The high arch over the entrance to the Vancouver train station divides the sign running along the roof in two. To the left the letters spell out Pacific, to the right, Central. Although it works out to the same number of letters on either side, the run of slender lines in the ifi in Pacific makes true balance impossible. Whoever built the sign spaced out the letters on the Pacific side to the same width as the more compact Central. This does not so much compensate for the sign’s inherent asymmetry as it does abstract it back into an evasive dissonance.
You take a photo of me in front of the station. A bulging backpack on my back, I’m leaning slightly to one side with the weight of the second bag I’m allowed as carry-on free of charge. Although I don’t like having my picture taken, I can’t think of a reason to refuse that won’t seem irrational and selfish. I smile at you through the screen of your telephone turned horizontally in camera mode, waiting for the moment that will recover this dead time. The moment when I will say, “I went through a real dark period, but that’s all behind me now.” And these words will be a spell that will make it impossible for me to ever let you down because I’ve waited to say them until I’m certain that they are true. I’ll be getting better just like when I was eight or nine and my fever broke late on Christmas Eve, and I spent Christmas day resting in bed feeling myself gradually drawing closer to the sounds of celebration that filled the house. Until then, I try to tread so lightly on the world that I leave no trace of my passage. That way, when the time comes, I’ll be able to cut out the last year and a half of my life and reattach the two loose ends, leaving only a smooth upward curve. The parking lot is so quiet that I hear the click of your phone when it takes the picture. I turn towards the station and wait for you to catch up with me.
The line of passengers waiting to board the train folds back on itself in boustrophedon between dark red ripstop nylon ribbons, recedes from in front of a grey Formica desk in the middle of the otherwise wood-and-marble interior that stretches out to either side. Ours, mine, is the only gate in use. There are few enough people here that, were they scattered across the entire length of the waiting area, their sparseness might have imparted a sort of tragic but noble solitude on the unevenly restored early twentieth-century station. But the compact efficiency of the arrangement gives everything an air of the absurd. I try to fix the image of your face in my mind. Not because I’m worried that this is the last time I’ll see it, but out of fear that if I’m unable to preserve a moment like this, unable to take it with me into the future as a memory distinct from all others, then our time together will cease to be a part of me as soon as I no longer have your physical presence to fall back on.
And yet, all I can think is how much I wish you’d leave. If you stay until the very end, until the conductor makes the announcement over the loudspeaker—even though she could easily reach the whole group almost without raising her voice—that all passengers are now welcome to board the train, if you stay until then our parting will be sudden and out of our control. There will be scarcely time to say goodbye before the vacuum left by the line emptying in front of us becomes too strong to resist. If you go now our parting could be thoughtful and deliberate. We alone will dictate its terms. I’ll have the time to tell you everything I wanted to. We’ll fill all the cracks that never stop opening between us and the train’s scheduled departure with the pine-pitch silence that follows a proper goodbye. I’ll stand still for one last moment to watch you leave like the echo of my own imminent exit.
But you don’t. And I don’t have the heart to ask you to. So we stand there. Each of us talks excitedly about a future that begins immediately after I get on the train that will take me across the continent to Montreal. We take turns in our speculation, drawing as close as we dare to the moment of separation without touching it. I don’t remember the specifics of anything you say, but by then we’ve already had plenty of practice with the exercise. You wish me luck, ask questions about the route, tell me to take pictures, remind me about your friend-of-a-friend who lives somewhere in the city as an excuse to acknowledge at least the idea of loneliness. It’s been some time since our words have been used to exchange any new information. We’ve long since emptied them of all meaning in order to better load them down with the mute ballast of years of shared experiences. Although the ploy has allowed us to provide one another with a measure of solidity in day-to-day life, it has left us wholly unprepared to mark the ends of things. Words come to us already packed full. Our speech is heavy and unwieldy in our mouths, and soon we are too exhausted say anything more. All we can do is let the time pass, taking deep breaths, each the final one that will have to last until the end.
