This train goes south along the Hudson. You should sit on the right-hand side of the train, that way you see the river. Grab a window seat. It’s alright if someone sits next to you. Just act like you’re really doing them a favor if that happens. I’m in a long-distance relationship; I know how to ride the train. I wear the same sundress every ride. It’s blue, and I’m elegant like a little elf. I love the ride home to Brooklyn. I love goodbye: Matthew waves like a boob from the platform, and I have the luxury of getting smaller and smaller, until I vanish. Every goodbye should be that fun. Your aunts and uncles shrinking until they’re long gone, having a ball. When you want to say hello, you grow like an azalea, out of nowhere. Growing and shrinking out of lives like it’s a habit.
I’m in Albany twice a month to see my hilarious boyfriend, Matthew—a construction worker who’s thrilled about having a bad back. He never has to be useful at anything. I’m probably in love, maybe. He’s always asking me, “Olivia, can you get the mail? My back feels like a calf danced on it.” God, he’s hilarious. Throughout our four-month relationship, he’s explained why the sky is blue eighteen times because he “just loves science.” He was the only man not holding a trout in his dating profile. He’s not that bad, in fact, he’s just older, and he’s a magician at kid parties. I always ask him to saw me in half, and he never does. He thinks because I’m only twenty-two, I don’t have the smiley, sedated look commonly found in female assistants. I have a ball watching his magic show. I can’t remember anything he does. The magic is how quickly you’ll forget his magic. You never remember the tricks, and kids love that.
I go to the dining car first, always. There are imaginative kids in the dining car. They’re playing with their mother’s stethoscope, placing it on the window to hear the train’s heartbeat. “I can hear it! It’s beating!” They put the stethoscope on the seat and the tray table that unfolds. They put it on each other’s faces. Their mother’s foot. “I think mom’s dead.” Mom wishes. They’re relentless. It doesn’t bother me. I understand the train wants law and order, but this is that brief window in life where you can horse around without everyone dying over it.
The other tables aren’t happy with them. I can’t stand faces over the kids. Like it’s just such a hassle that kids listen to the train’s heartbeat. I abdicate my table and venture up the train for a seat. There aren’t any window seats. There’s a man staring out the window like he’s peeking behind a shower curtain. There’s something friendly in his reflection on the glass. Something that will make me nervous. I like being nervous. I drink coffee every morning until I’m good and nervous.
“Hey, can I sit here?” I ask.
“Sure, have a seat.”
He’s benevolent. He offered the empty seat like he was offering his kidney. He knows exactly how to ride a train. I try to kiss his hand. I can’t make out if he’s famous or not. There’s plenty of famous slobs on trains to big cities. I once sat next to the guy in the Old Spice commercials. He went on and on about leftovers. “I’m grateful. I had a wonderful upbringing. We always had food on the table. My father worked for it. We had a nice house in a good neighborhood. We always had something to eat. We never ate leftovers, not even once!”
The man staring out the window has a famous face. I go ahead and ask him, “Are you Jason Mraz or something?”
“You think I look like Jason Mraz?”
“Kind of. Thanks for letting me sit here.”
“Not a problem.”
The conductor comes by. I don’t have my ticket on me, and I left my hideout. The dining car’s always my master plan for escaping the justice that I have coming to me. I lean in to Mr. Mraz. “I lost my ticket.”
“A stowaway. I’ll act like we’re together.”
He speaks to the conductor with the confidence of a lizard on a moving car, like it’s no big deal. “Yes, sorry, this is my aunt. She lost her ticket I’m afraid. Will she be alright? You can look at my ticket again, we’re going to the same place. I never forget anything. Just look at my ticket that I didn’t forget.”
“That’s fine. She’s heading to the city, like you, then?”
“Just like me. Thank you.”
“Thank you, sir,” I tell the conductor. “Where would I be without my nephew?”
The conductor smiles because he knows we’re lying, and he doesn’t care. He strolls away like a genie who just granted a hell of an improbable wish. I turn back to my stranger. “Thanks for lying. I hate lying, but it worked.”
“I haven’t lied in a while. I was happy to.”
“What’s your name?”
“Joel. What’s yours?”
“What are you doing in the city, aunt Olivia?”
