The date, June 24, 1967, had been circled and starred on our house calendar for months – the last day of junior high school and my first train ride. Last Christmas, my best friend Denise, moved from Los Angeles to Tucson for her father’s job, and I missed her terribly. We met on the first day in seventh grade English when she asked me to join her club. She was the only member so far; I made two, and soon we were inseparable.
Mutt and Jeff, the boys teased us; it was easy to see why. Denise was 4’9” to my 5’8” but it was only when I saw our image together in a picture window that I could see how ridiculous we looked, me usually bent almost in half to hear what she was saying. In spite of my excruciating self-consciousness about my size, we found each other like two girls shipwrecked, sharing a scrap of board to survive the wild sea of the families we were born into by accident.
My father left early the day before, traveling to New York on one of his sweater buying trips for Ohrbachs department store. Two weeks every season, taking with him his choking shroud of anger, making life easier especially for my mother who had only a dutiful relationship to the kitchen. In his absence, we ate some version of Swanson’s frozen dinners on trays in front of the television. The train was due in at 10:00, and scheduled to leave ten minutes later, and it was past nine but my mother couldn’t leave the house unless the kitchen’s spot-free, the beds smoothly made. Like wearing clean underwear in case of an accident, she cleaned in case somebody broke in, and god-forbid the yellow counter not shine.
There wasn’t much traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway and we reached the downtown Union Station quicker than I thought. Several honking cars were stuck in line at the parking lot entrance, and when my mother hesitated, I urged her to pull over to drop me at the curb. Fourteen years old, tall and gangly, wearing braces, my favorite blue plaid mini-kilt, and white go-go boots, I wanted to act the grown-up I felt myself to be. She dithered then pulled over, my hand on the door handle ready to jump out.
“Wait! One last time!” she said. “Asthma spray, allergy pills, uh, what else?” Her fingers moved, counting off. She drove me crazy, asking the same questions three or four times before we even left the house. Still, I had to be cool – it would be just like her to change her mind at the last minute.
“Toothbrush and paste, seven pairs of underwear, bathing suit. Mommy, I’ve got it all. You packed, remember? So if anything was forgotten it’s you not me!”
“Just be careful, don’t do anything stupid. And call me as soon as you get in. I mean it, right away!”
“Yes, yes, Mommy, I will.” I jumped to the curb and pulled my suitcase, heavy with pop 45’s and teen magazines, from the back seat and the carpetbag my aunt made for my mother when, at sixteen, she took her first train trip to visit family in Chicago.
I didn’t turn back until I reached the station’s entrance, then I waved, she blew me a kiss, then looked over her shoulder to pull out. Once her white finned Oldsmobile merged into traffic, I took a big breath and followed a family of five through the palatial Spanish-tiled entry into the wood and mosaic paneled lobby. Brown leather chairs, perfect for reading, lined up under the soaring California mission-style cathedral ceiling.
I was keenly and happily aware of myself among hundreds who had no idea who I was. Signs directed me left to the ticket booths. My mom gave me enough money to travel in first class, but I’d already decided to purchase a second-class ticket so I would have more to spend in Tucson.
Trying to look smooth like I’d done this before, I handed the money owed to an elderly Black man behind a wicket gate who gave me change, smiling as he wished me a pleasant journey. Dropping the loose bills in my oversized shoulder bag, I followed another sign to the women’s bathroom nearby.
As grand as those in the lobby, brightly lit chandeliers flickered rainbows in the gold gilded mirrors I stood in front of to put on the make-up I stole last night from Thrifty’s Drugstore. A wide line of black liner curled cat-like, sparkly blue eye-shadow, Maybelline Very Black mascara, and peppermint pink lipstick.
Feeling even more grown up with my face on, I left the bathroom and after going the wrong way twice, took the stairs down to the platform and found the track for the Southwest Flyer. Jesse James and his men, memorialized in several oversized sepia photographs in the station, robbed the Flyer more than any other train, so I thought it pretty cool that I would ride on it. I was always a horse-crazy girl preferring Westerns to the more popular cartoons on Saturday mornings, swooning over the taciturn cowboys rounding up horses and outlaws shooting it out with the sherriff.