We hug and I start towards the open gate, look back and smile a couple of times. There must be something I could say, but any words to match the occasion would have to be created brand new, completely unlike these everyday gestures. Then I turn a corner and it’s over in an instant. I try to hold the change in my memory and at the same time forget that there will be nothing to take with me, that the point of the leaving is the absence. I try to feel its impact, hoping that its meaning will be visible in its effects, but there is only the cool night of the train yard.
The train starts moving. Soon the nighttime city’s regular light fragments into more uneven patterns. I keep watch out the window, determined to take in every millimetre of the route. In the glass, my reflection flies silently over a low tangle of dusty brambles that never leave the tracks’ side. From time to time the dim monotony is broken up by a side road draped perpendicular across our path. But from where I’m sitting, I’m always late to the intersection—the guardrail is already lowered, amber lights flashing in warning for cars that aren’t there against an oncoming locomotive that has already passed.
I can’t look away. There’s something out there, and if I keep watching long enough, the repetitions will chip away at my expectations until I’m ready to receive it. I’m afraid that, if I don’t keep watching, the empty distance in front of me will collapse into a series of senseless intermediate arrivals until I blindly reach the end of the line only to find myself still in pieces.
I don’t remember when the scattered lights finally give in to the thickening darkness. The train must still be climbing through the lower Fraser River Valley when I fall asleep. For now my old thoughts can’t reach me without violating the laws of physics. From here to Montreal, as long as I maintain the pace, I have myself caught.
The late-fall mountains rise in horizontal bands of colour stacked one on top of the other—clumps of dark green pines, yellow grass dried out and gone to seed, pools of clear water collected in a granite basin reflecting striations of white clouds ploughed into the blue sky. A landscape held together by its own collective weight. Over the loudspeaker the conductor announces Mount Robson on the left side of the train and with it the continental divide.
Just like that I’m over the pass. Just like that I’m brought to tears here where they no longer have any chance of reaching you. But the crossing stirs the hope that there is a way to keep the two sides, the damp windward slope and the dry rain shadow, together in the same thought. I want to tear up the line of rammed earth that has brought me this far, dive naked into the reservoir gathered between the drowned forest and the hemmed-in sky. There, I would hold this moment of breach tight until, in the anaerobic closeness, my suffocated skin is cured to leather the colour of oil.
The mountain fades from view. Gravity begins to pull the train down towards the prairie. There is no beauty capable of exhausting the paths that lead back to you who are slipping away in the glissando of the train’s steel wheels, faster and faster—my mind passes across the memory like a novice artist passing their pencil across the page again and again in an approximation of the form that they know is somewhere there in the accumulation of lines, but that their imagination can’t call up until they recognize it staring back at them from the paper—until the speed alone is enough to create a sense of clean contiguity.
I sit down with my cheeseburger and fries at a concrete picnic table just outside the Jasper train station. The sky is clear in the October afternoon. The sun’s warmth pierces through the wind that intermittently threatens to blow away my stack of paper napkins. They’ve cut our hour-long stop-over in half in order to make up some of the time we’ve lost against our scheduled arrival in Edmonton. Most of the passengers are still out taking advantage of the chance to stretch their legs, leaving the station mostly empty.
A kid in torn black jeans and a baggy flannel shirt sits down across from me. He’s taking the train as far as Saskatoon. Then he’ll hitch a ride down to Regina where he’s got a place to stay with a friend. He’s vague about what he’ll do there, how long he’ll stay, and who he’s staying with. Not evasive. Just has a way of speaking as though the reasoning behind what he says is so self-evident that it doesn’t even occur to him I might not share the context needed to see the connections. I’m both relieved and a little worried that neither of us have much of a plan for our destination other than the getting there. He tells me a story the specifics of which are no clearer to me than his reasons for going to Regina, but it seems that he’s crisscrossed the West a few times already by bus, hitching, or tagging along with friends, and I get the impression that doing this leg by train is something of a present he’s giving himself for graduating high school and never having to see his dad again.
He reminds me of you. When we used to paint each other’s nails black and believed that there were no secrets between us. It was only at the end that I pieced together what you’d avoided saying. Even then I didn’t ask why you’d hidden it. Too much time had passed for me to still think that it was the kind of thing you could come out and say. In any case, I could see that you’d been piecing together the gaps in my secrets too, and recrimination would only lend a bitter taste to our already mutually assured destruction.
