There was this tiny sound. One that could’ve slipped away undetected underneath the wheezing of the furnace or the hum of the icemaker. I’d just returned from an extended trip to the south for a funeral. A trip in which the sun had baked me several shades darker than when I’d originally left.
The tiny sound – a repetitive beeping – was coming from this wrist of a man walking nearby. I could tell you his name but I won’t. Writing has always been about power for me. There is an agency in knowingly withholding information so I will keep it to myself. I will call him Daniel, if you like.
What you need to know is that I ran into him on the long stretch of hallway that leads from the airport to the train station. He was walking diligently whereas I was leaning lazily on the railing of an automatic floor that was gently pushing me forward. Our paces matched, each of his strides met up with the slow inching forward of the automatic floor. He carried a small knapsack on his back, wore horn-rimmed glasses and a burly coat made of nylon. He had large, black boots that made him several inches taller than he actually was. His face resembled a full ripe tomato. He was flushed, as if he’d just finished running a marathon. I didn’t understand why he didn’t just ride the automatic floor. I suddenly felt terrible for doing so.
Looking at how little he is carrying, I am suddenly aware of all the baggage I have with me. A large, bulky, navy green suitcase whose retractable handle wall tall enough when full elongated to stand near my chest. I am carrying a large pink duffle bag with a small, leafy green pattern near its edges. I was so embarrassed, convincing myself that first impressions were made solely on how attractive your travel luggage was.
As I exited the automatic floor and he made his final strides on the hallway, we entered a pair of sliding doors together. We walked next to each other for quite some time, each of our steps matching one another’s perfectly. Where my foot fell so did his. Our paces neared closer and closer to symbiosis as we approached the turnstile. I entered first, easily slipping through the turnstile by sliding my wallet over the scanner. There were a few moments of silence before a pleasant beep, then the heavy sound of the turnstile unlocking.
I saw Daniel as he fumbled at the kiosk, pulling loose singles from the folds of his wallet and trying to stuff them into the machine.
“Not a native, I see,” I thought to myself as I slowly began to descend the steps to the train.
“Maybe he has a car and he just takes the train to be practical,” I thought as I halfway reached the bottom.
I turned around. Daniel was nowhere to be seen. I descended the rest of the steps and slipped into the sixth train car for no particular reason. I turned back again before I walked inside. He was still nowhere to be seen. There was a glimmer of hope that began to dim itself. I set my luggage at my feet. The train vibrated. I watched a Dutch couple make fun of the advertisements in train car in their native language. To my left, several pilots were making conversation about how long they’d been flying.
I took my phone out of my coat pocket and began to fumble with it. I opened and closed several applications, mindlessly tinkering with them before giving up and locking my phone, only to unlock it moments later when the compulsion arose again. The vibrating grew. The train was preparing for take off; a strong blast of air began to blow over the doorways.
That’s when he stepped in. The blast of air parted his hair wildly. He smiled at me.
“Those kiosks are a bitch,” he said, taking the seat across from mine.
His timing had been impeccable. A voice came on the overhead speaker alerting us to the fact that the doors would be closing soon. The train rumbled, the doors closed several times before finally doing so for good. We lurched forward out of the terminal, following the track led into a tunnel. In the darkness, we are illuminated by the halogen train lights overhead.
Underneath them, he looks a sickly green but still, beautiful. His luggage sat in is his lap. He had one ear bud in his ear, the other one dangled near his neck. The darkness gave to a jarring light. We were in the middle of a highway. Cars blurred themselves into streaks of color as the train passed them. When we stopped at the next station, the doors opened and cold air began to creep its way in. The wind pushed small piles of flurry into our train car. He made a joke about the weather. I laughed and turned my eyes towards the window, as if not to seem too invested in what he was saying, even though I was. I terribly was. He leaned across the aisle, his hand extended.
“My name's Daniel by the way,” he said, but not really.
