A whistle blew, and the train doors started closing.
Mark had been leaning out the doors, trying to get a few last words in. As they closed, he hurried into the passenger compartment and slid into a seat by the window. He pressed his head against the glass. Sabrina was still standing there on the platform. All dressed up like she was going to a party or some fancy event. But, no, she’d put on that outfit just to take him to the train station.
Then the train began to move and the platform slipped away. The tracks went in a long curve that let him look back at the shrinking figure still there on the platform. Until trees along the train tracks finally obscured the view.
He was going home. The weekend visit with Sabrina was over.
Sabrina and Mark were both in their late 20’s and good friends who now lived in different cities, a couple hours apart by train. A few times a year one of them would travel to the other for a weekend. Just to spend time together. To catch up. To keep the friendship fresh.
Last Friday was another one of those getting-together weekends. He arrived by train towards evening, yet still too early for her to be off work. So he waited for her in a park near the train station.
It wasn’t long before she came walking toward him. They hugged like they always did. To Mark it was instantly as if no time at all had passed since he last saw Sabrina. Certainly that was how it felt as they walked to get a pizza, already eagerly talking and catching up on everything.
Mark smiled at the memory. There were plenty of people where, when he met them again, after that initial “How are you?” and a bit of catching up, things always went to silence. No, not just silence, but awkward silence. Because they’d already run out of things to say or connect about. It was never like that with Sabrina.
Last Friday proved the point. They picked up a pizza and ambled down to the riverwalk. Seated on a bench, with the river panorama in front of them, they enjoyed their meal together. The day had been warm and even though it was already fall, it was very comfortable outside..
The back and forth of the conversation only stopped long enough for them to finish the pizza. They continued talking in the car on the way to her place. The more they talked, the more there seemed to be to talk about. To laugh about. To share.
In short, it was just like any other time they got together. Familiar and comfortable. Instant reconnection.
They were proof that guys and gals can be friends. They’d known each other forever. Or at least 6 or 7 years. When they met, they lived in the same city. Then life happened and they were now in different locations, working on establishing themselves on career tracks and life.
There was that one time, when they’d enjoyed a bottle or two of wine maybe a bit too much and it was getting really late. As he recalled it was after she’d recently broken up with a boyfriend. He hadn’t felt so great about life either.
As the evening went on and the wine went down, they both waxed introspective and pondered, as only 20-somethings can, what their lives would be when they turned ancient at the age of 40.
Neither of them could later remember who said it first:
“If we both get to 40 and are not married by then, do let’s get married. Because clearly nobody should grow old alone.”
They both laughed and agreed that was a splendid idea. Then they finished the bottle and nothing more was said, then or at any time later, about this splendid idea.
They just went on being friends. About 2 hours apart by train.
The train had now left her city far behind and sped into a darkening evening that would be night by the time it got to Mark’s station. He leaned his head against the cool glass of the window, feeling the low-frequency vibrations from the train. It was somehow soothing.
The train slowed down and stopped in a small town somewhere along the line. A few people got on. A few got off. He watched a couple girls make their way from the train to the station exit. Laughing and happy. Clearly their day in the city had been a good one.
Saturday had been good too. Different, but good. He and Sabrina did friend-things: Explored the farmer’s market. Went hiking along a rail-trail. Did some shopping downtown.
They also had a heart-to-heart about their futures. It started with him telling her about the big change coming in his life:
“They’re closing operations in my city. Of course offering us all to relocate to the mothership. Which will mean I’ll be a good 8-10 hours away by train from friends and family.”
“So what are you thinking of doing?” She looked at him with genuine empathy. “I mean, that’s a tough decision. You’ve worked hard to get established and now they want you to move that far away just to keep your job. Wow.” She was silent for a moment. “I’m not sure I could do that. … But then … you’ve spent a lot of effort to get where you’re at, for quite a while. Giving that up would be so…” Her voice trailed off into quietness.
