On Independence Day weekend 2005, I was working in the Image Collection at DePaul University’s library. Students and teachers were away celebrating their holiday. My boyfriend and I had separated, and although I accepted, along with my friends, that our parting was for the best, I felt desperately alone. I had recently turned 27 years old and impulsively dyed my hair denim blue. Blue was the perfect manifestation to reflect my temperament at the time. I liked to color my hair when I needed a change. It was an easy way to transform into a different person in roughly one hour. However, the alteration was always ephemeral, and eventually I started itching to break free of, well, everything really.
As I sat in the empty office that day, I felt a familiar itch. I daydreamed to myself with a silent sigh, I could leave and no one would even know I was gone. Then, somewhere, a light bulb illuminated. I COULD LEAVE, AND NO ONE WOULD EVEN KNOW I WAS GONE! I shut down my computer, turned off the fluorescent lights, marched out of the office, and fled the library. I drove home, grabbed a small suitcase, flung in a handful of whatever was on my bed, and strolled out the door.
I hiked downtown from Ukrainian Village, directly to the Amtrak train at Union Station. I purchased a round-trip ticket to New York City. The ride was approximated to last 18 hours due to a route through upstate New York, but I did not care. I was doing something! I was going somewhere! I rationalized the journey by reminding myself that my mate from Surrey, UK was visiting New York, therefore the least I could do was convene with her.
From the instant I entered the waiting room, the following events could have been the plot of a Richard Linklater or Michel Gondry flick. Trains were delayed, and travelers, probably returning home from holiday, were mulling around with large packs. One cherubic boy, dressed casually in a T-shirt and baggy, jean shorts, caught my eye. He was sitting on the floor about a yard ahead of me in line and lounging on one of those sturdy travel/hiking backpacks with an aluminum frame.
Ordinarily, when I traveled via train, I effortlessly got an entire aisle to myself, but this trip was an exception. Once I boarded all but a few sparse seats, in my coach, were claimed. I would be fortunate if I could locate a place beside someone who would not flirt with or aggravate me, I thought. My eyes frantically searched for a woman, since she would feasibly solve one concern. I saw an opening alongside a shaggy blond mop of hair and hurried to the neighboring seat’s occupant.
“Is this seat taken?” I asked before even looking at her.
As it turns out, she was a he. In fact, he was the same youngster I noticed in the waiting room. He shook his head, but made obvious to me by his expression and general demeanor that he had also desired to have an aisle to himself. Whatever! At least I knew he would leave me alone, and I would not be distracted, since he was not my type (not that I have a type, but if I did, he would not have been it). I pulled out a copy of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a book I had checked out before I left the library. I pulled my portable CD player (remember CD players?) out of my bag, put on my headphones, and pressed play.
For the following four hours, I either read chapters of the James Joyce book or listened to Embrace’s song Madelaine on constant repeat. Just a few weeks prior on June 30, 2005, the day after my birthday, Embrace performed at the Double Door in Wicker Park in Chicago. Somehow, I got roped into doing grassroots marketing for Filter Magazine in preparation for the show. While I was shoving things into my suitcase earlier that day, I chucked Embrace’s Looking As You Are EP in with my luggage. From the first measure of Madelaine, I was in love. Finally, the CD player battery was about to die. I put away my materials and planned to take a nap.
Two elderly women entered the car at the previous stop and sat directly across from us. They watched a comedy on DVD without headphones so everyone could hear the movie, and they guffawed uproariously. I sank low in my reclined seat attempting to ignore the noise, but found no immunity. Suddenly, a loud snore sawed through the amalgamation of sounds from a row somewhere behind mine. I looked up at my blond neighbor, who also appeared disturbed.
I abandoned my vow of silence and solemnly stated, “Just so you know, I toss and turn in my sleep. I might, unintentionally, slap you.”
He glared, and I noticed his blue eyes (like mine).
“I also snore VERY loudly,” I said in the same earnest tone.
A smirk spread across his thin lips. And with an English accent, he forbearingly stated, “I’ll kill you.”
“So, are you from Chicago?” I inquired, and with a charming laugh, he gave in.
He shook his head modestly and, with a coy smile, replied, “No. I’m not from Chicago.”
I felt like the stereotypical dumb American, pretending to be cooler and more confident than I was actually. The conductor paused and asked me my destination. I said I was going to New York. The boy said, “Same.”
He was 19 years old, going on 20 in October, and roaming across the world before starting university in the Autumn. Already he had been to Thailand and Australia. He had traveled from Los Angeles to Chicago, and was now headed to New York for a night before catching an early flight back to the United Kingdom. I had never gone anywhere outside the United States, except Canada.
I thought someone so well-traveled must be fluent in many languages.
“No,” he explained. “Everywhere you go, everyone speaks English. There’s no need.”
He listened to Hip Hop music, which was unfamiliar to me. He admitted that he knew nothing in regards to punk rock, and although he was from Nottingham, he claimed he had never heard of Embrace. He appreciated music, but he was passionate about “sport.” I was more likely to spend a temperate day quaffing in a dimly lit bar. Just considering surfing, kayaking, and skiing exhausted someone of my clumsy nature. We seemed to have absolutely nothing in common besides blue eyes and that Amtrak train. Yet from the instant we began chatting, we could not stop. Furthermore, despite my initial concerns, I felt fortuitous to have someone with whom to flirt and antagonize. As the hours passed, I found myself hoping each time he would get up to use the restroom or smoke or stretch his legs that he would return swiftly. I chastised myself for being so wanton, but I could not help myself.
