The Trip Homebyduckiesmut©
Every Valentine's Day since I had left for graduate school, I stepped up onto the old gray train heading home. I made the trip for Easter and Christmas, but those visits were for my family. They were happy, full times of laughter, general silliness, and catching up for the past few months. We would spend time chatting with grandmas, grandpas, uncles and second cousins twice-removed. And I always flew.
My yearly ride on what I had affectionately come to know as Old Sally was different. Climbing up the scarred steps into the passageway of the train each year, I would smile to myself at each little ritual. From buying my ticket to waiting for the train, changes were few from trip to trip. The conductor grew in age with each passing year, but his wide smile was always toothy and tobacco-stained. Other passengers were different from year to year, but they always fit the same profiles. I would often spend the ride watching people, watching the way they interact, the things they noticed, and especially the things that they didn't.
Sets of four lumpy, worn seats faced each other in small groupings down the length of the train. There was a dining car in the back with the same older woman smelling of cinnamon and train dust, with her hair pulled back tight. Sally was the only one of her kind. She had begun as a prototype earlier in the century, but more modern design ideas caused the shelving of any future production of more trains like Sally. Remaining in service for large part as a tourist attraction, she was a fixture of older days. Days when ladies wore skirts and hats, and gentlemen never sat first.
Stowing my small bag underneath a window seat, I looked out at the busy station but let my mind wander as I settled down into the squishy back of the chair. Every year on this day, my nerves were calm and my head was clear. Without fail, I went home to see him. I brought neither flowers nor chocolates nor fluffy stuffed bears. There were no gifts awaiting my homecoming. There were no sparks, no fireworks, no expressions of love. None of the trademarks of that particular holiday. Still, I went.
When the train came to its final station, I never stopped to see anyone else. I always went straight to him, and my visit never lasted more than an hour. There was no one else during those moments, just him and me, like before. I would sit in the quiet room and think about the trip, about the year, and about the past. The whirlwind that was my life quieted for a space of time where all I did was sit at his side, hold his hand, and remember.
I would remember the past that we shared. The childhood memories that grew in color and complexity as years passed and that mysterious phase called adulthood began. He was my best friend, my oldest friend, and the only man I ever loved. I had friends who had often tried to understand what brought me home each year, what kept me from moving on after all this time. I knew from experience, and from something deeper, that I would never be able to fully explain.
What they could not understand, what I could not put into words, was that I would always hope. Time would change my circumstances, my face, the reality around me, but it would never change the raw hope that lived somewhere inside. Each year as it resurfaced, I succumbed without rancor and perpetuated the cycle I knew that I would never be free of. A part of my mind recognized it for what it was, accepted it, and digested without raising waves in the rest of my brain.
Looking out the small, dingy window, I watched the reunions taking place along the platform. Happy wives and lonely husbands, small children eagerly anticipating hugs and warm greetings. And then there were those leaving trains who would go without. They would have no welcoming words, no friendly touch, just the money needed to hire a faceless cab driver.
I had long ago stopped bothering myself with the questions. Why did I go? Why did I need to go? Why was it so important to me? The questions themselves were unimportant. There was only one thing of which I was certain. I was on the wrong train. It was always going to be the wrong train. And I would always be on it.