The long distance train sped through miles of suburbs towards downtown. Fields and occasional woods that accompanied the railroad earlier on had given way to streets and houses, interspersed with trees, spreading out as far as he could see. The train rushed along, elevated on an embankment, now and then crossing a street on a thundering steel bridge. Down there people were coming and going, doing life like any other day.
For Michael, this was not any other day. To be sure, he was regularly on trains or planes, traveling for work. Because there was always another consulting job in another town.
He was headed to one of those assignments. In another city, tomorrow. But today, he’d stop here, in this city.
As the train got closer to the main train station, he felt oddly excited. He’d boarded early this morning, barely awake, having skipped breakfast to make it to the station on time.
Now, after few naps and brunch in the dining car, he was looking forward to being back in this metropolis where he once lived. Plus, when he stepped off the train there, he’d meet Jody. They hadn’t seen each other in ages. And the last time had gone spectacularly badly.
After that disaster, he never thought he’d see her face to face again. Parting was the culmination of a slow burn of growing apart. Like two trains heading down the same track. One after the other. Then at some point a switch is thrown and one train goes on a track veering to the left and the other veers to the right. Never to be on the same track again. Seemingly without losing any momentum.
If they had just slowed down back then.
There had been a day when it was abundantly clear to him that for all the things they had in common and that used to draw them together, there were other things, maybe bigger, that pushed them apart. What he wanted out of life wasn’t what she wanted. And vice versa. Their once converging paths would not converge again. And so the moment was gone.
Going their separate ways had been painful. He moved away. Given his on-the-road career, that had been easy enough. But still painful. Though through it all, he wished her well. No animosity.
Then life got busy. Years went by. They’d reconnected by total serendipity. Then kept in touch. Now that he was traveling through the area, they were going to meet in person again.
She would be at the train station. He looked forward to it. Not like you look forward to some high school reunion where it’s mostly about connecting with folks you’ve hardly seen since the last one, to impress them with all your accomplishments. No, he was truly interested in how she was doing and what she was up to now.
Once they shared dreams and hopes for the future. He was curious how some of those might have played out for her. A few had come true for him. Only in quite different ways than he’d thought at the time.
He leaned his head against the window pane, watching houses rushing by out there. Downtown was coming closer.
The game plan was simple: He’d engineered a long layover before catching his next train. He could have made a convenient connection, with little waiting time. Instead he’d opted for the last train of the day that would get him to his ultimate destination at something like 0 dark 30.
Having this ample, but limited, time in the city, provided a sense of security. He felt there were basically 3 ways the afternoon might play out:
He and Jody would spend the afternoon together catching up. Then he’d get on the train this evening and continue on. They’d keep in touch as they had recently. Safe, nice.
Or it would soon enough be painfully clear that there were very good reasons for why they’d drifted apart and stopped keeping in touch. In which case, there was always the option of taking an earlier train. Painful.
Finally there was the option that she might not show up. In which case he wasn’t at all sure what to do. Most likely catch an earlier train and go on, chalking this one up to experience. Confusing.
But he had options. Which gave him confidence ahead of the meeting.
Not like he was avoiding his responsibility for how things had fallen apart so badly back then. He planned to speak with her in some manner about that. Ask her forgiveness. Just not sure at all how to bring it up. Because it would totally not be cool to have today end with an explosion.
At the same time he didn’t want to just pretend. Not be all chitchatty. Like when you run into someone you’re not close to and spend a little time together and then go away, having never gone even one inch below the surface. Not like that.
The train tracks were by now joined by others. He watched a local train, full of people, on a parallel course, overtake the long distance train. Everyone on the other train seemingly busy with their phones, papers, books or whatever. Each in their own world. Or talking to someone near them.
Approaches to major rail terminals always amazed him. This complete maze of tracks, with connections that seemed to allow any train coming from anywhere to get to any platform, without interfering with the others.
His train had now caught up with the local train that was slowing down. The tracks they were on edged ever closer together. The people in the other train were all totally unconcerned, but Michael couldn’t help starting to brace for what seemed like an inevitable sideswipe when the two trains must soon collide.
They didn’t though. The intercity train now pulled ahead of the local train and he wondered if maybe Jody was on that other train. She had to take a train, he assumed, to get downtown. She didn’t live down here.
It also struck him that he had no idea what she might expect from this encounter.
