Trains, Memories, Farewells

by Abigail Akavia

Short Talk on Why Some People Find Trains Exciting / Anne Carson

It is the names Northland Sante Fe Nickle Plate Line Delta Jump Dayliner Heartland Favourite Taj Express it is the long lit windows the plush seats the smokers the sleeping cars the platform questions the French woman watching me from across the aisle you never know the little lights that snap on overhead the noctilucal areas the cheekwary page turning of course I have a loyal one at home it is the blue trainyards the red switch lights the unopened chocolate bar the curious rumpled little ankle socks speeding up to 130 kilometres per hour black trees crowding by bridges racketing past the reading glasses make her look like Racine or Baudelaire je ne sais plus lequel stuffing their shadows into her mouth qui sait même qui sait.

I have been married for ten years this week. 

We check online and learn together that the traditional material for tenth anniversary gifts is tin. This keeps us entertained for a while, cracking jokes about our marriage as a rusty tin can. Our average age is forty, far from officially old, but officially not-young. The morning of our anniversary goes up in prosaic flames of frustration, as we try—mostly fail—to contain the screams of a three-and-a-half year old who has been offered his breakfast muesli in the panda-bear-bowl instead of the cloud-bowl; whose commandment “the dinosaur t-shirt” was misinterpreted to mean the black shirt with the white dinos instead of the other way around (white shirt, black dinos). Ritual morning miscommunications like the itch on a leg covered with a dozen two-day old mosquito bites.

Almost fourteen years ago, you went to Germany for a year of studies. The summer before the academic year started, we traveled together in Europe. My mother was not ready to have her youngest daughter away for so long with a man she—my mother, that is, but she probably thought I also—didn’t really know that well. And so I found myself playing the age-old part, shouting at her “I am going to marry this man” with the conviction of a young person unaware of how young (and ridiculously archetypal) she sounds, years before you and I actually talked about marriage. But your mother was with us at the airport saying goodbye, because you were leaving for longer than just the summer. 

Then a few months later the two of us were standing in the aisle of a train going from Cologne to Frankfurt, where I was to get off and board a plane back to Israel. You were making your way further south on the same train. We held each other tight, not sure when we would next see each other; I was most probably tearful. A group of German women shouted at us indistinctly, tsk-ing, laughing, almost as if they were offended by our display of emotion, or urging us not to take ourselves so seriously.

True love. Is it really necessary? / Tact and common sense tell us to pass over it in silence. (Wisława Szymborska)

I visited you once there. It was winter, and darkness came early, but it must have been truly late when I stepped off the train onto the station platform at that small university town, because it was deserted. Only your clean-shaven figure was there, far on the other end, of course it was far, the other end of the platform, so that time would have space to stretch a little bit longer until our faces touched again. You have been clean-shaven only occasionally since, I have definitely stopped shaving. You smell like stubble on good days, on less good days, like cigarettes. 

Where was it (I think somewhere in the UK) that I almost left your messenger bag with your laptop in it on a platform bench while you were hauling the heavier luggage into the train-car? But you noticed on time and jumped off to collect it before the train pulled away. Sometimes I wonder if we would still be together if the doors had closed before you noticed the bag was missing. Or would that have become my definitive mistake, borne out of distraction and the forever unfulfilled desire to travel lightly. Years afterwards, the distribution of burdens, at airports especially, became predictably clear: you carry all the electronics, I have a child strapped on to me. Then came our second child and things became harder to balance.

Our eldest son was into trains, as many an American toddler is. The names “Northland Sante Fe Nickle Plate Line Delta Jump Dayliner Heartland Favourite Taj Express” sound like a lullaby he would have concocted for himself in his angelic three-year old singsong voice, back when we lived in our Chicago apartment—the one with the overlong corridor, where I realized that my love for him was not totally unlike being in romantic love. For when he ran towards me for a hug there was space enough in that length of corridor for something under my navel to contract in anticipation of the feeling of his small smooth body crash gleefully into my limbs. This corridor was the indoor train-station platform of my young love, my early motherhood to a toddler, a love that sits in the body differently from the immediate physical connection to that same child when he was an infant. Until I got used to his body, just as I got used to yours. Touch is no longer hallowed, though it is no less life-affirming. 

I do not remember feeling something similar in my gut with our youngest child. He was born to a mother who was already a mother. 

Having a toddler interested in trains taught us much about American culture and history we would probably never have learned otherwise. Also, it gave us moments of standing outside the Whole Foods on Roosevelt in the freezing cold, looking out at the Metra switchyard as the toddler in question perched precariously on the cement ledge of the parking lot. Talk about experiences etched in the body.

The first years of our marriage were seeped with grief for my sister. It was a grief temporally incidental to our marriage but cosmically isomorphic with it, coloring it (maybe not all of it but just a bit of our marriage, I hear you protesting) as if by some osmotic process. So that the memory that a pair of shoes imprinted in my heels, tapping on a platform to meet my sister long ago, also evokes the other platform farewells and reunions—and even that visceral excitement of hugging my son, and the sense of loss of that excitement. A pair of shoes you helped me choose and which defined my particular brand of cool for most of my twenties. And then I stopped wearing them. And then I gave them away, before we left Chicago.

In Saxony’s suburbia, I bought a vintage drawer cabinet, meant to fit the kid’s arts-and-crafts stuff. I try my best to cram it all in, pickle jars repurposed to hold plastic beads, pads of colored paper and tracing-paper and watercolor-paper and regular paper, scraps of paper big enough to be reused, trays of watercolors, toddler-size shoeboxes filled with markers and colored pencils, colored pencils still in their original box. The cabinet is too small. Its insides hold the trapped odor of cigarette smoke—

—but this cabinet doesn’t remind me of the smell of smoke coming up from the dancers’ green-room mixed with the musty-sweet smell of cocoa powder from the hot-drink dispenser at the ballet studio where my sister and I used to go after school, like that other vintage piece did, the nightstand we bought together in the previous decade of our marriage.