Strangers on a Train


THE TRAIN WAS packed, full of totally random people, many of them looking lost in their little worlds of post-holiday letdown. I was heading back upstate after a couple of days in New York. Metro North seemed hell-bent on tweaking my nervous system. With public transportation, it seems you’re either ensconced in your own safe, self-created bubble or else you feel completely porous to the strange assortment of humans and noise and general swirl of stimulation around you. I was feeling the latter—porous like a torn-up sieve.

People had been going crazy in New York over all the post-Christmas sales. The big stores were teeming, not in a fun way but in a hysterical, desperate, bleeding-money kind of way. Two rows behind me on the train, two women were comparing all the merchandise they had scored down in the city. For every item they pulled out of their bags, they gave the original price and then the markdown and then calculated how much they had saved. The numbers were flying, and their math was not so great. I wanted to turn around and remind them that everything they bought had been wildly overpriced before the holidays and so their savings were nothing like they’d thought, but why would I do that? I wouldn’t. People do what they need to do to feel good.

Two rows in front of me were a middle-aged couple and their daughter. The girl looked to be about nine or ten and had Down syndrome. They were the happiest-looking people on the train, so I kept watching them to catch the little sparks of sweetness and light that flew off of them in the stale train car. It was like trying to catch snowflakes on your tongue. Something about them exuded excitement, and it didn’t seem to have anything to do with money or something they’d recently bought. Maybe they just loved each other.

I shouldn’t have done it, but the night before, I had watched a very sad episode of Six Feet Under. It was the one where Nate goes in for his first brain surgery. The morning he has to go to the hospital, he’s sitting with his mother, the brittle, shrill, passive-aggressive Ruth. They are often at odds, the way many members of many families are. But on this fragile morning things drop away and Nate breaks down and says, “I don’t want to go,” crying, and Ruth takes her adult son in her arms and says emphatically, “I won’t let you go.” She means she won’t let him die, of course, and she is suddenly the elemental mother trying to protect her child from something she has no control over.

Earlier in the day I had spoken to my mother on the phone. She was in Boston, where I had just visited for the holidays. On the phone she said, “I don’t see you enough. You should come visit.” Because her memory is failing, she didn’t remember that I’d been there just two days before, that we’d sat in my sister’s living room together by the Christmas tree and that I’d given her a necklace as a present and that the whole family had had a lovely meal together. She doesn’t realize that I come to visit fairly often. I remind her of this sometimes but it’s really more for me than it is for her, because the idea doesn’t stick.

The girl with Down syndrome suddenly rushed over to the other side of the train and started knocking on the window and yelling “Hi, Sarah! Hi, Sarah!” She seemed to be calling to someone across the Hudson River, because that’s what the view was out the window. I thought maybe she had a friend who lived over there somewhere, but on that particular stretch there were no houses. There was nothing but trees. She kept yelling, and the whole car, even the gloating shoppers behind me, got quiet. Who the hell is Sarah, everyone was thinking. Was Sarah somewhere out there in the water? Then I realized it was that time of day—dusk—when your reflection starts to come into focus a little in the train windows as the scenery speeds past. Sarah was saying hello to herself.

If only the rest of us could feel so ecstatic at the sight of our own faces. The girl finally quieted down, and the shopping ladies behind me started chatting again, and someone’s iPod was bleeding music into the air. I was getting closer to home, where all the things I did and didn’t want to deal with were waiting for me.

“I always love you in my heart, but sometimes in my brain I hate you,” my daughter said to me one day when she was eight. I loved her for that comment, because it was truthful and it showed she wasn’t afraid of hurting my feelings. In the windows up and down the train now everyone’s reflection was coming into focus, as though we each had a shadowy self that was following along. Here we all were—we and our shadows—hurtling into a brand-new year.

I looked up and the girl was now brushing her mother’s hair. She was messing it all up, she was brushing it in the wrong direction, but she was doing it so tenderly and with such concentration, and her mother was so excruciatingly patient. I would not have shown such patience, I thought to myself, and my vanity would have gotten in the way. But watching the girl and her mother made me feel better, like I could leave that totally random train and find my way again.

About Janet Steen

Janet Steen started on the editorial staff at Esquire, where she tweaked the prose of writers including Norman Mailer, Denis Johnson, and Mary Gaitskill. She went on to become the books editor at Time Out New York, an editor at Us Weekly, and the literary editor at Details. She has written for the New York Times, Interview, Details, Us Weekly, and Time Out New York. Her profile subjects include such widely varying personalities as Steve Martin, Barry White, Martin Amis, and Dennis Hopper. She edits books and is a co-founder of, and lives in upstate N.Y.
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