I clear my throat and take another swig of coffee. The house is quiet, and perfect for trying voice to text for the musings. I find that typing on my bad hand has become less and less attractive as the week wanes. This technology is any ficient at best, and annoying to aggravating at worst, but going back to correct the occasional humorous misread of my spoken word is less arduous then typing the entire passage. When the whirr of the air conditioner sounds, the technology degrades. But, this is better than the alternative.
My son has spent a week on the road, including a handful of days in our nation's capital. Before leaving, he asked if I had ever been to Washington. And, surely enough, my memories flooded back to me as though a stored reel of film had suddenly been discovered in a creaking cabinet or a warped drawer.
I am 17. I have tired of being the outcast, the crazy girl with waist-long hair and funny feet. I have tired of wearing shoes, brogues, and cast-off clothing. Somehow, I persuade my mother to let me take a train to Washington. I am sure that this trip will somehow change my life. I will become taller, or shorter, more petite or more statuesque, or somehow better. I will figure out how to wear my hair, I will get straight A's, I will have a boyfriend. All of this is possible, if I can just take this trip. The ostensible reason was to visit the main office of the American Freedom From Hunger Houndation, the parent group of Young World Development. It's a lie, of course, something I have fabricated to convince my mother to allow me to take the trip. I will stay with my sister, and everything will be alright, and this is why she said yes.
On a train bound for points east, I met another girl my age perhaps or maybe a year or two older, from Dallas, with a sweet, slow drawl. I don't remember her name now, decades later in my kitchen, middle-aged and tired. But I remember her face. Thin, blond, pretty, sparkling and mischievous. I cast aside the book I had brought to read, and allowed her to pull me into her plans for making the trip memorable. "There has got to be men on this train somewhere," she said, with a wide grin and darting eyes. I didn't know what she meant by "men". I had not started college yet. I had had a boyfriend, but not much else, and even that barely rose above simple flirtation, movies on Friday night, under the watchful eye of my brother. A corsage on my 16th birthday, a kiss or two;, what did I know about "men"?
Someone checked on us every few minutes. Evidently the train personnel looked askance at young girls traveling alone in the mid 70's. We kept our voices low; we feigned interest in the farms which fell behind the train as it crossed Illinois bound for Pennsylvania. All the while, we shot furtive glances at the people passing through our car going frontwards to places my companion seemed sure would be more exciting than where we sat.
She finally spied her mark. A boy in uniform, someone her age no doubt, someone who enlisted at just the right time. The war in Vietnam spiralled towards its tragic close; his training surely would last until it would be too late to take place in that sad affair. He might feel regret, but his mother would not, nor would the scores of girls that he would some day meet in college and tell about his fine two years in the United States Army. They would not brand him as a baby-killer, nor would he shudder in the night with terror. He might, at that young age, wish he had served in-country. But he would live.
And just then, in the summer of 1973, he led a shy Midwestern misfit and a somewhat bewitching Southerner to a car-load of his companions. They lounged, stood and sat in their own car, all in uniform, all willing to buy us Cokes and brag about their first military haircuts and the tortures of basic training from which they had just emerged, victorious, stronger and swifter than those who had failed to make the grade.
My new friend drew the attention of most of the soldiers. I stood on the perimeter, sipping soda from a small glass, watching her perform. The miles dropped behind us; we sped across Indiana through farm after farm, and on into Ohio while the boys bought us sandwiches. She barely touched hers; but I ate all of mine, undisturbed by anyone, sitting on the sidelines watching her play some game the rules of which I had never learned. And on we sped, into Ohio, as the scenery passed unnoticed, and my companion sparkled brighter than the rising Evening Star.
The land grew lush outside our window as we crossed Ohio. My friend grew more daring. She sat on laps, her dress hiking higher on her thin leg, her eyes more dazzling with each mile of country that fell behind us. I could not guess what she had left behind. A careful father; a judging mother; a strict religious code. She had left something at home which had acted as her brakes, and I cannot say how far she might have gone, if we had not suddenl realized that the train had ceased to move.
I jumped from my seat and leaned against a window. I heard commotion; the clang of metal n metal, the calls of workers. A door ahead of us opened and a railway official entered the car. "Who are these girls?" He asked one of the men, and, on being told that no one really knew, he hustled us out of the now-uncoupled car and down into the railway yard where we stood, dismayed, watching the train on which we had been riding start to pull away for the last leg of its trip to Washington.
They stopped the train, of course. They hustled us into our own car, making us run the last few feet across broken asphalt. We panted; sweat rose on our foreheads. They hurried us down the narrow aisle and sat us by our belongings, which had miraculously not been stolen. We huddled down in our seats across the way from each other, each at a window now dark with the gloom of dusk. The train slowly started again, delayed only a few minutes, hopefully --we were told, by a harried conductor -- not enough to cause an irreparable disruption in the schedule. Neither of us spoke; they wouldn't have believed we were sorry even if we had said.
We got to D.C. on time. I took a cab to my sister's house; with a detour to the wrong quandrant orchestrated by an unscrupulous cab driver. But I made him take me to the right place and refused to pay the extra fare. As he pulled away, and I began the short trudge to my sister's door, I wondered, for the first of many times, where the girl from Texas would end her days.
I hear the dog barking. I have to shake the fog of this clumsy week and get out of the house. Groceries must be purchased, and I want to visit my mother-in-law. The plants on the porch could use a good soak. Maybe later, my husband and I will see a movie, or eat Venezualan fare. Right now, though, I want to make another coffee and sit in my rocker, with the cool summer breeze blowing on my face, and think about all the places I have been.
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