a second audible sigh. Five minutes later, another, and she was reduced to a wordless sigh yet another five minutes later. Her phone buzzed. It buzzed again. It buzzed a third time, and then a fourth. The grey flip phone was lying on the seat next to her. I don’t know why it took so long for her to pick it up. We’re on public transportation, after all. It was a little rude. It buzzed again. She picked it up. The conversation began.
I wish I had taken the extra ten minutes to search for my headphones before I left for the train station. I could have skipped my nap earlier in the day. I could have played a little less Candy Crush. I could have had some self-control. I didn’t have self-control and I didn’t have headphones, so I listened to the sweet sounds of the woman next to me. I couldn’t understand much because she talked in slurs. She was begging, I thought. “I’ll have it. I’ll have it. Don’t worry. Can you….Could you…I got it. I got it.” Et cetera. She hung up the phone. Five minutes later, her sigh escalated to a moan. “Fuuuuck.” I didn’t think she was going to stop any time soon.
I wondered how many people on the train were hearing this. I tried to look at the positive side of this situation. If I had to talk to any other passengers, at least I didn’t have to come up with what to say. I had material. Ninety percent of my interactions with strangers on public transportation were spurred by the ridiculousness of other strangers on public transportation. If the seats of the train worked like the seats of the subway, I could make eye contact with the other passengers. The other passengers and I would exchange snarky glances, maybe make a joke under our breaths, laugh, and feel relief for a minute.
Instead, the passenger in front of her decided to scream. I jumped in my seat. It was a long scream, drawn out and not expressing any emotion in particular. He didn’t scream any particular word. It continued. It was louder than the moans. Sometimes they were in sync, and there was a few seconds of silence I could enjoy. Sometimes, when he ended his scream, she was still moaning. I wasn’t sure why the guy was screaming. After ten minutes, I had had enough. The moaning woman didn’t catch me off guard; she just annoyed me. I figured at some point she would stop. Screaming was a little much. I started to develop a headache.
Where was the conductor? Shouldn’t he be concerned?
I stood up and looked to where the guy was screaming. His head was in his hands. He had a nice watch. He was also sitting alone. Most of the passengers suffering with me were sitting alone. About 20 passengers were squished up against their own windows. No two people sat together except a toddler and her mother, in the very front seat. The toddler was pulling on the mother’s shirt, the mother sat in silence, looking out the window. I felt awkward watching this interaction. I was never good with kids. No one was paying attention to the toddler, or moaning woman, or the screaming guy with the nice watch. A few people had headphones, and a few people were napping. I’m not sure how people managed to fall asleep.
A young man a few rows in front of me stole my attention. He had greasy hair, and it was flying back and forth. He was hitting his head against the back of the seat. It was a slow process; he would lean forward, take the time to mumble something to himself, and then whip his head back against the seat. This train ride was getting slightly out of hand.
I looked at my small suitcase, and thought about moving cars. I thought about yelling for the conductor. My phone buzzed. My mom had sent me a text: “How are you feeling?” How was I feeling? I felt dizzy. I felt heavy. I sat down. The screaming continued, the moaning continued, the toddler continued to try and get her mother’s attention, and the young man continued to hit his head against the back of his seat.
I heard a short rip of fabric. Then a longer rip, and then a longer rip. I picked myself up and lifted my head just high enough to see over the seat. The man in front of me wore a three-piece suit, and his briefcase was open. Out of the briefcase he had pulled a pocketknife, with which he carved the initials “T.L.” I thought for a second that he had wonderful calligraphy skills. I sat down in my seat.
I heard footsteps. I thought the footsteps that were coming up the aisle had to be the conductor. Relief. The footsteps quickened, and when they passed me I realized it was a teenage girl. She had the Uggs, she had the big earrings, and she had the tight leggings. She walked up to the front of the car, and turned around. She started. “I’mgoingtodieI’mgoingtodieI’mgoingtodie,” she said all the way down the car. She was fanning herself. “It’stoohotIt’stoohotIt’stoohotIt’stoohot.” I watched her pace. I had seen these before. My mom used to have panic attacks. Once I hugged her to try and calm her down. It didn’t calm her down. She did fine when she was left alone, so I left the girl in the aisle alone.
The guy behind me started punching the back of my seat. The first few times he did it, my back flew forward a little bit. I was able to get an idea of his rhythm and brace myself for when it was going to happen. This guy was punching as hard as he could.
