Ghost train

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There was a time when my mother-in-law, a psychiatrist, assumed that I was afraid to fly because I kept coming to Chicago by train.

In college or graduate school, my time was cheap and the train was romantic. One could get a little cabin and drink whiskey and have thoughts while listening to “A Love Supreme” and watching the fields, the specter of nuclear power cooling towers, silvery in the moonlight.

Getting to and from the airport was a hassle. How NYC could be this major city and have such a complete indifference to figuring out a way to convey people easily and reliably to and from either of its airports was/is baffling. I also loved the idea of leaving from one station and turning up in another. You could go straight from our college town’s station to Chicago, which was what Jim and I did the summer between junior and senior year along with a few other kids headed west.

Will was one of those kids. He had been one of my freshman pack friends. We had settled into different groups, but stayed friends, if not close. He was headed to Ohio. I don’t remember who else was with us, but we were more inclined to band together on the adventure than take each other for granted as we would have on campus. A small group of us congregated in the corridor, enjoying our last night of college before fitting ourselves back into childhood homes where we had outgrown the decor of bedrooms that might also show signs of our parents reclaiming the space, the tendrils of their own lives creeping in at the doors. Childhood detritus stuffed into cupboards or mysteriously vanished, the room looking more curated than inhabited. My teenage loftbed was replaced with a large TV where my parents watched “Murder She Wrote” and “The McNeil/Lehrer Report.”

As the night unfurled into America, people got off, or said goodnight and goodbye. Throughout the night they would be detraining. By breakfast only one or two of us might remain.

There was for me always a sadness about endings, even when they were not inherently sad. A group of college students starting summer. Kids on a train. And yet the partings were like graduation. Some really good friends had just graduated and I couldn’t yet imagine going back to school without them, one housemate in particular would be terribly missed; even more so, when he left us forever in 2002. In photos of from his graduation, my eyes were swollen from crying the night before. We would never have access to each other like that again. Time wrenched people out of your life. It picked them up and set them down a little out of reach.

Summer also was a time when we would all grow apart and at the beginning of each school year you had to see how and where you rejoined with people. There were always shifts, some radical, some subtle, so that each person who stepped off that train, each of us leaving campus in May, would tear at the fabric of whatever we, collectively or individually, were. Returning the following year, we would spend the month of September feeling the contours of our relationships for the inevitable fissures wrought by summertime epiphanies, falling outs, trysts, betrayal, and legitimate or imagined personal development.

At the end of our junior year, this would be our last summer vacation. After this we would just have summer. Ready or not, we would be adults. Which of course is the joy and promise of reunion.

After the awful year I’ve had, I was looking forward to spending a weekend with a few of my best girlfriends. Two of us had suffered the loss of a loved one while the others held us up. And others had endured other kinds of loss. We have had the unrealistic expectations knocked out of us and are for the most part stronger because of it, but still. To be able to spend just a few days together was something to look forward to. For me, everyone else I’d see was a bonus.

Will was there, too. I had seen him a few years ago. He owned a bike shop in Williamsburg. Another college friend and I had just popped in to say hi, but ended up going up to his apartment above the shop and meeting his wife and if not the actual children then the signs of them and their activities, their presence via drawings and the scatter, drinking tea, and having one of those brief but satisfying encounters that reminds you that it is worth staying in touch with people.

At reunion, Will seemed happy. He had his smile and his deadpan humor. He left the festivities to be at his son’s soccer game and returned for the all-class party to critique the DJ with the words, “No, just, no,” as one unsuitable song followed another: Sweet Caroline; Come on, Eileen. I decide on the way home that I will do what I can to attend every five years.

Sunday morning my phone starts pinging with texts. It’s a group message from the college reunion girlfriends. The new flurry of messages follows a series of photos — children posing in college store swag and a covert snap of Winona Ryder at La Guardia Airport wearing sunglasses and some kind of fleecy visor  — one friend had gone through security with her now they were buying their waters for the plane.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, this via Facebook, she writes. It was about Will’s son, whose picture I had liked a few hours before: the son, circa age 10, sitting on a soccer ball, by an urban riverbank, the caption, “My beautiful boy.” I thought nothing of it beyond he looks like a great kid and I know you’re an awesome dad. Like.

But already his son was in the process of leaving them, the train shooting them into the darkness. What they thought was a stomach bug, turns into a seizure and cardiac arrest. His wife’s smile as she stands above his hospital bed, their son on a ventilator, but otherwise he’s just looking like a kid crashed out in football jersey, is devastating, their gratitude for having had him in their lives despite the unfathomable injustice of losing him, or even if they had been openly bitter and angry, reduces me to tears this morning.

Even though I have been the recipient of a thousand Facebook condolences, I find myself commentless in the face of such a swift and awful loss. Each death is uniquely terrible. Their beautiful boy.

My 20-year-old self on a train had no way of knowing anything. Nor my 50+ self at reunion. Or even now. Maybe I only had the sense that this was a template, that one loss would replace another, the shading heavier, the intricacies of each relationship  gradually becoming deeper and more compelling. Back then we knew our stops. We were just the single tickets. We could travel any number of ways. We could travel in a way that was impractical. Our lives had not yet intersected with many people, the rails mostly straight. There we were drinking warm bourbon in plastic cups, hoping the posters brought back from Junior Year Abroad didn’t get dented in the overhead rack. People would be getting off the train all night, the constant background activity of the machines, doors pinging open. Conductors and nurses on patrol.

At the class parade, we have assembled, wincing in the sunlight, at our assigned station. “How does this work,” a classmate wonders. “If we are all marching then there’s no one to watch. Is it still a parade?” But of course the parade was arranged so that the oldest classes, would begin and we would marvel at their reaching a 70th reunion, each successive class joining the flow, no longer questioning the validity of the activity, but enjoying the time we have together, whether just a few stops or to the end of the line.

Photo courtesy of Vassar College.

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