“I live there. I’m a comedian.” I always tell people I’m a comedian even though I’m not. I’m a twenty-two-year-old secretary at a law firm. My boss’s name is Cheryl; she’s from England, and has seasonal allergies. Her eyes are always puffy. Cheryl’s confident that she owns you and is never self-conscious about her puffy eyes and acts like she meant to do it, like she swells when she feels like it. She does that hilarious thing that people like her do: When she’s asking you small-talk questions, you can tell it’s really a ploy to get her to talk about herself. Sometimes she really feels like showing off how British she is and conducts a long-distance phone conversation on speaker with a relative and hams it up. She wants you to hear her say, “Cheeky monkey,” in the worst way. She wants you to feel assaulted.
Joel asks me what I was doing in Albany. I know the question he’s really asking. “Yes, I do have an older boyfriend with a bad back who’s a construction worker. It’s not serious. It’s just sort of happening.”
“Oh, Albany’s nice. Is it fun staying with him?”
“He never sleeps in his pajamas, or his underwear. He sleeps in cargo shorts; he’s probably afraid of God.”
The sun’s in Joel’s eyes. He looks like a different person when he squints, like it’s natural. He tells me that whoever he is, he sounds handsome, and, “I wish I lived in the city, like you. I live in Utica. I’m visiting for a few days. I needed to get better. I turned thirty and feel shaky.”
“What are you going to do when you get there?” I ask him.
“I want to listen to jazz. I want to drink at the White Horse Tavern. I want to stroll through Central Park, at night, pretending I’m homeless.”
“My brother lives in Brooklyn. He works during the day. I’ll see him at night. Do you have any brothers or anything?”
“I have a twin brother named Owen. He’s in the army.”
“Is he doing alright?”
“He’s not really in the army, anymore.”
“Oh no, what happened to him?”
“No, he’s not dead and he has all his limbs. They’re holding him for a little while.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. He’s just not doing very good. He’s not very happy. After basic training they deployed him somewhere awful. Then everything fell apart. He claims he woke up in the middle of the night a staunch pacifist. It’s nuts, because he enlisted. He won’t hold a gun anymore. They’re keeping him in a psych ward, or something. My mother and father don’t even know he’s there. He writes emails telling my mom he’s having the time of his life.”
“He tells you the truth because you’re his twin, right?”
“I get these crazy emails from him.”
“Is he crazy?”
“I don’t think so. He just doesn’t feel like doing it, and they won’t let him out. I think it has to do with his girlfriend, Sarah. She loves not eating animals. She goes to Harvard.”
“I feel sorry for him.”
“I know. I think Sarah put all these thoughts in his head that he should join the army. None of us wanted him to go in the army, but she had to be the one to give him a hard time over not going.”
“It’s nice he trusts you.”
“He doesn’t though. He emails my mother one story, then me a little closer to truth, then my dad, my dad he tells everything. I read a Dad email recently. Sarah and David aren’t even together. She broke up with him. That’s when it all started.
“Breakups can make you go crazy.”
Joel talks with his hands, it’s subtle. Some phrases, he’s conducting a small orchestra that’s never been tamed. Other times he’s turning a page that had something decent on it. We keep babbling and yakking about everything. If we’ve ever seen a ghost (no, because ghosts aren’t real), and the disorder where people slice their own legs off. Joel says he’d cut off his legs over his arms, and I’d cut off my head. It doesn’t feel like small talk, but more picking up where we left off, in another life where I was single and he was too, and I wore practical heels and light makeup every night to bed, because I felt like it. I’m not looking forward to goodbye. I don’t want to shrink. I’m making a promise to be the one that stands there, rooted, as he leaves. I’ll watch him grow smaller, then there’s nothing left but his clothes on the dirty ground, and beauty. He gives me his number, and that’s that.
Penn Station fills me with the savage glee of a hellhound. I’m sitting on a bench longer than is necessary, watching people want coffee and not fall down massive staircases in front of kids. They gather at the board to know what track theirs is. If music only played, anyone could fall in love, being a dance away from stardom. A stone’s throw from laughing at the chances. I want to see him. I want to see Joel. I’m having thoughts. The good kind, in the arms of lewdness. Watching him following his own finger tips after he could tell I wanted goosebumps. When the weather is never nice outside, we sleep in vertical rain, putting it all away, putting it all away. Put it all away.