He nodded. “I started to put out feelers about other jobs in my field. But they’re closing the entire office. If it was just me, I’m sure I could find something comparable in the area before too long. But the entire office. That’s a lot of us who’ll be competing for the same jobs at the same time.”
Again they both quietly reflected for a while.
“So I really don’t know.” He turned towards her. “You know, you’re really the first person I’m talking with about this. Haven’t even told my parents yet. I know they’ll be disappointed if I’m that far away. Especially after my sister and her husband moved even farther away last year. And I would miss it too. So nice to be able to pop over for a visit.”
Mark on the train mentally reviewed that conversation. He hadn’t said anything to her about those 8-10 hours being in the opposite direction from her city. So he’d be 8-10 hours plus another 2+ hours away from her. That would definitely limit how often they got together like this.
He could see how that would play out. A solid friendship becoming more sporadic because they wouldn’t — couldn’t — see each other as much. There’s after all a big difference between being 2 hours away and 10 or 12 hours away. Between seeing each other in person several times a year to maybe once, if all went well. Possibly not at all.
But now he wondered why he hadn’t said anything about all that. Or why she hadn’t asked. Maybe he overestimated the value of their getting together every so often. Or the depth of their friendship
The darkening world rushing by outside the window offered no answer.
They were walking along a newly opened rail trail. She’d been uncharacteristically quiet for a few minutes.
“You’re not the only one dealing with change,” she finally said. “I heard the other day that there’s some question about continued funding for the hospital for the research project I’m working on.”
“So it might go away? Earlier than planned?”
She nodded. “Something like they’d pull the plug on us and pass our work on to some other university hospital or even private company to continue, or in the case of private company, likely bury.”
“How would that affect you? Will you still have a job?”
She shook her head. “That’s the thing. I should still have a job. But then again, maybe not. Because they’re shaking things up. I really don’t know what will happen if the research funding goes away before the project is complete.”
“Surely you could find something else in your line?”
“Probably. Maybe. But the thing is, I’m doing what I’m doing because I really like it. I don’t want to work on something just for a paycheck.”
That evening he went with her to a party. A group of her friends gathered at somebody’s house to celebrate somebody else’s birthday. It felt a little odd to pop into this group of people she knew so well and was entirely at ease with. But at the same time, he was glad that she did include him with her local friends. It would have been all too easy to keep her friendship with him an entirely separate thing from the friends she was around all the time. Because she’d included him before, he knew a few people at the party.
There were even a couple guys in the group who like him worked with data management. He enjoyed catching up with them and finding out what was going on in their part of the universe. As they were chatting, the thought came to him, however briefly, to say something about looking at a job change. Maybe they knew of some openings around here. But he refrained. Because as innocent as that might be, it might also seem to signal something unintended. Definitely not the thing to do, at least not without first talking with Sabrina about it. She’d also know what their situation was.
Even so, later that night, as he was bedded down on Sabrina’s couch, waiting in the dark for sleep to come, he pondered that this was a pretty nice area. He could get used to living here. It would sure beat being 10 hours away. If there was a job opportunity around here.
The train stopped at yet another station. Mark wondered what it would be like living in one of the towns the train went through. People going about their business, day in and day out. Some of them leaving on the train. A few getting off.
He didn’t really want to move. He liked it where he lived. Had a good circle of friends. Was part of a good church community. Life was settled. But it was about to be unsettled. Because his job was going away. The thought of starting from scratch, in a place where he knew nobody and nobody knew him wasn’t that appealing. Oh, it could be done. Of course, but it wasn’t what he was looking for at this point. He wanted to build deeper relationships. Put down roots. Not move and start over.
Dating hadn’t gone anywhere serious for Mark. After college, there was a long dating relationship that eventually fizzled out. Then more recently some shorter relationships. None that got terribly deep before going off to nowhere. And his share of first dates that ended with “Thanks for a nice evening.” ‘Nice’ being the kiss of death for a first date.
He sometimes wondered if Sabrina was having any more luck in that department. If she was, she wasn’t telling him. And he didn’t ask. That was about the only area they really didn’t talk about. Sure he’d known about it when she dated a guy for a couple years. He’d even met him one time. But that was it. So there was one area their friendship didn’t go.
