We barely made the 11:35 local to Babylon, scheduled to make – damn it! – all the stops including Forest Hills and Kew Gardens and, after Jamaica station, St. Albans and Lynbrook, as well. All I wanted was to get home, to get out of the clothes that I had long sweated through, to wash the grit of the city from my face and beard, and to flop down in front of the TV until I mercifully fell asleep.
I sat next to the window in a three-seater, with my wife of thirty years next to me – too closely, I thought. I was peeved that she hadn’t sat in the aisle seat. The train began to accelerate. The Rangers game had let out and some revelers, many of them inebriated and loud, their faces still smudged with the red, white and blue team colors, stumbled down the aisle and on through to the next car. A young couple sat across the aisle; she had melted against him with her head on his shoulder. She was holding a Playbill, with its distinctive yellow and black cover, like a trophy, while he was holding her. I tried to make out what show they had seen. I imagined it was a musical or a romantic comedy, so unlike the serious drama that we had been to.
The heavy rumble that had effectively thwarted conversation subsided as the train emerged from the tunnel under the East River. I turned my head to look out the window and scanned a desolate train yard, lit up by patches of orange sodium vapor lighting. As if continuing a prior monologue, my wife said, “And I can’t believe it. You’ve got to listen to this...” and then went on to tell me more about her day at work. She griped about her boss, a Korean-American with a German work ethic; about the move of her office to another part of the building, the fourteenth or fifteenth or umpteenth move in nine years; and about a coworker, a “borderline” who screwed things up more often than she fixed and healed the patients, the “consumers” in the private mental hospital where they all worked. I listened, or tried to listen. Sometimes, many times, I just couldn’t take it.
She knew I had always loved trains. Sometimes we’d both stand at the front window in the head car, and watch the tracks and switches and signal lights and the sleeping world passing by in a blur as the train barreled through the night. In the past, we tried to share the moments, while sharing our lives, as we waited to get on the first car of a subway and to then rush to the window so we could make silly comments about my driving the train. Then, when the subway sped its way underground, I believed that she loved what I loved, and, thus, I loved her.
Here, on the 11:35 local, as we were returning home after a rare night out together in the city, we had a tacit agreement: I was allowed to gaze out the window, and in return, she was allowed to chatter on. I sometimes refocused so I could watch her reflection in the window, and she’d smile warmly if she noticed me watching. Every so often, I nodded or grunted or generously threw in a question or an observation – subtle indications that I was attentive and interested in what she was going on about. But I’d heard it all so often that I could just about write her script.
My therapist has tried to get me to solve the problem by reciting some well-chosen words so I wouldn’t turn her off, something that has made her furious and resentful, made her feel discounted and disregarded. But it seems that I’ve never been able to come up with the perfect phrase and break in at the right moment, that crucial instant before it surges over the top and I can no longer endure it. When I’ve tried, even in the gentlest tone, to say something like “Honey, I think I’ve heard enough for now” or “I would really like some quiet time” or “I really want to hear what you’re saying, but right now I need to ...” – expecting her to magically understand my needs and quash her own – she would promptly translate what I had said into her own internal language, hearing “Shut the fuck up already!” which, by that time, is what I really wanted to say.
Sure, there have been the good times. When we’ve been on the same page, instead of opposing each other as antagonists – or even worse, like two unmoveable, unyielding stones in a riverbed, with life streaming by – we would joke about the “therapist-parrot” that perches on my shoulder, squawking in my ear, feeding me the sensitive and delicate lines that would keep us together, rather than tear us apart. But when I most needed that parrot’s empathic vocabulary, he almost never came through.
Our train hurtled past the dimly lit apartment houses of Forest Hills, past the empty dead end streets of Queens, and under the elevated train trestle, about to make the choreographed connection at Jamaica with its Long Beach-bound mate fleeing the warehouses and row houses and slums of Brooklyn. There was a tinny announcement of scheduled stops and “all others change here,” just like, I suppose, on its counterpart, and then the two silver trains glided simultaneously – sinuously and erotically – onto the tracks separated only by a covered concrete platform. When the doors slid open, people rushed out, and others entered to take their places, the trains exchanging passengers like lovers sharing their secretions. Then warning bells rang exultantly, signaling the closing of the doors.
The trains pulled away together, nearing each other just east of the platform, continuing side by side while increasing speed, until the other demurely descended and crossed under ours to continue on its way south. I watched as its six cars disappeared off into the distance. My respite from the previous one-sided conversation, interrupted by the comings and goings at the station, was short-lived. So on it went.
It was almost midnight and I was exhausted. I tried to think of something to say but the parrot was of no use. I wanted to help, but knew I could not. As she droned on, I knew she was in distress, and something inside was trying to remind me that she just wanted to get it out, that all she needed was someone to listen. Still, I wanted to fix whatever was tormenting her, to protect her, to make it all right. To make us – the two of us – all right.
As we passed the backs of cinderblock one-story buildings, and lit-up streets mostly devoid of traffic, where green lights turned yellow then red on their own volition, I sighed and imperceptibly shook my head. And when I made an almost silent clicking sound with my tongue, she paused, glared at me, and asked, “You had enough, already, huh?” Her voice was hostile and accusing.
“Yeah, I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t, uh ...” and my voice trailed off as she turned away and became silent and still. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her lower lip quiver, and then she shut her eyes. I, too, was effectively brushed off, shut out, and dismissed.
“Damn it,” I said, under my breath. “Goddam it to hell.”
And we sat in silence as our train continued on into the night.
Revision 12 / December 29, 2013
This story was originally titled "Danger...Thin Ice" and was written on February 17, 1998 with revisions March, 2007 and June, 2009
-- Appeared in Grassroot Reflections Issue 30, February 2014
December 2013 Copyright © 2013, Lloyd B. Abrams