A man who looks to be somewhere in his early fifties joins us at the table. He’s getting off in Saskatoon too; offers to give the kid a ride down to Moose Jaw where he runs a taxi company. Says he likes it out there; didn’t care for the city life in Saskatoon so he settled down somewhere a little quieter. He smiles when I say I’m headed to Montreal. “Different strokes for different folks.” We’re both amused at the banality of the wisdom we’ve uncovered.
I wake up at around five or six in the morning to the vibrations of the train’s movement. The mist covering the ground that flows by out the window has just enough mass to sink down into the hollows. It smooths the pock-marked earth into a level surface that fades evenly into the sky. In the fields on either side of the tracks, flocks of snow geese search for leftover grain among rotting cereal stalks just insubstantial enough to not collapse under their own weight.
I push back the metaphors that spring to mind. I can feel the emptiness begin to wrap itself around me in an impermeable layer of similarity. When I can’t keep a hold on the world as it presents itself, the emptiness goes about creating a new one to insulate me from the singular immediacy of things. It extracts the sensual qualities from my surroundings and stretches them out across the real and imagined alike, weaving a safety net of facile commonality. The geese soft and downy like the fog. The wheat stalks’ paper-thin walls fragile like the present moment. The fog blurring the horizon line in the same way my memories of you blur into me. But it keeps on compulsively adding more material. Every morning presses down with the weight of every other identical morning. Every night keeps me awake staring into the depths of every other identical night. The open spaces in the weave get smaller and smaller, disappear altogether, and before I know it, I’m in a cocoon, the solid edges of my body liquefying in preparation for a metamorphosis that evolution hasn’t prepared me to complete.
I resolve to watch the snow geese as they are, to take note of what they look like then and there, rising out of the dew-damp fields once the noise of the oncoming train rises above the threshold that signals danger.
With my cheek resting against the window I listen to the hum of the train’s progress vibrate across my skull. The sky is mottled with pastel blues and pinks above a morning that offers the possibility of an encounter with the day so sincere that finally I’ll want nothing else than to watch the sun rise. But the sun only gets higher, the fog evaporates, and all the while the train keeps moving forward, splitting a line through fields of broken stalks, muck, and goose shit.
On a cross-country train, the question “How far are you going?” quickly becomes the icebreaker of first resort. A woman from Newfoundland with the same name as my mother—about the same age too—has me beat in total distance left to travel. We’re both staying on until the end of the line in Toronto where we’ll change trains and continue east. But when I get off in Montreal, she’ll continue on to the next end of the line in Halifax, after which some combination of buses and a ferry from Sydney will take her the rest of the way home.
She’s more than willing to talk, and I’m more than willing to listen. She has the uncanny ability to never ask me for more information than I’m comfortable sharing, never hesitates to pick up the silences before they can draw out too long and fill them with her stories. She tells me that she was a nurse before she retired last year. She tells me that she’s on her way home from the first vacation she’s taken since her husband died, and that this is her first time travelling alone since she was in university. She tells me about her daughter who helps with the cabins on her property that she rents to tourists. She tells me about her son who doesn’t help with much of anything, but he’s had his problems with alcohol, so she doesn’t begrudge him his selfishness seeing as he doesn’t have much of himself left to give.
As she continues to talk, I understand that she isn’t taking the train just for the scenery. Beneath her good-natured sincerity and carefully dosed honesty, I recognize an anxiety that had already ruled out the possibility of air travel. I don’t know how much of this I picked up on at the time and how much I only see now in light of later conversations. Because I can no longer keep straight what she told me when, she comes to me fully formed. No matter how hard I try, I can’t remember what it was like to arrive at this understanding. The person she is in my mind doesn’t untangle along the straight line of the train’s itinerary in the way that memories of the landscape do. I’m forced to admit that there’s a process of accumulation that no memory can hold. I remember her again and again, each time deformed by the weight of anachronistic knowledge, her initial incoherence lost forever.
The tracks are choked with freight trains. The mainline is empty next to the sidetrack where we’ve been waiting for well over half an hour. No one has made any announcements, but the stops are frequent enough by now that we all know what’s coming.
