The train derailed in Joplin, Montana. Out of nowhere, and in middle of nowhere. The cause was still being investigated, a year later. People were angry and filing lawsuits against Amtrak, but Cara didn’t see what the point was. It wasn’t going to change the consequences of the derailment.
Derailment. That word. It had been in her head for eleven months, two weeks and three days. Derailment. She had thought it, said it, slept with it so heavily the word had become warped, both in meaning and cadence. It sounded so benign, a placid deviation from the original plan. Like a friend popping by and convincing you to call off work and head to the beach. Derailing your day.
Train was another word that had lost all meaning. Who the hell took trains anymore? Apparently, lots of people, including Jesse. Train sounded like something you did with a seal or a dog. It was the little wooden locomotive the little boy next door clutched and carried around. It was a ride at the local amusement park for the people who weren’t daredevils.
Train was the word that had brought her to attention. Mrs. Gallagher was talking. Today, they were supposed to be sharing their best memories. Grief was steeped in such heaviness, and sometimes talking about the good things could alleviate that. That’s how Alison, who ran the group, had explained it. Grief was just love undone, after all.
“We met on a train,” Mrs. Gallagher was saying, and Cara’s head snapped up. With her slight Irish accent and sparkling eyes, it was clear Mrs. Gallagher had once been a beauty. It still shone in her eyes, even though age had done a number on her in the way of extra weight and sagging jowls. It was still evident in the care she took in dressing herself, her manicured berry-colored nails, her lipstick. She was talking about her husband Patrick, who had passed six months ago.
“There I was with my mother…oh! I don’t even remember where we were going! Isn’t that funny, the story of when we met, and I don’t even remember…anyhow. There we were, and there he was across the car from us. I can still see him, peeking over the newspaper, sneaking glances at me, and even then, I could see he was a flirtatious man!” Mrs. Gallagher giggled, surprising herself.
Cara could see it in her mind, too. Mr. Gallagher—Patrick—as a black and white movie of a young man with creamy skin and bad-boy eyes. Clad in a newsboy hat and a wool coat, his body slightly moving with the rock of the train as it raced over the rails.
“That’s my favorite memory,” Mrs. Gallagher concluded. “Oh, so many more but to think about that one moment in time…if I had been sitting elsewhere, or if my mother and I hadn’t been traveling that day…actually, I think it was fate and it would have happened that way anyhow.” She giggled again. “Trains are so romantic, you know.”
Some of the others nodded and smiled, but Cara felt as though Mrs. Gallagher had slapped her across the face. Trains were romantic? Trains were sources of derailment, of deviation from the path that life was supposed to take. It was funny—when Jesse first mentioned taking the Amtrak from Seattle to Chicago, Cara had thought it sounded kind of peaceful.
“Flights are expensive, and I have this PTO saved up,” Jesse had explained. “It sounds fun. You can sit in these observation cars that are all windows and watch the landscape go by. What do you think?” He had wrapped his arms around her; they were still in the newlywed phase where every conversation, no matter how mundane, was punctuated with affection, with touch.
“Awesome,” she’d said. Not that she was a worrier, but a train sounded so benevolent, like a relic of the past. Jesse was travelling to Chicago for his brother’s bachelor party—and the Amtrak ticket was substantially more economical. He worked a lot, and he deserved to take a few days off.
“Come with me?” Jesse had begged, half-joking, and that was a memory that she’d replayed many times. She imagined saying yes, imagined that she’d crashed and burned with him, and they were cruising along in the afterlife together. Imagined that, instead of being in the observation car that he’d been so excited about, they had been together in the sleeping car, the one that didn’t have any fatalities in the derailment. She imagined being the type of wife who’d ask him not to go, who would worry about what kind of trouble her husband would get into at a bachelor party.
But Cara had done none of those things. She had demurred, and Jesse knew she couldn’t go. It was still the wake of the pandemic, and she was just getting started as a therapist. She worked with an agency, primarily doing telehealth, and was swamped thanks to her low rates and the expanding numbers of people needed therapy. Rescheduling a week’s worth of appointments was not doable.
Mrs. Gallagher was done talking, and now it was Mr. Joseph’s turn. They all had first names, but the age difference between the other participants and Cara made her feel compelled to think of them formally, as her elders. Mr. Joseph was decrepitly old, full of liver spots and hair sticking out of weird places and he always had wrinkled clothing and gave a general impression that he had no idea how to take care of himself. He also spoke about that a lot. How his wife had done everything from cooking to laundry to paying the bills and he was just lost without her.
