The thing about going somewhere is that, if you’re lucky, you have someone to tell goodbye. Someone who is sad to see you go.
It’s the same coming home. For the fortunate, there is someone there to welcome you. Someone who missed you and is happy to see you again.
It used to be that when you sat at the gate in an airport, waiting to depart, you got to witness all kinds of goodbyes and hellos. You could see men and women rush into one another’s arms when a plane landed. You witnessed tender embraces, last kisses and that lingering brush of hands at departure, palm against palm then fingertip to fingertip, prolonging the separation until the last possible moment.
Now, as any flier - frequent or not - knows, most hellos and goodbyes are said at the curb. A wave, a quick kiss and out of the no-parking lane as fast as possible. From that point on all passengers are the same. Stressed. Suspicious. Caught in the machine that air travel has become.
But, if you travel by train, ah, well then, you see it all.
Train stations are still places of hand-holding and long goodbyes. Of people running into embraces and the loud chatter of reunion.
Sometimes, on the train, you see other stories, as well.
Sitting in the observation car of the Empire Builder, watching the Columbia river roll past, I noticed a woman sitting across the car. She was on her cell phone, talking to someone. The connection was spotty so occasionally the call was lost and she would have to punch in the numbers again. What held my attention was the tone of her voice. It was so high and cheerful I assumed she must be talking to a child. But, then I realized I was wrong.
“What did you do today,” she asked. The voice on the other end of the signal must have talked about a project of some kind.
“Well, it was sweet of you to do that,” she said. “You are a sweet man, you know. That’s why you’re my husband.”
Paying more attention, I could hear the brittle edge in her voice. She wasn’t quite as cheerful as she sounded.
They talked a minute or two more and the signal was lost again. Finally she ended the call by making a kissing sound into the phone.
I went back to my book and was immediately lost in the novel. The next time I looked up and glanced over at the woman, she was still sitting in the same place but was now snuggled up against a man. Her head rested on his chest, under the curve of his left arm and his right hand was on her knee. They were silent, staring out the window at the sunset.
For a moment, I was confused. I’d heard her talking to her husband just a few minutes before. A man who was obviously far away. And now, suddenly, he was there beside her.
But, of course, he wasn’t.
I realized that the silent couple, lost in their own thoughts, must be lovers. At least one of them, the woman, had another life. He wasn’t wearing a ring.
There was a sadness to the way they sat so close together, touching, thinking. I tried not to watch them but I was captured by the tableau. The miles passed.
After a while, when the sunlight disappeared and the only thing in the window was one’s own reflection, an uncomfortable image to stare into, they got up and walked back to their seats.
I don’t know if they stayed on the train or got off at my stop.
In the business of arrival, gathering bags and departing the train in the dark, I forgot to look for the couple. I don’t know where they went.
I can only imagine her, carrying her bags, walking away from the man on the train, palms brushing, fingertips touching, into the arms of the man on the phone.
On a plane, they wouldn’t have had the time to sit, holding one another. On a plane, I wouldn’t have noticed them at all.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance
columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard each
week on Spokane Public Radio and are frequently picked up by public
radio stations across the country. She is the author of
“Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons”
and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org