Never unpacking my emotional baggage

Some people travel but never really move; others stay put but never stop roaming.


Christopher Johnston
May 14, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

It was warm in the economy class. The sun lay fat on the western horizon
and the train hummed as it eased west into Kansas -- a dim noise, like the
lazy murmur of the crowd during a lull in the game. I listened to the man
across the aisle. The smell of whiskey and ashtrays radiated from him and he
beat the heat by taking his shirt off. He must have been in his mid-40s -- about twice my age -- but he was muscular and he carried himself like a toy
GI Joe, his sinewy arms jutting awkwardly from his ridiculously broad
shoulders. Tattoos carved through his chest hair like a hedge labyrinth and
he pestered the woman beside him. She was stout, hefty almost and plain;
returning, she said, to her husband after a visit home. She rebuffed his
advances but gently, incompletely, and when he retrieved a half pint of Wild
Turkey from his jacket pocket and poured it into her Diet Coke, she laughed
and let his hand linger on her dimpled thigh.

"I'm not used to rejection," he said.

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"You're getting off the train in an hour," she said.

"I'd rather get off on the train, if you know what I mean."

The train rolled to a pause for no apparent reason. I left the pair
and made my way to the observation car. The summer had lost its varnish, the
landscape a patchwork of faded greens and browns and the river that edged up
to the tracks sleepy and unimpressed. Nothing seemed to be moving.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
-

At some point, change stopped meaning movement. I had met a girl, June,
five months before the train ride, in a club on the outskirts of Madison
called the Inferno. She was quirky, unsophisticated but experienced. One
minute she'd earnestly pronounce the "s" in Camus and the next she'd tell me
about moving into her own place at age 15. She'd lived in Madison her
whole life and kept asking questions about the various places I'd been. She
made me feel worldly. I'm not sure what I made her feel.

We exchanged numbers that first night and just as I was getting ready
for bed, the phone rang. It was June.

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"Are you OK?" she asked.

"Yes, of course. You?"

"Yes," she said. "I just wanted to make sure you got home all right."

"You dropped me at my door."

"I know. I just ..."

I wonder why I couldn't just leave it at that. What is it about
being in a new place that makes it so easy to be rude?

"You're ID-ing me, aren't you?" I asked. "You're seeing if I gave you the
right number."

"Well," she said timidly, "you never can tell ..."

That was the beginning of my relationship with June.

A group of kids clustered at one end of the observation car in
expectation of the evening's movie. A condescending and eminently pinchable
blonde girl was talking about her visit to the top of the Sears Tower.
She was on a one-way track to prom queen and I cringed when a gawky boy with
Billy Jean King glasses and the faint aroma of peanut butter asked if the
Sears Tower had a Sears in it. "Duh, hello?" the girl said. "It's not a cheesy
department store. It's, like, the tallest building in the world."

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I was desperate to enter the conversation and say something in his
defense, but damn it all if she wasn't intimidating. What made it all the
worse was that I'd just been to the Sears Tower and the only thing I could
remember was the rather anticlimactic sense that the view from the building
paled in comparison to the view of the building. But somehow I couldn't drop
the matter and so I walked back through the observation car and toward the
girl. I felt a rush of jitters, my arms swung apishly like pendulums and my
legs seemed disconnected, lumbering stilts. I expected to hear someone yell,
"Timber!" and find myself falling to ground.

I managed to look at her and when
she looked back, I said, "You should try and be nicer to people." We both stood
there for a moment, two gunslingers watching for a twitch of a lip, and then
I hurried through the doors and into the next car lest I hear the laughter
behind my back.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
-

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June slept on top of the covers because of the humidity. Light
slanted through the blinds and across her back, revealing her muscled
shoulders and the tips of tattoos from beneath her tank top. I let my hand
rest on her back and the dampness of her skin reminded me of sex the night
before. I pulled a book from the bag she'd given to me during dinner. She'd
made stuffed peppers and we ate them along with leftover split pea soup. We
sat on her back stoop, swatting the early summer mosquitoes and waiting for
fireflies to appear, barely talking. "It's for your book," she said, "and the
pen behind your ear. So when you travel, they'll be easy to reach."

"You're so wonderful to me," I said. "Why are you so wonderful?"

"Because I love you," she said. I slung the bag over my shoulder and
grinned. It was an awkward bag -- she'd had trouble with the stitching and it
hung like a lopsided purse. But it was perfect anyway and I was unexpectedly
touched. She was so willing to give, I thought, and so able to care.

