train train train train train train train
I am on a train again. A train is my favorite place to be in the entire world. I know this now for sure because we just set out and my heart crushed in on itself and now I’m sitting at a booth in the lounge car smile-sobbing so hard someone came up to me and said, “You seem like you’re at a wedding, but I just wanted to check and see if you are ok.” I hugged that person. She left quickly.
When I was a kid, I had terrible insomnia. I am going to use the word “kid” to mean “ages five through twenty.” After it was time to go to bed, I used to lie awake on my back, staring at the ceiling, trying not to cry. I felt that night marked time passing in a way nothing else did: The day was over. Whatever you hoped or dreamed to accomplish was likely a failure, and night is brutal with its permeating reminders. Don’t try to argue with me. I am dark and I am everywhere. I’m way, way bigger than you. I win; you lose.
There was a wide-faced digital clock in my childhood bedroom with bright red block numbers I watched hawklike until 11:11 p.m. (I felt that 11:11 made a beautiful shape; it reminded me of matchsticks lined up.) I knew that no one in my house stayed awake past 11:11. Part of what was so awful about the night was that it seemed no one else seemed to grasp how awful it was. So 11:11 was a beautifully terrible hour, where I was alone with my fear and my knowledge of mortality and I couldn’t share it with anyone. And so, at 11:11, I climbed out of bed and sat at my kitchen table and looked out the window where you could see the onramp to I-5. I sat and counted the cars: white-yellow bright headlight dots. People are still up. The world is still running. Humanity is fighting against this night business. I counted up to 50, always. I hoped I’d get caught, tangled up late in night with this mistress ritual; I hoped someone would march up and say, Sophie, stop this! You are being ridiculous! But the people in my family are sound sleepers.
So maybe this is one of the things about trains: There’s a big, always-lit lounge car where there are never not-awake people. You are, in fact, not allowed to sleep in the lounge car. At 3 a.m., attendants in striped coats will walk down the aisle to make sure everyone in the lounge car is longing with their eyes open. On this particular train, where I am now, I can already tell that at that hour there will be an Australian couple playing gin rummy with a portly-still white man — terribly, perfectly white (white hair coming out of his scalp and sprouting from his ears; white overalls and a white t-shirt; white cuticles; white sneakers). I know this because I have taken enough trains to know who the hardcore night-loungers are.
I am not a hardcore night-lounger. I am a morning person, actually — but a backward morning person. I am the kind of morning person who is too scared of the night to be a night person. (This is absolutely a small minority, but you can’t pick your habits, really.) I wait around for 4 a.m.; it comes along, friendly; I go, “OK, there is a new day now, the night is gone, and actually, it is socially acceptable for me to make coffee.” However, I love the hardcore night-loungers. They are watchmen; I like to be around them. In fact, I know about the attendant in the striped coat because I am the person she has to wake up at 3 a.m., condemning me back to my dark aisle seat.
I have sixteen hours here today; sixteen hours here next week. They are gift hours; I’ve never felt stuck on a train. (I feel stuck most of the time in my real life, so the unstickiness of train life merits mentioning.) The train makes me want to live a life where I get on trains and get off trains and eat hard cheese and soft cherries and sleep on cliffside in one of those yellow triangular tents big enough for one person.
But I’ll take what I can get: We passed a miles-deep lot of impounded cars just outside Los Angeles. It was a portrait gallery of collisions: Gorgeous sloping metal wrecks that tell descriptive tales of kill-screens. Here is what it looked like in the split second my life changed; here is the death mask of a whole chapter. After this was always after-the-wreck. And that, too, is one of the things about trains: You have to be paying attention. That huge lot was twelve full seconds long. And then moments later we passed a white-and-gray horse kneeling by a foal. And after that: rocks, however ancient, which have shape-shifted hundreds of millions of times, and will keep on doing just that for the rest of earth — and maybe longer.