When setting up a meeting, he always asked clients the same question: What would be a win for you from our time together? That would make the time and effort worth it for you? Worked great and helped get things focused. He hadn’t asked her that question though.
But he still wondered what her answer might be. For him, it would be worth it just to see her and know she was doing well.
What about rebuilding their connection to more than the casual friendship they had now? Their lives had been on separate trajectories for so long, it didn’t seem possible to build any kind of close connection out of it.
To think that would be like birthday parties when he was a kid. The night before he’d imagine how things would go. If the long-haired girl would come. Exactly what everyone would say. And do. How absolutely perfectly things would go. What a wonderful time they’d all have.
Then the actual party happened. Sometimes the long-haired girl came. Sometimes not. The parties generally were fun enough. Everyone had a good time. But pretty much nothing went the way he’d imagined. Because people have this habit of not behaving like you envision. That was a major shock when he was in 2nd or 3rd grade. After all, you don’t have much life experience then. It was no surprise to him as an adult.
How did the line from Princess Bride go? “Get used to disappointment.” Life was full of disappointments. Missed opportunities. Things that didn’t work out as planned. And yet, he had a good life. He was doing okay.
The train was coming in to the platforms now. As he stood up and grabbed his backpack and suitcase, he resolved that this would be a pleasant afternoon. Then he’d be on another train this evening. They’d keep in touch off and on like before. And that would be that. Quite simple.
He shuffled his way out of the train car with all the other passengers. There was a throng of people on the platform. Passengers just off the train and people who were there to meet them. People greeting each other and then together heading for the stairs down to the passageway under the tracks. Out to the main hall. Where he and Jody had agreed to meet at the info kiosk.
He hadn’t been here in forever, but things were still familiar. Plus, if he was in any doubt, everyone seemed headed to the main hall and from there through one of the exits into the streets and the city. Simple.
The passageway opened under a mezzanine level, meaning that at the edge of the bigger space, he had a great view of everything going on there, while somebody in the middle of the room might not see him in the shadows.
His eyes fixated on the info kiosk in the center of the hall. Several people were standing or moving around it. But he didn’t see her. Doubt struck him. Maybe he wouldn’t recognize her. True, he’d seen photos. But maybe he still wouldn’t recognize her across the room. Wouldn’t that be weird?
He thought about staying back here. Sometimes when meeting somebody, he’d position himself off to the side, rather than stand in the agreed-upon spot. To see without being seen. He supposed it came from reading too many Cold War spy novels.
It also always felt oddly conspicuous to stand in the middle of an open space, just waiting. What are you supposed to do with yourself?
But staying off to the side wasn’t a good plan today. Because what if she came, didn’t see him at the info kiosk from a distance and turned around and left?
For a brief moment it struck him that maybe this whole thing was better left in the land of “what if” and email. In which case the thing to do was to go back up on the platform, find the next train out and just be done. Never come back.
Except he had come this far. No turning back now. Time to go see her.
So he walked out into the main hall, circling the info kiosk. Because if this was a movie, they’d end up standing on opposite sides waiting, then moving around in the same direction, still not finding each other. Not going to let that happen.
But she wasn’t there. He finally just stood still, looking at the exit doors to the city. A steady stream of people coming and going.
It took a second to register. Someone calling his name. He turned around just in time to see a throng of people coming out of the passageway under the tracks. A local train must have just come in. She was in front, moving quickly towards him.
He hadn’t been able to figure out how to actually do that moment of meeting again: How do you greet each other? Polite handshake? Wave from a few feet apart? Stand and stare awkwardly at each other? Who speaks first? And what would he actually say?
Not too much pondering when it came down to it. She was right there. Waving at him already.
Then they were hugging.
“So glad to see you,” he heard himself saying.
They let go of the embrace and were looking at each other.
“It’s good to see you. Welcome.” she said, her hand lingering on his backpack.
Yes, it was definitely the right thing to come and he was glad he was there. No matter how the rest of the day might turn out.
“So how have you been? How was your trip?”
“Good. I came in right on time.” He shuffled his luggage. “I assume there’s are lockers or something around here?”
“Sure. This way.” She started off across the big hall.
He caught up with her.
“Where’s a good place to go hang out for bit around here?”
“I know a place on the river. The lockers will be on the way.”
They were standing on the river promenade. On the way, they’d picked up some refreshments in a small café housed in an old industrial building. Right below them was a low dam where water incessantly streamed over the edge, crashing into a maelstrom of water and foam. A turbulent flow continued onwards down the river, in the direction they were slowly walking.