Sunday morning they went to her church. As usual Mark noticed that some of the married ladies paid extra attention when he came in with Sabrina and they sat down together. To those close by where they sat down, she simply introduced him as her friend Mark. But he gathered from those second looks that at least some people recognized having seen him before with Sabrina. Then again, married women always seemed to want to pair off young adults.
It did make him wonder a bit when he noticed a couple guys his age looking at him and Sabrina both two and three times. Did they maybe perceive a competition?
In the car, on the way back to Sabrina’s place, he mentioned it:
“I kind of noticed that a couple of the guys did a double or triple take when they saw me with you in church today. Me thinks maybe at least one of them is interested in you.”
“Yeah, well, that might be.” Sabrina shrugged her shoulders. “They’re nice guys and all. But…” Her voice trailed off. Mark waited for her to add something more of explanation, but she didn’t and eventually the subject changed.
They had a great lunch together at a hole-in-the-wall barbecue place and the subjects of guys at church or anywhere else or dating in general never came back up.
Sabrina was all focused on needing to spend much, if not all, of the afternoon preparing a presentation connected with the research project. Mark was disappointed, because later in the evening he’d be getting on the train to go home. So this was their last afternoon together. Until they met again, whenever that would be. And she’d end up spending it pouring over reports and what not at her kitchen table. Good thing he’d brought a book.
“You know,” he said after a while. “I could just get a cab or something to the train station. You don’t have to stop what you’re doing to take me tonight. That way you might actually be able to get to bed and catch some shut eye. You know, so you can be a human being when you give that presentation tomorrow.”
She wouldn’t have it.
“Mark, don’t be silly. I will take you. Of course I will take you. What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t?”
“A sane one, with a lot on her plate tonight.” He looked straight at her. “Really don’t see that how I get to the station it would change anything about us being friends.”
There was a brief pause.
“We’re always friends,” he continued. “No matter what.”
“Then that settles it.” She gave him that raised eyebrow smile that only she did. “I’m taking you to the train.”
“But that’s at least an hour. Probably more. That you could be working on the presentation.”
“Which this conversation is keeping me from getting to.” With that she started to get up from the table. He followed her. Obviously further discussion was useless.
On the train, Mark reluctantly pondered the afternoon of just a few hours earlier. He conceded to himself that it wasn’t his finest moment. Because it had hurt that she’d planned things so that she needed to work on the presentation while he was there. Something which had been scheduled weeks ago. Surely she could have used evenings earlier in the week to get it done. That’s what he would have done if he’d been expecting her to visit. Or any guest for that matter.
But after some more pondering, his feelings softened. Her job was in danger. Just as much as his. So would he really have acted differently in her shoes? He had to admit that he probably wouldn’t. Which is why he’d offered to make dinner for them. So she could keep working. And she hadn’t said no, but let him do his thing in her fridge and kitchen.
They sat in the living room to eat dinner, since the kitchen table was still covered with her books and papers. Halfway through the improvised and somewhat eclectic meal, she looked at him.
“I am impressed with what you came up with. I didn’t get to the store like I’d planned before you came. I’ve been working on this presentation every spare moment the last week.”
“You’re welcome. I know you’re pushing hard to pull this together and if it can help keep the research project going, then you need to give it its best shot.”
“Thanks.” She put a hand on his. “I really appreciate your understanding and encouragement this afternoon.”
She gestured at their emptying plates. “This was just a really nice treat — to not have to worry about food.”
She didn’t complain when he did the dishes after they were done eating.
The time had come. He was all packed. Ready to go.
“Are you sure you want to take the time?” he asked. “I could still call a ride.”
“Not happening.” She got up from the table and headed off to her bedroom. “I’ll be back in a few.”
A few minutes later she was indeed back. Transformed. Dressed up. Skirt, boots, very nice top. Ready to go places.
“Wow. You look great.” The words just slipped out before he even had time to think.