The backs of our seats were plastic. I turned around to face him. He was young, probably 22. His Pearl Jam t-shirt hung off of his scrawny frame and his face was all scrunched up. His face was bright red. He turned his eyes to me, panting, looking desperate for something, frustrated. I thought about saying something to him. I really wanted to say something to him. I wanted to tell him that he should punch the cushion he was leaning on. His knuckles would start bleeding if he kept punching the plastic. I thought that maybe he wanted his knuckles to bleed. I kept my mouth shut.
I wished he had a punching bag. That’s what I always used.
I only used the punching bag in college. I lived in a house with two girls, three guys. They were all nice and we were all friends, but they were also all friends with my girlfriend, and then ex-girlfriend, who continued to hang around the house all the time after we broke up. She had known my roommates longer than she had known me, so it was hard to ask them to hang out with her somewhere else. I hated seeing her after we broke up, though. She would pretend that nothing was wrong, hoping that she could convince our friends that everything ended ok. It didn’t. Whenever she would come over, I would stay in my room. It was soundproof, and I would punch the shit out of the punching bag I had hanging from the ceiling. I had installed the punching bag after I had punched two holes in the wall. It was a Christmas gift from my mom. I never pretended my ex was the punching bag or anything; I’m not abusive. I never was. I never thought of it, not even when she cheated on me. She cried to my roommate about it once. I heard her while I was in passing by his room. My roommate didn’t tell her I was in the house. They never told her how often she was over and I was upstairs, punching that punching bag.
A week ago I got the news that she had been killed in a car accident. The driver was drunk. My ex didn’t deserve to die. The train ride was the day before her funeral. It was going to be held near campus. I hadn’t been back to visit since I had graduated. She had come to Philly for business about a year ago. I tried to meet up with her. Our plans fell through. I had overdrawn my account so I could go to this funeral. I had taken my last sick day. I would be staying with my old roommate. He had a toddler. I would be staying in the toddler’s room. I was never good with kids.
I didn’t pack much. I brought a box from when I was dating my ex, though: one of those boxes with all of your memories in them. I wanted to bury it. I wanted to burn it. I wanted to take it back with me to Philadelphia. I was going to Pittsburgh for her fucking funeral. I hugged the box to my chest and folded into my knees. A few minutes later, I felt a hand on my back. I turned my head to see the conductor of the train sitting in my empty seat.
Now he comes. Now.
The conductor said nothing. He ignored everyone else on this godforsaken train. I looked at his eyes, which fixated on the box with a gloomy stare. I opened the box. The first thing I saw was a little bottle of shampoo. It was hotel-sized. We stayed in a hotel at some point. I rolled the shampoo around in my hand.
Cleveland. Her cousin’s wedding. Why the hell would you have your fucking wedding in Cleveland?
I stood up and threw the little shampoo across the train. The shampoo bounced off the front of the car and fell in the aisle, where it began to roll forward. It felt great. It felt like a good punch to the punching bag. I looked at the conductor, still sitting next to me, eyes staring ahead, head hung. I looked again in the box. As long as he wasn’t saying anything, I was going to keep throwing. My turn.
I saw was a pile of handwritten notes. I didn’t read them. I crumpled them up in a ball, and lobbed it into the aisle, like I would at my cat. Tiny sample of her perfume in a glass box: chucked. Smashed. It probably smelled horrible. I wondered if perfume expired. I ripped pictures. I stomped on ticket stubs. The conductor got up at one point, but I was never sure if it was before or after I took out a picture of us, in a tiny frame, and watched it drop to the floor. I was in the zone.
I was still standing, squinting to identify every little piece of glass on the floor. I examined their shape. I tried to figure out which pieces they would go with, if I wanted to put them all together in a very sad puzzle. I counted every piece. At 12, a woman three rows in front of me started to sob loudly. I counted every piece, and I’ve forgotten the total number.
I might have stood there for five minutes. I might have stood there for an hour. At one point, the floor was blurry. At another point, we received an announcement from the conductor, saying we were 20 minutes outside of Pittsburgh. I sat down and put the empty box in my bag. The sobbing in front of me stopped. The screaming turned into heavy breathing. The punching stopped. The teenage girl was already sitting in her seat. The train was calm.
We pulled into the station and everyone quietly exited the train. The conductor looked at us one by one, motionless. When he looked at me, my jaw fell and I couldn’t speak. That was okay with the conductor. I saw my old roommate and his toddler. I gave each of them a hug.
I looked in my wallet. I realized I had never paid for a ticket.