We’re on a train and it’s headed south and your hand is on my knee. “I’m thirsty,” I say. You buy me water and I kiss your cheek. This is as kind as we will ever be to each other.
You forgot to pack and we almost missed the train. There will come a time when this bothers me, when I look back and I hate you for forgetting, but we aren’t there yet. I still think running with luggage is an adventure. I still think the way you slip the cab driver some extra cash, the way you say Run a few red lights, we’ve got a train to catch, is electrifying.
We’re on the train and we were almost late and we take the two last seats that are next to each other. We sit across from two young girls. They are American, like us. The older one tells me she is nine and a half. The younger one is seven and three-quarters. I tell them I am twenty-five and two-thirds. You are forty-two.
The girls’ mother sits across the aisle from us. She flips through a British fashion magazine whose title I recognize from our time in London. One girl pulls the other’s hair. They both scream. Their mother turns the page.
The nine-year-old pulls out an iPad. She plays a game involving sharks, a game involving candy, a game where you can play dress up with a kind of electronic doll. The seven-year-old makes grabs at the screen, points at things, fights to be included. Her sister tugs the screen away. She puts in headphones and turns on music. “Play your own game, Crissy.”
The younger girl turns her attention to us. She asks us questions and questions and questions. I answer most of them. “Why do you do that thing with your hands?” I don’t know. “Where do you live?” San Francisco and I guess Portland, sometimes. “Are you two just friends?” Laughter.
“Was that funny?”
You once told me, sometime near the beginning, about an old religion that believed in a spiritual world of light and a material world of darkness. Every person was born with light inside of him or her, and the ultimate goal of the religion was to return that light to the spirit world. Babies were vessels of pure light. If you wanted to go to Heaven, don’t have a baby. Keep that light for yourself. Eat plenty of lemons.
There is a baby on the train too, with blond, blond hair. His parents speak over him in rapid French and his large eyes dart around the train’s interior. We watch him for the longest time. Vessel of pure light.
I’m on a train and it’s headed west and I am around forty. I no longer tell people my exact age. My train car is almost empty. I can hear everything; the machinery, and the engine, and the clack-clack of wheels on tracks.
I think you’d laugh if I told you what I was doing now. I think you would be cruel about it.
If Train A is headed south at 60 mph and Train B is headed west at 55 mph how long before they crash into one another, fire and smoke and burning engine grease?
It’s too dark to see outside but I face the window anyway, my eyes catching the occasional outline of a tree, a road sign. Really though, I look at my own face. I am reflected in the black. I imagine my reflection is another woman, a strange creature who can float next to my window, and keep pace with a speeding train. Some kind of witch. Her expression is blank.
“I always knew I’d grow old. I never imagined myself looking older. “
I run a hand over my stomach, pulling at my sweater. My belly is pockmarked with injection stabs and I imagine I can feel them. I imagine that they are large. Like the tiny craters of a meteor struck moon. Like honeycomb.
You are recently remarried. I heard that from an old college friend I happened to run into. A sorority sister.
I am on a train headed west and I have needles in my bag and hormones in my blood. I have a honeycomb waist. I cannot help but think of your new bride, another young girl, as a version of myself who was easier to love.
We’re on a train and I’m twenty-five and you have a speaking engagement at a university in Lyon. You are reviewing your notes and I am shifting in my seat. I have been feeling dizzy all week. From the traveling, you tell me.
The nine-year-old across from us kicks your shin. She does not apologize, does not look up from her game. You say nothing. You smirk at me, like we just shared a private joke. I think to myself that your eyes are saying, Look how nothing bothers me, not when I’m sitting next to you. I think about how love makes us kind, not only to each other, but to everyone around us. I feel like we’ve figured out a secret.
The seven year old speaks to me hurriedly, breathlessly, glad to have a captive audience. “Do you have a dog?” No. “Do you have any kids?” No. “Do you like jewelry?” Yes. “I’m going to show you my beads.”
The girl pulls a small pouch out of her bag and places it on the table in front of us. A glass bead shaped like an ice cream cone, a glass bead shaped like a dog, a bead that has no shape, is just a swirl of colored glass.
“I’m going to wear them as necklaces,” she says. “All of them at once. They were expensive.”
“It’s okay to spend a lot of money on jewelry,” I tell her. I nudge your knee. You smile from behind notes.
Tomorrow you will deliver a lecture on St. Augustine. Champion of abstinence. He had some lesser-known early years. He was raised a pagan. He had an illegitimate son. I won’t go to the lecture, I rarely do, but you’ve already practiced in front of me and I know what you’ll say. You’ll say that because of Augustine’s early years he believed sin through sex to be inevitable. You’ll end your lecture with, “This is all, of course, academic.”
While you do this I will shop. I will spend your money. I will find a café, and use their Internet to send a message to my parents. For them, it is the middle of the night, it is two in the morning, but I will still wait, and refresh my phone, and hope for a response. Eventually I will give up, and walk the streets and pretend to belong. I will begin to feel not just dizzy, but unusually sick. I will wander into a pharmacy. I will speak in guidebook French, just a few memorized phrases. Do you speak English? Can you help me?
I am forty and the train has stopped. I collect my things and disembark alone.
