"Why don't you take the train home?" his mother had finally suggested.
Doug paused to consider the idea. He had never taken the train anywhere before, in all of his twenty-odd years. He'd driven, flown, bused, and even boated, but never had he once set foot on a railcar. Though he was sure it wasn't any more difficult than riding Greyhound, taking the Amtrak felt alien and unknown. If he could he'd save that as a last option, but at the moment there didn't seem to be any alternative.
The young man was plagued by transportation problems. He no longer had his own car on campus. He had few friends who actually owned an automobile. Those that did couldn't give him a ride for the simple reason that they had to work, and he had to leave that Thursday morning. And finally, Doug couldn't rely on his parents—for a plethora of reasons but mainly that they too were unavailable. His mother worked and his father…well, after the divorce they were no longer on speaking terms. Doug despised him, and there was no way he would be asking him for any favors.
The irony was that he would be coming home to Philadelphia to spend a two-week vacation with his father, in France no less. His mother knew the situation between father and son, but she managed to persuade him some time ago. The old man was getting on in years, and this could be the last opportunity they had to mend fences.
So he had agreed.
"You can buy the ticket online," his mother stated over the phone. "You can use the Internet, can't you?"
Doug had to laugh at the question. "Fine."
A week later Doug found himself standing in the Amtrak station in downtown Pittsburgh, at six o'clock in the morning.
As expected, there were very few people present. The sitting area was divided into two groups, both facing a ridiculously small television set showing an episode of "I Love Lucy." The January air outside was bone-cold, but there inside the station it felt like a sauna. Doug took a seat in the back row with his luggage, against the wall and away from everyone else. At that hour of day, he wanted to be alone and didn't want to be bothered.
His ticket and identification were ready…now it was merely a waiting game. Departure scheduled at 7am with a 30-minute delay.
Doug settled back in his seat and decided that things weren't bad so far, except that he hated idle time. He did, however, notice his surroundings. A few rows ahead, a middle-aged woman dressed in a black suit sat reading the Post-Gazette, periodically sipping her coffee. Business trip…or something else entirely? Across the aisle to his left an elderly couple watched the television, laughing and chattering about Lucille Ball as if she were a newfound actress. On their way to visit grandchildren? In the very front row, a tired-looking mother stared at the vending machines while her two small children played at her feet. The ticket agent behind the glass, darting in and out of his post, never staying in the same place for more than five seconds.
It used to be an amusing pastime of his, when he was a child, to observe people and wonder what their stories were. His imagination would start with some wild fantasy, gradually tempered by reality but still fantastic to believe. Somehow, though, he always wound up disappointed when he learned the truth of things.
Life, he had realized long ago, came in many shapes and forms but fundamentally remained the same: worldly mundane, bogged down with the weight of day-to-day practicality. No matter where these people around him would end up, their lives wouldn't deviate far from the slice he now observed.
The businesswoman would still be reading newspapers and drinking coffee.
The elderly couple would still be watching old T.V. shows.
The mother would still be filled with heartache and worry.
And the ticket agent would still be working here, forever.
Doug himself wasn't to be excluded from this view. The past few years of his life felt almost routine: study, work, date girlfriend, go out occasionally, study and work some more, break up with girlfriend, go out less and less, take job and work, work, work. And then the cycle would repeat itself; not only in his own life, but he watched as his friends—indeed, everyone he knew—followed the same pattern. There was no real, concrete meaning to life at all, he had finally concluded. Doug was known to have a harsh, cynical view of the world, but he always felt himself justified. After all, with so many terrible things going on in the world, who could really blame him? It was just hard for him to get excited about anything anymore in life.
He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn't realize someone was asking him a question.
"Excuse me…did you hear that last announcement over the speakers?"
A young woman had seated herself in the row in front of him. In her twenties, around his age. Short dark hair underneath a winter hat, somewhat pretty face with black-rimmed glasses. Her cheeks were red from the cold outside but her friendly brown eyes and smile stayed warm.
Something in Doug wanted to return that smile…he really did. But instinct acted much too quickly for him, and he shrugged. "No, I didn't hear it. If you really care that much, you should go talk to the ticket guy."
The girl's pleasant smile remained; her eyes told him otherwise. "I just thought that…well, never mind. Thanks."