Black cistern cars full of tar-sands oil moving south. Husks of inert machinery chained to open beds. Old CWB hopper cars with their dark-red paint bleached in the sunlight until it meets the rust halfway in one ambiguously solid colour. From where I sit, the windows on one side of the car are bathed in a dry yellow light that pours in unimpeded over silent fields, on the other the windows are all darkness and motion. I feel uneasy in the sudden asymmetry. The freight train passes so close it looks like it’s going to crash into us. The boxcars’ dull orange sheet metal strains to jump as ominously half-heartedly as I did watching my last sunset over the Pacific from behind the guardrail on the Lions Gate Bridge. But the cars obey a strict maximum width. They can only keep going straight down the parallel tracks.
When the last of the freight train finally passes, the car feels like a capsized boat righting itself. Once again the prairie falls away on both sides into two balanced halves of infinity. Our train shudders forward. It’s become apparent that we’ll never make up the time we lost between Vancouver and Edmonton. Although we now stop only just long enough to let people on and off the train, at each town the gap between reality and our scheduled arrival continues to widen. We haven’t been able to really get out and walk around since Jasper. The smokers are starting to get antsy.
The girl in the row in front of me is on her way back to the apartment in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce she sublet out for the summer, her two roommates, and the brother I will catch a glimpse of a few days later when we arrive in Montreal. We pass the time seated at oblique angles to the long window that spans both our rows, lobbing bits of conversation around the intervening seat backs towards the other’s reflection, our words skipping like flat round stones off the glass.
She’s taken a year off from university and isn’t sure if she wants to go back. For the first time, rather than have someone tell me, I get to tell someone that you’re still generally as lost after you graduate as you are before. I’m just as unsure whether the advice is hopeful or defeatist when I give it as when I’m on the receiving end. I give her a look that’s supposed to preserve the uncertainty, but I never was very good at mystery. She doesn’t linger on my aphorism. Soon she moves on to telling me about the farm where she was working over the summer, or maybe asks me what the farthest place I’ve ever travelled is. As much as I enjoy the opportunity to do jaded and world weary, I’m relieved that she isn’t particularly interested in playing the petite Jehanne to my Cendrars. We are, in any case, still quite far from NDG.
The train pulls into Winnipeg at around three thirty in the morning. This is the one stop that can’t be abbreviated like the others. It marks the route’s midpoint, logistically if not geographically. The engine’s diesel tanks are refilled, the diner cars are restocked, and a new crew replaces the one that’s been with us since Vancouver. The platform hisses with discharging air brakes and rumbles with wheels loaded too heavily for their bearings rolling over worn asphalt. The lighting is arranged for the benefit of the machinery that services the train rather than the huddle of somnambulant passengers who alternate light and dark on their way towards the station doors.
Inside everything is calm and quiet. Although the interior is all stone and tile, my footsteps make no echo. The sounds are just as muted as the lights. To pass the time I wander around looking for a wifi signal, but to no avail—it’s been turned off for the night. As I walk, I feel a diffuse unease that, like the train, I’m somehow offset from where I should be at this particular moment in time. Everything is close at hand but obscured by eddies, stirred up by our sudden irruption into the empty station, that will only dissipate after we’ve left. Without any deadlines waiting for me at the other end, however, the unease isn’t unpleasant. It’s more like a curious object found abandoned on the floor—a broken keychain or a half-filled punch card for a free eleventh cup of coffee with the purchase of ten.
I stand in the central rotunda, staring straight up into the blue high-domed ceiling. In the dim after-hours lighting, it feels like I’m floating face-down on the surface of the ocean, staring into the depths. I’m weightless here in my immobility. I stretch myself upwards, fingertips extended towards your cheek flushed red from the cold, three white streaks left to shimmer for an instant underneath the fine lines of your skin before disappearing into the rush of returning blood. We would run so fast, deeply inhaling the scent of the night, hoping to make ourselves stumble and fall before we exhausted ourselves entirely, hoping to find each other still waiting there beyond the exhaustion.