Coming over here had been all about catching up. A barrage of nonstop conversation. All of a sudden he had remembered how much and how fast she talked. It was one of the things he’d liked about her way back. Never at a loss for words. Always knew how to express herself. Usually with grace, but making her point.
She wanted to hear all about where he was going from here, when he got back on the train tonight. Soon he’d detailed out his entire schedule for this trip and the next month or two. Which was all pretty much non-stop travel.
Now that he explained all that, it didn’t seem glamorous at all. Rather draining, actually.
He decided to shift the focus. He had to get this in.
“There’s something I need to say.” He shuffled and leaned on the railing that separated them from the rapid river.
She looked at him with a slight frown, but didn’t say anything.
“Jody, way back, when we went our separate ways…” He got quiet, not at all sure how to complete the sentence. He finally shook his head. “I know I hurt you back then. I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?”
She raised an eyebrow just a little. Sort of a quizzical thing.
“Is that why you came here today?”
“In part. Things shouldn’t have ended the way they did. Regardless of us each going our own way. I didn’t handle things well.”
She gave a quick smile.
“No, I suppose you didn’t. But I was not a very thoughtful person back then either.” She started walking along the path. “Quite focused on me and my plans. Screwed up a number of things rather big time.”
“Still, that didn’t justify my behavior.”
“Suppose not.” She turned to face him. “I forgive you.”
“Thank you.” He really did feel the load he hadn’t even been aware of carrying disappear.
“That makes it my turn then.” She stopped right in front of him. “I wasn’t being honest with you back then. Or myself. Will you please forgive me?”
“I will and I do.”
Spontaneously they both stepped forward and hugged.
Once they were facing each other again, he looked her straight in the eyes.
“Thanks for clearing the air.”
They were farther down along the riverwalk and the waters were decidedly calmer here.
“So what’s next for you?”
“How long do you have?” she laughed.
“I’m listening,” he said in his best imitation of Frasier Crane. “Except, I’ll actually pay attention.”
She smiled and told him about working downtown for a long time. Forever was her word of choice. Corner office on the 20th floor. How she enjoyed being around the city with all its opportunities. Except so many days when done with work, all she wanted to do was go home. The kids were now grown and off to college and work.
“I’m at a point where I can really do what I want, live anywhere I want and not have to worry about anyone else.
She walked silently for a moment.
“I did the rat race for too long. I was good at it. But it cost. Which is why I’m not married any longer.”
“I’m sorry,” he said automatically.
She did a resigned shoulder shrug.
“Yeah, it wasn’t the plan. But it happened.” She looked up. “It’s in the past now.”
She stopped at the railing, looking out over the water.
“You know what I really want to do?” She turned to face him. “I’ve always wanted a big garden. I’d love an acreage. Maybe do truck gardening.”
He gave her a quizzical look. That was quite a change from a 20th floor corner office.
“Somewhere out in the far suburbs. Countryside, but close enough to town that people come out there. I could keep a few horses. So many girls want to go riding. You could make a good business out of that.”
They watched a couple swans and a cluster of ducks out on the river.
“So where will you be 5 years from now? She turned her head and watched for his answer.
“Good question.” He really wasn’t sure what his next words would be. And yet they came. They’d made it a good number of blocks further along the river by the time he realized that he was telling her plans and thoughts he’d barely formulated to herself. Talking with her was like thinking out loud. Any other place that could be decidedly career limiting. But he felt it was safe here and now.
He did corporate consulting. Management strategy. Futuring. Anticipating the next big thing before it was a thing. Sometimes he got it right. Enough that he was in demand.
So many people he met congratulated him on having a dream job. All that travel. Enough frequent flyer miles he could go anywhere in the world, assuming he’d ever take a vacation. Because that was the thing. He was gone all the time. Missed out on so much. And he was still trying to sort out pieces, because he felt it was all about to come crumbling down.
One reason he’d taken the train on this business trip was of course to make the stop here to see her, but also to have time to himself. To think. To sort out who he was. What he wanted. What his next big thing was.
When he realized he’d just told her all this, he clammed up. Surely that was crossing some line. It made him sound so needy. So not in control.
He stopped on the path. She turned around to face him, with a look of genuine concern.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have… I didn’t mean to dump all that on you.”