I take more trains until I’m home. It’s night now. I take the stairs to the sixth floor, where we live. My mother and father are asleep. There’s a note on the kitchen table. Olivia, welcome home! Matthew sent flowers. They’re in the vase on the counter. Dad’s in Atlanta. I printed out a new email from Owen! See you in the morning—
I smell the flowers. I never like their smell if they’re too busy-looking. I grab Owen’s email. I do this crazy thing when my mom’s alone in her bedroom, I spy on her. She usually sits there, not doing anything. Rubbing her hands with lotion. Staring out the window, wearing a towel. I love her to pieces, but occasionally I like catching her being a person, and not a mom. So many moms put on this masquerade that everything’s first-class. If you want to see your mom, you have to see her without her seeing you. I like being reminded she’s real because I love her.
On my bed I read Owen’s email.
I’m having a wonderful time. Though I can’t tell you where I am, it’s warm, and tropical. I’m making lots of friends. Yesterday my bunk mate, Sal, put a fake snake in my bed. We all laughed until we were horse over it. I was the horsiest one. I’m glad we didn’t talk on the phone, because I wouldn’t have been able to! I’m horsey! The Sergeant came in and gave us a fair yelling. We had to do 300 pushups! It was worth it.
This morning was something else. We made a new look-out at the top of this hill for no good reason, other than why the hell not. Through work, and sweat, we all feel closer. We feel strongly we’re doing good in the world; someone has to. We’re not heroes, we’re brothers. Some of us hug. At night, the oldest among us tell stories about their children. Will kids ever learn?
Mom, I miss you so much. I’ll call around 4 on Sunday to catch up.
He’s such an ass. None of that was close to truth. He’s making it seem like he’s at sleep-away camp, but he’s in the Army. God, he’s going to have to stand at his children’s school concerts on Veterans day, when they thank our armed forces. God, it’s going to make me sick. My mom buys it hook line and sinker. Every day I wish Sarah dropped dead of young-old-age. I’d love to murder her of natural causes is what I’m saying. Owen and I, we don’t have Kill in us. We’re sensitive. Sarah knows that, but she made him go. When we were little, we both cried watching, The Fox and The Hound. We sobbed! That little boy, who openly wept at a cartoon animal, is consensually having guns fired at him for money. Now, he’s asleep in a psych ward where there’s a large whiteboard, and you write your most private, bizarre, irrational fear, so you can see how silly you turned out to be. Someone wrote I might want to kill my family because I killed in war. What are they doing to these people!? So, Owen couldn’t hold a job at twenty-two. Big deal. You don’t shove dainty people in the army and make them a basket case because of it. I want everyone honest. No one’s ever honest.
I drink coffee until I’m jittery. We all do. The subway’s shoulder to shoulder with nervous faces. A congealed shiver underground to make you feel part of humanity. We are the caffeine in the veins of uneasy America. The America that gets you wired, and stunts growth for gymnasts and child actors with adult hair styles. I don’t want to go on and on. I’m uneasy. I should talk with Matthew. Instead I message Joel.
It’s Aunt Oliva from the train. What are you doing tonight?
I walk into work. My boss Cheryl’s making tea. Any second she’ll say something about how British she is, so don’t speak to her unless she’s had her tea, with this phony smile on her face; like it’s this hilarious commandant Moses added for lightening up the mood. The office fills with the horde. Everyone’s pretending that we aren’t supposed to be in the wild. That work is our normal habitat. Cheryl waves. “Ello love!” She has the balls to lift the teabag up and down in the mug, smirking and shrugging, like we all caught her sneaking another cupcake at the baby shower. I immediately turn around, through the door and down the staircase that smells like wood. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not doing this. There’s nothing here. Lawyers eat a million steaks for lunch. These people eat meat alive, then drink their lucky break, at night, with a sudden compulsion to know their grandmother, when it’s all too late, and they’re dropping like flies. I know exactly where I’m going. It’s not at that desk with Cheryl, I’ll tell you that.
I’m sitting at the White Horse Tavern with a beer, hoping to run into Joel. There’s honesty here. A gem in Manhattan. The regulars saddle up to drink pale ales and talk about their cable bills, and the best way to get Showtime for nothing. There’s a woman wearing a purple fur coat in the bar, in public, in front of everyone, not as a goof, but as serious as it gets. These are the people who’ve fallen underneath, with something to break.
Joel responds to my message. Hi Aunt Olivia. I’m going to a club in Manhattan called, Smalls, you should really join me. My brother can’t go.
I’ll be there at 8. Thanks for the invite. I’m at the White Horse Tavern, why not come?
I wish I could. I’ll see you tonight. Are you at least having fun?
The time of my life. I’m practically dancing with corpses.
Wait till tonight.