“My best memory?” Mr. Joseph scratched his head, looking upward, like a cartoon. Cara tried to envision Jesse as an old widower, if life had progressed the way it was supposed to, and she felt a sense of hatred for Mr. Joseph. It was clear his marriage was one where he was the breadwinner and did little else…but he spoke of his wife with affection, as though he only realized in death how much he needed her.
“I loved Sunday night dinners,” Mr. Joseph finally settled on. “I miss that the most, but it’s a good memory. Every Sunday, Marilyn made a big dinner…all different stuff. A roast chicken. Stuffed pork chops. London broil. And we’d sit down and eat, and it was just…nice. Something that was the same every week.”
Mr. Joseph shrugged. “Now I just eat those microwave meals.”
The woman next to him, Mrs. Gerbert, put her hand on his forearm in sympathy. But it was her turn next, and her best memory was after her husband retired. She went on and on about the traveling they did—to Paris and Greece and Iceland.
“We drove cross-country, too,” Mrs. Gerbert added softly. “Right before his cancer diagnosis. I had no idea it would be our last trip, and what a trip it was. We saw everything. Down south and then across the Midwest. Up the east coast and back home…you can’t imagine. The Dakotas are so beautiful. And Montana. We finally arrived home and it was just a few weeks later that Randy was sick.” She shook her head sadly.
Montana. Another word in Cara’s mind that no longer had a normal meaning. It was a state she’d never been to, a state she was never planning to go to. It was a word in the elementary school song meant to help children learn the names of all fifty states; it was somewhere she imagined was full of cattle and the setting of the song Sweet Baby James.
Not somewhere that her husband would die, horrifically maimed amongst a landscape of tumbleweeds and a demolished observation car.
Now, everyone was chiming in with stories of travel. The format of the group had been lost for a moment (derailed) and everyone was piping up with the places they’d been, the memories they’d forgotten about. This one at the beach in Florida with the grandkids. That one skiing in Vermont when he was young and agile. Arizona. London. Amsterdam. Cara couldn’t believe the vastness of places these old people had gone. She had barely been anywhere. Disneyland once, when she was a kid. Aruba for her honeymoon. That was pretty much it.
Of course, she and Jesse had had lots of plans. They were obsessed with Italy, and it was on their radar to save and travel there before they started a family. Cara loved the Pacific beaches, and they dreamt about vacations after they had kids, their little bodies imagined, nameless babies that looked like a conglomeration of them both.
But she didn’t have any actual memories. Because they weren’t even thirty. Because they were just starting out and they didn’t have money to travel and their whole lives got put on hold with a pandemic and then, Jesse had died. And all Cara had was a couple years of dating, a wedding, and a year of social distancing. They hadn’t even had a chance.
Alison was attempting to steer the group back to the sharing format. She clapped her hands together and looked around the room to see who was next. Her eyes settled on Cara.
“Cara? Do you want to share?”
Cara hadn’t “shared” anything yet. Other than the bare bones details. Her husband had died. In an accident. A year ago. Her parents had suggested she join a support group. She hadn’t spoken about the derailment—of either the train, or her life.
“Not really,” she said, and then out of default politeness, “I’m enjoying everyone’s stories.” As if it were a group of old friends reminiscing instead of a support group for bereaved spouses.
Alison furrowed her brows a bit. “It might help? Its always hard to start.”
Mrs. Gallagher, who sat across from Cara, spoke up. “Come on dear,” she said. “What was your husband’s name?”
Cara stared at her. “Jesse,” she answered quietly, with finality. She didn’t want to talk about him, not to these people who’d gotten years, decades with their spouses.
“Tell us a good memory,” Mrs. Gallagher edged her. “Go on.”
Cara sighed. Her good memories weren’t like the others’. It wasn’t a big anniversary vacation, the birth of a child, a grandchild. It wasn’t retirement traveling and it wasn’t a first meeting (certainly not on a train!) She’d known Jesse most of her life, as a classmate, an acquaintance. Their love wasn’t fireworks, it wasn’t a comet crashing through the galaxy. It was quieter, an ease of just falling together. Morsels of moments in time. Jesse spreading jam on her toast while she made the coffee. The way his hair stood up in the morning. The sound of his feet as he came down the stairs. She didn’t want any of these people to know those things.
“Our wedding day,” she finally decided on, hoping that would be enough to pass to speaking baton to someone else. “It was a beautiful day.”
“Where did you get married?” Mrs. Gebhart asked.
Cara sighed, remembering the perfect day. “Just a small beachside ceremony.”
“What beach?” Mr. Joseph wanted to know, and Cara started to feel ostracized. No one else had asked questions…this was supposed to be a listening exercise.
“Alki Beach,” she answered, and looked to her right at the skinny, middle-aged man sipping coffee. It was his turn. But they weren’t done with her.
