We eat oranges on the train. I had been dreaming of meat, a roast with a thick brown sauce, instead of the thin juice that filled my cheeks as my teeth ground into the cellophane pulp.
We had not planned to leave so soon. There was a fight. Predictable for us, perhaps, but we had expected the country to fold over us, like a tissue over phlegm, and conceal our rotten parts; to present us, to Europe, to ourselves, as downy snow virgins.
We could only get the train without the dinner service, unless we wanted to wait. And we didn’t want to wait. We wanted to escape, just as we had escaped here from America, just as we had escaped into each other’s arms from our childhood homes. Just as we were escaping each other. He bought the oranges at the station from the produce vendor instead of bananas. Perhaps he thought they were romantic, the peeling of the skin, the way we could cup the orange balls in our hands, instead of the more practical bananas.…and he accuses me of impracticality.
Was it impractical that we would have to take this trip to Hungary, Austria, Poland—the meat-and-potatoes of Central Europe—the land of his ancestors, instead of Italy or France, to repair our marriage? And yet, instead of eating the delicacies of the country—sausages and herring and cabbage—we suck on oranges, and the juice runs, sticky, between our fingers, our lips. He wipes his hand on his trousers before reaching for the map and I want to slap him.
We are moving faster now, through the countryside, running from the darkness of the east toward where I am not sure. There are arrivals and departures, comings and goings. The illusion of travel, of moving, seems like progress. Our postcards arrive to you staggered, a story of building importance—Budapest! Krakow! Vienna!
But this story has no arc, only the sinking ebb of little disappointments. Misunderstandings. A critical remark about the dry-cleaning and ‘why must I take it myself if I want the shirts folded right?’ The condom in the trousers of the pants I shook out. A number repeated, like binary code, over and over on our phone bill that is not mine and does not belong to his mother. An old story. The tracks, like these marble monuments and concrete bridges, laid down centuries before. We know no better; we settle into the grooves. We ride.
Would you like another orange? He held it up to me, a perfect sphere, a thing to admire, not claw and tear. His eyes search for my answer. A hopefulness springs from his lifted brows. I picture him at the vendor’s stand, picking them up and smelling them as if they were melons. I laughed despite myself, turning away toward the train car.
Please, I answer, cradling it in my hand.
A Small Package/Driving the Peninsula
“No man is an island, he’s a peninsula—Jefferson Airplane.” He turns up the stereo for seemingly the thousandth time when I think it cannot be any louder.
“The name of the song?” The wind from the open windows battles the saw of noise coming out of the Volvo speakers. Speakers newer than the 30-year-old wagon, and probably worth more.
“No—it’s a lyric, kind of. The song is ‘A Small Package of Value Will Come to You Shortly.’ It’s freakin’ awesome.”
“Oh.” Everything is freaking awesome to him. We are driving the coast. His left arm is brown from resting it on the doorframe. The wind rakes his arm hair, white like corn silk, and the Pacific—its coolness, creeps in the car to replace, at moments, the smell of dirty sneakers, of mint Life Savers, of a tree-shaped air freshener. It has been like this since Seattle. A wedding in San Francisco. A drive down the Route 1, a romantic interlude, a gathering of information about my potential husband beside me.
Definitely not husband. He speaks, an unremitting monologue to which I respond in monosyllable. I hold the poems of Anne Sexton open on my lap. If I read, if I pretend to read, it does not matter. He will repeat aloud amusing signs, the mileage left to San Francisco, to Sausalito, to Petaluma, to Santa Rosa. He will muse about dinner, three hours away, where we will stay, at least five. Should we drive the whole night through?
No man is an island. He is a peninsula and a small package of value.
“So stupid that they changed their name to Jefferson Starship.” He taps the steering wheel with his thumbs, to what I assume is music. “They went into that eighties synthesizer bullshit hard.”
“I liked ‘We Built This City on Rock ‘n Roll’.”
“Reaalllly?” His face corkscrews, as if I’ve farted. “I thought you had better taste than that.”
My father died last year. He was neither island nor peninsula but a small sailboat lost at sea, occasionally making his way to us, back to the shore. At home, we listed to Franz List, ‘6 Consultations, S. 172; No. 3 in D flat,’ to Schumann, to Schoenberg. We never took road trips. Some nights our father would take a walk in our shady, hilly, neighborhood, and hours later my mother, with a too-large smile, suggested we go find him. A game. We walked in the darkness, my mother, brother, and I. We whispered his name. It sounded like leaves, crickets, like shadows.
“Nothing was as good as ‘Surrealistic Pillow’.” He runs a hand through curly ringlets. His friends are getting married. Surfers and mountain bikers and people with ruddy faces, stringy muscles, will be there, holding white wine with tan, calloused fingers.
