The stars hung heavy that night. They hung perilously, suspended in the sky like damp flakes in a snow globe, waiting for the pull of gravity to drag them down to earth. They marked the edge of what was and what was perceived, the only indication that there was glass between the world and the infinite.
She sat on the train, gazing out the window at the burdened night. The train car had the distinct odor of worn leather, gasoline, and transition. Across from her, a tired man, wrinkled with age, dropped his head in restless slumber. The gray stubble on his chin dimly reflected the hollow yellow light of the flickering bulb overhead. The light washed the train in an eerie glow, giving the red seats a plastic warmth and the passengers a fleeting image of comfort.
She needed coffee. Dear God, she needed coffee. She silently rose from her seat, careful not to bump the knee of her fellow traveler. Padded footsteps and silence, the spell only broken when the connecting door flew open and wind screamed in her ears and the rage of speed whipped her body and all the warmth evaporated into a harsh, biting cold.
But then it was over, and the quiet red car welcomed her in from the night.
An order, a brief interaction, and at last she cradled a steaming vessel of coffee between her palms. It was in a styrofoam cup, and it was bitter, and it was scalding, but when it touched her lips it warmed her insides, spreading heat to every last limb of her body.
It didn’t used to be this way, she thought. There was a time when she didn’t need midnight trains and hot coffee and heavy stars to stir the blood in her veins. Because he had been there. And it was on nights like these that she could see him, see him so vividly that she could reach out and touch his shadow beside her. She could talk to him, remember the ideas they once exchanged without a second thought. One moment in particular replayed again and again in her mind. She didn’t know why. She guessed it was for the same reason that broken records got stuck on trivial words.
He sits on the floor of an airport, back smushed against the wall, his knee exerting the slightest pressure on hers. Deep in thought, he turns to her and asks:
“Have you ever thought of turning time into an equation?”
“What do you mean?”
“Take time on a clock—say 1:00. One times zero equals zero. Then there’s 1:01. One equals zero plus one. You have to make the numbers equal each other somehow.”
“But that’s easy!”
“Ah, there’s where you go wrong. Some times are easy, but others are nearly impossible to solve. Shall we play?”
And thus they commenced the game, solving time again and again. They began at 10:00 and worked through every minute up to 1:27, which proved to be a lasting enigma. No matter how they arranged the numbers, they couldn’t add an equal sign and produce a solution. It became their permanent mission, their ultimate puzzle.
The train jerked. Steaming coffee spilled onto her hands, stinging them with heat. She hastily dove for a napkin and wiped up the mess, all the while thinking about 1:27 and the era when all she needed was simple math to make sense of the world.
That era was long past, or at least it felt like it. It’s funny, she thought, how time turns moments into dreams; memories fade and evolve into a collage of hazy images, leaving the mind with a feeling rather than a story. Like waking up from a deep sleep with a lost vision and a racing heart.
She finished her coffee and returned to her seat. The sleeping man was awake, and he studied her with a curious interest.
“It’s nice to see a pretty face,” he said to her.
Not sure how to respond, she raised the corners of her lips and turned her face to the window.
“You know,” the man said, unphased by her disinterest, “I’m sick of this damn train. Engineer don’t got a clue what he’s doing. I’ll tell ya, we were supposed to arrive two hours ago. And the wheels. I’m sittin’ here tryin’ to get some damn sleep and all I hear is the wheels rattlin’. They didn’t fit ‘em right to the track, those dumb bastards.”
As social protocol bid her to say something, she asked, “Do you know where the next stop is?”
“Ha. Even God and all angels in heaven don’t know. This train’s goin’ and don’t give half a damn where it takes us. Just threw all our goddamn plans out the window.”
And just like that, all energy left his body, and he collapsed back into the aged figure she had seen dozing off before. He mumbled something under his breath, got out of his seat, and hobbled slowly down the aisle.
Alone, she looked out the window once again. The night was dark as ever, an impenetrable black mass broken only by the heavy stars. Her thoughts turned to him again. A picture of a blue car entered her mind, rain streaming down the window, the air thick with humidity. He is there. She laughs, but it is not deeply-felt laughter. It is shrill and forced, meant to cover rather than reveal. She says goodbye and leaves the vehicle, walking into the rain without looking back.
It is the last she will ever see of him.
She hadn’t known it at the time, of course. If she had, perhaps she would have acted differently. Perhaps she would have laid her broken heart before him and pleaded for him to stay. Perhaps she would have screamed.
But she couldn’t change the past. So she had boarded this train, not sure where to go, not sure how to heal her fractured soul. Her life was stuck at 1:27. She was trapped in an unsolvable problem, and though she searched and searched, she could find no solution. She wanted this train to carry her somewhere, somewhere new, somewhere with no past. Carry her to a place where heavy night didn’t threaten to crack the glass sky, to a place where she could run until she collapsed from the sheer life of it. A place where she could cry, not for the beauty that was lost, but for the beauty of it all.
This place haunted her dreams every restless night on the train. And she knew that when she finally arrived, the doors would open, and the air would greet her, and she would reach out to the sunlight…
And such is our enduring hope for the future.