“What else?” Alison asked softly.
Cara looked down. She wanted to snap, to yell at them—no one else had had their memories scrutinized. She realized, intellectually, that they were just curious. But still.
“I don’t really know what to say,” she mumbled. “We were only married for a year. He’s been gone almost as long as we were married.” Cara’s voice broke when she said this, for the first time realizing that when eleven months, two weeks and three days became twelve months and one day, she would officially have been a widow longer than she’d been a wife.
“Everything was derailed,” she heard herself say, the macabre tone in her voice detectable only to her. Well, they wanted to know, why not tell them?
“Remember that train wreck in Montana last year? It was on the news. A bunch of people were horrifically injured, and several people died. Jesse was one of them. He was taking a train to Chicago to visit his brother. For his bachelor party. Because we’re the only ones of our siblings even old enough to be married yet.”
They were all staring at her.
“So, I don’t know what stories you expect me to have. We didn’t have time for that. I don’t even feel like I belong in this club, this widow club. Our history hadn’t even been made. And it makes me…”
“Makes you what?” Alison prompted.
“Well, it makes me angry. Its not fair. And who dies in a train crash?” Now, Cara started to laugh and cry at the same time. “I mean seriously, I know it happens, but really? Jesse took a train because flights were expensive, because he thought it would be a great way to see the countryside…” Cara looked into her hands and willed herself to stop crying. She could picture him on the observation car, sitting with a carefree smile on his face and his hands clasped behind his head, watching the world go by.
“Oh, dear,” Mrs. Gallagher said, and passed the box of tissues around the circle to Cara.
Cara stared at her. “Yeah. So, when you said trains are romantic, I’m sorry, but I don’t agree.” She knew she sounded like a petulant child, but she didn’t care. This whole group was stupid. She didn’t feel any better have expunged the nature of Jesse’s demise, not at all. It was the same as when her mother tried to get her to talk, to go to a therapist. As if she herself didn’t know the tricks of the trade. There was nothing a therapist could tell her about grief that she didn’t already know. Except how, exactly, she was supposed to live with it.
“Thank you for sharing that, Cara,” Alison said. “Everyone, next week bring in a picture of your spouse. Just sharing who they were is sometimes helpful in keeping the memory alive.” Everyone shuffled over to the little card table that Alison had covered with boxes of donuts and a jug of apple juice. This was the part where they were supposed to mingle and have light-hearted banter and get to know one another as friends, beyond their shared status as widows and widowers.
Cara never participated in this part, and she wasn’t about to begin today. She wasn’t even sure if she wanted to come back. She got the purpose of a support group, but these people weren’t like her. She hadn’t lived a whole life with Jesse, made children with him, built a legacy to leave behind. She hadn’t even gotten around to changing her last name to his. They’d still had separate bank accounts. His mother had planned the funeral, not Cara.
Outside, the damp air hit her graciously, and she felt better immediately being out of the church basement. Away from all the people who thought they understood her grief, but had no concept of what it was like to be twenty-eight years old and burying a husband. She’d even used the word derailed and none of those old people had gotten the connection. Whatever.
Cara had just about reached her car when she heard her name being called. Groaning, she turned and saw Mrs. Gallagher hurrying across the parking lot towards her. She put on a pleasant smile, dreading whatever the woman was about to share. Some imparted wisdom about the five stages of grief, probably.
Mrs. Gallagher reached her and took a minute to catch her breath. Once she did, she put her hand on Cara’s shoulder.
“Honey, I just want to say I’m sorry for bringing up trains. I didn’t know.”
“You didn’t know,” Cara agreed.
Mrs. Gallagher took a deep breath. “I lost my first husband. I just wanted to tell you that. Killed overseas. It was awful but I moved on, and I met Patrick. You’ll see. It won’t be like this forever.” Mrs. Gallagher patted her arm, as if that story was enough to cure Cara.
When Cara said nothing, she patted her again and ambled back into the church.
Cara stared after her. She supposed Mrs. Gallagher was sharing in attempt to make her feel better, but it only made her feel a million times worse. The thing was, she didn’t want to forget Jesse. She didn’t want to hit the point in two weeks where he would be dead longer than he’d been her husband. She didn’t want to move on and make memories with some other faceless man that she had yet to meet.
Cara sat in her car for a moment before pulling out. She supposed Mrs. Gallagher was trying to tell her that this derailment of her life might be leading to some fated path. That it wasn’t really a derailment, but in fact, the path she was supposed to be on. But Cara didn’t want a path without Jesse.
She stared at the backside of Mrs. Gallagher, who was finally at the door of the church. She turned and smiled at Cara, and Cara politely waved in return.
She knew she wouldn’t be back.