I wake up into the first winter snow somewhere north of Thunder Bay. Must have crossed into Ontario during the night; slept through the transition from the deep-sod prairie to the Canadian Shield scrubbed clean down to the granite bedrock during the last ice age and haphazardly filling back in ever since.
The cotton-ball morning thins out as it advances, leaving its fibrous knots caught on the cattails, reeds, and waterlilies that poke out of the bogs that line the tracks. Whatever can’t lift itself out of the dampness rots right back into it. Tree trunks crumble into white powder, thickening the water like corn starch, asphyxiating even the fish. If I stared at it long enough, I might catch a glimpse of real nothingness, timid and fleeting, just beyond its tannin-brown surface. But the train moves too fast. Close to my window, water and rock replace each other too quickly for my eyes to see too far. More stable are the birches further back that follow us in a streak of watercolour dashed across the landscape, its variations in colour, texture, and intensity only hinting at the rough surface of another earth just underneath.
The night is in a race with Toronto. The train’s shadow stretches farther and farther off to the left, its silhouette becoming wide and ungainly as we close in on the city. The air brakes creak in our oblique descent. With no more stops and no possibility to get off before the end, there’s nothing left to do but discuss the reality of just how late we will arrive. The private anxiousness that’s been building up since Sudbury is transformed into a social event. Rumours pass through the train like an electric current. Before long even the most reserved of us can’t resist offering their own predictions. The last train for Montreal leaves at six p.m. If we don’t hit any more delays, there should be just enough time for us to run from one platform to the next. No one asks how long it will take to transfer our checked luggage or if the young couple from Saskatoon would be able to make it with their baby and stroller.
One of the train attendants leans against the wall of the vestibule at the end of the car. If we miss the last train, they may put us up in a hotel, she says, but we might still make it too. We just have to get lucky and not run into any other trains on our track. Here it’s the city’s public transportation, rather than the freight companies, that owns the railroad right of way.
It begins to rain. The blackberry bushes entangling a chain-link fence, the concrete barriers along the elevated highway, the viscous rush-hour traffic, all turn a shade darker as their dust coating is washed away in the shower.
We pull over to let a commuter train go by.
The rain intensifies. By the time I step off the train in Toronto it has turned into a downpour. The station is under renovation, and water seeps through the temporary roof that covers the platforms, turning the continuous torrent into a regular pat-pat rhythm. The train yard is covered in the rough texture of painted plywood panels that have begun to disintegrate from the wear of water and shoes. The air smells of damp, a mix of hidden rot and a train-full of bags, coats, and bodies exposed to water for the first time in days.
Once inside, Jehanne from NDG and I wander the station looking for the information desk where we’ve been told someone will know what to do with us. But the construction interrupts the sight lines across the larger rooms. It’s hard to tell which are the side corridors and which are the main ones—they’ve all been reduced to more or less equal widths by the same grey plywood panels. It’s disorienting, after passively following a single line for so long, to be deposited in this soggy warren. Finally, the floor starts to rise. Just ahead a high arch comes into view and beyond it the station’s main hall. There’s no more plywood. The walls shine with smooth blue ceramic tiles. About halfway up the right side of the arch is a sign that, in black sans-serif lettering on translucent yellow plastic, reads INFORMATION.
There’s already a crowd at the desk by the time we get there. I recognize a couple of faces, but I’m surprised by how many people there are making the connection to Montreal who I’ve never seen before. It’s clear that the woman at the desk wasn’t told we were coming. She’s stalling until her manager arrives, while at the same time trying to appear to have everything under control so that the more anxious and impatient among us don’t start to truly flip their shit. She exchanges a brief look of sympathy with a woman sitting on a suitcase next to a man who has started swearing at no one in particular in slavic-accented French.
They’re not going to put us up in a hotel. I’m disappointed. I was looking forward to delaying things one more night and arriving clean with a new morning. One more chance to pause and collect myself, each extra hour or minute promising to be exactly the time I need to prepare to occupy the uncertain space waiting for me at the other end of the delay. Instead they’ve hired a van service to take us the rest of the way. The drive should take about five hours, they say, putting our arrival somewhere in the indistinct bottom of the night towards two in the morning.
