I'm riding the 355 back to Chicago on Christmas night and everyone on the cafe car is shaped like an ornament. The exception is the gentleman wearing the purple cammo bandana and a mustache like a stain of chocolate milk if chocolate milk was made of pubic hair. He looks a lot like Pornstache from Orange is the New Black so I automatically want to push him off the train.
An older black gentleman with dreads piled on top of his head and wrapped in place with a beautiful striped blueberries-and-cream cloth walks up and asks Pornstache if he minds if he sat down. Pornstache says no, he doesn't mind. Now, Pornstache is wearing headphones and eating multiple granola bars while Great Hair is drinking a Pepsi over ice and writing in a journal. Because Pornstache has shown me that, once again, I am an asshole who makes assumptions about everyone, and because it is Christmas, I decide I won't kill him after all.
Behind me, a couple shares a booth. They are strangers who don't know each other yet but they are getting to know each other now. The woman is Russian by birth. The man is not. He is telling her his dating history, and about his work in DC, and about struggling to find a job. He is nervous. She is patient, and forgives him the pause in conversation, the wait. Her voice, when she speaks, sounds like river rocks and melting snow.
|Not the ornament, but how cute is this?|
One of the ornament-shaped folk is the conductor. He wears three large gold rings and a gold bracelet and a red Santa hat with a giant ball that sits just under his chin. Underneath his chin lies a red tie, and a slip of skin the color of burnt copper. The conductor reminds me of the red ornament hanging on the tree of the home I just left. This ornament says "KATIE" on it in curly script, and my godfather got me for first Christmas, and so I decide I love this conductor because he makes me feel warm, even though he made fun of my phone and all its cracks in the screen when I hold it up for him to scan. He is talking with another passenger, also ornament shaped, about the kinds of jobs that allow one to take Christmas off, and about the towns they've been to in Mississippi. She sounds tired, but she also sounds like she's smiling. He is.
A blonde young woman wearing the type of pants my brother tells on my sister for wearing to school comes in, and recognizes another young man whose haircut and hoodie place him at about age 22. They stop, stare, and laugh in surprise. I live in Lakeview, says the young woman to the young man, but I've been to Wicker Park. The man/boy is still in Royal Oak. He is unreservedly impressed.
Great Hair gets up to buy a Sierra Mist. In his absence, I accidentally make eye contact with Pornstache. There are strangers I want to talk to and there are strangers who look like a problem, and he falls into the latter camp, but I want to try to figure out what the hell exactly is going on with his oddly-collared shirt, so I keep peeking.
We stop in Kalamazoo, and stay awhile, waiting for another freight to pass. To the immediate right of the station stands a McDonalds and a homeless shelter. Three years ago to the date, I was in this shelter, wearing a pair of reindeer antlers and a neat wool skirt while I helped hand out presents and breakfast to some 300 folks. I was the volunteer coordinator for this shelter, and I oversaw some 60 volunteers that day, and I nearly fainted from terror, but I still managed to stand next to the rather attractive son of a board member during the prayer circle so I could hold his hand. Later, exultant with the day's success, I came back to the home I shared with the fellow I had been with since I was nineteen. We drank and had sex on the floor and ate the parts of the duck I had tried to cook that were not totally raw and I knew, somewhere, that it was the last Christmas we'd spend together. I wasn't yet sad.
|Kastoria, Greece! The best.|
Two years ago to the date, I was in Greece with Kaya, drinking champagne in a tiny mountain hotel and eating the best yogurt I've ever had in my life while our very pregnant host beamed at us both. That night, we had wine and fried cheese in a small restaurant a fifteen minute's walk from where we stayed. The walk was slippery and full of ice and dogs without collars who were very quiet. All around us mountains dipped and rose in the dark. We toasted each other, and Greece, and what we didn't know would come.
One year ago to the date, I took two Xanax and a bath after having a panic attack in the tiny closet of a space in my parents' house that is sometimes an office, sometimes a bedroom. I was deeply in love and profoundly unhappy and more scared than I've ever been; of everything in general; but of my mind in particular.
When I think of myself a year ago, I want to cry, even as I smell the melted cheese for the hot pretzels the cafe conductor is doling out, and even as Pornstache presses his face against the window while we pause at the Niles stop. I am aware that I am being ridiculous, but it is not unpleasant, this want to weep, and it is not because I still hurt. It is because I remember how much I did hurt, and I feel badly for that girl. I want to reach back and smooth my hair off my forehead and gently uncramp my arms and legs from their knot in the tub and say, shhhhhhhhh. It's ok. You're not broken. It's ok.
Empathy for oneself is one of the odder feelings to feel; particularly on a train that smells like the food stand at a high school football game, particularly on Christmas Day. It is different than self-pity, which I think is maybe what we're told we are supposed to feel if we spend any kind of special moment, let alone special day, alone. And it is different than the peace-and-goodwill-towards-all empathy that we're encouraged to feel towards others.
When I was a kid, I would play in the yard in the spring. The roots of the maple in the backyard would be blanketed in blue flowers. Gently, I'd take a stick and whittle out the dirt around the stem of one individual flower until the pale green of the shoot and tender bulb were revealed, cradled in the dark earth. I'd study this small growing life and then I'd cover it back up so it could continue to grow. It was a beautiful secret. Empathy for oneself, I think, feels more like that.
In the cafe car, Pornstache and Great Hair are gone. Behind me, the new couple quietly reads. In his head, the man considers the absurdities and necessities of proposing to this woman he just met when we get to Union Station. Maybe, he wonders, if I do it in the Great Hall? Reading her book, the woman smiles.
I head back to my seat, the mate of which has since been occupied by a young man sleeping with his mouth open. Gently, I wake him up enough to slide into my abandoned place, and watch Chicago grow near. We pass tracks and power lines white with snow, and the backs of houses which look like the faces of strangers when they let their guard down. I watch Sox Stadium go by, along with the wet slick streets of Chinatown, and the people who cross them.
In the dark, we pull into Union Station. People stand to collect their things. When I get off the train, I will join the tired river of people in the long taxi line. We will watch the policemen wave their flashlights into the faces of oncoming cab drivers to shepherd them our way. I will climb inside one, driven by a solid man with an earpiece, and when he drops me at my door I will make two trips to carry everything up the stairs. When I finally shut the door in my little apartment, I'll do two things: pour myself a manhattan from the jar my blessed boss gave me, and carefully unpack the bulb given to my by my mother. It's an asiatic lily, and in a few months it will bloom big gorgeous scarlet petals, but first, it needs planting. So I do it, before I go to sleep, rounding the dirt around the bulb and taking care to keep it, this round smooth thing the size of a fist or maybe a heart, shoot-side up.