The travel website GoNomad.com has published an essay I wrote about a trip I took on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited. Here’s the story. And the text of the piece follows:
I am riding on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited, traveling westbound as the train slices through the dark environs of upstate New York on this Friday night in late October 2010. I boarded the train in Syracuse and I am headed for Toledo, Ohio, to see my sister and her family for Halloween.
A man and woman are seated one row ahead of me and to my left. I have a clear view of them with a diagonal line of sight.
The light above their seat is on and the woman sitting in the aisle seat—we’ll call her Anna—is in her mid-twenties with dark eyes and dark shoulder-length hair, which she continually pushes out of her face. She wears a blue denim shirt, black spandex pants and black boots, and pink nail polish coats her fingernails.
She explains to the man, whom we’ll call Richard, that she recently lost her house. I do not hear the details of her explanation but I wonder if she got laid off from work or lost her home through foreclosure as a result of the sinking economy.
Or did she need to move out because a relationship ended badly? Or did the house catch fire one night and burn to the ground? I consider these possibilities as I gaze at her in the darkness.
She tells Richard she is living with her parents now. She speaks with a clipped upstate New York accent and delivers her words quickly, as if the consonants and vowels are jumping from her mind to her lips. And she gesticulates as she converses, throwing her hands up several times as if to say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do now.”
She stands up on her seat, reaches into the upper baggage compartment and grabs a large brown shopping bag; it’s filled with Halloween costumes. She says she is going to a party in Chicago on Halloween night (at her sister’s I believe), and she is trying to decide what to wear; she has two options.
One costume is a tight black skeleton suit with white painted-on bones running down the front. She slips it on, stands in the aisle and models it for Richard. She takes off the costume, reaches into the bag and pulls out a mock version of an orange astronaut suit. Anna steps into the suit and pulls it over her shoulders. I hear Richard laughing and it appears the fake NASA suit is the winner.
From their conversation I infer Richard is a master’s or doctoral student, perhaps studying political science, economics or law. And he is also traveling to Chicago for the weekend.
He speaks with a melodic British accent and one could assume by hearing his voice that he is a thespian. He has short reddish-brown hair and he wears a polo shirt and jeans. I see his white hands moving as he talks to Anna and I notice he has clean and trimmed fingernails. He shows Anna a book he’s reading; it’s a thick U.S.A. travel guide. He and Anna flip through the pages detailing the tourist sights in Chicago.
I have my small mp3 player with me and it’s loaded with new music. But I keep taking my headphones off so I can listen to Richard and Anna discussing a myriad of topics. They talk about politics, art, entertainment and music.
From their body language as they sit close together I can tell Richard and Anna are attracted to one another. And I think to myself, this is how two young people meet and hook up or fall in love. It’s a simple formula. You take two single, intelligent and good-looking subjects—one an international student and the other a woman in her mid-twenties searching for excitement or some change in her life—and you place them in the same seat on a train for more than 12 hours straight. What else could happen but a blossoming of affection?
And I know it’s only a matter of time until the talking ends and the action begins and I stay awake because I want to witness it. You can call me a pervert, a peeping Tom or a nosy eavesdropper, but I feel more like a social scientist studying the courting and mating rituals of young people. And in my defense, I can’t sleep and it’s too dark to read. Watching the man and woman in the seat in front of me makes the time pass, and the distance between where we are now and my destination of Toledo is diminishing.
We pass Buffalo. Outside of Angola, the lights drop, and I notice Anna is closing her eyes. Their overhead light has been off for a while and I think they may try to sleep now.
But as soon as we pull out of Erie, Pa., and the train lights dim and darkness blankets the car again, Richard reaches across the seat, grabs Anna’s neck and pulls her toward him. She nuzzles closer to him and they start making out. It’s as if they have come to an agreement at the same time, and say, “OK, it’s on. Let’s go.” The words cease and their bodies take over.
As they kiss and caress each other, my next thought is, how far are they going to go? How far will their passion escalate inside this train? He wraps his arms around her hips and pulls her closer to him. Anna’s hair is disheveled. She takes off her denim shirt and then removes a black tank top, revealing red bra straps against her muscular back and shoulders.
They try to use a heavy red coat—turned inside out with the flannel lining showing—to conceal their actions, but it doesn’t help much. There’s too little fabric to cover them both and the coat keeps slipping off the seat. And anyone who walks by can witness what is happening.
We cross into Ohio and they continue to make out, changing positions in the seat several times. Anna is now straddling Richard’s lap, and I wonder if they are just dry humping or doing the real thing.
A black woman in her late fifties or early sixties with short salt-and-pepper hair is sitting across from me, one seat behind Richard and Anna. But she can see what they are doing because Anna remains perched on top of Richard’s lap and faces the woman.
A small paper strip the porter had placed above the woman’s seat reads “Cleveland,” so I know that’s where she’s getting off. And we are coming to Cleveland now. The woman shakes her head, looks at me and smiles. Her expression seems to say, “Get a load of these two fools.” I smile back at her and shake my head as well.
In Cleveland, the train stops on the tracks for a long time and Richard and Anna continue to carry on, apparently unaware that the train is no longer moving.
Finally the train lurches forward and we race across the belly of Lake Erie along the south shore. We pass Elyria, Sandusky and Port Clinton and then come to Toledo, where I get off.
As I leave the train, I wonder if Richard and Anna have fully consummated their actions on board the Lake Shore Limited. I also consider what will happen to them when they arrive in Chicago. Will they go their separate ways or get a hotel room together?
Will Richard stroll along Michigan Avenue and get a chance to check off the highlighted sights in his guidebook? Or will Richard and Anna stay inside their hotel room all weekend, making love, watching movies and ordering room service?
Will they start dating or will the encounter be a memory, one-time physical act—nothing more than a chance to have sex on a moving train, the Amtrak version of the Mile High Club?
And what will happen when the weekend ends and they board the train again for the return trip home? Will they be traveling together or making solo journeys?
I realize the futility of my questions since they can never be answered. Part of me would have liked to stay on the train and then get off in Chicago and follow them. I wanted to track Richard and Anna not because of a desire to stalk them, but rather to find out what would happen. How would the story end?
Perhaps they were still going at it in Chicago and forgot to get off the train. Maybe they rode it all the way to Los Angeles. Maybe they are lying on a sun-drenched beach right now, making out as the waves of the Pacific Ocean crash ashore. And I guess that’s how I would like to picture them.