I gaped at the guy across from me. He was telling me something about an internship at the FEC. Or maybe it was the Fed. I had gathered that it was important. He was shattered by the strobe light that spilled into the hallway, and I could only half-hear him over the music. His handsome face was given a depth when shadow flickered across it frame-by-frame, and I was too lost in it when he asked me what I did for a living. I fumbled at first because I remembered that I wasn’t a student anymore. So I just ended up telling him I was still in school, and then nothing was said for a minute and when I started really listening to the music he excused himself to get another drink. I watched him turn and disappear into the light, and then I closed my eyes for a while. I tasted whatever I was drinking. I think it was rum. I felt warm. The music was fantastic, and although I couldn’t place the tune, I swam in it as though I had known it forever.
The next moment was a girl tugging on my arm. It took me a moment to resurface, but when I remembered myself I opened my eyes and saw that she, too, was beautiful in that familiar way. We talked. We played like kids, and we chased each other out of the apartment. Outside the rain from the afternoon had frozen to a gentle snow, and by the time I caught up to her on the street I was out of breath and she was hailing a cab. So we looked at each other, and we laughed, and a cab showed up and we got in and pointed it in the direction of her place. The cab was warm and the hour was late and neither of us really said anything so by the time we got there she was asleep in the crook of my shoulder. I paid the fare and I walked her to her front door. When we got it unlocked finally I held her tight for a moment and bade her goodnight and as I closed the door behind me she beamed and waved goodbye. When the cab driver asked me where I was going, I couldn’t help but smile as I told him to take me home.
The next morning I woke up to my phone vibrating beneath me. My mother was on the other end. I picked up and she asked me if I was okay and I said that I had no reason to be otherwise. She told me that an old friend of mine had died. I had lost touch with him, but we had been very close as children. He must have been twenty-three. I was twenty-two.
A memorial service was planned for the end of the week, in San Francisco, on the opposite end of the country. My mother offered to purchase airplane tickets for me, but the rain was striking my window in sheets and the world outside sounded like a hurricane so I told her that I would take the train, instead.
The rain hadn’t let up two days later. The sun was now rising but its light was strained through the storm and again through the taxicab window. The driver cursed the traffic in a West African creole as I watched raindrops explode across the glass. I unfocused. I thumbed an email in my lap. I worried about the tip. By the time the car arrived at South Station, the total fare had come to 35 dollars. I gave the man two twenties, and he thanked me and called me his brother, and I did not know what to say. I stepped out onto the curb. I stood in the rain for a while because I couldn’t hear anything over the sound but then I noticed that people were staring so I hurried into the terminal, unsure of why I felt ashamed.
Inside, the lighting was warm and behind the noises of the station I could hear the rain hit the ancient roof so I started to feel okay. The Lake Shore Limited would not be boarding for another forty minutes, so I joined a line for coffee. The girl in front of me was cute and around my age so I started thinking of clever things to say to her but then I heard her mispronounce “omniscient” over the phone (with a hard “c” like in “cataracts”) so I looked away, having no idea where else to look. It wasn’t until I boarded the Limited that I realized that I was still quite wet from the rain.
I remember that I was walking along a beach. I walked ahead for a very long time and I listened to the ocean crash until I noticed another boy alongside me. I stopped walking and he went a few more steps and then he turned to face me, too. His hair was yellow like mine and his skin was dark too but there was something strange about his look. When I asked him where we were going, he stared deep into me with those wrong eyes. When next he cried out, reaching for me with those unmistakable hands, the sound was like an earthquake.
I opened my eyes and I was afraid because the screaming did not stop. I found that the train was coming to a halt with a terrible noise and for a moment I could not remember myself. My senses returned after I heard the conductor announce that the Limited had arrived in Chicago. I finally released my hands, fists as they were and slick with the anxiety of nightmare. This was my stop. I would be boarding the westbound California Zephyr very soon. It was very late and the compartment was dark even as I got up to leave. Some people stayed on the train. They would remain on the Limited until it arrived two hours later in Milwaukee, at which point the train would linger in depot until the eastbound service began again in the morning.
