The young woman on the train is tall, slender, and has an attractive but unremarkable face, her nose slightly overlong, but in proportion, her blunt-cut hair parted in the middle, framing her face like a short curtain, the hair touching her chin when she leans forward. She’s wearing a gray sweater over a white t-shirt, the sweater just grazing the top of her jeans, and camel-colored hiking boots. Her boyfriend is older, late twenties, reading from an engineering textbook. She’s combing out her hair, having just washed it in the train sink. They have slept together on the train in that knowing, innocent way common to young lovers, believing the world and everything in it is inherently, intrinsically theirs.
The train we are on is going over marshes and fields, the landscape littered with scrub trees with water frosted about their trunks like a skirt. Corn stubble in snow. Broken cattails giving way to houses on hills with thickets of staghorn sumac strung below their clipped lawns. Near cities—urban centers, they’re now called—bike trails wind through the woods and wetlands on raised ground, snaking underneath the tracks to emerge on the other side. We are looking for deer in the fields, hawks in the trees. “When I die I want to come back as an American kestrel,” my middle child says. He has been studying birds in school. “I want to come back as a little birdie,” says my youngest. My oldest, a boy of thirteen who is growing his hair out, beautiful hair he flattens with a baseball cap, slumps as though carrying the eyes of all his peers on his shoulders, and finds it too great a burden. He’s fiddling with his Discman. His eyes are closed. Dave Matthews Band croons into his ear, “Hike up your skirt a little more and show the world to me.” He doesn’t want to come back as anything. He wants to disappear inside that world.
Looking at the woman with the cropped t-shirt and camel-colored hiking boots, her jeans snug on a behind that rocks with the train’s motion as she heads up to the snack car for soda and sandwiches, I understand completely.
This happened a long time ago. The son listening to Dave Matthew Band is in his early thirties now. My youngest child is living with her girlfriend in Berlin. Yet a part of me is still on that train with them, and that young couple, and I am inappropriately staring at that young woman, remembering what it is like when everything is new and amazing and your whole being is suffused with the raw joy of being with someone you are absolutely sure you cannot live without.
I make up a little story about them: she is going to meet her boyfriend’s grandmother, or he is traveling with her to meet her parents. It doesn’t matter. Their mission is a necessary one: meet the required relatives, seek approval, hope for affirmation, and if that doesn’t work out, hermetically seal yourself inside your love and complain bitterly about your relatives’ inability to understand what you don’t understand yourself. It is a love beyond understanding. You simply feel what you feel.
My heart aches while she is getting refreshments, and when she returns, my heart overflows with longing and loving. Not for her, though. For Karla, when we both were young and were suffused with raw joy. The resemblance between Karla and this young woman is faint, but it’s enough.
Sashaying through the cars, blown snow dusting the diamond plate between cars, the sudden cold gives her goose pimples, causes a cool pleasure to sweep across her tummy as she remembers the heat, the joy, of having him inside her. Her loins fairly ache with desire, but she brushes the thought away, brushes her hair out of her eyes. At best, while she is home, they will get in a few surreptitious “sessions,” as he calls them, while her parents are asleep. But furtive love-making has never given her much pleasure. How can you enjoy something when you want to cry out but you’re afraid your orgasm is going to wake your parents?
She steps aside when she gets to the L in the passageway that goes around the smoking car. A stolid woman, with hair cut in a vaguely military bob, passes with her two slightly chunky children. Then a young mother comes out of the smoking chamber, tamping out her cigarette before she exits, a three? four?-year-old clinging to her hips and neck. Several other women pass her, all traveling alone with children. It’s like a small convention. What it must be like for these women, having to manage that. And where are the husbands, the fathers? Or are some of these single mothers, the boyfriends and ex-husbands out of the picture? None of them look happy. Maybe they just didn’t get a good night’s sleep, the children shifting positions in their seats constantly, or excited, chattering away, they barely slept at all and now everyone’s tired, cranky, short-fused?
It’s going to be a long time, she decides, before she lets her boyfriend make love to her with the idea that a baby might result from their coupling. A lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-n-g time.
Everywhere the scars of human habitation. The backsides of houses and the lives lived in them. Junked cars piled like some grotesque, oversized jigsaw puzzle, the kind made for four-year-olds just figuring out how pieces can go together. China hutches and rare Indian motorcycles, orange with rust, stored on back porches. Utility buildings in white, in corn yellow, in slate blue corrugated steel, the ground around them a field of frozen mud crazed with frozen tractor tracks. Pathetic row houses with their 1950s tar “brick-look” siding, yet all of them with neat, new, wrought iron fencing—the poor are gentrifying themselves. They are making an effort, at least out front. Behind the houses are kennels with yapping dogs, piles of lumber and tires, clotheslines with frozen gray underwear and dingy yellow sheets, abandoned school buses and delivery vans and sedans and trucks that somebody someday “will get around to fixing.”
