Encounter on a Train

Whoosh, the door opened; A man walked through balancing two cardboard trays each with a drink and sandwich precariously perched on top. Whoosh, the door closed, and each opening and closing brought the same swirling of air from the vestibule between the cars. My seat mate once again dabbed at her eyes with a small handkerchief. The burst of air was hitting her square in the face each time the door operated and since we were seated in the car behind the dining/snack bar car it opened and closed often. I had the window seat and the air burst was not so strong on that side. I suppose we both would have moved had not the train been full. It was the five o’clock Sunday Metroliner from Union Staton in D.C. to Penn Station in New York.

I was on assignment in New York but I traveled to D.C. every other weekend to visit my lady friend and family members, returning on the five o’clock which would arrive in the underground station at seven-forty-five, give or take half an hour. It was convenient for me; my sublet was on 36th between Lexington and Third and the station is on 34th. Very much walkable, especially in late October where the townhouses of Murray Hill would be fronted by trees beginning to turn yellow and red.

Woosh, the door opened again and again my seat mate dabbed at her eyes. I offered to switch seats and she accepted. We had not spoken since leaving D.C. and we were halfway to Baltimore. When she accepted I noted a familiar accent in her “Thank you. That’s very kind of you.” Definitely Mississippi, and being the suave conversationalist that I am, I asked, “Do I detect Vicksburg?”

“Vicksburg?” she asked.

“Yes, your accent, is it from Vicksburg?”

She turned her head a little sideways as she looked me squarely in the eyes from under the dark bangs of her Louise Brooks bob. Her eyes were blue and she was definitely wearing contacts, hence the bothersome bursts of air. “Vicksburg? Why goodness no. I’m not from Vicksburg.” Her voice was throaty but not unpleasant. It was like a Sunday morning singing voice after cheering long and hard for her favorite college team the day before. She sat herself in the seat by the window gathering her skirt about her. The dress was Navy blue with a pleated skirt cut just above the knee, a Peter Pan collar and a waist length jacket. Very demure. She wore a small gold amulet on a chain that hung between the oval ends of the collar. The ensemble fit her well. Her mouth was small and red but not too red, her eyes large and her cheeks pale. She had naturally long lashes that needed no help from Max Factor or Helena Rubenstein. She was as tall as I in her one inch heels which meant she was five nine or so barefoot. Now seated, she looked up at me. “Vicksburg, indeed!”

“Well then, I apologize but you must admit you do have a touch of the river in your accent. Perhaps you’re from further down the trace but you’re certainly not from Memphis or Greenville. ” I sat myself just as the door whooshed and indeed the air burst was like being on the receiving end of a glaucoma testing machine.

“I’m from Pass Christian,” she allowed. “Nowhere on the river. Still, you may be a little bit right since my grandparents live on the river between Vicksburg and Natchez and I spent several summers and Christmases with them.”

Now I would have thought that someone from Pass Christian would have had at least the leavings of a tan in October but then perhaps she was not coming from the Gulf Coast.

And now Good Reader I must confess to a weakness that has plagued me since I got my first pair of long trousers. It is for attractive ladies who speak English with French, Irish or true Southern accents. I find I could listen to them speak about most anything incessantly and be content to just listen. And this late twenties young lady possessed one of the truest soft Southern accents I had heard since leaving Mobile many years before.

She was in a graduate program at the Parson’s School of Design having achieved her Bachelor’s there some years before followed by interludes interning in a Parisian fashion house for two years and in Milan for a year. She spoke both French and Italian in which we switched back and forth during our two hour conversation using the languages to punctuate observations about this and that. She had no boy friend for, Alas, all the men she knew were either gay, had aids or were stunted in their development having stopped somewhere in their late teens. This was especially true of Italian men she offered, since they all seemed to live with their mothers until marriage and then their mothers live with them. She thought smoking a vile habit but drinking was just fine and she reeled off a list of her favorite cocktails ending in, “But straight liquor is quicker,” smiling demurely as she dropped the rhyme

I was enjoying our chat but something kept tugging at my mental elbow. There was a sadness here that I could not understand. While her voice was lively there seemed an existential ennui in her manner. She offered me a look into a book in which she wrote poetry and from one poem to another my soul was dragged further into an abyss not unlike the shelf of a coral reef that goes from fifty to thousands of feet deep in a precipitous vertical drop into blackness. I could say only that her poems while well constructed, were nihilistic to the nth degree and by the time I had read three of them I felt disappointed with myself and had thoughts that there could be no happiness in the world. I turned from her book and looked into her eyes, through the contacts and what I saw confused me even more. I saw a reflection of the abyss but I also saw a contentment for which I could not account or perhaps it was simply an acceptance of things as they were.

Here she reached into her handbag and drew forth a pewter flask, shook it, and asked if I might obtain some cups with ice from the bar. The door whooshed as I went to and fro and upon my return she poured two portions from the not diminutive flask into the plastic glasses. We offered a toast to the Gulf Coast and then tasted the drink. It was a pre-mixed cocktail heavy with cognac and absinthe. Very refreshing but very potent. I am known for my ability to absorb all kinds of alcohol but I knew two drinks of this spirit and I would want to rise and shout “Up the Rebels” or something of that sort.

Not long after finishing our drinks we reached Penn Station and parted, each going our own way. I saw her into a taxi going downtown and offered her my card noting that if she wanted to forego frozen adolescents and sickly nihilistic bohemians she should give me a call. I got around town and was invited to many upscale do’s to which I could get her invitations. She demurred, and became only the third person to refuse my card. Her excuse was that she was happy in her world and saw little reason to venture into others.

Thinking back I can only surmise that like many Southerners of note our young lady had scripted a role for herself building a world in which she felt comfortable. Many writers have done this; Faulkner, and Hemingway being perhaps the two most prominent but many others have followed the same script. The entire experience was very Truman Capote-like and I suppose this young lady may have seen herself as a Holly Golightly with money for she certainly came from a well-to-do Southern family. Living in such a world is not unlike the worlds of a hypochondriac or a psychopathic politician. She was a remarkable young lady. I wish I could remember her name.

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