Doug watched as she stood up and went to the booth; she was about his height, maybe slightly taller. Her build looked all right despite the heavy coat, though her jeans looked a little too loose. He felt unusually guilty for being so rude. He attributed it to his hatred of conversation in early morning; in any case, he didn't need to answer her like that. Oh well, he wouldn't lose sleep over it.
He turned away, noticing that the passenger group had grown as people started to trickle in. Family members hugging farewells, more suited business folk stopping to buy coffee from the machines. A light snow had begun falling outside, the clouds already smothering the rising sun.
A sudden rumble came overhead the station, signaling that a train had just rolled in, followed by the announcement that the 7am departure to New York City was now boarding.
Most of the passengers stood up then to climb the escalators, but Doug was already moving with luggage in hand. He walked briskly by the girl and past the others, determined not to waste another minute in that station.
The train inside looked exactly like any other images he'd ever seen of an Amtrak railcar. Two rows of seats on either side of a middle aisle, with storage space overhead and a bathroom at the front of the passenger car. What impressed him the most was the sight of the legroom, remembering those unpleasant flights in coach class.
Doug made sure to be the first passenger aboard so he could choose his seat near the middle of the car. He quickly stowed away his luggage, then settled into his seat beside the window. He tried to ignore the other passengers that filed by him; he felt tired, and all he wanted to do was sleep.
The last passenger stepped into the car and Doug was surprised to see the girl who had spoken to him before. She recognized him as well, evident from the brief, polite smile she flashed. She then turned away, searching for a seat in the rapidly-filling car.
Doug again felt that pang of remorse, and just knew he had to apologize. Before she moved on, he spoke to her in his most sincere voice. "Hey, sorry if I was rude to you back there. I'm not used to being up so early, you know?"
The girl's smile became friendly once more. "Oh no, that's all right, I shouldn't have bothered you."
"It's ok, really," Doug smiled back as best he could. "No hard feelings?"
"None, apology accepted." She glanced up to scan the car briefly before turning to him again. "Do you mind if I sat next to you?"
"Uh, no…no, not at all." He stood. "You want the window seat?"
The girl laughed. "Is that an offer?"
"By all means." The two fumbled over each other after he helped her stow away her suitcase. They finally settled into their new seats, all the while that awkward silence hanging between them; that brief period of polite quiet as each thought of the best way to start a conversation. Doug suddenly realized that he had experienced a lot of awkward silences with women lately.
"It's so cold outside, even for Pittsburgh," the girl said aloud.
Relieved, Doug turned to face her. "Yeah, I know. We're in for an extended winter." A pause. "So, you from around here?"
He watched as she removed her hat and smoothed out her short dark hair. "No, but I graduated from college here. Originally I'm from Florida but now I'm living in Philadelphia. You?"
"Same here. I mean, I graduated from college here, too. Still work here as a matter of fact. But I was born and raised in Philly."
The girl nodded in understanding. "Ah, so you're going home now?"
Doug sighed. "Yeah, heading off to a European vacation actually, with my old man. Two weeks without work."
"Oh, that's nice, I wish I had a vacation Are you looking forward to it?"
"Yes and no," he chuckled. "It'll be great; I've never traveled to Europe before. But then again, how fun can it be when you're going with just your father?"
She laughed aloud. "Well, how do you two get along?"
"Not well." A frown. "We haven't spoken to each other in over two years."
"Are you kidding, why not?" she asked, looking genuinely shocked.
Doug shrugged casually. "I'd rather not talk about it. Anyway, enough about me. You're heading home to Philly now, I assume?" The conductor started down the aisle just then, taking passenger tickets and telling everyone to fasten their seatbelts.
"I was in town visiting a friend of mine, she just had a baby."
"I see…how's mother and baby doing?"
"They're fine but Claire, my friend, is going crazy, she has another small kid. She asked me to stay a bit longer to help out. She's only twenty-three; sometimes I wonder how she can have another baby."
"Wow…" Doug shook his head.
"Well…personally I think she's making a mistake by having another baby so soon. I'm not an expert on the subject, but I hear babies can be a real handful for young mothers."
The girl frowned slightly as she looked out of the window. "They're a handful no matter what age a mother is. Besides I don't mind, I like babies." A small laugh. "I want to have a baby of my own, but my fiancé doesn't…at least not yet."
