When I find my compartment on the train, I'm next to a young girl approximately my age. Her skin seems so spider web thin it's almost transparent. Her eyes are wide and green, I think of moss covered pools. Her hair is pale pale blond and wavy and sleek. She's reading a safety pamphlet on what to do if something goes wrong on the train, I wonder if she's been on one before. I put my bag on the ground and take my seat, introduce myself. She tells me her name is Mer. It seems fitting. It means sea in French. I wonder if she knows as much, it seems redundant to tell her so. She looks like the sea, her eyes, her hair, her spider skin. I wonder what is in Pittsburgh for her, if anything, for all these people, home, vacation, or just another stop over. I wonder how old she is. What she does. I want to ask her all these things but before I can the train lurches to a start and suddenly I am caught up in fear and in wonder.
At first I take in the train, cheaply upholstered blue seats, not obscenely small, but not really large either, with only a few inches of space between them, and small plastic levers indicating that when pulled each seat will magically become a comfortable bed. Large plastic windows with gaudy, cheap curtains, matched to the seats to provide optional shade. Airplane like fold-down trays and TV screens, minimal legroom. And then, as we leave the city, I take in our landscape, namely, New Jersey. First ugly industrialized city and huge nuclear smokestacks pumping super-hot steam into the air, then eventually the rolling hills, farms, we could be anywhere. Ohio, Indiana, Kansas.
Mer is sleeping, and so now I am unable to ask her all the questions and I begin to wonder again. Why is she travelling, and why by train? She's wearing a simple black wrap dress, probably not DianeVon Fuirstenburg, but obviously made to look it, and black kitten heals. Very conservative. I want her to be going to meet her lover, from who she's been long separated. But judging by her sad eyes and lack of baggage, save a small black purse, I'm realizing it's far more likely she's travelling to the funeral of a loved one. I wonder who died. I've never before realized people die in Pittsburgh. Of course, I realize people die everywhere, but I've never really considered that they actually do die everywhere, in every city and every town, at every time. Someone is probably dying right now, I realize. I don't want to think about it anymore. Mer stirs in her sleep and I look away.
Later, we're playing war with a deck of cards You told me to pack, and so I did. I never would have thought to pack them otherwise, but then Mer asked if I had them, and I did, so we're playing. I'm surprised.
"Why are you going to Pittsburgh." She asks
"I'm not." I say, I don't want to talk about it. "Why are you?"
"I have a family thing." She says, I decide she really is going for a funeral. I feel bad. We play a little longer,
"I grew up there." She adds.
"Why are you in New York?" I ask
"I go to Marymount" She says, "Did you grow up there?"
"You look like a New York kid." She tells me. I laugh.
"My mother grew up in New York." She says, "She went the New York Balley Academy, you know, like in that movie Center Stage? It's based off that school."
"Did she become a dancer?"
"With the Pittsburgh Ballet. Until she had my brother." I didn't even know Pittsburgh had a ballet. I don't think of places besides New York and London and Paris and Washington DC as having things like Ballets. I know that's naïve, but I don't. She tells me she went to a catholic school for k-8, she hated the uniforms, I went to a private, nonreligious school, I didn't mind my uniform skirt. She says her mother used to braid her hair every morning because some of the other kids would get lice and she didn't want it. I remember one kid got lice all my life. I went to school with braided her for a while to prevent catching it too. We switch to go fish and then she teaches me black jack, she can't believe I don't know it, she learned on a cruise in the Bahamas with her parents when she was sixteen.
We're near the city now, suburbs. Ugly. Mer tries to find her neighbourhood. She tells me her house is plum coloured, a Victorian, with navy trim and shutters. When she was little her mother used to dance with her on the front porch, she looks nostalgic now.
In the station I give her my playing cards and she gives me her address and phone number, in case I get lost or need anything while I'm in the city. I'm only a staying a few hours though. The sun's just starting to rise and I have a few hours before the car rental place Your instructions detailed me to find opens. I go to a café and get a local paper and some tea. I find the obituaries and start looking, it doesn't take long, such a unique name.
Aged 48 years, daughter of Mathew and Katherine Caulsfeld,
Loving sister of Anna Laun (nee Caulsfeld), wife of Greg Rydel, loving
Mother of Laine and Mer Rydel, retired ballet dancer. All donations
May go to the Philidelphia Ballet.