The skies outside the window of my carriage were steel gray, the same rain-leaden clouds that had been overhead for the past few days, creating brilliantly bright lightening over Melbourne at night. We rolled past fields of dry yellow grasses and bright green ones, pastures filled with cattle and soggy sheep. Here and there were eucalyptus trees, sometimes singly, sometimes in clusters, reminding me of the oaks that grow on the grassy hillsides of the Coast Range back in California. All the colors, from the grasses to the dark green eucalyptus trees and their pale tan peeling bark, had been dulled, rendered in that green-gray light that comes with a storm.
I hadn’t really decided beforehand if I was going to get to Sydney by rail or by plane, but I think that going by rail had always been in the back of my mind. I can’t say why; maybe it simply seemed an effective way to see a large amount of the Australian countryside in my limited time. Even then, what I saw was just a small scratch of a huge country; it would be akin to going from Los Angeles to San Francisco and saying that you’d “seen America.”
Some things are universal, though: the train was running 90 minutes late.
Without doubt, traveling by train was a different, much more communal experience than traveling the U.S. by truck had been. I started the day listening to a couple of backpackers a few rows behind me. He, an American as far as I could tell, was teaching her, an Aussie by the sound of it, the game of Gin Rummy. It’s a game that we played around the picnic table while camping when I was a kid, so I knew it well, and could not help but wonder why it was that he was the lucky one who got to sit next to the cute Aussie girl and have the opportunity to teach her the game, and I was not. The seats surrounding me were empty.
It reminded me of watching “Before Sunrise” when it came on cable not too long before I left. The film is a simple concept: American boy on train in Europe meets beautiful French girl, they spend the day together, fall in love, separate, and don’t meet again until the sequel.
I pondered at the end of the film if that kind of thing ever really happened in real life, or if it was simply a Hollywood contrivance. There is a part of me that desperately wants it to be the latter. The pretty blonde girl sits next to the guy on the train, starts the conversation with him, and elects to spend 24 hours with him having deep and interesting and meaningful talk? And they end up having sex?
C’mon. That can’t be reality, right? In reality, wouldn’t Julie Delpy take one look at the guy with the stringy hair and the bad teeth and keep right on going? Besides, reality has bathroom breaks, and I can’t remember them making a loo stop in the entire film.
Jaundiced eye aside? I have no idea. Can two paths like that really cross in real life? For all I knew, it was happening a few rows behind me, the start of something. Or not. Whether or not it was, providence had smiled upon their seating arraignment, placed them next to each other. Whatever the outcome might be, the pieces were on the board, and the game was afoot.
Sadly, providence did not smile upon me as well.
Instead, I got the family in front of me. The one with the small girl who would spend the next twelve hours alternatively happy and eliciting a piercing shrieking that reverberated through the carriage. Unbeknownst to her mother, each time she would try to comfort the child by holding her to her shoulder the child’s face would be right between the seats, looking (nay, aiming) directly at me. I tried to hide my wincing, let the look on my face make things worse somehow, but I’m afraid I didn’t do a very good job.
It’s difficult to smile when faced with a child whose lungs were born to go to 11.
The seats across the aisle didn’t stay empty for long, either. A few stops into the trip, a young couple settled into those seats. Then they settled into each other. Laying across each other, embracing, snogging. I kept my eyes focused on my book or, alternatively, out the window. Impossible to tune out, though, were the sounds of sucking, sloppy, wet kissing going on a mere four feet away. I pondered if this was what it was like to accidentally walk onto a porn film set, the sound one might hear while desperately searching for an exit.
They went on for hours. After a while, I wished they would just DO it already, so at least I could hope that they would smoke a cigarette and fall into a quiet sleep afterwards.
I’ve never been a big fan of public displays of affection, even in those exceedingly rare circumstances when I have the opportunity to be the participant rather than the observer. I grabbed my iPod and started to play music, staring even more intently at the passing countryside and realizing that, not only was the player nearly out of charge, I had just discovered the first thing I’d forgotten behind in the States.
Damn you, Apple, and your specialized non-standard-USB connections. Damn you.
The snogging would stop, and the crying would begin. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth.
I felt lonely, surrounded by families, couples, random-perhaps-couples-to-be. Alone in a crowded train car, little different than being a wallflower at a high school dance. I’d read about this on one of the travel websites before I left, under the section “Traveling Solo.” While those in relationships may complain about the troubles of traveling with someone, whether it be the need to compromise or the lack of complete freedom or whatever, it pales in comparison to being totally isolated, with your own thoughts your only company.
Unless you count a screaming child and an overly passionate couple to be “company.” I… do not.
Maybe it was just the inability to escape, trapped as I was in an assigned seat on a moving train.
Maybe I just wished that a Julie Delpy had been assigned to the seat next to mine, so I would have someone to talk to, someone to distract me and focus my attention from all that was going on.
I thought how odd it was, as the countryside rolled by, that the train would serve as a personal allegory, because I was surrounded by people living their lives: families traveling together, young couples in love, people meeting at teaching each other card games. And there I was, just a passenger, moving from one destination to another, doing little more than passively observing the big wide world outside the window, and the little worlds of the lives that surrounded me.
Wondering, again, why it is that when I am the participant, living life rather than being an observer of it, it’s fleeing, lasting for only short bits of time before I don the lab coat again and go back behind the glass to watch.
Then the iPod battery died.
I glanced over at the couple. It turned out they had been giving each other hickeys, of all things.
At least the sucking noise was less pornographic than I had imagined, and there was some relief in that.
Relief that lasted until the next scream in front of me…