by ANNIE CHENG (United States)
Issue 1.1 April 2019
You always liked to watch the trains as they passed by, one after another, right on schedule. You liked the whooshing sound of the brakes as the train slowed into the station, and the whirring of the engine as it started up again. You liked the way that the train always came when it was expected, but left as soon as it could spare to. But most of all, you liked how the train ran in a cycle from morning to night, going everywhere and nowhere at the same time. “Trains travel to a hundred places in one day,” you mused one time, “but somehow they always know when to come back.” And that was the magic of trains for you: they ran like clockwork, always knowing exactly where to go.
Unlike people, who were puzzles that you couldn’t piece together, you could understand trains, and in a way, they could understand you. You knew everything about them. The train schedule seemed to correspond with the intervals of your own heartbeat, so intrinsic that the whooshing of the arriving train was your inhale and the whirring of the departing train was your exhale.
We used to watch the trains together, just you and me. I remember that one time when we were sitting on the metal bench on the platform, six feet away from the tracks. The notorious San Francisco fog clung to us like a blanket and enveloped us in comfortable obscurity. We watched the people as they rushed out of the train and flooded onto the platform. By their dress and their demeanor, they were all businesspeople and lawyers and teachers—all of them proud hallmarks of a convention that you couldn’t understand or be a part of. Your eyes followed them uneasily as they bustled about, their feet moving, but their eyes never looking where they were going. “Doesn’t it bother you that so many people go by and you never know where they’re going?” you asked me, your eyes full of genuine concern.
To tell the truth, it never bothered me at all where other people were going. I trusted that they had destinations planned out and would have no trouble getting there. I focused on where I wanted to be and let other people run their own course. You weren’t satisfied with that. You would try to catch their unfocused eyes as they passed us by. The fact that their eyes were always fixed elsewhere never discouraged you like it discouraged me. To this day, you study them in awe as they burst out of the sliding doors. The people who never stop, you called them. You always wondered why they were in such a rush to get to nowhere.
You never had a destination yourself. You would stare at the map for ages, tracing your finger over the colorful lines that went this way and that, but always went somewhere. The red line went to Daly City. The blue line went to Pleasanton. The yellow line went to Antioch. Even when the lines would stop, marking the end of a route, you always traced your finger beyond them, off the map and into the depths of the unknown and the unknowable. “That’s where I want to go,” you would tell me, pointing to the uncharted territory on the edge of the glass encasement. I would gently move your finger back to the middle of the map. “This is where we are,” I would remind you steadily, but anxiously, “and this is where we’re going. Back home.”
That was always the difference between us. I looked at the map to know where I was. You looked at the map to know where you could go. For you, the map was a gauntlet, not an ultimatum. It showed you what was possible and dared you to stray beyond the lines to seek that vague, just-out-of-reach land known as the impossible. But for me, the map outlined the comforting bounds of reality. I was content within those bounds, until I realized that you weren’t there with me anymore. I could find meaning within those bounds, until I realized that you had moved on from them, and suddenly all meaning ceased to exist.
You see, I couldn’t ever accompany you on your pilgrimage to that unknown destination. While I was intimidated by everything that transcended convention, you couldn’t stand to be near anything that touched it. As a result, we drifted apart naturally, like two trains on opposite tracks, passing each other but never intersecting.
You started to take the trains on your own, leaving me behind at the station. Every morning, you would catch the early morning BART train, following whims and curiosities to unspecified destinations until late at night, when you would return without notice. And every evening, Mom, Dad, and I would sit at the dinner table, the air dense with incongruity as the empty dinner plate, the unfilled cup, and the clean napkin took your place at the table. You became the wayward brother, the one who was never on time, the one who did everything wrong. You were the train that never arrived when you were expected to.
I’ve stopped talking to you. I’ve let missed calls from you pile up in my notifications, not bothering to listen to the voicemails you leave me. You told me once that I hate the things that I don’t understand. And maybe that’s true. Maybe I’ve stopped talking to you because I can’t understand you anymore. I’m no longer a part of your journey or your destination. I put my phone on silent because I don’t want to recognize how far you’ve strayed from me.
But sometimes I do pick up your calls. I’ll only say two words: come home.
After a moment of tense silence, you’ll hang up on me. The three beeps will tell me that we’re no longer connected, that the line has been severed, and that we’ve both stopped listening. The phone will drop out of my hand, but I won’t hear it clattering to the floor. All I’ll hear is the whooshing of the incoming train and the whirring of the departing train, and I’ll wonder if your heartbeat is still in sync with the rhythm of that timetable.
Annie Cheng, 16, is a dancer, daydreamer, and bibliophile from California. She writes for remembrance, for understanding, and to deconstruct, magnify, and relive.