Milwaukee District/West Line
A tall man and a tiny woman stood on the platform
outside of the Metra. They were kissing, long and hard. I looked
away, feeling guilty for intruding on their private moment, but my
gaze was pulled to them once more. I swallowed hard and blinked
fast to hold back tears. The space next to me in my seat was empty,
so empty, and watching them made it seem even more empty. This time
last week, there would have been someone next to me, and I would
have been smiling, placing my hand on his leg, kissing him
unexpectedly just to see the smile on his face, just to get close
enough to smell him. But because last week is gone and this week
has been laid out flat upon me, I am alone.
I watched as the couple broke apart, smiling broadly.
The man took a folded map from his back pocket and they studied it
together, his high shoulder leaning toward her low one, heads bent
together. Then the woman stepped forward onto the train and the man
followed. I lost sight of them for just a second as they boarded
the train, between cars, and then the door into the car I was
sitting in swung open and as the woman came toward me, I saw the man
go into the other car. And then I could hear the woman’s voice.
“Honey, where ya going? This one’s almost empty. Let’s
go in here.”
I could hear the man’s voice, too, but it was a low
rumble absent of actual words, because the train had started moving
and the sound of the train bumping over the places where the tracks
crossed going into the station drowned him out. The woman must have
heard him, though, because she asked him in disbelief, with just a
trace of laughter in her voice, “What did you say?” And this
time, as the train tracks smoothed out, we both heard him perfectly
clearly. There was no laughter in his response.
“I’m going this way. I need to break it off with you.”
Everything seemed to happen at once, then. The doors to
both cars slammed shut. The conductor’s voice announced that the
train was approaching Western Ave. The woman came toward me. The
train slowed rapidly to a stop, almost dumping the now pale woman
into my lap. She fell into the empty space in my seat with no
readable expression at all on her face. No expression of any kind,
really. She had taken on the appearance of a recently abandoned
building, not yet sad-looking, not yet in disrepair, just completely
It took me a minute to absorb it all. I had been so
envious of them just a few minutes ago and now I was almost happy to
be me, because at least my own betrayal had taken place a week ago.
At least I had had some time to heal. This woman had not yet
started to feel her pain. Her face was still a void. It scared me
more than if she had been crying out in terrible sobs of
desperation, or screaming out rage-fed yelps of angry pain. Looking
at her, I was almost frozen in fear.
I couldn’t grasp the fact that so few minutes before, I
had been filled with resentment because she was so obviously loved
and I was so newly aware that I had never been loved, and now we
were sisters in sorrow.
“Why?” I wanted to ask her. “Why did you just let him
go? Why didn’t you follow him?”
But I couldn’t. I was afraid to speak to her, afraid I
would set off a reaction so intense that the entire train would roll
from its tracks in shock. A reaction like the one I imagined I,
myself, would have in her situation. The seat we were sitting in
was overflowing with calm, with silence, stillness, shock. And I
was afraid that after the deadly silence, the storm would come.
So, instead of speaking to her, offering comfort, I
leaned back into my seat and looked out the window. Shops and parks
and green, green grass flashed past me. When I tired of watching
them, and they no longer occupied my mind enough to stop me from
thinking, from crying, I ventured a glance toward the windows on the
other side of the train. In order to do so, I had to look past the
woman, but I was careful not to see her. On the other side of the
train were tall, broken, dirty buildings, and dust. I looked away.
Without really thinking about it, I reached into my bag,
pulled out a Kleenex, and offered it to the woman. Without looking
at me, she accepted it. Somehow, I sensed that the tears had
begun. I continued to look out my window; it seemed like I should
give her some privacy, some time.
I was burning to know her story, though. I had seen
them, minutes ago, man and woman, side by side, almost one person
rather than two. And then I had seen—heard, felt—one life split
into two. What had changed as they crossed the threshold of this
train? I couldn’t keep myself from looking at her any longer. I
moved only my eyes to spare her the pain of scrutiny.
Beneath her tear-studded eyelashes, I saw her looking
back at me. I felt her really seeing me.
“I’m pregnant,” I almost heard her whisper. I was only
sure of what she’d said because I’d seen her lips form the words.
And as soon as they had, she turned away. I couldn’t speak,
It was impossible to avoid feeling her pain. Pregnant
women in love have been left before, millions of times, I’m sure.
But this was happening right here next to me, affecting me almost as
if it were happening to me. Her pain was so tangible, so present,
so drawn to my own pain, that I couldn’t escape it. I was only
vaguely aware that I wasn’t even seeing the landscape pass me
anymore as I stared out the window.
I was obsessed with this woman’s situation, couldn’t put
it out of my mind. In some small way, I envied her still. Her
suffering was so obvious, but she was suffering the loss of love
in her life. Which meant she had known love, had received love.
And that is something I have, apparently, never experienced. I
thought I had. I was wrong.
