Through the window of a train

city-life.through-the-window-of-a-train.IMG_7206by Stacey Warde

Mom called me once to ask if I’d like to come to a party she wanted to throw for a bunch of old pals. She called it a “Geezer Gathering,” made up of high school friends from more than 50 years ago.

“No, not really, mom. That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun,” I told her.

“Well, would you consider coming down to help me set up?”

“OK, sure, mom. I’ll go to your geezer gathering.”

So, I jumped on the train for a six and one-half hour journey along the rickety Amtrak rail to the Santa Ana station, not far from mom’s old Victorian home in Tustin where I grew up and where she planned to have her party. I’m closing on the geezer range myself; mom was just 17 when I was born. I had plenty to ponder as I got on board the train.

The ride along the pristine California coastline that morning was hypnotic, the noise of the train and chatter of passengers muffled by a modern remake of “The Music of Thelonious Monk” jangling through the ear buds plugged into my laptop. It’s heavenly to turn off the world like that, listen to music, drink coffee and peer out the window of a fast moving train.

Even with this technology at my fingertips, however, a laptop at my disposal, I felt “old school.” No tablet, no smart phone, no iPad, just a clunky old laptop and cheap cell phone with pay-as-you-go service. No special features anywhere on my person—unless you’re looking for something non-digital.

The train is generally a good ride, if for no other reason than you don’t have to worry about driving through LA traffic or paying for gas, the view is nice, and it’s easy to tune out the world if you like, indulge in a book, bury yourself in a story, become an obsessive-compulsive thumber, texting nonsense to anyone who will pay attention, or simply take a nap over the hum of the rails.

That day, however, I ignored the passengers as much as possible. I didn’t feel like being social, even though I’m generally a social person and was feeling a touch lonely. Things hadn’t been going so well at home. I needed to get away and so this trip was a welcome diversion from my dysfunctional life.

A cute but annoying little girl swung her legs in the aisle, supporting herself on the seats in front of me, pushing up with her hands, lifting her weight and swinging her legs back and forth. Her grandma ate donut holes and peered at the rugged coastal terrain through the window, paying little attention to the girl. Close they were, but occupying two completely different worlds, I thought.

For some reason, the view from the train that morning evoked a nostalgic kind of hope, the sort of hope I knew and indulged more as a younger man, when the world seemed larger, filled with new and endless possibilities. Wispy clouds turned pink in the distance and the morning light grew bolder, another day of promise rising with the sun. Back in the day, I’d see opportunity everywhere I looked.

As I get older, I’m sadly learning, the possibilities seem to get narrower, and less inviting. I’ve noticed how much more difficult it is for older, boomer types like myself to get too hopeful, especially now with the economy as doubtful and uncertain as it ever was, but even more so as we turn gray and decrepit.

But that day, if it’s not hope that I felt, there was at least the suggestion of something like hope, a mystery, anyhow, that wasn’t shrouded and foreboding but perhaps even gleaming, putting a different—if not new—light on things. I couldn’t put my finger on it. But I knew things were changing. Perhaps it had something to do with breaking up my routine, the sense that I could not go on like I had been, feeling depressed and trapped. What it was, I did not know. Or maybe it was how the light played through the shimmer of gray marine layer hugging the coastal line as the train turned heavily toward the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific, under the glare of light and thick marine layer, summer grey and wet, popped in and out of view through the train window as we rolled further south, stopping momentarily at the Lompoc station, the misty morning holding down the coastline under a white blanket of timelessness. It’s hard to tell time in this coastal purgatory of summer mist. Is it still morning, or afternoon?

In either case, the landscape of scrub oak, green cypress, marshes, and sea birds dropping into view out of the mist kept bringing me back to the present moment—the only moment I know that has any real possibilities—as I looked out the train window.

I wondered at the long, long line of old fence posts tilted and worn, no rails or wire between them, holding nothing, just standing awkwardly erect, one after the other, for a distance that seemed absurd. It was a ghost fence that ran along the tracks between the train and the ocean below. What could that fence line have been built for? How long has it been standing like that with nothing to hold or keep out?

I had other absurdities on my mind as well. My girlfriend of seven years said we should end our love affair. We should try living as roommates, she said, until one of us decides to move. I wanted to move; so, I guess, did she. Neither of us could really afford it. We were both broke, held together by another sort of ghost fence.

“Get out now!” a friend told me. “You’ll be sorry if you don’t.”

I thought he was being alarmist, a little melodramatic, as friends can be when they’re watching out for you. I didn’t know that he’d gone through a similar breakup. I didn’t know that he also had kept separate rooms in the same house with his former girlfriend—for nearly six months.

