I started taking the train to work. I’d usually take a drive, ranging anywhere from an hour ten to an hour forty-five. My commute would depend on three factors how many times I’d hit the snooze, the line at Starbucks, and the collective conscious of driving downtown around 7:05. I got fed up with the variables when driving. The train was reliable, whizzing me from Pingree Road to Ogilvie. I’d pull up, park for a dollar fifty, huddle on the platform, in the blistery cold for two perfectly timed minutes (which took weeks of practice I might add), board, settle into a novel or report, and present my monthly pass.
In February, I saw him for the first time. He was striking; chiseled jaw, tucked into a plaid scarf, eyes, stone gray, lined with creases that gave away his age, forgiving and honest. You could tell he had spent some time in the sun. I imagined, an ex lifeguard who spent summers breaking hearts and taking virginities. His hair was dark, still full, with no signs of going lightly dusted with charcoal. He wore a dark navy suit, pulling the blues out of his iris. His hands were wrapped around a newspaper and a thermos that looked like a silver vibrator. I named him Julian.
We sat, two burnt orange leather seats away, silently, in the quiet car of the morning express train to Chicago. I studied Julian over the top of my laptop. He would read a little, shut the paper, peer outside longingly, then open it to a new section. I wondered what he was so longing about An ice queen wife threatening his fortune and taking the kids away? A brother who drowned in the summer of ‘85 inspiring him to lifeguard through college? A bad audition that haunted him, the ghost of what could have been as he chugged downtown to a cubicle? All of a sudden a woman sat next to Julian.
We rolled into Des Plaines, four stops from downtown. The train had become fuller with each passing stop. Monthlies lined the seats and our car had become something resembling a Men’s Wearhouse ad. Keys were clicking, fresh spilled coffee permeated, and the soft hum of music buzzed through earbuds. I had missed their initial exchange due to a robust man, identified as banker #1, blocking my aisle and view. banker #2 sat next to me. As I readjusted, banker #1 gave way, giving me a clear view of Julian and the woman asshe rested her head on his shoulder.
The woman, Romie, was not what I had expected for Julian. She was tall, from what I could tell judging from sitting height, Julian was only taller by an inch or two. Her thin frame was bundled into a burlap coat, like the one Penny Lane wore in Almost Famous. Her hair was blonde, almost white, with wispy bangs recycled from a past era. She was slightly older, I decided, as I calculated the depth of the wrinkles on her hands. Romie revealed a faded tribal tattoo peeking from her collarbone, as she shuffled off her coat. Julian pulled it from her bony shoulders and onto his lap. I imagined her to be a professor, teaching courses like Human Rights and Women’s Studies, bringing her students vegan lemon bars and stories of peaceful protests gone wrong.
Romie and Julian spent the last three stops and twenty minutes without a single kiss. There was no doubt in my mind they were lovers, if not starcrossed. Julian, boarding at Crystal Lake, forced to ride alone until his dearly beloved boarded eight stops later. He rested his head on hers and she pressed her eyelids every so lightly. As he read and she rested, perfectly content with nothing in her hands, he grabbed her thin wrist and played with her rings, twisting them. He grabbed her hand around Clybourn, before the conductor announced our imminent end.
I was enthralled by their quiet love. Not massive, nor minor, but ever so present. The train halted, I gathered my things, and followed them down the aisle, inconspicuously, bankers #1 and #2 working as bridesmaids between us. I watched from the pew of the train car. Romie pecked his cheek, they turned, parted, and walked across the platform.
The next couple weeks I saw Romie and Julian. By coincidence or fate, I’d end up on their train, in their car, seats away. I was perpetually bored with my life. The shine had worn off. 40 hours a week dedicated to a financial consulting firm, working in a zombie like state. I was fueled by student loan debt and caffeine. On the weekends, I’d juggle the urge to go out, but also the retreat in fear of running into someone from high school. My commute became the highlight of my day, usually. Romie and Julian’s tender moments of longtime love gave me hope I’d get off Tinder and into the arms of someone good.
Spring came and went. Romie and Julian were stagnant, but not in a health club pool kind of way, but strolling along the EKG of a steady, healthy heartbeat. On a Saturday, in April, my dad and I had boarded the 12:20 for the Cubs Opener. I glanced around, by habit, searching for Romie and Julian. The train was a sea of red and blue, teenagers drunk on Pink Lemonade Burnetts, and bustling families with sticky fingers. All of a sudden, I saw him. His eyes, hypnotizing me across the car, he looked into mine. I knew he had recognized me. We had made eye contact before, but I then I was just the commuter with thick black glasses. I looked down, then looked at him. It was like recognizing your dental hygienist at Victoria’s Secret, like we were spies, or Batman.
And then I looked to his right. A bustling family with sticky fingers. A woman with dark hair cut harshly at her ears, but complimented with soft angles and plump pink lips. There was an older boy tinkering on his iPad, a middle daughter shouting and pointing out the window, and the third youngest daughter who looked exactly like Julian.
They were beautiful and perfect and I was disgusted. How could Julian do this to his wife? How could he spend his train rides and probably a few hotel beds with Romie? Star crossed loves my ass, they were cheating. I did not hide my disgust well, because his eyes began to harden and his brow furrowed. I was in shock. The Cubs lost that day, shocker.
That Monday, I decided to take the early train. I needed time to process. This perfect love, I had been pining over was not so perfect. I couldn’t fathom loving someone, a town, train stops away, spending only a few minutes a day together. Tuesday I decided to go looking for them. I needed answers or at least to see them together once more, in hopes Julian would say something. I got on the very last car pacing through each one, searching each seat. I looked for her jacket and his speckled hair. Nothing. Wednesday I did the same, double checking the top rows. Nothing. Thursday, the same. Friday.
The next Monday, I boarded, about to give up hope. I started from the back car, working my way forward, and then I saw him. I slinked into the seat at the very back of the car, switching my prescriptions for sunglasses, tipping my hat lower. I was in disguise. I watched him from the back, resisting every urge to just run up and slap his half shaven cheek. Cary, Fox River Grove, Barrington, then finally Romie.
I waited, I watched. Julian looked out the window in anticipation, his head cocked. She never came. The car doors slammed and I did the most impulsive thing I had ever done in my life, to this day. I don’t even remember removing my glasses and hat, but I did and I walked straight up to him.
“Hi” I stammered. He turned. His eyes were just as beautiful as I had imagined close up, but enclosed in pillows of puffiness, drenched in tears.
“You don’t know me, but I ride this train a lot, I work downtown and sometimes I see you and (I realized I didn’t know her real name) umm…her.”
I pointed to the empty seat.
“Rosalind?” He said.
“The blonde one?” I motioned towards the seat.
“She passed away last week.”
“What? How? I’m so sorry.”
“She had Leukemia. We knew for a while, it’s okay.”
“Does your wife know?” He looked perplexed, but not completely.
“Of course, they we’re great friends.”
“Yes! Rosalind was my best friend. I started taking the train to work so I could see her on her ride to the city. She had a studio there. She was a wonderful painter. Rosalind was the strongest, most difficult woman I knew.”
I sat down next to Julian and started to take off my coat. He pulled it off my shoulders and into his lap.