He told me of his friends and about his work. Then he described Nottingham and it’s crime. He chronicled stories about parties, and emphasized how taking a train in England was nowhere near as long as taking one in the States. He teased me about the tremendous size of my country when he complained of the time he had spent on trains in America, but I was quick to point out that he should seize this experience because I was willing to bet he had never been accosted by a chatty blue-haired girl, and, like my mother used to say, maybe it would make a charming story (albeit about us nutty Americans) to tell his friends and family when he returned to his country. He also asked about me and my career. He did not mind my impulsiveness nor my blue hair. He spoke of his parents, and I mentioned mine. He was the first person ever to ask me if I was happy!
Maybe it was because we were both away from home, but the longer we spoke, the more open and intimate the conversation became. We shared embarrassing stories ranging from awkward childhood experiences to our most recent drunken escapades, and we laughed heartily at each other with strange understanding. I told him things that I have never told my best friend from grade school or even my sister. Perhaps we spoke easily because we had both reached a point in our lives where the future was not as certain as we once imagined, or because we did not know each other so we had nothing to lose since, by all common sense, we would never again see each other.
Whatever the reason, the stories and laughter continued back and forth until long after evening. For that time, we were the only two people on the train, alive, or in the world. Eventually, snorts and scoffs throughout the dark coach made evident to us that we had become the annoyances on the train and were keeping the other passengers awake so we decided to sleep. We stared out the window for a long while. A blur of the occasional street light or station stop was all that was visible, but we agreed that gazing out the window at the shapes silhouetted by the night sky was peaceful and relaxing.
I rested on my right side as best I could, while he reclined on his back with his bare feet propped up on his tray table. I kept watching his eyes get heavy and close, and flutter open again, then gaze out the window, then, heavy with sleep, start to close again. When they remained shut for a while, I gave him a quiet shout. He acknowledged me, and I wondered aloud if he was ever going to tell me his name. He blushed, embarrassed, and apologized saying that would be a good idea. I had to keep from laughing as we introduced ourselves formally with a hand shake.
Later, our fingers touched. My eyes fluttered open to see his face next to mine. Wordlessly, our hands stroked, caressed, and finally embraced before our lips met, and we kissed. We fell asleep curled up in each others’ arms.
The train was running a few hours late by the time we reached upstate New York in the morning. We kept our hands intertwined, and the new passengers thought we were a couple. Our car was packed full, and people sitting in adjacent seats would often eavesdrop and partake of our continuing conversations. An old couple, who reminded me of Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) in the movie Rosemary’s Baby, were particularly charmed with the way the boy and I could finish each others’ sentences and answer a question directed at the other. Minnie even gasped when the truth about when we actually met was revealed.
“I just can’t believe it! You’re such a cute couple! Aren’t they just the cutest couple?” she repeatedly announced.
24 hours later, I did not want to go to Manhattan. Every minute of the last stretch of track along the Hudson was excruciating! I lamented how we should have both left for New York a week ago if only so we would have more time together. By the time the train pulled into Penn Station in New York City, I was devastated that our relationship would end. The past 26 hours had been the best of my life. He was flustered about arriving into the city after dark since he felt disoriented in a new place. I offered to walk him to his hostel. He was relieved. I enjoyed being with him, and I was not ready to leave him even though my friends were waiting for me in the opposite direction.
We scurried through a steady downpour of rain. I rolled up my pants to my knees and wrapped my denim jacket around my head like a turban. One of his flip-flops broke as we awkwardly managed his large pack as well as his surfboard onto the subway. We giggled at how bizarre we must appear to the locals.
Once he checked in, he let me shower so that I could clean up and put on dry clothes before heading to the Lower East Side . I still did not want to leave so I stayed with him for a while longer. We agreed to meet in the morning for breakfast before his shuttle arrived at the hostel to take him to the airport.
The following day was the day of the day of the London bombings. I arrived at his hostel in a panic. When the hostess said he had checked out, and I actually began to cry. After I calmed, she explained that he had left his luggage with word that he would be back at 3. I left a note begging him not to leave until I saw him. When I returned at 2:30 he was waiting. I sheepishly apologized for my tardiness, but he was thrilled that I had returned. Our hands immediately sought refuge in the other’s, and I instantly felt that familiar comfort. To escape the amused stares of the staff and other house-guests, we relocated outside. With hurried phrases, we discussed what ensued the previous night after parting. Mostly we declared that the night would have been better if we had spent it together. I pulled out my camera, and we took three photos before the staff announced his ride to the airport would be arriving soon.
As we waited in front of the hostel near the street, I could not think of one word to say. Instead we embraced each other tightly not knowing any other way to say goodbye. Finally I told him that it went against every moral fiber inside of me to let him get on a plane to London that day. I joked that I did not think I would be able to let him go. He would have to gnaw off my arm and take it with him. He just said that he did not want to leave either. I looked into those sad blue eyes and said, “You know, I would sell my soul for just one more day.”
“Don’t do that,” he said, placing a kiss on the top of my blue head. “Then you wouldn’t be you.”
♫ – The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (rough mix version)