“Thanks. Ready to head out to the car?”
They drove to the train station. The entire way in lively conversation. If the afternoon had been quiet, they were making up for it now. And then some.
“If this grant funding dries up, I really don’t know what I’ll do,” she said. “This is truly what I enjoy doing. Not sure I want to go back to the way things were before.”
“I understand. Plus, things don’t ever go back to the way they were before, do they?”
“That’s it. They don’t. Things are said and can’t be unsaid.”
When they got to the train station, he was surprised that she didn’t pull up in front of the entrance to drop him off, but instead headed for a parking spot across the street. He started to protest, but she cut him off:
“I’m coming in with you.”
All parked and unloaded, they headed into the train station and out on the platform where his train would soon come in. All the while keeping the conversation going.
“Sabrina, I watch you do your work. You’re good. You’re focused. If this project falls apart, there will be others. It might get crazy for a while, but you’ll be okay.”
“Thanks.” She quickly turned away to look down the track. He thought he’d seen tears coming on. So this wasn’t just hypothetical. She might be in a very different place the next time they met. As might he.
Far out there, they could see the headlights of the approaching train.
“Of course you’re one to talk,” she said after a minute as she turned back toward him. “Your world could change every bit as much. Who knows where you’ll be a couple months from now.”
The train was coming in to the platform. As always, it felt to him like it was going way too fast. Like it was going to overshoot the platform and leave him and everyone else behind. Which at this point wouldn’t be so bad. Because he wouldn’t have to finally say goodbye to Sabrina. They’d talked nonstop the entire way here and still it didn’t seem like they were anywhere near finished.
But the train stopped. Just as he was about to head towards an open train door, Sabrina grabbed his arm.
“I saw you talking to Thomas and Jeremy last night at the party.”
She doesn’t miss a thing, he thought. The data guys. But why bring that up now?
“Did they have any ideas for you?”
“I didn’t …” But this was not the moment to dive into all the reasons for why he hadn’t mentioned his job search to them last night. He had to get on that train. Which meant saying goodbye.
They hugged. How long is too long for hugging a friend? he asked himself. But right now he didn’t care. He started to let go and then hugged her again.
“Have a safe trip.”
“Thanks. You go floor them with the presentation.”
“Thanks for coming.” She looked at him, very close. “Last Thursday, I almost called you to ask you not to come. I’m glad you came.”
“Thanks. Always glad to spend time with you.”
He headed towards the train door and once in the train car, turned around and leaned out. She was right there, eyes on him.
“We’ll talk soon.”
And now he was on the train headed home. The weekend was over. He’d relived most of it in his memory.
Just one thing remained: He hadn’t figured out the whole dressing up to take him to the train station thing. Or was there something more to it?
Maybe she wasn’t going back home after his train left. Maybe she was going somewhere you’d dress up like that for. A party. An event. Something she hadn’t chosen to tell him about. After all, they didn’t talk about every single thing going on in their lives. Good friends, yes, but even so, many things they didn’t talk about with each other. Like dating.
Hadn’t he seen her talking with some of her girlfriends last night and caught a few words here and there before they dragged her off to speak without being overheard? Something about “you have to come”, “it’ll be spectacular” and somebody “will be there”.
Was he starting to get jealous? It was back to that feeling of how she’d put him on hold while he was there so she could work on her presentation and now that he’d left, she was off to hang out with friends he knew nothing about. Such of course is the nature of being long-distance friends. There are huge parts of each others’ lives you know nothing about. Or at least very little.
He looked at his phone. He could send her a text. Thank her for the weekend. If she really was at home, she’d respond pretty quickly. If at a party, probably not at all. Of course it might also feel to her like he was checking up on her. Making sure she really did go home.
In the end he decided texting her now was a bad idea all around.
If she had indeed chosen to go to a party or some other event, that was her business. They were friends. Didn’t control each other’s lives.
It had been a good visit. He should just leave it at that. There were friends. They would remain friends.