The joke about the weather dissolved into a conversation about our recent travel destinations. He told me that he’d just returned from a cottage in Belize. He said the experience had completely changed him and “opened his eyes to things he was not privy to before.” He said this while fragments of light spilled and shifted across his face. The sun sat blatant in the sky. He would gaze upon it in gaps between conversations. He said he appreciated its beauty a lot more since his return.
“Everything is more beautiful in Belize” he said with a confidence that doesn’t waver, even as the train does. I tell him that I am just returning from my hometown.
“I was in a funeral procession” I said, a statement which he marveled at. He began prodding me with all sorts of questions.
“How was it?” he asked. “I didn’t even know they still did that.”
“It was strange,” I replied. “I thought the drive would never end.”
We’d passed two stations. At some point during that time, Daniel had shifted seats and was now sitting next to me. Close enough that our arms grazed one another’s at the slightest movement. At the fifth stop, the train stopped lurching.
“We will be standing momentarily,” said an automated voice on the overhead speakers.
Daniel offered me a stick of gum. He said the chewing motion stops him from wanting to bang his head against the railing. He phrases it in a way that sounds like a joke but I identify with him in a way that is not at all funny.
He talked about his mother. His family is from a beach in the Carolinas. “They love it there but I can’t stand it.
"I feel like I’m melting. Who wants to live their lives with their shirts stuck to their backs?” I nodded quietly – enraptured. I wanted to hang on his every word like a piece of driftwood. He told me his favorite movie was Titanic, I haven’t seen but I know enough about it to keep up a casual conversation about it.
“Every once in a while a movie comes along that really changes how you look at things,” he said.
I agreed. I told him I once cried in a Bill Murray movie that my parents rented on VHS. I don’t know the name but if I saw it I know I’d cry again. He shook is head and rattled off a list of Bill Murray movies, none of which were correct.
“We’ll figure it out one day,” he said.
Daniel smiled widely, so wide that his cheeks began to resemble mounds of molders clay. The train still didn’t move. He cursed into his hand.
“This is why I never take public transit,” he said snobbishly.
I agreed. Conversation dwindled as Daniel talked and I listened. He went on about what he called ‘shameless journalism’, balked at the, in his words, absurdity of what he’d read about the midterm elections and chatted about various other topics that I could not contribute to so instead just listened to him gush about.
When every topic of conversation had been exhausted,there was a silence between us. We sat like this for quite some time. Other passengers grumbled to each other. Someone, an older man, read a copy of Things Fall Apart near one of the windows. Daniel talked about love. I thought about my impending departure.
“Only three stops” I thought. Three stops until I’d leave Daniel. Three stops until the doors opened. Three stops until it would my turn to walk through them, through the blast of air, out into the settled snow that would sit so neatly atop the outdoor terminal. Three stops until I was home. Three stops until home.
“Who do you love?” Daniel asked me.
I had been staring out the window at a pigeon pecking at the back of another pigeon. I told him the question is odd. Forty minutes had passed and the train still hadn’t moved. Several passengers had left the train car in frustration; one of them mumbled something about a taxi. Daniel repeats the question, this time with more gravitas. I laugh. I told him my mother. My brother most days. My roommates when they are not infuriating.
“Do you love me?” He asked, in a tone that is aware of how strange whatever it is saying must sound. “Not like ‘love love’ but in a basic human, I-care-about-your-
general-well-being kind of way”
He waited for a few moments as I struggled to answer before he broke out into a fit of laughter. He told me that I don’t have to answer if I don’t want too. It doesn’t matter. He told me that he loves for everything.The automated voice came back, reminding us that we would still be standing momentarily. The doors opened and closed twice, remaining open when they finished.
“Doors closing,” The automated voice said. The doors shut and the train slowly began to march forward again. Some of the passengers sarcastically applauded. Others groaned appreciations. Daniel blew kisses in the direction of the conductor.
As we approached my stop, I gathered my things.
“This is me,” I said, trying to be casual. The train began to pick up speed. The snow outside did as well.
“Really?” He said, looking somewhat defeated.
“Shame, I have twelve more stops. Whose gonna keep me company now?”
I laughed as I stood up. I stumbled as the train came to a sudden halt. I steadied myself on my luggage. Daniel gazed into his cell phone.