"Hmm, I see." Doug nodded, but his mind was elsewhere. So she was engaged; he wasn't exactly surprised as he was disappointed. The longer they talked, the more Doug had started to like her. He then realized that neither of them knew the other's name.
"I guess it's a religious thing, a Catholic thing," she continued. "He doesn't want our baby to be born out of wedlock."
"You're Catholic too?" Doug asked, somewhat amazed. "So am I! I mean, I'm a very bad, non-practicing Catholic."
She turned to him again, taking off her glasses. "Same here. It's a small world, isn't it?"
The car jerked suddenly as the train began moving forward. Doug hadn't even realized that they were now just starting to move. They were still thirty minutes late, but he didn't care.
"Finally, we're on the move." He extended a hand out to the girl next to him. "I'm Doug," he said simply.
"Leah. Nice to meet you, Doug."
Her handshake was firm. "You too." They both smiled and turned away at the same time. The awkward silence returned, of course, but this time it didn't feel as long. Or as uncomfortable.
"So," Leah started meeting his eyes again, "where do you live in Pittsburgh, Doug?"
The conversation continued for the next few hours, and gradually the eight-hour train ride didn't seem as long or boring as expected. Doug spoke of recent college life, about his degree in microbiology and how he ended up working in pharmacology instead, why U2 and Billy Idol made some of the best music from the 80's. Leah talked about how she graduated a few years before he did with a degree in political science, how she was currently job-hunting but looking to enter law school someday, about organic foods and Harry Potter, why The Cure and Duran Duran could beat U2 and Billy Idol any day of the week. They just talked about everything, from politics to the imminent war in the Middle East, from favorite foods to favorite movies.
And all the while, Doug found himself thinking a bit less cynically about the world. With people as nice and engaging as Leah walking around, it couldn't be all bad, could it? The guilt of being bad-mannered to her earlier increased ten-fold, though meeting her was a good thing. He enjoyed talking with her, and as far as he could tell Leah enjoyed it too. He did notice, however, that she was especially concerned about her lack of work.
"I hate sitting around the house all day," she told him. "It's not even really about that. We want to start a family but I'm afraid we won't be able to give our child the best upbringing."
Doug nodded, staring at his shoes. "You guys are ok financially, right?"
"Oh no, we're fine. My fiancé owns a small restaurant which is kind of successful. He makes enough for the both of us, but a pregnancy would be out of our means." Leah forced a laugh. "It's not a good time for us to have a baby right now."
"I see. So you're concerned with the money situation, while he's worried about the child being born out of wedlock."
"He's actually worried about the money situation too, but not as much. And we don't know exactly when we're getting married. We talk and talk about it, but nothing definitive ever comes out of it." She paused. "Some parents we'll turn out to be, huh?"
Doug didn't want to feel sorry for her; after all, Leah was a grown young woman. But he couldn't help it. He liked her as a person, and it was a shame that two people in love couldn't start a family when they wanted to.
"No, I think you two are doing the right thing by waiting," he finally said. "Again, I'm not an expert nor do I claim to be. I'm just telling you what I think."
Leah smiled warmly. "I know. Thanks Doug." Another pause. "Do you have a girlfriend?"
"No, not right now…I'm currently single. I don't know, it just never seems to work out, you know what I mean? Now that I think about it, I never really fell in love with my ex-girlfriend. It was just more of a convenient relationship."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Was there anyone you knew you loved?"
Doug had to think on that. "There was. A girl I knew from college, her name was Megan. We never actually dated, and at the time…I just…I don't know—"
"—you didn't know you loved her?" Leah finished.
"Yeah, I guess so. We considered each other friends, and we never talked about any feelings we might have had. But now, I know I loved her."
"I think that's so romantic. Where is she now?"
Doug frowned, still looking at his shoes. "She…died, on her way to Pittsburgh to see me. Car accident. Just one of those things, you know?"
Leah's eyes went wide with surprise. "Oh my God, I'm so sorry…"
He shrugged. "Don't worry about it. If anything, feel sorry for her family, like I do. They're the ones who are hurting."
Nothing was said for some time.
"I didn't mean to bring up anything painful," Leah finally said.
"You didn't. It's ok, I'm fine about it. I just regret not realizing sooner, so I could tell her how I feel. Oh well…spilled milk." Doug hoped that he didn't come across as some cold-hearted bastard. The fact was that he had gotten over Megan's death a long time ago, and that perhaps shutting himself off emotionally from it would help him cope…at least, that's what he thought. But he had never spoken so openly about it before. Of course he had heard all the bullshit about 'expressing your feelings to heal the soul' before, yet it never felt real, personal to him, until now.