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I looked up at the cloud of gnats hovering above us and ran my hands
along my bare arms. When we met, there had been snow on the ground, the last
leaves scattered on the mucky white terrain like burrs on a sock. But now
the trees were crowded with leaves, no vacancy, and the days left me sticky,
my arms gummy like popsicle sticks. I wondered why some things seemed to
change so much and others so little. The darkness was coming quick but I
wanted
things to linger somehow. I looked at June beside me and then looked
away. "I love you, too," I said.

But in the morning I got a phone call from Sara, a woman I'd met
years earlier. She was in Chicago for a night and wanted to know if could I
make it down. I didn't think about the night before. I didn't think twice.
I left a note on the pillow beside June and caught the next bus to Illinois.

It was on the bus back from Chicago that I realized carefree was
awfully close to careless. I'd known that June was fragile and yet I
couldn't find it in myself to be gentle. We talked on the phone and arranged
to meet at Cafe Montmartre. I remember seeing her familiar figure waiting as
I approached. A glass of red wine and her sunglasses and her spiky bleached
hair and her tongue out as I arrived, the little flashing wave of her tongue
stud.

"Hey," she said.

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"Hey."

"Did you have a good time?"

"Yes."

"Thanks for the note."

"You know what I say --"

"Did you have sex with her?"

"No."

"Did you kiss her?"

"Yes."

"What do you say?"

"Because I'm not in love with you and because I don't think I'll ever
love you," I said, "we can't be having any expectations."

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"You didn't say that the other night."

"I know."

"I should throw wine in your face."

"But I'm expecting it."

I was restless on the last night of my train trip and I paced the
aisles, often walking one way while traveling another, a tired fish. I
finally settled on the abandoned observation deck, stretched out on the
floor and looked through the ceiling glass. It was late, a full moon
eclipsed the stars and illuminated the piney foothills spilling into desert
on the edge of Albuquerque. I must have dozed because I was abruptly aware
of several people laughing timorously a few seats down. It was the group of
kids, any departed faces replaced by new, equally menacing ones. They
weren't aware of me and I felt an unexpected and violent chagrin. I closed
my eyes in mock sleep in case they discovered me.

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They were talking about a girl who'd gotten off in Albuquerque named
Rachel. She was popular and they took turns lamenting the loss.

"I don't think I knew the trip was really going to end," one said,
"until she left. I mean, I knew it was going to end, but I didn't really know
it was going to end."

I stayed silent but was inwardly thrilled. I'd lived in Madison for
a year and when I left, I felt mostly relief. All that time in one place but
still, somehow, traveling, never bothering to unpack my emotional baggage.
But these kids? They couldn't go an hour on a train without making a friend.
It was as if they weren't capable of passing through, as if the world were wet
cement and they couldn't leave without making tracks.

They decided to come to my end of the observation car and I wondered
whether I should get up. What would they think of me, I wondered, lying on
the floor by myself? Would they recognize me from earlier? Maybe, I thought,
they'd even talked about me. Maybe I was young enough to be viewed as an
ally. Some of the more adventurous may have considered asking me to buy them
booze from the bar car. I'd do that for them, I thought. They were close
now and my stomach whirled like a clothes dryer. I could hear the sudden hush and
then the gurgle of the first few laughs and then a voice saying, "It's the
hippie with the purse."

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Who, me?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
-

I spent my last day in Madison on a dock with June. It was cloudy
and humid and I stood in the water with my arms resting on the dock. June
was sprawled on a blanket on the dock and we pressed our faces close
together. She was crying a little and put on her sunglasses. Such a sweet
and singular gesture. I asked her why she put them on.

"I don't know," she said.

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"It's not so bad."

"No, it's not so bad."

I kissed her and she clutched at my hair with her free hand.

"You are always talking about people being fragile," she said. "But you
don't seem fragile. I don't know what you are."

"Maybe that's why I need to go," I said.

"But you're not leaving you," she said.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
-

The desert and a hundred windmills. Eastern California but it
already feels like the outskirts of L.A. The sides of mountains shaved in
preparation for housing developments. In a year these barren hills will be
littered with tract mansions, green lawns dotted with baby orange trees
to lend it authenticity. California's lost so much history that one sees the
orchards as old growth.

I go back to my economy seat and am surprised to see the woman from
the first day still on the train. We don't look at each other. Perhaps I
remind her of the tattooed man. Maybe I make her feel guilt, my presence
recalling just how tempted she'd been. Or maybe it's something else. Maybe
it's not guilt but doubt. Maybe she feels she missed an opportunity to sin.
And isn't that somehow what travel is about?

Our train stretches overland and I don't want to cry. And I can't
help it. And I wish I had sunglasses. And I don't think I missed my
opportunity.


Christopher Johnston

Christopher Johnston is a literacy tutor for AmeriCorps and a writer living in Oakland, Calif.

MORE FROM Christopher Johnston

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