Union Station was deserted. I stepped outside, and Chicago glowed through the drizzle. I reached for a cigarette. It was an old habit at this point. The first time I had ever smoked, actually, was with this guy. My dead friend. He and I had stolen a pack of Marlboro Reds from across the street during lunch hour, and after school we got hooked on the things under the loading dock.
We kept that up for a while. I mean, he and I had been friends since first grade. We had done all of those childhood firsts together. About a month after that first smoke, though, I told him that I was going to ask out Claire from our English class, and he told me that he liked her too. Well, we had a huge fight over all that, and even though Claire and I only dated for about two weeks, he and I never talked all that much afterwards.
I watched the California Zephyr pull into the station. I guess I had lost track of time, because a whole hour had passed, and I realized I was freezing. I boarded the Zephyr soon afterward. The rain had stopped and I fell asleep watching the lights of Chicago vanish into the dark behind us. I awoke long afterward, intact and in Nebraska. I emptied my mind as well as I could because I had never seen this part of the country. I tried to enjoy the time in the early afternoon that the Zephyr spent crossing those Colorado valleys, and it almost felt right that the train followed the river for as long as it did. By the time we had passed into Nevada the sun had set and I was very tired and I watched the lights come on in Elko.
When I woke again the train had arrived in Emeryville. From here I would board the bus for downtown San Francisco. Everyone got off of the train because this was the last stop before the California Zephyr turned back around toward Chicago. I changed in the bathroom of the bus depot. The single bulb was a dim and flickering thing and, locking the door behind me, I was alone.
On the mirror, below a column of anonymous phone numbers, someone had written, “Where the fuck are you right now?” I thought this was a very pressing question. I had never heard of Emeryville before. This bathroom was a small and filthy place. As I began to change, slowly, claustrophobia set in. I held onto the cold porcelain of the sink and watched the water whirlpool into the drain. I could not control my tremors. I found loss welled up inside of me. I was lost. I caught my own eyes, hazel in that mirror, and they were not the brown that I thought they were. What color were my friend’s eyes? I remembered that he was dead but I could not remember his eyes. In that moment, I needed to destroy something, and my hand flung out to shatter the glass, but I caught myself and only glanced it with the ball of my wrist. The pain hit me and cut through the numb, and I reeled back until the wall caught me. On the floor, the mirror could not find me.
Some time later, a man began to pound on the door. A line had formed, evidently. I apologized, and I was ashamed, and changed into the rest of my suit in silence. I hid my face all the way to the end of the depot. On the bus, I gave the machine my last ticket, surprised I had made it this far.
I sat in the back of the chapel because the memorial had begun and I did not recognize anybody except for his parents. The sermon was nice in that it sounded like other funerals that I had been to. After the minister said what he had needed to say the audience began to mingle tastefully but I felt awkward about the whole affair so I left before anyone could get to me and I hid in the alley beside the church which it shared with a restaurant called Golden Moon and I chewed my nails until they were gone.
When I entered the church again the reception had begun and I waited to give my condolences. The line was long and by the time I reached his parents I could tell that they were tired. I told them how sorry I was but his mother would not meet my eye. His father thanked me for coming but the pause that followed was pregnant and if there was something I was supposed to say it had escaped me. I ducked away. In the corner, my face melted; he was only twenty-three. He was only twenty-three and he had never been happy when I knew him and I doubt that it ever got any better for him.
After a few minutes I felt a hand soft on my back. I do not know when I started crying. I looked up and it was the minister from the service and he was sitting next to me. I could see every line in his face, now. His other hand was in his lap and on it he wore many rings. He stood me up and he opened his mouth and he said to me, “Your friend lived a good life.”
I realize now that the man did not know what he was saying. But in that moment I could not stop myself from hitting him as hard as I could so that I felt his face crack and it wasn’t until he struck the floor that people started looking at me.