Lighting a cigarette on the first match in the breezy underpass felt significant, all part of the guise of acting like someone older. I leaned against a cement post, watching a man gumming a hand-rolled cigarette between his lips. A white stripe of naked skin above his collar’s tan line attested to a recent clip of his dark curly hair. A cowboy, no doubt, what else could he be wearing those ostrich red-stiched boots, a tan hat rimmed by blackened finger prints, Wrangler blue jeans, and a wide leather belt stamped with bucking horses. There was something in his stance and slouch that reminded me of James Dean, the actor that when I was eleven and first watched Rebel Without A Cause, I pronounced to be my future husband. My mother squashed my fantasy within seconds when she told me it was too late, he was already dead.
When the train clambered in on time, the people waiting with me rushed to board. In one moment I was one of hundreds on the track, the next I was pretty much alone, and had no idea where to go until a porter directed me to the second class cars. The first three I walked through were already full, there was only one more to go, and my throat tightened against tears until I found an empty aisle seat just as the train lurched forward, tossing me onto it, barely missing the man in the window seat, the same cowboy I noticed on the platform. I mumbled apologies, he looked over and nodded, then turned back to the glossy-pages of a car magazine. Once we got going, I stood up again to stash my suitcase on the overhead rack, then fell back to my seat.
Just east of downtown were dozens of car-wrecking yards, day-light bright by flourescent tubes attached to metal ladders.The two-story high stacks of flattened cars, none possible to recognize as once whole, brought to mind an oversized pack of mismatched playing cards about to slide apart.
An older couple, their hair the same shade of grey, started a game of Gin Rummy across the aisle. She was pale and thin, wearing a wrinkled housedress with blue fuzzy slippers, and jumped every time her husband slammed his cards down on the table between them shouting gin. His age-spotted bald crown reflected the ceiling lights that bisected the car, front to back. The conductor came through punching tickets after the train’s first stop in Glendale. The man next to me who I hadn’t dared yet looked directly at got up, stretched, and pulled on his hat.
His voice surprised me, soft as it was, his drawl stereotype-cowboy, warm and inviting. “I’m going to the dining car. Can I get you a drink? Some coffee, soda? A beer?”
Beer? How old did he think I was? I stared at him, clamping closed my mouth so he wouldn’t see the metal.
“Cat got your tongue?” he asked, sarcastic-like.
“Sorry, yeah, sure. No, thank you.” I looked up again only after he had gone, hating myself for sounding so adolescent.
I wanted to look busy when he returned, so opened the book that I had taken from my mother’s nightstand just before we left: Valley of the Dolls. All my friends were reading it. My mom will throw a fit when she discovered it gone – a folded down corner less than halfway through indicated where she left off reading.
My seat partner returned and sat down with a cup of coffee and a lit cigarette. Steam from the paper cup twirled in the exhaled smoke. He looked over. “I’m Mike. What’s your name?”
You’re a grown up now, act like one, I chastised myself, forcing my head to tilt upwards to look up into blue eyes sunk in creased sun-baked lids. “Jody, but everyone calls me Jo,” I eked out. I made that up in the moment, thinking Jo sounded more mature.
“Well, Jo, I’m really Michael but everyone calls me Mike.” He offered his calloused hand, still warm from the coffee. I tried to guess his age, but couldn’t get further than over twenty, maybe thirty.
“So, Jo, what do you do?” he asked. Those blue eyes, that crooked smile. I struggled to quiet my breathing, to keep my voice from quaking.
“Not much these days. School just got out.” I scrabbled through my bag and found the Parliaments that I had ripped off from my Grandmother, shook one out, but couldn’t find the matches. Mike clicked on his lighter, gold with a bronc engraving, and held it to my cigarette. I inhaled too fast, and the harsh smoke made me cough like the amateur I was, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“College?” he asked, his head inclined towards mine.
“Uh, well, I’m starting junior college in September.“ I crossed my fingers against the lie, thinking I could get away with it. I’m used to being thought older – my height, long legs and the self-assurance I could easily fake gave that impression, especially to older men.
“That’s great. What are you going to study?”
“I’m not sure, maybe hair?” I tried hard to take a mental photograph of our conversation to pick apart later with Denise.
“Are you asking me?” Thick black eyebrows cleaved together across his high forehead.
