Wrong Track – Right Track
I’m not sure this is what Mr. Zamzow had in mind when he told the class, “For very action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”; I got on the train- she didn’t.
The pressure to excel, to succeed, to someday arrive at the Promised Land of wealth, power and position. Surely this could not be vanquished by a high school romance. It seemed like love, but my Dad warned me all about “puppy love”. In this day and age, the odds of a teenage romance making it to the alter, followed by a big house in the country with cute little kids running around the yard, were pretty close to zero.
It wasn’t a good match. I was elite college bound. Annie would be starting beauty school classes next week. I was uncomfortable with the fact this seemed to bother me, but it did. She was a devout Catholic while I was more in the “opioid of the masses” camp. I loved all things sports. Annie could care less. She loved the arts, once persuading me to drive two hours to catch the performance of a symphony orchestra. Ten minutes into the performance I was beating myself up for not bringing a little radio along to surreptitiously listen to the Brewers’ game. Annie was so close to her family. She would never leave our little town. I was already on my way out.
I wish she’d leave the boarding platform. I can still see her. I should probably stop looking, but I can’t. Oh for Christ’s sake, she’s still crying. Ok, I’ll admit it. I cried too. People were looking at us. It was so embarrassing. I wanted to hear the final boarding call to put an end to it, but at the same time I didn’t want to let go of Annie. I think that’s called conflicted. Yeah, I was conflicted.
It would ok. Once I got to school I would be overwhelmed by the whole experience- meeting my roomie, setting up the room, finalizing course selections, and meeting so many talented, interesting people. And as my Dad kept reminding me, half of the student population would be girls. My mind would be so wrapped up in the here and now that I would have little time to look back. And Annie, she’d be ok.
Finally. The train is moving. One last look back at the station, at my little town, at Annie. Damn, she looks cute, even though she’s distraught and standing in a light rain. Her hair would frizz up just with high humidity. With the rain, it’s a mess… a cute mess. It reminded me of the night I met her. Our big prep rally bonfire had been rained out, but we all stayed. I spotted her with her jacket’s hood pulled up over her head. Man, she looked…cute.
I pulled out my Freshman Handbook. I was looking down at it as the train picked up speed, but I was really looking ahead. My Dad had told me many times that there was no greater status in life than that of a college student. Four years of young people, again half of them girls, experiencing freedom for the first time, football games, parties, no bothersome parents around, only fifteen hours of class a week, with just one responsibility- graduate in four years. The excitement started around Christmas and had been building ever since.
The distance would be too great to come home at Thanksgiving. I’d see Annie at Christmas. We’d communicate regularly, but I decided it wouldn’t be constant. We should both be free to experience, enjoy, our current experience. There aren’t many girls in a small town high school. There would be thousands where I was headed. Like my Dad said, you need to “see the world” before you make one of those long term commitments.
Farms appeared outside the window the minute we left town, one after the other, white farmhouses up near the road, with barns, silos, fences behind. Cows, lots of cows. I helped out summers at my Uncle’s dairy farm so I knew the work that went into every one of those Holsteins. It was near sundown and I could imagine the families gathered around the dining room table, a tired Mom and Dad prodding their children to relate the day’s events at school. I had little experience with big city life. I could only imagine how different it would be. I hated to see Annie cry.
I counted the mile posts alongside the tracks for awhile, realizing that every one of them meant I was a mile closer to my new adventure. But every marker also reminded me that I was a mile further away from Annie, so I stopped counting.
I already know who my roomie will be, a nice kid from New Jersey. We’ve talked, texted and emailed. I’m sure we’ll get along fine. I hope he’s at least half serious about school. I have a tough enough time focusing on school work without distractions. We had a regular routine. Monday and Wednesday nights, my house; Tuesdays and Thursdays we’d do our homework at Annie’s. She was tougher than my parents.
I had never been on a train before. I keep wondering about the places, the buildings, the houses I see. Who lives there? What do people do in those factories and office buildings? Are they pretty much the same as the people back home? I didn’t grow up in a palace, but we had a little space. I don’t know if I’d want to live so close to my neighbors. I can only imagine how annoying it must be to have trains rumbling by. Maybe grad school would be a good idea, more money, a bigger house on a few acres, far from any railroad tracks.
Lights are popping up all around as night falls. It’s not as pretty as the farm fields or the pond behind Annie’s, but there is a certain allure to it. The sound of the rails masks everything, leaving the impression all is quiet, peaceful out there. It’s relaxing just to look at all the spots of lights in the distance. I guess everything can look quiet and peaceful at a distance. I shouldn’t dwell on the subject, but I would get that kind of relaxed feeling just sitting on the back porch with Annie when the homework was done, listening to the crickets and the bullfrogs in the distance. It was that special kind of serenity that comes with nothing going on around you.