After a few minutes, Leah reached down below her seat for her purse. "Do you want to see a picture of me and my fiancé?"
"Sure, why not."
She pulled out a small photo and handed it to him. "That's us about a year ago. I think when we were first engaged."
Doug studied the picture carefully. The young man looked ok enough, didn't seem to be a weasel or a scoundrel or anything. But what caught his attention was Leah…she didn't look anything like she did now sitting beside him. Her dark hair was longer, she didn't have glasses, she was heavier-set, and she appeared a lot older. It was almost like looking at a completely different person.
"Wow," was all he could say.
"What is it?"
"Well, you look very different now. I mean that in a good way."
"Don't kid with me, I'm not that different."
Doug chuckled. "I'm being serious. You look older in that picture, like middle-age old."
Leah hit his shoulder, laughing. "You creep, I can't believe you just said that! I don't look that old!"
"Well that's what I'm telling you. Anyway, it's a nice picture. You two look happy together, I'm glad."
She took back the photo and glanced at it. "We do, don't we? God, it feels like ages ago."
Doug said nothing to that.
A jolt shook the entire car as the train bounced on something, and Leah's purse went spilling to the floor. Quickly, she got up to gather her articles back together but Doug intervened.
"I'll get them."
"No, it's ok I can do it—"
He scooped up as many things as he could: lipstick, makeup, gum, more photos, bottles of aspirin and other medication. As he handed them back to her, he noticed that one of the bottles was a prescription of Stemetil, a medication for morning sickness, he knew.
Doug spoke aloud almost at once, perhaps not even realizing what he said. "You're pregnant."
He watched as Leah zipped up her purse, who then held it tightly in her hands. Her eyes were closed.
Dumbfounded, Doug scrambled for words. "I didn't mean to violate your privacy."
She looked up at him, and there was an indescribable sorrow in her face. "I like you Doug, which is why I can't lie to you. Yes, I'm pregnant."
Leah then turned away toward the window, biting her lip. Outside a light snowfall had begun, and they passed a sign approaching Harrisburg. The train gradually slowed down for the next stop.
Doug didn't know what to say. After all they had talked about, after all she had said…it was unbelievable. But the only thing he wanted to do, right then and there, was to understand her. Her life was complicated enough; he wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt.
"You must think I'm the worst hypocrite in the world," Leah muttered, not turning around to face him.
"No…no I don't. I still think you're a great person, the one's talked with me for the past few hours. That hasn't changed, Leah."
"…I thought I could keep it a secret. My best friend Claire knows, and now you know…"
"I won't say anything, to anyone." He went on, feeling compelled to do so. "Does he know?"
Leah faced him abruptly and there was anger in her eyes; no tears, perhaps because she had already shed enough. "What do you think, Doug? He'd go crazy if he found out. It's ours, of course, but I can't tell him. It was a stupid fucking accident. It's not right; it's not time for us to have a baby!"
Her outburst was loud enough to be heard by the other passengers in the railcar. Doug felt those eyes over his shoulder but he honestly couldn't have cared less. Leah was all that mattered. He went on with the next most logical question. "What are you going to do?"
The young woman slumped back in her seat. "I can't tell him. And he doesn't have to know." She paused to wipe a tear from her cheek. "I'm not going to carry this to term."
Doug watched her carefully. "You're going to have an abortion?"
A nod. "Do I have any other choice? If I tell him, he'll leave me."
He felt his face flush, and suddenly it felt very hot on that train. Looking right into her eyes, he went on. "Listen Leah, I like you too, and I'm glad we met. But what I'm about to say may sound a little harsh. It seems to me that if your fiancé would leave you over this, then he really doesn't love you at all."
"You don't know him, Doug. He does love me, very much so. But he's already stressed out enough as it is. Even our relationship is a strain on him; we barely see each other during the week because he's so busy. I know that if I tell him about this, he'll go over the edge."
"Yeah, but wouldn't it be the right thing to do?"
"It is…don't you think I know it is? But I won't. I love him too much."
"I've already made up my mind," Leah snapped abruptly. "I'm not going to change my mind because some total stranger tells me to."