The girl has a cigarette by herself in the club car. There’s a section set aside for smokers, and she is thinking about things. She’s taking the boyfriend home to meet her parents (and an older brother, two uncles and their wives, an aunt and her husband, and five cousins, ranging in age from eight to eighteen—it’s Christmas, after all), and she’s thinking maybe it’s not going to go so well. You really shouldn’t sit by yourself in a train’s club car. It makes you feel melancholy, as though life were passing you by, and here she was, just a second ago, all happy and expectant and excited. She has to smoke like this because her boyfriend doesn’t approve of smoking. It’s the one thing about him that bothers her, and she knows her smoking bugs him as well. With other boyfriends, after sex they would share a cigarette in the dark, the sheets pulled up to just beneath her breasts—she liked the feeling of the sheet’s edge tucked underneath her breasts—and the cigarette’s glow would weave and woof in the air above their faces. Their hands would touch in the dark exchanging the cigarette, and sometimes, if it was winter, the boyfriend would suddenly rip the sheet apart from the blanket, and a crackle of sparks would go down their bodies.
“That’s our energy,” one boyfriend said, “trapped between the sheets.”
But even when that didn’t happen, just passing the cigarette in the dark, feeling their fingertips touch, watching the orange glow, feeling the smoke fill you everywhere inside before you exhaled—it could fill you with such a satisfied and pleasant longing that what you most wanted to do after finishing the cigarette was climb on top of him again.
Her current boyfriend, though, he gives her an empty tuna fish can after they make love and she goes out in the hall and she smokes her cigarettes out there. Imagine that—after they have sex he makes her smoke out in the hall! A couple times she’s sat there naked, hunched over, knees drawn up to her chest, his fluids and her fluids still leaking out of her, and his roommate comes down the hall to pee. The roommate leers while pretending he sees nothing.
Now she wears a nightie, but it doesn’t feel the same. She can’t even enjoy the stinking cigarette. She sucks at it hungrily, hurriedly, then goes back to bed.
She’s thinking these things when he wonders what’s been keeping her and goes to look. He frowns when he sees what she’s been doing. He doesn’t go inside the compartment, just shakes his head and waits for her to finish. She stubs out her cigarette—she feels as though she’s been caught by her mother—and joins him.
“I thought you were giving that up,” he says.
“I only smoke when I’m nervous and I need to relax,” she says.
“And after we fool around?”
“Nervous energy. I’m still burning it off and trying to relax.”
“I thought that’s what I was supposed to be doing for you.”
She decides not to tell him that it’s often not until they’ve made love twice that she feels relaxed enough to come. That the cigarette in between times helps. That on the nights when he comes right away and, satisfied, cups her breast and falls asleep, she is often awake for two or three hours after that. That some nights she can go through a half-a-pack of cigarettes, and that she wishes she were at home, smoking in her own bed, but somehow it makes her feel slutty if she leaves his bed just so she can go home and smoke. This even though he loves her and she’s pretty sure she loves him. It’s funny, but it’s been ingrained in her. If you don’t stay the night you were just in it for the sex, and that was okay when she was, but now it’s different, now she wants to stay, but some nights they make love and it’s not relaxing at all. She ends up with all this nervous energy and no way to get it out except by pacing. She’ll go out on his building’s back landing and walk back and forth, one arm folded across her chest, the other raising and lowering the cigarette to her lips. And here is the funny thing—nervous, pacing like that, in a nightgown, or more likely, in an oversized t-shirt and jeans given all the horny and unlucky perverts coming home from the bars at that hour—she feels happy.
The girl says, “You’ll like my mother. She’ll like that you trimmed your beard into a goatee, but you know, she’ll want it trimmed even more. She’ll wonder why you left that part still bushy.”
“‘It’s so bushy,’ she’ll say, which means she’d like you even more clean-shaven.”
The boy looks as though he has barbered himself. The goatee is all that’s left of his beard, and he’s not, under any circumstances, going to trim that. He’s done enough already. His hair is a kind of modified bowl-cut, and he’s even put on new plaid shirt. He’s making an effort here—he knows what this means to the girl—and he hasn’t done something like that for a girl since high-school. He’s twenty-six now, four years older than she is, and if he can just get her to quit smoking, he thinks, in an abstract sort of way, that this one might be the one.
“What do you think?” he asks, nuzzling her chin-first. “Do you want me clean-shaven?” Before she can answer, he moves his lips to her ear, and still nuzzling her with his chin he says, “Between your thighs?”
“Stop it, it tickles,” the girl says, but she’s giggling. She liked it when his great hairy face was kissing her down there, but she wonders, too, what it would feel like, his skin on hers, without the hair. She’d be willing for him to shave it off, just to see. He could always grow it back—it’s not as though she’s wedded to the idea of his face behind a beard. She’s even curious—what would he look like? Would he have a cleft in his chin? Would it be a weak chin? He might look completely different, and she wouldn’t be able to stand having that face between her legs. Wouldn’t be able to stand looking at that face—pale, weak-chinned, earnest—gazing at hers with love. A momentary feeling of revulsion sweeps through her.