She made a move as if to reach out and touch him. He stepped back.
“I didn’t come here to…”
“Didn’t come here to what?” she asked quietly.
He shook his head.
“I don’t know. It’s just… been really busy lately.” He caught himself. “Okay, forever. I think this trip was one too much.”
“Or maybe just the right thing.” She walked a few steps up ahead and motioned for him to come. “Maybe we’re not so different after all. We’re both really good at what we do. But possibly that’s not what you or I should be doing at this point in life.”
He wasn’t at all sure how to respond to that one. She wasn’t quite done though.
“With all that futuring you do, do you just tell clients where the puck is going to be or do you actually help them skate to meet it?”
As all afternoons do, this too had to end. They were back at the train station for him to catch his train. Walking up the stairs to the platform, lugging his backpack and suitcase, he felt oddly sad. It had been a really good afternoon. He was very glad he’d come. And sad to leave already.
A loudspeaker crackled and a mostly intelligible voice announced that the intercity train was about to come in. Please stand back on track 3.
He turned to her.
“Thanks for taking the time today. It was good to see you again.”
“Likewise.” She smiled at him. “Thanks for coming.”
He looked down the still empty track and then faced her.
“I’m going to say Goodbye now, because when the train comes it, it will be chaos.” He nodded at all the other people there waiting for the train.
“You mean they won’t hold the train for you to say a long and heartfelt Goodbye?”
“Only in the movies.”
He gave her a big, long hug.
“Take care of you.” He held her close. “It was so good to see you again.”
“You already said that,” she noted as they were again looking at each other. “But it was good. Really good.”
“So you’ll be plenty busy the rest of the trip?” It was more a statement than a question. Clearly her way of changing the subject. He was glad. Things were getting rather emotional. If the train had been at the platform now, this might be when he would have bolted, jumping on through the nearest door.
They stood in silence for a minute, both looking down that track. Headlights were now appearing out there, coming steadily closer.
“Looks like that’s it,” he observed. “It’s okay if you go now.”
“Nah, I want to watch you get on that train.”
The backpack was slung over his shoulder. He grabbed his suitcase. He was ready to go as soon as the train, now rushing along the platform, finally stopped. Somehow they always seemed to come in way too fast, like they’d just keep rolling and never stop. But it did stop. Doors opened and people were getting off. New arrivals in the city.
“Okay, time to leave,” he said. Because there was nothing witty left to say.
They ran along the train to find the right car for him to board. At the door, they stopped.
One last, quick hug and he turned to board the train. An older couple beat him to it and were now maneuvering their suitcases on board. This could be a while.
He turned to face Jody one last time.
“I hope we can catch up again. Soon. I’ll have to figure out an excuse to come back this way.”
“You do that. You know where I am now.” She immediately turned around and headed towards the stairs to the passageway.
He looked after her. Then at the older couple still pushing and shoving on their suitcases.
The train was going to leave any moment.
Jody was at the top of the stairs now.
Suddenly he was walking. Not around the older couple, towards the next door, but towards the stairs.
“Jody, would you pick a place for dinner?” He shouted, hoping she’d hear in spite of all the noise. “I mean real dinner. Like a date!”
A whistle blew. At this point, if she turned him down, he’d be stuck here. Glancing back, he saw a conductor grab the old couple’s last suitcase, heaving it into the vestibule. Then stepping into the door opening, looking down the length of the train, while pressing the button that closed all the doors. Except the one he was standing in.
“Jody.” Clearly she hadn’t heard him. Or where had she gone? He didn’t see her.
Then she was there. Right in front of him.
“What the… You’re missing your train!”
“I know,” Michael said. “But will you have dinner with me tonight?”
The conductor stood aside enough to let a lone straggler, who had just come tearing up the stairs, make a desperate dash into the train car. Then he stretched out his arm and waved. As the train started rolling, the conductor stepped into the train car and closed the door behind him.
Jody looked at Michael, one eyebrow raised.
“What on earth are you doing?”
“Taking you to dinner, if you’ll let me.” He put down his suitcase. “I can rework things. I’ll make a call now. Get a hotel tonight and take a train first thing in the morning.”
She gave him a look of amused bewilderment and he was certain he’d just done the stupidest thing ever.
Then she did that corner-of-the-mouth tiny smile she sometimes did. Mostly when she felt really clever.
“Well, I do happen to know a quite nice little restaurant by the river.”