I had good grades and a high ACT score. That brought with it the worrisome burden of great potential. I thought business school, my Dad thought lawyer. My Mom saw me following in her footsteps and teaching school right there in our hometown. I could get my degree at the State College just fifteen miles aways. She wanted her boy to stay close to home. You know how moms are. My Dad and I had bigger dreams.
I once asked Annie if she didn’t want to “see the world”. She said, “I like it here, Matt. I like it here everyday.” It’s hard for a guy to argue with that.
The most fascinating time looking out of a train window comes at the railroad crossings. The waiting cars are so close that I can see the faces of the people inside. It seems like I have a connection to them as they become part of the experience of my trip. I’d love to stop and say hello. What do you do? Where do you live? Are there kids in the backseat? Are you headed for a soccer practice? Shopping? Are you like the people back home? We should talk. I wonder if Annie will be at her brother’s baseball game tonight. I played on that team before I graduated. We played at Fireman’s Park. It seemed that half the town showed up. She had no interest in sports, but Annie was always there.
Holy crap! The food in the dining car is pricey. I’m gad Mom packed some sandwiches for me and put a couple of sodas in my backpack. I don’t know when or how she did it, but Annie snuck some of her awesome chocolate chip cookies in there too. I’m sure Mom was her accomplice. I about teared up when I found them. They’re like my favorite thing in the whole world, but I couldn’t get myself to eat them. I’ll save them for later.
Everyone in here is asleep, but I don’t want to miss a thing outside my window. I hope we stay alongside the river for awhile. The moon’s glistening reflection off the rippling water is about the most calming sight I could imagine. I don’t know why, but I feel like I need a little calming right now.
Nothing could please my Dad more than my joining my brother in his law practice. It’s a small, office, just three attorneys doing a little bit of everything. Easy work, little stress, good money. My brother says it’s boring as hell. I think Mom worries about me ending up doing something I might not enjoy. My Dad says unless you were born to be 6’8” and can run and jump like a gazelle, work probably won’t be fun, whatever it is. You do what you have to do.
I fell asleep. I didn’t want to, but I did. The sun had a direct line on me and gently prodded me awake. The world was coming alive. I’m seeing some taller buildings and lots of cars. The cars all have people inside, racing off to somewhere. I don’t think it matters where I am. The cities are all beginning to look the same. I wonder if someday some eighteen year old kid will look out a train window and see me racing to get somewhere.
You should see Annie throw a football. I taught her. I said, “I don’t want you to throw like a girl even if you are one.” She must have worked on it with her Dad because she sure picked it up in a hurry. I think she just wanted to show me she could do it. It became our thing, and we would play catch in my backyard or at the park, rain or shine, even snow. A football wasn’t the most romantic birthday present, but she loved it.
I’ve heard all about the wild college parties. Now I’d be there. I bet something will be going on this weekend. I’ll be honest. I did some drinking in high school, not a lot, but some. My Dad would tell me, “Have fun, but not too much fun. Moderation in all things.” I’m sure I’ll strike a nice balance.
I hate to admit it, but the orchestra thing wasn’t that painful. It probably takes a lot of talent and practice. I wonder if Annie felt bad for dragging me to it. I hope not. I should have given it more of a chance. I probably should have shown more interest in something she really liked. I feel bad about that.
I think I’ll be nervous entering the dating world. I didn’t date much until my Junior year and then it was all Annie all the time. I didn’t have much interest in anyone else. I was always happy when I was with Annie, so there was no need for it. I wonder how long she stayed on that boarding platform. I bet she stayed there until the train was out of site. I hope she’s ok. God, I hated to see her cry.
I’m guessing there will be a lot of students with big money at this college. My Dad, only half jokingly, suggested that a bonus to a good college education would be latching on to a girl from a wealthy family. He told me he once asked a priest if it would be a sin to marry for money. The elderly priest replied, “Yes, that wouldn’t be right, but there’s nothing wrong with dating only rich girls.”
I sure hadn’t picked up on that when I first met Annie. Her Dad was our high school’s custodian. That never embarrassed her. She was so damn proud of him, probably because he was such a good man. Her Mom died when she was seven. She still cries when she talks about her. So do I.
With a degree from a prestigious college, I’ll be able to write my own ticket. Then I just show up for the rest of my life. Most likely Law School, then go to work in my brother’s office. Wills, contracts, real estate closings, divorce, some collections. I’ll push the papers around, and money will just happen.