Those women travelling with kids are in the dining car now—all intelligent women, all military-wives, two on active duty, one that’s just stepped into the reserves after five years active. She’s going to college in North Dakota—near the base where both her ex-husband and current boyfriend are stationed. Two were in the Air Force, one as a radar technician, the other as a mechanic. The woman in the Army was an MP, stationed in South Korea. All traveling east without their husbands to see family for the holidays.
The one with both a boyfriend and an ex-husband wants to make it clear she didn’t leave her marriage until she caught him cheating. They are talking about traveling without their husbands, about being stationed separate from their husbands. The woman who’s come back from Korea says it worked out for her because they were both deployed there, and there was no place else to go. A woman coming back from Germany says the problem is sometimes from there you get deployed elsewhere. “And they don’t want wives deployed with their husbands. They say it’ll distract them from their duties.”
The woman stationed in North Dakota says, “But they get into things anyway. They find their own distractions. They have all that time to fill. I think it’s just they don’t want them to be distracted with their own wives. Temporary distractions they can deal with. It’s what they want.”
“Who wants that?” the woman stationed in Germany asks. Her husband has been in the Middle East and Somalia a couple times already. “The brass or the husbands?”
“Both,” the woman from North Dakota says, and they all laugh nervously, shaking their heads, afraid of what they already know or suspect or doubt or wonder about.
A deer galloping along a frozen bike trail. From what was she running? Or was it just the thrill of the run? It’s a game we play, me and children: the inner lives of animals.
Over pancakes in the dining car, my children ask me why some male deer are with a whole bunch of female deer. “What happens to the babies?” my youngest asks me.
“I’m not in love with you anymore,” Karla tells me. It’s late, we’re having tea in our kitchen, the kids have been in bed for hours.
She says, “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.”
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“It means what it means,” she says. “I still love you—you know that, don’t you?” she starts to reach for my hand but her hand stops halfway across the table “—but I’m not in love with you. Not anymore. Not for a long time.”
We talk about this and that, and then she tells me, “Every time we make love, it’s like a political act.”
“Republican or Democrat?” I ask. I’m not sure what that means, but I say it anyway. It’s meant as a joke.
A few weeks later and I do know what she means. It no longer feels like making love. I’m having sex with my wife, but I’m no longer making love with her. It’s hard to explain the difference in the feeling, but I feel it now, too, so it’s there. And I wonder, for how long before now has Karla felt that, felt just this way, and still gone through the motions?
“Women,” a friend of mine says, “can live with ambivalence a lot easier than we can. Say what you want, it’s men who want commitment. Women are much better at this than men are. The married ones, anyway.”
Surprisingly, my anger at her feeling this way makes our having sex something else entirely. I think of different women, women who are friends, women who I barely know, women from movies, and Karla almost always climaxes now while I’m doing this. Maybe she’s thinking of someone else, too. Maybe she’s faking it, thinking this will be good for me, to think I’m still giving her pleasure. Or maybe I am giving her pleasure, but it has nothing to do anymore with our being married. I don’t know. But it puzzles me—all these climaxes after she’s told me this. Maybe that’s what she means by a political act.
Another political act: Karla asking me to take the children to her parents’ several days before Christmas. She’ll fly out Christmas Eve. She doesn’t say why she’s doing this.
The women in the dining car have given up on loving their husbands a long time ago. They’ve settled into something else entirely, too. Even the woman in North Dakota, who caught her husband cheating on her, confesses that what she has with her boyfriend is a settled, comfortable feeling.
“I wouldn’t say it’s love,” she says, “but the sex is good.”
I love my wife. I’ve always loved—been in love with—my wife.
This matters, of course, not at all.
The boy, with his bowl haircut and his untrimmed goatee looks a little like Shaggy from the old Scooby-Doo cartoons. The girl clearly loves him. She is also clearly bored by him. They are about to start their next new life together. It will be over soon; it was over before it’s begun. They don’t know this yet. Or she does, but she’s willing to go on with it for a little while, just to see.
It’s a comfortable feeling. To know it’s over, or it’s going to be over soon, and to be the only one in on that secret.
C.J. Hribal is the author of the novel The Company Car, which received the Anne Powers Book Award, and the novel American Beauty. He’s also the author of the short fiction collections Matty’s Heart and The Clouds in Memphis, which won the AWP Award for Short Fiction, and he edited The Boundaries of Twilight: Czecho-Slovak Writing from the New World. His story “Do I Look Sick to You?: Notes on How to Make Love to a Cancer Patient” won the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction for 2017, selected by Ha Jin, and was awarded a Puschart Prize. He has held Fellowships from the NEA, the Bush, and from the Guggenheim Foundations. He is the Louise Edna Goeden Professor of English at Marquette University, and is a member of the fiction faculty at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. He’s completing work on a new novel, Housebreaking, and a story collection A Guy Walks Into a Bar, A Woman Walks Into the Sea.