“No, it’s just that I’m really not sure. What do you do?”
”I’m a roper,” he said, “on the rodeo circuit. But last night my horse pulled up lame and needs a few days of rest. He’ll be all right, but I thought I’d take the time and go home.”
“Wow, the rodeo. That’s really cool.” I sounded fourteen and stupid, which is what I was, and when he picked up his magazine, I returned to my book, but couldn’t read, too self conscious of his elbow on the armrest between us.
The overhead lights dimmed, individual seat lights turned on. Burnt grease from the food car wafted in. We rode past crumbling brick factorys on the outskirts of town. Neon signs for car dealerships flickered bright red. When it got too dark to see the pages, I reached overhead to turn the seat light on, but Mike’s hand was there first. I froze, then pulled back when our fingers touched. I assumed he would turn it on, but he didn’t, so I returned the book to my bag, and sat there in shadow.
A few passengers careened forward then returned, sloshing cups of coffee and soda, holding wax-paper wrapped pastries and sandwiches. Several wobbled on the curves grabbing onto whatever they could to stay upright, apologizing as they went.
Mike tipped his seat back until he was almost flat. “Are you cold?” he asked. His voice, hard to hear over the iron wheels grinding, startled me. We were rushing past acres of car lots and the garish neon back-lit him so I couldn’t quite see his face.
“Yeah, just a little. I didn’t pack a sweater or anything ‘cause I know how hot it will be in Tucson.” I don’t know why I lied – a light jacket was in my suitcase.
“Here, you can use my overcoat as a blanket.” Not waiting for my answer, he draped a large wool coat over me, tucking it behind my shoulders and under my knees. It was scratchy and foul with body odor that crinkled my nose.
“That better?” Never mind that my arms were trapped under the thick wool. I nodded yes, eager to please, as was my custom.
“Good,” he said, turning away. It was close to midnight, eight hours to go. The rocking of the train and heaviness of the coat made me sleepy and I pushed back my seat and drifted off, soon dreaming that I was lying on sand at an unfamiliar beach. I was sweaty, too hot, and the sea breeze bathed and soothed. Ants crawled up my leg, waking me slowly, but I didn’t open my eyes because it was really Mike’s hand under my skirt, his fingernails hot needles lightly stabbing. I couldn’t believe this was happening, but I didn’t stop him; in a way it felt good, especially when his fingers swept under the elastic of the baggy Carters underwear my mother bought for me, the same style since I was out of diapers.
I squinted open one eye. The coat spread over him now as well. His eyes were closed, head turned towards the window, and I didn’t dare move, not knowing if he was awake or touching me while he slept, maybe dreaming about another woman more intimate to him. Nothing this big had happened to me and I only wanted to concentrate on every detail to share with Denise.
Then his fingers moved inside my underpants, pushing my legs apart, and still I didn’t stop him, sort of liking that sweet feeling that tickled through me, the same as when I touched myself in the bath at night or when my exboyfriend and I made out. I thought maybe I could submit what was happening to True Confessions. I was an obsessive reader of the magazine and knew something about the variables of sex. Stuff like this happened all the time, according to their stories. And didn’t I ask for it, letting Mike think I was older? This was what happens between a man and a woman, I told myself, this was normal.
“Gin!!” Again followed by a deafening slap. Wouldn’t they ever sleep? The train lurched around one curve then another. My legs rigid as sticks, I held them apart and let Mike probe and grope, his touch firing me up beyond what I could stand – my legs snapped together of their own volition. I didn’t know what was happening, and the feeling that I was losing control frightened me, taking me too far away from anything I’d felt before. He pushed a little, a little more, then withdrew his hand.
I looked over. His eyes were still closed, his head hung sideways off slumped shoulders. I looked over at the couple playing gin – the old lady was shuffling the cards, the old man looked up and winked. I worried that they, and everybody else, could hear my hammering heart.
An announcement came through the PA – the dining car would close in ten minutes. I was hungry, and readied myself to get up, when Mike’s hand took mine with fingers still wet from touching me, and guided my hand to his lap. It was already out of his pants, and very big and hard, not anything like I imagined. I remembered asking an older friend how a boy got it into a girl when it was so bendable and soft, so at first I wasn’t sure what I was holding, and jerked away but he held my hand tighter and started rubbing himself, his hand over mine.
