BY EMILY LAWSON
I ask myself why I would so love a seat on the Amtrak but not my bed in this hospital room. Both give abundant time to read, anonymity, kind strangers, constant glimpses of human goodness. Plus worn-down banality, used linens, food so bad it’s almost charming. On the train too there’s a sense of a shared pain, a knowing, the kind of grace you can find in a nod passed between two patients wheeled by on their gurneys. Of course, here I am intubated. I drag my tree of IV bags to the bathroom. Here, my intestines bloom agonizingly from my abdominal ostomy when I laugh. Here, the tumor is bleeding. Nobody knows where the infection is coming from, and won’t implant my chemo port until the fever goes down. But I walked to the little window after visiting hours, as it got dark, and leaned on the sill. I realized I had not really looked. But then I was looking, and there was the black-stone train station where I used to meet my friend when he lived in New Brunswick for conservatory. Jazz. Lit windows blinking and darkening in the dormitory towers. Headlights pooling at the intersection. The old metal train beginning to move over its black bridge, cutting a diagonal behind the tall buildings. On the train, the world expands around you with every mile. Here, it closes in slowly, until the illness is the only world. And so I have to remember, all the time, where I’ve gone and where I’ll go again.
BY EMILY LAWSON
Time-travel capsule, shaking silver hideaway—where an old vet once bought me dinner. We’d always stop to talk during the smoke-breaks, passing lighters on platforms in the city grit, then desert, then violent mountain wind. Each day, the same blue suit with gaudy buttons: a suit on a sleeper train. We ate, then sipped burnt coffee under little shivering chandeliers. Over the white benevolence of tablecloth, paper placemats, we played chess on a thin magnetic board. He’d learned in prison on a set he whittled. Slip off the band, unfold the miniature grid. Control the center first. Stack your castles when you can. Now I might surprise you and win. He showed me photographs of his bare apartment, taken with a disposable camera. His teeth were bad. Today, I wish I hadn’t let him pay. I was eighteen and thoughtless. We sat for hours by the weird lacy curtains, under leaping eyelets of sun. Strangers filled the other half of the table, ate, and left. Teacups trembled in their saucers. Relic lace and china—Amtrak won’t survive this decade. We met Mennonites, German tourists, young mothers speaking Spanish. When I grilled them about love, they answered me. Or paused to watch the windows: cow fields, water towers, power-lines. At sundown, we returned to our seats to sleep. When I reached you at the end of the ride, first love, you’d leave me—I knew that. I clicked on my reading light, caught my ghosted face in the window. Woke to the chess set left on my armrest.
BY EMILY LAWSON
I’ve been lucky. Once on the Amtrak, a pale, bald man watched me for days, staring and tracking my movements. I was uneasy, not afraid. But then an older woman asked me to take the seat beside her. She told me she had been watching him watch me all that time—that she saw as he followed me down to the changing room. She went down after him, grabbed his arm, said I know what you’re doing. She told the man to get off at the next stop, and he did. I sat with her for two days. We were headed west, then, through Colorado—fields dropping suddenly into granite canyons which seemed flecked with gold in the light. Then mountains. She was on the train because she was dying, she said, of Lupus. She didn’t want a hospital—she was traveling to spend her last months in a little cabin, surrounded by flowers and animals. I used to be pretty too, she said. I felt ashamed. She looked much older than she was, and so ill. She was Native, from New Orleans, practiced Voodoo. White magic. I still have the protective charms she left me with: necklace of beads carved from crocodile bones, porcelain angel. Why did she have these things, just to give away? She read my palm. I slept with my head on her shoulder. Seven years ago. I have forgotten her name. In my mind, she sits in a bright log cabin, birds singing, in a room full of flowers, a room almost made of flowers. Somehow that’s really what I thought. But of course not. It was slow and painful, and she’s long gone now. For years her charms had kept me safe.