Doug's eyes hardened…he was stunned. Few things hurt him as deeply as being shunned after he attempted to help someone. Especially now, after he thought they knew something about each other.
Leah apologized immediately. "I'm sorry Doug, I didn't mean it that way. God, I've made a mess of everything…"
A long silence followed as the two thought about what had been said. It felt like an eternity for Doug to calm himself enough to speak again. "No, I'm sorry. It's none of my business anyway. I know you've made your choice, and I respect that because I respect you. In the end, I just want what's best for you."
Leah nodded. "Thanks, Doug. I want you to know that…well…I enjoy your company." Another pause. "I hope I haven't ruined your trip today."
He shook his head and stood up. "Not at all. I just need a drink. You want anything?"
"I'm fine. Come back soon, ok?"
Doug turned to enter the next train car, following the arrows that led toward the refreshment bar. In reality, he didn't know what he was doing. A million thoughts streamed into his head about Leah, and it was hard to believe anything about her anymore. He was glad they still seemed to be on good terms.
So why was there a sick, empty feeling gnawing away inside of him?
In the food car Doug ordered a cold glass of beer, and took a seat at the bar, alone. He wasn't ready to see Leah yet.
He sat drinking for over an hour. The train had already stopped, picking up more passengers on their way to Philadelphia or New York City. It picked up speed once everyone was aboard; only three more hours until he reached his destination.
Doug didn't have a problem with Leah's decision to have the abortion. His Catholic religion had indoctrinated him about the sanctity of life since grade school, but it was also her body and her choice. He never chose sides…after all, he didn't really care, did he? He meant what he had said to Leah—that he was sure she'd do what was best for her and her family.
But that poor kid…it'll never have the chance to feel alive. It'll never know what it's like to throw a baseball or listen to a favorite music CD. It won't know what it is to live a life…
Out of the corner of his eye he noticed the single mother and her two children again from the station, sitting at one of the dining tables. The two kids were drinking from their little plastic cups of fruit juice, occasionally feeding the other. It was an amusing sight, the two of them sharing their little cups. The mother watched them and laughed to herself. For a brief moment, there was no heartache or worry on her face.
She had laughed.
Doug couldn't remember the last time he laid eyes on 30th Street Station, but he knew it had hardly changed a bit. The enormously high ceiling, the bright marble columns, the wide open spaces…it was the closest thing he'd get to a Greek temple. The echoes of the speaker announcements made him feel all the more insignificant.
"It's good to be home," he sighed, as he and the other arriving passengers stepped off the escalator.
"It certainly is." Leah stepped beside him, pulling her winter hat back on. The sight brought him back to the first time they met that morning, along with a thousand different emotions. "You didn't get any sleep, did you?"
"Not really. I had a lot to think about." Doug turned away and briefly wondered what she would be thinking about the next morning.
They stood and watched as the other passengers were met with hugs and kisses from family members, some with flowers and others with cameras. Soon, it was only the two of them left standing there with their luggage.
"How are you getting home?" Doug asked. They started for the entrance to the world outside.
Leah shrugged casually. "I'll take a cab. Do you have a ride?"
"My dad, I guess. The plan was for him to pick me up an hour ago." They now stood outside the grand station; their breaths hung cold in the air. Across the street, he saw his father waving to him. "There he is. If you would like, I can ask him to give you a lift."
"That's all right, I'll be fine." Leah turned to face him and smiled one last time. "Well Doug, thanks again. You definitely made the ride more enjoyable."
"The pleasure was all mine."
She extended her hand. "Have fun on your vacation, ok?"
Doug shook her hand warmly and met her eyes. "Of course. You take care of yourself."
"I will. Goodbye, Doug."
"Take care, Leah."
He watched as the young woman walked down the street, once in a while looking over her shoulder. Before she turned the corner of the station, he yelled out to her.
"Hey! Good luck…with everything!"
Leah waved to him, and then was gone.
Neither Doug nor his father said much of anything as they loaded the luggage into the trunk. Just a few simple nods and gestures sufficed, as always. They drove out of the train station lot and finally pulled onto the expressway for the ride home. It was then that his father unexpectedly cleared his throat.
"How was the train ride?" he asked.
"Fine. Just fine."
A familiar silence followed, soon broken by something that was unexpected by both men. Doug turned and faced his father.
"So, Dad…how are you doing?"