“It was fine until she started fucking the guy she left me for in the room next to mine,” he told me. “You better get out when you can, dude.”

Not long before I hopped on the train, she asked if I’d thought about finding another place. It’s a good idea, she suggested. It’s nothing personal, she assured me, and I believed her, it’s what’s best.

As I looked out the train window, and pondered the flight of a distant heron, the message sank in: It’s over, it’s time for me to move on, and I’m a lot older now than I was seven years ago when we started, the possibilities for lifelong companionship narrowing ever more precipitously. Ah, the end of another conjoining of minds and bodies that could only wrap themselves into a tangled web of tears and unhappiness instead of blissful companionship.

“We’re not right for each other,” she said.

All those years, we kept pushing the wrong buttons, couldn’t seem to find the right ones, and each time it got so messy and hurtful and confusing.

“I don’t want you to feel sad,” she said.

I wouldn’t feel sad if I wasn’t a bit touched, hounded by a confusing mix of the cynic and the romantic, always hoping, always doubting. It’s a curse, really. I don’t know where it comes from but the tension between hope and doubt seems always to bring my relationships to ruin. I did feel sad.

As the train rolled on, I could feel myself moving on, drifting, searching, hoping, doubting.

“So, you gonna find yourself another cute hot young thang—huh?” an older friend asked after I’d told her that my gal, nearly 20 years younger, wanted to separate.

“I’m not looking, really. I’m happy to be a free agent, that’s all.”

My friend moved her body close to mine, and put her lips next to my ear: “You like young pussy, don’t you?” she whispered.

I gagged. Well, that’s not the only thing, I stammered.

Yes, I thought, my gal’s young, and beautiful, no doubt, but she’s smart and caring and, for some damn reason, we couldn’t get along very well. We agreed on that. We had some fine moments amid the turmoil and troubled times. I seldom felt the difference in our ages, only when the occasional stranger mistook her as my daughter. Sex wasn’t the only thing that kept us together.

Still, it felt absurd, in a way, if not entirely liberating, to be moving on, at least at that point in my life, where I wanted to be more settled, and it becomes clearer by the moment that my days are numbered, that soon I will also be a geezer. I tried not to think too hard that life is short, or at least not get morbidly obsessed with the idea, just acknowledge the fact, that I’m older now. I’m no spring chicken, as mom likes to remind me, and it’s quite possible that I will remain alone.

No one my age wants to be alone. I learned this a long time ago from an older friend, a monk, whose entire life was dedicated to celibacy, solitude and prayer.

“The thing I fear most,” he said of death, “is that no one will notice that I’m gone.”

Even in his solitude, he wished not to be alone or forgotten. Even in that final separation through death, he wished to be remembered.

I had high hopes, and so did my young girlfriend, that we could work things out, work through our troubles and stay together until the end—and be remembered. Along the way, perhaps, we both knew it wasn’t going to work, but we’re stubborn, and kept at it, and maybe, in the end, our stubbornness is what brought us to that painful juncture of breaking away.

Now, I’m left with this thought: “Why did I hold on for so long? Will I soon be living in a trailer park, sad, lonely, broken up and finished like so many other geezers who grow old and die in their aluminum fire traps without so much as a hint of their loss?”

Or what about this thought: “Will the white blanket of timelessness that has obscured my view of things and seemed to rule my mind then be swept away, as the coastal breezes outside the train window now lift the misty veil, to uncover lighter, more hopeful possibilities? Are any possibilities left?”

The damned romantic and cynic in me were at it again, stirring up the ridiculous inner tension between hope and doubt, as the train rolled on. Where do these feelings come from?

At the geezer gathering, I’d be co-host with mom to a party of older folks, but not much older, people in their 70s who are closer to the precipice than I am, whose view of any sort of timelessness or aloneness is probably much sharper and more poignant than my own. Perhaps that precipitous view is where the romantic and cynic in me may actually, one day, finally find common, quiet ground.

Like my monk friend, in death I fear not being remembered; in life, I fear being alone.

I looked through the train window into the distant fields where farm workers hunched low from the waist to pick strawberries. I ate a piece of strawberry with my yogurt that morning; it was surprisingly sweet and delicious. The breeze outside the train finally broke up the timeless white sheet of marine layer into patchy clouds and blue haze, a perfect August day along the Pacific Ocean. The beaches of Southern California were assuredly crowded by then as the train barreled down into L.A. §

Stacey Warde is publisher of The Rogue Voice.

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