I felt guilty because I envied her, I really did, but I
couldn’t turn off my thoughts. Her pain melted together with mine
somewhere inside of me and soon the tears in my eyes matched the
tears in the eyes of the woman sitting next to me. It was only in
the last few months that I had ever, in my nearly thirty years of
life, been in love, at least with anyone who loved me in return. Or
claimed to. And now it was already over. But he had never really
loved me anyway.
parents love me, of course, and my grandparents, and all the other
people who were supposed to love me from the time I was born, just
because I existed. And my friends love me, I suppose. But no man
has ever kissed me, really kissed me, not like that man had kissed
this woman. Not like he meant it. I have never been loved like
this woman has, this woman who is now sitting by my side holding her
broken heart in her hands.
I had been on the occasional date here or secret
nighttime rendezvous there, but nothing real. I was never attracted
to any of them. I only pretended, because it seemed better to be
with anyone than to be with no one. And then I had met a man,
finally, who I could love, and who loved me. Until last week. When
he told me the truth.
He didn’t need me, didn’t want me, didn’t love me. All
he needed was a place to live, someone to pay the bills for a few
months, and so I became that person. I was stupid, so stupid. I
believed him when he told me he loved me the second time we ever saw
each other, and because I wanted to so badly, because he allowed me
to, I loved him too.
And so now, here I am, on a strange train in a strange
city sitting next to a strange woman who is crying over what she had
but doesn’t anymore, and I am crying over what I thought I had and
never really did. And somehow, she and I are the same.
When I brushed the tears from my eyes and looked up at
the woman again, she was staring intently into my eyes.
“The baby is his,” she whispered. “And he was so
happy.” Her voice broke. “I don’t understand.”
“Well, then—” I started to ask her what had made him
leave. But she didn’t know that, couldn’t know, any more than I
could. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be sitting here, desperate and
lonely, confiding in a woman she had never met before.
This woman, with her smooth blonde hair and almost
transparent skin, so tiny and seemingly helpless, was carrying a
child inside of her, a child whose father had been a warm and loving
presence in her life less than a half hour ago and who had now
disappeared completely. And I was crying? For myself?
a monster. I do not deserve love.
she is tiny and pale and beautiful, and I am large and clumsy and
not at all attractive. There will be other men for her, even if she
can’t see that now. But for me?
I was crying even harder than she was. And she
hesitantly reached out to me, patted my shoulder awkwardly. She was
being kind to me, so kind. While her entire life was falling
apart. Waves of shame filled me. And I was crying so hard I
couldn’t even tell her that I was crying for her again, not for
myself. I was crying for her courage and her strength. The more
comfort she gave, the harder I cried.
The train car was almost full, and the other passengers
were watching us warily. We must have seemed like friends, even
sisters, comforting each other through some common grief. And that
thought was what gave me comfort.
Even if I, myself, knew that I was completely alone in
the world with no one who cared, and no one who ever would, none of
these people knew that. And as long as they all thought I was
loved, thought that maybe I was even going home to adoring children
and a loving husband, I could pretend, and I could survive.
“I have a daughter at home,” the woman said, once again
in a faint whisper. “She is with her grandma right now. Well, with
his mother. She’s three. She never even knew her dad, but—he
is—was—like a dad. She loves him.”
I shook with sobbing grief for this woman, and for her
little girl, and for her unborn child, and for myself, too. For all
my future unborn children who would remain unborn simply because I
couldn’t find a man to give them life. The same sobs wracked her
tiny body, and I put my large, clumsy arms around her. She wrapped
her tiny, bony ones around me. We clung to one another and cried,
not totally unaware, but not noticing, either, all the eyes that
were resting upon us.
“It’s—it’s my stop,” she said quietly when the conductor
announced the approach of Itasca. She broke away from me, tore
herself from my grasp. A half hour of closeness, of friendship, of
sisterly love, and it was over. I was alone, again. She was alone,
anew. She stood and wrapped her arms around me as the train
shuddered to a stop. And then she was gone.
As I watched her tiny frame glide away from me, so
strong and brave, I saw the man who had broken her walking away from
the train. As he approached a car in the parking lot, the woman
hurried up behind him. She crossed her arms and stood looking at
his back. He did not immediately turn to face her.
And before I could see how the story would unfold in the
end, the train was rolling along the tracks again.
Four lives destroyed, unless the tall man had turned as
I flew off down the track and smiled sadly, gently, at the woman,
then opened his arms with tears in his eyes.
Five lives, really, because now I knew the truth. The
emptiness and loneliness of a life not filled with love is nothing
compared to the emptiness and loneliness and breath-stealing pain of
knowing love to the greatest power and then having that love
Like the empty space behind the train where air has not
yet rushed to fill the emptiness, a loveless life is but a void.
And in that empty space I shall live forever, chasing
trains full of talking, laughing strangers, hoping to see a tall man
and a tiny woman boarding the train with a swaddled infant and a
little girl in tow.
Until I find them, I shall ride alone.