Leaving Toronto is a blur of lights. No matter the city, leaving by car is always the same sequence of spiralling turns that aren’t meant to bring you any closer to your destination so much as move to larger and larger roads until the final onramp onto a highway with enough mass to break free of the city’s anastomotic surface streets.
The rest of Ontario is a wide separated highway punctuated by neon lights and colourful plastic signs for gas stations and fast-food restaurants. From time to time we pass a sign that gives the distance to upcoming exits, and from the seat next to mine Jehanne from NDG asks, “How far are we from Montreal?” I read out the number, but it’s meaningless to me beyond the fact that each one is smaller than the last.
When we get to Montreal the van leaves the highway in a mirror image of its labyrinthine path out of Toronto—a ritual to untie the knot that has held us together for the duration of the journey. We then continue to turn around construction barricades and one-way streets going the opposite way we need to go. The driver is relying on a GPS navigation system that has clearly not been updated with the latest street closures. We pass glass-and-concrete skyscrapers, nineteenth-century domes, modernist public sculptures, and a century or so’s worth of variations on the row house. Our erratic route sows the city with buried memories that I’ll unearth in the following weeks and months when I pass these hidden caches again during my search for a job and a permanent place to live. They will take me by surprise when suddenly I recognize the façade of a building in an unfamiliar neighbourhood far from the highway. Discovering these orphaned reference points will give the city the feel of an old memory retreating into its last strongholds against the advance of forgetfulness rather than that of a new memory growing out around me. It will be disconcerting, as though I’m remembering that I am something I could never have been.
We’re dropped off in a nondescript parking garage where a representative from the train company is waiting to meet us. The space is tinted orange from the dirty plastic that covers the lights. The scene is fixed in a static blur. All motion has stopped. My last movements to pull my bags from the back of the van are only the final unfolding of a gesture made days ago. We gather around the train company representative who gives us each a taxi voucher and directs us to one of the drivers standing by. While I’m not looking, Jehanne from NDG slips away to meet her ride without saying goodbye.
I follow the chemin Olmsted in its gentle climb through Mount Royal Park. I’ve been on my feet all morning looking at apartments. As the path curves along the hill’s undulating relief, I realize that I have nowhere near the energy left to complete the loop. The sudden exhaustion arouses an instinct to retreat into the familiarity of home, but the word only hangs there flapping in the wind with no object at the end of its reach. All that’s left is the soreness in my muscles, my feet’s flexing arches, and the creaking joints down the left side of my body that never got all their range of motion back after a bicycle accident. At some point just ahead, I’ll have to turn around and go back the way I came.
Standing still in a moment of indecision, I see the train for the first time as a recollection of the past. Then—and each time after—when I retrace the route, the memories add up to just a little more than expected, spilling over the edges provisionally laid at either end. Each time there’s a new surplus of understanding that reaches out in the tantalizing suggestion of a path towards a final coherence. Each time there’s a flickering trace of that first moment of afterwards—the smell of the fallen leaves that haven’t yet had time to decompose, the sound of the wind rustling through the dusty canopy slowly collapsing in pine needles and whirligig maple seeds across the crushed gravel path that leaves white chalk marks around my boots’ black heels. I can see myself in stereoscope stepping forward—onto the train and through the park. Each step is a turning point, no thicker than the ash trees’ borer beetle–eaten leaves, fragile and just about to fall, waiting for the last fissure between branch and stem. Pulled tight. At ease. Nothing left to outpace. Quivering with the pain of anticipation for the right moment to break.
This space that we opened up—me on my end, you on yours—heals much faster for you who are content to run your fingertips lightly over the rough fibres knitting together across the gap. As for me, I can’t help but pick at the wound. I take too much comfort in the stinging pain around its reddened edges. Even when I close my eyes, I can feel the outline. I forget whether the emptiness it contains is supposed to represent you or me. It never was particularly effective as a symbol. But through it I can reach back and hold you tighter than I ever would have dared, tighter than your body could stand, well beyond any force my muscles could exert. As long as I keep at it the healing is never cumulative, the wound never closes, one corner always open to the wind.
Gregory Sides lives in Montreal, where he works as a freelance writer and editor. This is his first published story.