The regulars discuss mold, and they sum up Brooklyn in one common phrase. “Same shit, different day.” They take a vote on who wants to be cremated. It’s a landslide, everyone wants to be ashes. Out of nowhere I want to belong. I interject Tibetan Sky Burial, where family members chop up the body and throw the bits in the air, for the vultures at large. They love it. I’m a regular now. If the bartender knows you by name, you’re somebody, or you’re not. Either way, the carnival is born. Strange figures from off the street. They were all once kids, some of them. The monstrous woman in purple fur is a monument. Her laugh, a landmark. The bartender wipes her next glass dry, and I compare his rag to God. I might start living here.
My phone vibrates. It’s an email from Owen.
You think I’m crazy. I’m not, I’m something more. Something cavalier and unshackled. I’m sorry you have to keep lying to mom. You’ll have to remain in contrition until things blow over, and recite your rosary like an extremist, daily. Never tell mom a damn thing. She couldn’t handle it. She has asthma, or whooping cough. Remember when we were little, we’d watch T.V. pretending we were two grown men in a movie theater eating popcorn together? Get this, a man named Stanly sleeps in the room next to me in the ward. He has unwanted sexual images and cries about them, loudly. Good grief. Every day, he asks me to watch a movie next to him, so he feels like he’s at the movies, just like us. My Sergeant stopped in to check on me today. He loves me and shows it through yelling. For a moment I detected he was going to raise his hand to me. It’s quite the romance. They’re thinking about giving me a non-combat position. Something clerical and Byzantine. Sarah and Sergeant Green must be talking with one another. They both ask me the same thing. “What in fucking Hell’s wrong with you?” You should have heard Sergeant Green say it the day I got sent to the ward. For whatever reason, out of boredom, I went to a local market during off time. There was a family, quietly eating grapes on a blanket, without shame. A carpenter measuring wood. Long rows of assorted wares for every need you didn’t know you had. I found the perfect pair of jeans. I’ve been to a million markets all over the world and never found the perfect pair of jeans before. I’ve looked through high hell for the perfect fit. I held them in my hands like I had found a baby in a basket floating down the river crying out my name as its first word. I overpaid, and I wasn’t afraid to ditch my uniform in public. In front of the world. I put on that perfect pair of jeans, bought a shirt to match, and did my hair. I don’t really have hair because they make me shave it like a naughty little monk, but I pretended anyway. I looked supple and buttery. The world felt new. I could see far away, into someplace distant and full of angels. Christ, I looked racy. I walked around the carpenter cutting wood, to see if he’d cat call me. Then this: gunfire, followed by an explosion. A suicide bomber had detonated himself. It wasn’t like the movies. There wasn’t a persistent deaf tone while we moved in slow-motion. Everything went faster. Resounding screams that tilted into tenderness and frenzy. The gunshot was by the other suicide bomber who shot himself before pulling the chord. He couldn’t go through with it. He was right near the family quietly eating grapes. I wasn’t armed. The troops came. They knew what to do. I joined them in aiding the wounded. Sergeant Green yelled, “What the fucking Hell’s wrong with you?!” He asked me where my uniform was and how I got the perfect pair of jeans. “Where the actual fuck is your weapon?!” He gave me a handgun. I thought about using it. I thought about shooting through dark windows. I thought about shooting the fear. I thought about shooting everyone’s name so I’d forget them, but I wouldn’t forget you because I know you by heart, after all. I thought about shooting the leg blown off, dying in the dirt. I thought about shooting the noise saw blades make biting through wood. I thought about shooting the light from stars. I thought about shooting. I thought about the point of life, which is to let everything come true. Your deepest fears, and everything you’re avoiding. Let it all come true. The greatest achievement in life is to let everything come true. Anyway, Sarah and I are in love. Maybe we’ll make a kid or win one. How’s Matthew’s back?
No one can tell you’re losing it if you put your head down on the bar. I cover my face. My ear to the wood as a stethoscope, to hear the heartbeat. The beer is over. I smell wood the carpenter cut and taste the grapes. Tonight, I’m rolling to the company of a man who loves thoughtfully. I’m going to overhear music at the club like it was supposed to be a secret. They’re going to play like we happened to be there. It’s going to feel like uneven coastlines and thermal baths. A temporary statement, briefly, we’re being here. The first drawing of hands on a cave. I’m telling you right now, the drummer steals the show tonight because he’ll be real when he doesn’t have to be. Right when everyone was looking. I’ll see every mother’s face when her kids aren’t around. The crowd collectively leans back, and it all comes true.