I was always good with little kids. My nieces and nephews love me. I know I’m a good Uncle. I think that’s why my Mom thinks I’d be a good teacher. I wonder if Annie is up yet. I hope she slept alright. I hope she’s ok. I don’t want her sulking around all the time thinking of me. Jesus Christ, I hope I’m not sulking around all day thinking about her. No, I’ll be ok. College is full of distractions, the friends I’ll meet, the classes, the parties. I bet my dorm will have teams in touch football, basketball and softball. I’m not good enough to play on a college team, but I know I’ll do fine in the intramural leagues. Annie won’t be at any of my games, but that’s ok. I’m sure it will be fun.
The railroad stations are pretty interesting. Lots of activity, people coming and going. I like seeing the emotions, one way or the other. Happy people greeting loved ones as they get off the train, sad people saying their goodbyes. I have to smile as no one comes close to my marathon farewell moments with Annie. I can’t get the image of her crying out of my head. God, I hope she’s ok.
I’m a little concerned about the science class I signed up for. I’ll need three credits in any of the sciences to graduate. Astronomy should be ok. I wonder if there will be math in that course. I hope not. It should be interesting. Maybe I’ll even learn something about the Universe. Annie and I never worried about the names of constellations, or the distances between stars. We just liked lying down on the lawn and looking up at them. Annie said that’s how she knows there’s a God. It’s all too overwhelming, too spectacular, too awesome to have just happened by accident. Maybe she’s right. I hope I don’t learn anything that takes the wonder out of it.
I’m sure my Mom misses me. I’m the youngest so I know this will be hard on Mom and Dad. I’ll miss them too. I bet Scooter already misses me. She has to be wondering where the heck I am. She’ll probably keep sleeping in my bed until she figures out I’m not coming back.
This degree, then grad school, then the law practice. Is each a thing in itself? Or are they just modes of transportation to get to where we all want to be- happy? I guess when it comes down to it, that’s what I’d like to be- happy. My Mom and Dad are happy. I’ve watched Annie’s Dad. He looks happy even when he’s mopping floors in the school hallway. I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t happy when I was with Annie.
I keep looking out the window, but I’ve lost interest. I don’t seem to be seeing anything. I’m not seeing farms, houses, buildings, trucks, cars, people. I can’t even see my dorm room, parties, those bazillions of girls, that astronomy class, law school, my office on main street, that big house in the country. “Happy” has shoved it all aside.
We’re pulling into the station, my station. A slight jolt brings the train to a stop, and a question hits me like a hard slap in the face- had I arrived or had I left? The terminal is busy, young people, old people, hellos, goodbyes, but mostly people just hurrying around like ants, going somewhere or coming from somewhere that probably looks a lot like the place they just came from. I’m not wondering if they are doctors, lawyers, school custodians, college students, moms, dads or whatever. I only wonder if they’re happy.
I must be as noticeable as I was on that boarding platform back home. I’m just standing there, motionless in the midst of the scurrying crowd. The world is swirling around me, like I’m the center of something. Me…just me…I matter. What I want matters. I want to be …happy.
My feet take me over to the ticket counter.
“How can I help you?”
I glance back and point to the train I just got off of.
“I’d like a ticket to where that train just came from.”
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I loved the way you write, so smooth and sharp! And I was definitely happy you made him go back to Annie :) I am eager to read your next story!
Thank you. I really appreciate that. I try to keep a Shakespeare quote in mind: "Brevity is the soul of wit" and not get bogged down with too many adjectives...or, maybe I just can't come up with enough of them! Thanks.
Aw, a sweet ending. This felt like a stream of consciousness story. Thought enters character's mind and you write it down. It made me think of last week's prompts: write a story that takes place in someone's mind and someone who overthinks. It was almost like you addressed all of the prompts! I mean this in a good way, of course. It felt like some of the paragraphs jumped around a bit in the way a mind does when it's on a roll. Kind of reminded me of Mark Twain's style. It kept me on my toes and was an enjoyable read. I do hope Matt isn'...
Thanks. The idea was that no matter what Matt saw or thought about, Annie was always on his mind. I was a bit like the Dad...wanting (perhaps too much) for my kids to "do well"...grades, sports, career, etc. Then one day I was talking to my older brother. He had 3 grown daughters living out of state. He talked to them almost everyday. He said he asked the same question at the end of every phone call- "Are you happy?" I think there's a lesson for parents in there. It taught me something.
Aw I see. Happiness is the greatest measure of success. It's hard to remember that sometimes in our society. Thanks for the reminder. :)