I am heading into the city center, running against the stream of rush hour traffic. The number of people on the platform startles me. Men with briefcases, women in pant suits and sensible shoes, all trying to get home. The silence of my train car had wrapped itself around my mind. I felt fogged. Unprepared for the onslaught of noise and activity. And unprepared for the child in front of me, screaming and tugging on her mother’s hand. For a moment, I believe the child is pointing at me, attempting to direct her mother’s attention in my direction. But she is only pointing at the train car behind me, and the open doors.
“Not that one,” her mother says. “That train is going in the wrong direction.”
I brush through the mass of people, turning sideways for anyone who braces the crowds, both shoulders front. I am unobtrusive.
The walk from the train station to the hospital is cold, and I walk quickly. I remember a run in my tights. I grip the sides of my skirt and tug it slightly downward, in an attempt to hide the tear.
I reach the hospital. I take a wheezing elevator to the third floor. I am taken to a back room and given a pink robe. It is paper thin.
“Undress completely. The doctor will be in in a moment.”
I wear nothing but the flimsy, faded, medicinal robe. I sit on the patient chair, in between stir-ups. I place my arms in them instead and allow my feet to dangle.
Eventually Susan enters, my doctor, who insists that I call her Susan. She has curly, curly hair and cold hands. She wears purple scrubs, has a beaded chain connecting the ends of her glasses. She tells me the good news. The hormones have taken. They’re ready to do the egg retrieval. They’ll need to put me under a mild anesthetic.
“Do you have anyone to pick you up?” She asks me.
“Is there anyone you can call?”
“No. Is that going to be a problem?”
“You’ll have to spend the night.”
I’m twenty-five again and I’ve left you in Lyon earlier than we had planned. Ever since your lecture, I was acting difficult. I was acting sickly. I was despondent and withdrawn, and I refused to let you touch me.
I asked for a plane ticket back to Portland. I told you I wanted to visit my parents. I told you I just needed a minute to clear my head. I just needed some time. I would meet you back in San Francisco in one week.
I told you it would be best if you didn’t come with me. This wasn’t a surprise to you. We had an understanding when it came to my mom and dad. They knew I had a boyfriend. They did not know how old he was. You and I both agreed it would be best if the three of you did not meet.
I hadn’t lied to you, really. I did go see my parents. I stopped in to say hello.
And I did meet you in San Francisco, one week later. Just as we had planned. I began to have stomach pains that night. I got a fever. You took me to the hospital. You looked so panicked.
I am lying in a bed in the emergency room. My clothes have been swapped for a hospital gown, and are now lying in a bin on the floor a few feet away from me. I look down and I can see my phone sticking out of the pocket of my pants. There’s a needle in my arm, an IV, and I’m afraid to move it. The curtains are half drawn around me and make a wall of hazy pastels. A nurse is with me, and is trying to keep me calm.
“What are you doing in San Francisco, dear?” Living with my boyfriend. “Do you work here?” No. “Are you from here?” No. “How is your pain?” Fine.
You’ve been at the front desk, filling out my paper work. You left a lot of gaps. The hospital called me later to fill them in myself.
Eventually you finish, and return to my bed, and the doctor returns with the results of my blood test, the results of my scans. She tells us that I have a slight infection. She is telling us that it is a rare complication, infection, but it can happen, sometimes, with my procedure, you know, the one I had recently. She is trying to be delicate. She is telling you that I will be all right. This will not affect my ability to have children. “What procedure?” you say.
You will try to be kind to me while I am here, in the hospital, but you won’t quite manage it. We will not recover from this.
Do you know anything about honeybee mating? The common honeybee mates in midair. The Queen flies around, and looks for potential suitors. Males latch on to her. It takes contracting abdominal muscles, it takes hemostatic pressure. It takes a lot of force, so much in fact that when the male ejaculates his penis ruptures and is left behind in the Queen’s body. The male falls to the ground and dies. The Queen will take a dozen or more partners during her flight. She will leave a trail of her dead lovers in her wake.
It’s called Sexual Suicide.
I just wanted to give you some perspective.
I’m on a train and it’s headed east and the sun is rising. I am around forty. I don’t want you to know my exact age. I spent the night in the hospital. The white, white walls, the fluorescent lights shining in from the hallway through the cracks in my room, the beeping of medical machinery, none of it bothered me. I slept well. The retrieval was a success. My frozen eggs now lie in a vault somewhere, waiting. Now, I am heading back to the apartment where I live alone. I want you to know that I pay for that apartment myself.
Do you remember driving home from the hospital together? There’s not much to say about it, we were both so silent. It was early in the morning. The streets were nearly empty. By the time we reached your apartment it was just beginning to be light outside.
I remember sitting on the couch in your living room. My hospital bracelet was blue. I was running my thumb along the ridged edge of the bottle cap that enclosed my antibiotics. You were yelling at me about lost potential. You were yelling at me about keeping you out of the decision. You were yelling at me about ownership. I was no longer enchanted by you. You were no longer enchanted by me.
I was twenty-five and two-thirds. You were forty-two.
And it seems like only a moment ago we were on a train and I was telling you I think I must have eaten something bad, my stomach feels a little nauseous. I am not yet selfish. You are not yet insensitive, you are not yet cruel.
We are on a train and it’s heading south, south, south.