“Enjoy your time in Chicago.” I said, "I hope it lives up to Belize.”
He chuckled. I don’t know why, the reasoning escapes me, but I’d expected him to ask for my phone number.
As the train came to a complete stop and the doors prepared to open. I imagined him asking for my cell phone number. He would unlock his cellphone and gesture it in my direction.
“You’re pretty cool. We should hang out sometime.” He would coolly say.
Then I’d enter my number into the contacts on his cellphone and we’d meet for drinks at a local bar or maybe at an expensive burger joint downtown some time in the very near future. We’d further realize how much we have in common. We’d tell our friends that our chance meeting on the train must have been faith.
He would thank God for Belize and I for my great aunts passing, the events that put us together. It’d be something romantic. Something that rivaled the Titanic. Something that changed everything.
He didn’t ask for my number. He simply waved goodbye and smiled before returning to the phone in his lap. When the door opened, I step outside of them and onto the platform. My boots crunched the ice underneath them. The doors closed behind me. I turned to see Daniel, still gazing into his phone, a phone without my number. I imagined being a bird in the wild. I imagined watching my love fly off into the distance never to return.
The walk to my apartment was cold and unexciting and nothing else. My luggage seemed heavier then when I’d first started my trip. The tags from baggage claim beat wildly in the wind. I opened the front door to my apartment and am greeted by a gestated loneliness that seems to have been waiting for me. I imagined
Daniel still riding the train, forever. I imagined him moving onto other strangers, asking them if they loved him. I stepped inside. I threw my bags by the door. It takes me months to finally unpack after vacation. I will empty it piece by piece as the sun begins to set earlier and earlier.
As I grew older, the thought of Daniel came and went. There were times I’d ride the train and feel unable to exit when we arrived at my destination. I’d take the train several more stops until I regained mobility in my legs and exited. I told my parents I loved them more. I texted it to them unexpectedly. I began to avoid the news, first by sheer coincidence but then by willful habit. When I did watch it, I felt tears welling up in my eyes, making it hard to see the television screen. After college I travelled to Belize with a man who could’ve been Daniel but was not. It rained every day while we were there. We navigated the city wearing translucent ponchos and carrying brightly patterned umbrellas. We hid inside cafes when the rain picked up, drinking coffee with the locals. Are these the things Daniel was not privy to before arriving here? The simplistic charm of a warm cup of coffee. The wet warmness of an evening walk by the coast. Are these all the things your eyes were opened up too?
Belize no longer has a railway system. The population relies heavily on the use of buses as a means public transportation. The rain beat down on the roof of the bus as we waited for it to reach the terminal near our hotel. It’s interior was humid and sticky. Passengers were packed against the walls. The man who was not Daniel adjusted the fit of his poncho. There was a pang in my chest. I imagined being a self-pollenating flower.
A cool blast of air conditioning washed over us. A look of relief washed over a sweating woman’s face. A thought of Daniel arose.
“Do you love me?” I asked to no one in particular. The question was drowned out under the noise of the air conditioner and the chatter of other passengers. It was a tiny sound. One that could have slipped undetected underneath life’s natural commotion.
As we waited to board our plane at the end our trip, the sun peaked its head out from behind a storm cloud. I walked down the long stretch of hallway that connected the airplane to the terminal, the man who is not Daniel beside me, and the flight attendant asked how I had enjoyed my trip. I smiled widely.
“Wonderful,” I told her.
“Everything is more beautiful in Belize.”
I took my seat by the window. I set my luggage at my feet.
“Cabin doors closing” the man, though this time not automated, said over the loudspeaker. The plane lunged skyward. I thought the flight would never end.
When I land back in Chicago I am more appreciative of the sun than I was when I left. The train runs express all the way home.
Julie Ako is a writer from Jupiter, Florida who is currently working, studying and creating in Chicago, Illinois. She was written for Wu-Wei Magazine, Guild Literary Complex and several other publications. She currently attends The School of The Art Institute of Chicago where she is achieving her BFA in Writing.