It was like holding a thickening water hose when a looped bend made it swell. His grip on my cramping fingers tightened and I pulled away in earnest but he wouldn’t let go,
instead pumping himself faster and faster, scaring me when he began panting like the rabid squirrel that came after our neighbor’s Siamese last week.
I pinched it, thinking that might hurt him but instead made his breath quicken. With my free hand, I held on tight to the coat’s collar, biting down on it, terrified it would slip, until he lifted a little from the seat, and sent it crumbling to the floor. I jumped up, clumsy against the train’s pitch, using the seat backs to propel myself with my hands until reaching the women’s bathroom in the rear. It was empty; I don’t know what I would have done if somebody was in there. Once inside, my icy cold fingers took forever to lock the door, all the while gulping tears and heaving breaths, afraid that he was right behind me, wishing I grabbed my bag with the asthma spray inside. Legs shaking, I sank to the rubber matted floor, my head on my knees, then scooted to the toilet, sure I was going to throw up except I hadn’t eaten since dinner and only thick burning spit came up.
In the mirror, I saw my cheeks streaked blue from the shadow. Black mascara smudged under my eyes, my lips chapped with flakes of pink lipstick. I stuck my face in the sink under a stream of cold water, soaping it and my hands over and over. More than anything, I was embarrassed, but for reasons that elude me now, I didn’t blame him, instead castigating myself for wimping out on what could have been an adventure. I wondered again if that was what older girls do. I had no idea, but thought maybe so, although I couldn’t picture my sister or any of her goody-good friends being so inclined. I was in the middle of a nightmare and willed myself to wake up, but I was awake and didn’t know what to do next. There was no way I was going to back to my seat, thinking I would stay in the bathroom until we reached Tucson, but soon was interrupted by a tap on the door. Of all people, it was the beleaguered gray gin woman. I slipped out past her, thankful she didn’t lift her eyes from her fuzzy slippers. Leaning on the luggage racks, I stood on tiptoes to peer down the aisle, hoping Mike was no longer in his seat. It looked empty, but I wasn’t sure. Prepared to bolt, I took tiny steps forward, clutching seat backs against the sway, immensely grateful to find him and his stuff gone.
About to sit down, the grey gin man looked over, running his tongue over dry lips.
“Your boyfriend left,” he said, jabbing his chin towards the front.
“He’s not my boyfriend!” Rushed by anger, I wished I could slap him when he said,
“Sure looked like it!”
I dropped into the window seat, pulling my legs up tight beneath me. Mostly I was confused. I sort of liked what Mike did to me, but not very much what he made me do to him, not realizing until years later that he hadn’t give me a choice.
When the sun’s hot glare woke me several hours later, I stayed unmoving, my head resting against the window, not daring to turn in case somebody was looking at me. The train rushed by rows of houses all in various states of disrepair, miles of dry scrub, and twisting sagaro cacti. A woman wearing a red striped nightgown and curlers in her hair waved inside two boys shooting baskets on their driveway.
When at last we pulled into the Tucson station, Denise was on the platform, running alongside the train holding a large bouquet of white daisies aloft like the Olympic torch, shouting, “Jody, where art thou? Where art thou, my Jody?”
When the train screeched to a stop, I’d already grabbed my suitcase and carpetbag, and stood ready for the doors to open. Halfway down the steps, Denise rushed me, both of us laughing, so happy to see each other. Another sepia poster of Jesse James greeted me, both hands shooting pistols. I couldn’t wait to tell Denise every detail about what happened.
That’s when I saw Mike getting off the train a few cars ahead of mine, his hand tousling a tow-headed toddler with the same fingers that touched me. A short, large-breasted woman, her blonde hair crushed under a pale blue cowgirl hat, leaned in for a hug.
Denise turned to see what I was looking at, and pulled on my hand, the same one that had touched him. “Wow, Jody! Are you checking out that cowboy? Doesn’t he look just like James Dean?”
Jody A. Forrester is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars (2010). Publications include Open City, Citron Review, Straylight, The Write Mag, Two Hawks Quarterly, Prime Number Magazine, and the Missouri Review web-blog. She lives with her husband, musician John Schneider, in Venice, California.