Moving On Up

Escape is sweet.

I haven’t ridden on a train in a long time — in fact, not since I was seven and on a trip to Florida with my parents. On that trip we had a sleeper car and I threw up through the entire night. That was the trip down.

On the trip back, we almost missed the train. I recall being thrown onto a train by my father and then seeing him grab the handlebar and haul himself up off the platform onto the moving train. I haven’t ridden a train since, but I don’t think it’s because I was traumatized. I just haven’t had any real reason to do so.

Until now. I’m on a train right now. It’s a lot bumpier than I expected. But it’s interesting what you see when you’re here. Water, right now, for example. Really quite beautiful; my guess is it’s the northern bit of the Bay I’ve just crossed, but that’s the interesting thing: I don’t really have any sense of where I am right now or how long I’ve been riding.

Basically, I’ve been speeding through mostly-deforested forest and the backyards of trailer parks. Is this what they call “Middle America”? I can never decide if it’s a place or a state of mind.

But I could be anywhere — Kentucky or Pennsylvania. Massachusetts or Minnesota. How am I to know except that since I’m headed to Boston, I hope it’s not Minnesota or Kentucky, and there will be someone to collect me at the station on the other end of this track …

Of course, the other interesting bit is the people. There’s the guy sleeping across the aisle with his mouth open and his hand protectively cupping his penis — that secure way most guys fall asleep. He’s asleep so he doesn’t realize people can see him this way, or that I’ll put this on a Web site for all the world to read.

But then again, why should it matter? He’s just the average guy, sleeping on a train, trying subconsciously to feel safe. I wonder what I do when I’m asleep to feel that same way?

Or there’s Bobby, the man in the station who didn’t board this train, who asked me to watch his stuff while he used the men’s room, and who wanted to hear my life story. He said he talked to me because I smiled at him, and he asked me why I was so happy.

Happy? I thought. Me?

I guess I am happy — happy to be taking this trip, the beginning of my fresh start in a new city, my eventual distance from all things Washington College and the ridiculous he-said/she-said petty bullshit following me everywhere I go.

So sure, I’m happy because this is my first active step to leaving all that behind. But I didn’t tell Bobby that. I told him I was lucky. Lucky to be me, to have my place in this world, and that seemed to pique his interest.

He asked me if I was “saved.” Not wanting to be lectured on the virtues of Christ our Savior, I said yes, figuring it was in my own best interest, figuring we’d drop the subject. Instead I got myself into a whole discussion of religion and belief, and most of what I said after that was a lie — I’d told him I was “saved” after all.

Still and all, I liked Bobby, and he walked me to the door and we shook hands. I think our mothers may have been wrong when they told us not to talk to strangers. After all, it’s a stranger who told me I had a pretty smile, and a stranger who made me say and think that I’m such a lucky girl.

“You’re a woman,” he said to me, “not a girl.”

“And a lucky one,” I smiled back.

Bobby nodded.

Strangers sure can make you feel good sometimes.

And that was just the beginning of the trip. Still to come were overheard conversations (on a train you can’t help it) of the girl behind me who was deathly ill and hacking up a lung, calling everyone she knew on her cell phone to talk about how she’d been throwing up for days, and how it was going to be sunny tomorrow and she was thinking about going out and shooting … I finally figured out she was talking about photography.

Or the woman who sat next to me and was entirely unsatisfied with riding a train, and called her husband every 20 minutes to complain about something new. Or the two talkative strangers in front of me who discussed acupuncture and increasing fertility by way of foot massage. Interesting topic between strangers, I thought.

And I wasn’t even in Boston yet.

This story isn’t really about riding trains and listening to conversations other people are having. This story is really about moving on to new and better things, a new and better life.

Well, not really new and better, because it’s my life still, which means it isn’t new, and better is so subjective. All things considered, my life rocks right now. It’s like I was telling Bobby in the station, waiting for the train: I’m a lucky, lucky little woman. I’m going to graduate school, and I’m going to study poetry for three more years — how many people get the chance to do that?

I’m going to be at a school dedicated to artistic endeavors, full of artistic people. The first thing I witnessed at the school was a public spectacle or self-love by a graduating senior majoring in writing. By self-love, I don’t mean masturbation. I mean ego, I mean self-congratulation; I mean this guy loves who he is and loves to perform in front of a crowd.

He did his bit, reading poetry, hamming it up, and then anarchists came and killed him, and a priest exorcised his ego. There was fake blood everywhere. He had a book for sale. He was nuts. And I loved it. Every minute of it.

Like I said, strangers sure make you feel good sometimes.

I feel good about my choices, about where I’m going next year, and about who I am, and about who I’ve chosen to surround myself with. There’s nothing better than being pleased with yourself, really. Nothing better than feeling proud of who you are and what you’re doing. And I won’t let anyone kill me or my ego. Not today.

So I was in Boston.

When I arrived, I was clueless, didn’t know where I was or where to go, or how to get there. But after two very short days, I felt confident and smart; I knew the ropes. Yeah, I can handle this place.

Sure, there’s a lot I still need to learn, and there are places I shouldn’t go and things I shouldn’t do, and I don’t ever want to be in a T-station again, alone, with an excessively drunk man harassing me, as I nervously clutch my pepper spray.

But I still felt confident and I still felt good about myself, and it’s just the nature of being in a big city. I’ll learn the ropes soon enough.

I walked around so much my hips hurt, and even though it was cold, it was sunny and bright. I got to see Bonnie Raitt perform, for free, by the Charles River, and she sang my all-time favorite song, John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.”

I stood in a crowd of virtual strangers and belted it out right along with her, and I bought food from a street vendor, and got blisters on my feet, and I didn’t want to smoke a single cigarette.

Because I felt so good, and I knew, throwing my head back to wail off-tune with Bonnie’s gorgeous melodic voice, that this is the right place, and I’m moving on.

There are still a few weeks left to piddle in a used-up town where nothing matters to me anymore, and then there are three months to organize and get ready for and save money for my future, and then there’s a U-Haul truck to pack, and a long drive to make, and an apartment to furnish … and a new chapter of this good old life to turn to, and begin.

But there’s no doubt in my mind now: I’m ready to go, and without regret.

Article © 2002 by Caryn Ellis