I close the book at “Briar Rose.” In the poem, when Briar Rose marries the prince, she will not sleep, will not relive the horrors of the thirteenth fairy, the charred spinning wheel, the father. When we lie in bed tonight, after sex, he will snore. I will rest my head on his chest, matted corn silk, eyes open in the dark. It is a game. I cannot close my eyes. It is then when I need him to speak, my small package of value, speak, but I cannot form the words before I drift under.
How long have you been waiting for the train, my prince, when maybe you’ve been waiting for me, instead? I think of how I will tell you everything. It just happened; sitting in the chair beside my boss and across from the human resources manager, nodding to words that made sense only after I’d left: severance, sign here, see you later. Papers moving like icebergs from the manager’s right hand to the left, then to me, my signature the end to everything. It’s five-thirty on Friday and I’m on the wrong platform. I weave through commuters with a Staples box, and I’m not sure why I even saved this much: foam stress balls, Post-It notes, a birthday card from my coworkers, a calculator never used. I leave the box next to a homeless man by the ticket machine, along with five dollars.
You lean against the tiled wall, peeling an orange. My boyfriend doesn’t know anything yet. Of course, you say, he should know, about my job, about us, but this news feels like an operator in an equation of variables he and I have yet to identify. Yes, his sweatshirt is balled in my hamper, his toothbrush on my sink, a pair of sneakers by the door, but they are such fragile tethers, weather vanes that pick up the wind before dying again. So much depends on what is never spoken and also what is. So much depends on where you are waiting and how open you are to what comes along.
You clasp your elbow, my prince. A train arrives, and your white shirt billows, a swan in a lake of geese. Movement, faces flicker around us I close the distance. Did you know you were waiting for me, did you wait here knowing I would take the wrong entrance to the subway, did you know where I would land and open your arms to catch me?
I put my hands on your shoulders before you climb on, and you flinch. Your head turns. I smile, and this is how we will tell everyone the curse was broken.
My uncle used to beat my aunt when life gave him the finger—a half-burned casserole on the table when he got home from dinner, a busted starter under the hood of the Impala, a half-assed effort from the Baltimore Colts on a Sunday afternoon. Chairs splintered, hammers raised, whiskey bottles flew. Once, when my aunt took my cousins and tried to leave, my uncle broke her arm pulling her back into the house.
It is hard to marry this uncle to the one who sits before us now, as doughy and pilled as a teddy bear, neutered by the press of maintenance medications in his crazy brain—Haldol, Prolixin, gummy vitamins, his thin, black-socked ankles crossed as he holds his cigarette, delicately, like a girl.
“God bless her soul.” He glances back toward the casket, where his wife lies, one of her embalmed hands folded over the other in that stiff, awkward way, like those rubber dolls with wires threaded inside the limbs to bend them. “We was married thirty-five years.”
“Heart attack.” He tells a lady from the church. Despite his many attempts to kill my aunt over the years, she got the last laugh, so to speak, in her sleep.
Out back, when we made our way to the funeral home, we saw a body bag on a gurney. It could have been dry cleaning—in a way, maybe it was. You took my hand and we tried to stay together as we squeezed past the cars in the parking lot.
“It just ain’t the same anymore, like ‘em old days. We had fun back then.” My uncle studies his cigarette. His eyes are liquid dark marbles in the lumpy folds of his face, his silver-wisped hair gently Brylcreemed around his head, like a Dashiell Hammett character. I take his outstretched hand, and he kisses my knuckles, starting to bawl. I put my hand on his shoulder, feel the terrain of his collarbone and muscle, the warmth radiating from his neck.
So many things are forgotten, or forgiven. My cousins grew older, went to college. My uncle retired early on medical disability. He sat in the living room, an eager, docile audience to Bob Barker and the next item up for bids. My aunt served him roast beef sandwiches and iced tea. They bought a trailer and vacationed in the state park; my uncle gave up drinking and went fishing. He taught the grandchildren how to bait a hook.
“Don’t be strangers,” he says. My shoulder is wet with his tears. I press a tissue into the meat of his palm. “Pretty soon, we’ll all be gone. But we’ll all go to heaven. I’ll see you there.”
You drive too fast home, running lights, taking corners too sharp. You turn on the radio, searching for the World Series, annoyed it has gotten so late, that we stayed so long. Will there be time, you mumble, to catch the end on television?
“Slow down.” I reach for the stereo knob, but you knock my hand away. I stare at both hands, in my lap, not too old, not too pale. Not yet. Then I stare at my right hand, pulling at the door latch, as you ride the brakes to the next stop sign.