Besides, he might be moving far away in just a few months. Not exactly the ideal time to pursue a relationship
He looked out into the darkness swooshing by. But his mind was still stuck on why she’d dressed up to take him to the train station. She really hadn’t needed to change from what she’d worn all afternoon at all. Not for a quick drive to the train station. And if she felt the need to change, she’d definitely overdressed for going to the station.
One part of his brain wanted to kick himself. Apply Occam’s razor, you dummy. What’s the less convoluted explanation?
What if she dressed up and took you to the train and stayed until the train left precisely because she wanted to? What if she did it for you?
Because she was saying something by action that she hasn’t said in so many words. That she really does care.
Maybe even that she likes you. Or something more. But is not ready to say that because that’s goes beyond being friends. And like she did say earlier today, once you say the words, any words, you can’t unsay them. Being friends can be a comfortable state with lots of latitude. Because friendships come in all sizes and shapes. Then at certain points there’s that fear of overstepping. Of trying to take what is not ready to the next level. Because if you do and it’s too far, it’s next to impossible then to go back to being friends, close or casual. She’d said as much back at her place, right before they left: “Things are said and can’t be unsaid.”
You idiot. All of a sudden he felt that he had totally blown something tonight. Had missed on cues that should have been obvious.
She sent you a message, you idiot, and you didn’t even remotely catch on.
The dark outside the window kept rushing by.
So what do I do now? Or do I do anything?
Those questions kept coming back to him.
If this was some romantic movie, he thought, I would of course have caught on and never gotten on the train. Or if I’d gotten on the train, I would have stepped off at the next station to catch a train back. Which made him wonder if there even was a train heading the other direction tonight. He guessed there probably was. But where to get off to be certain to catch it?
And how to explain when he showed up at her door late in the evening? Totally unexpected.
Yeah, that’s if my life was a movie. But this is me and real life.
He stayed on the train.
The train got in to the station in Mark’s town right on time. It was long after sunset and getting a bit chilly as he walked home from the station. But he needed that cool air to clear out his spinning head.
His apartment was exactly like he’d left it just a few days earlier. He dumped his stuff down inside the door and dropped himself down on the couch. He sat there for a long while, just staring at his phone.
Then he started to compose a text message:
‘Made it home okay. Thanks again for a wonderful weekend. Always great to see you.’
Then he waited. In the dark. He nodded off after a while. Woke up and looked at the phone. Nothing yet.
He decided to go get something to drink when the phone chirped.
‘Up to my eyeballs in the project stuff. Saw your text just now. Thanks for coming. Always great to see you too.’
He looked at those lines of text. Encouraging. But kind of neutral. Certainly not gushy. No ‘can’t wait until next time.’
He started to type something back and changed his mind. Erased. The started again. Got up and walked around the apartment. Why was this so hard? Just a simple text.
The phone screen glared at him.
He erased what he’d typed and stared again:
‘I was thinking. We did a lot of talking today. But feels like it wasn’t finished. Like there’s more to say.’
Hit send. The waiting.
A couple minutes went by. Then her response popped up:
‘We did talk. And there’s a lot to talk about. I value your thoughts.’
This was the moment. Sink or swim. Things that are said can’t be unsaid.
‘So I was thinking I could come back over to see you next weekend. So we can continue the conversation.’
What if she comes back with that a phone call will be enough?
‘Can you do that? That’s a lot of travel for you.’
On an impulse he swiped the text app off and stopped with his finger hovering over the phone icon.
Then almost without him willing it, his finger pushed the listing for her phone number. There was silence and then her voice:
“Tired of typing?”
Before he could change his mind or get cold feet, he blurted it out:
“Would it be okay if I come over again next weekend? Just feel like there’s so much going on that we just started to talk about.”
There was silence for a moment.
“Yes, I would like that.” She paused for a second. Then continued: “Thanks for being there for me. I’ll definitely pick you up from the train next weekend.”
Long after they’d hung up so she could get back to the presentation and eventually bed, he sat there in his dark livingroom. With just a few words, the world had changed.