The generic flavor/non-flavor of the energy drink hit my mouth and the cold and the carbon dioxide let me know this was a good decision, at least for the next hour. I had started in on these damn things again and they were everywhere and convenient and I was going to stop but the clock hit 5 a.m. and I needed to be awake enough to make it to the train and anyway they were on sale. Part of me wished this trip would be over already and part was terrified that the end was in sight. So then. Embark.
The previous day had been another day of indulgence. Finding such little genuine pleasure, food and drink filled the void. Sugar and salt and booze. There are houses and there are homes and everyone in them are slowly on their way out—spend time with them and worship the chance to be with them. Solitude cannot suffice forever.
I offered the can to Liz. She hated these things and hated that I drank these things and gave me her all-knowing look in return. We’d been together some three months but I had had this trip planned long beforehand and when she suggested she come along I couldn’t turn her down. It was meant to satisfy my traveling urge and pacify me after Mary moved to France, saying I was holding her back. Then Liz came along and it was convenient but I couldn’t stop imprinting Mary onto her.
Day 68 of buses, planes and trains—no cars. That was part of the plan from the beginning. The train became my favorite. To be in but not of the world, at least for a day or two. Each trip flavored by the mass of passengers who individually made the decision to buy tickets to get from here to there.
That morning the dog pushed me out of bed at 1:17 a.m. I thought I’d been asleep for hours but the clock said it had been only two. I tried to get comfortable again but failed. Up for good at 4:36 a.m., a minute before my alarm. Ate, dressed and stumbled out into the dark morning. Hence the drinks. Contracted from the inrush of caffeine and chemicals and hazy from the lack of quality sleep I placed my bags on the wooden bench of the train station with an involuntary grunt. The room was filled with these benches, church pews in lovingly restored Art Deco surroundings. Liz went off to take pictures of the place, she was always doing that. On the far bench there was a series of heads covered in straw hats and bonnets. Quakers. I checked and double checked my tickets. Los Angeles. The scene was surreal—surrounded by extras in a movie hastily drawn up by a drunk Pat Hobby. I watched them eating bananas and drinking coffee, the men in matching blue shirts and black vests, with black shoes and pants, the women in blue or brown dresses. There was a baby in a brown bonnet and blue dress.
I left the scenario to go to the bathroom. Unlike the lobby it was run down, with stall doors missing, lights broken and a layer of grime floating in the air. We never do spend the time and money to keep up what we should.
Checking again that my ticket was still in my pocket I headed back to find Liz. Staring at the old flickering lights I thought of Mary. Distant as she was, I wouldn’t be doing this without her.
The lobby smelled like Cheerios and milk. It smelled like childhood.
“I can’t wait to meet David,” Liz said.
David had been my best friend and partner in crime since long before our voices changed. We had gone though everything together. Then he surprised us all by moving to LA and I hadn’t seen him since. Five years. Everyone leaves in the end.
“Me too. I hope we recognize each other,” I half joked. It was too early for originality.
“Well, wake me when we get there,” she said.
“It’s less than three hours, are you really gonna sleep for that?”
“Just because you can’t sleep doesn’t mean I shouldn’t. Those damn energy drinks make you such an ass. They’ll take years off your life you know.”
“So will you,” I muttered under my breath. I knew she heard me. “Com’on, let’s get in line.” A feeble attempt to change the subject, but again, it was early and frankly I didn’t care. I took a long drink and let out an exaggerated sound of enjoyment.
Killing the first can as the train cut through the morning marine layer, I queued up with the rest of the masses. Eyes looked in every direction but at each other. Liz went to get a coffee—caffeine fiends, all of us.
For the past week we’d stayed with an old friend of mine in San Diego. Liz knew this would be the norm going into the trip but I could tell it wore on her and I understood that but like I said it had already been set. We saw her friends when any happened to be near but it wasn’t my fault most of them never moved outside of a 25 mile radius from where they were born, and middle-of-nowhere suburbs were not on my itinerary.
We were among the first in line and, after waiting 20 minutes, among the first on the train. Taking the back two seats on the top level of a car we settled in, Liz curling up against the window, using the sweatshirt I bought her in Denver as a pillow, while I threw my bag under the seat and tried to get comfortable. She’d have the ocean view to distract her. I still had the second energy drink but told myself I didn’t need it and it would be good to have when I got there—I might need it after all. Aww forget it, there’d be plenty more when I got there and it was cold so I opened it, trying to muffle the distinctive sound of a pop can even as it echoed through the empty car. I heard Liz huff.
The ridiculous names of these things always get me—call it BROFUEL and be done with it.
I checked my tickets again. San Diego to Los Angeles. Los Angeles. I’d never been.
One other gentleman, clad in business casual Friday got in the other end of the car. Then I overheard German and turned to see the entire group of Quakers filing in, filling the car to capacity.
A step back in time. A continuity fail. I laughed. Everything was absurd.
I watched as they settled in. An older gentleman with a stark white beard began to chug a two-liter of soda. A woman pointed out the cheesecake on the club car menu that wouldn’t be available on this trip. My day was made. The sun was up but obscured by the clouds and breaking mist. And here I was, traveling to see my oldest friend, one who I believed would be content if I completely dropped out of his life, but I had no idea why. But I wasn’t awake enough to think about that and so took another drink. Someone’s aftershave smelled of my father. The sun came out. Liz stirred.
“Armond! We’re surrounded by Amish!” she said in a whispered shout.
“Quak-ers,” I said, dragging out the first syllable. “Amish would never be on a train. These’ve gotta be Quakers.”
She was trying to be playful and I ruined it, but I didn’t care. Instead I went on to outline the differences between the two groups, make a goddamn verbal venn diagram out of it. She’s right, I can be a real ass. She crossed her arms as she’d done so often during this trip. Hell, maybe she was right. Maybe they were Amish. Or maybe they were Mennonites, I didn’t know for sure, but I knew we couldn’t agree on anything. Whichever they were I’m not sure any almighty God favoring simplicity in his flock would support downing a two-liter of soda. Good lord, there were droplets of bright yellow throughout that ridiculous beard.
The two seated in from of us were having quite an animated conversation but I couldn’t figure out what they were so worked up about. I took German in high school but had spent the majority of that time trying to flirt with Amy, the blue-haired girl who wore tutus to class. Cheerleaders and popular girls took French, nondescript girls took Spanish, and strange girls took German. And I like strange girls. My advances failed as much as my attempts to learn the language, and so 15 years later the only phrases I remember are Mein Fisch ist gebrochen (My fish is broken) and Ich habe heisse hosen fur dich (I have hot pants for you). It was unlikely either of those phrases would come up in this situation, but you never know.
“Attention passengers, this is Rita Marie in the club car. Wanted to welcome you all aboard and thank you for joining us this morning. As soon as we get underway we’ll be open for business so come on down and see us. We’ve got coffee as well as a variety of snacks including chips, pretzels and refreshing fruit-flavored candy. Hope to see you all soon and have a good trip.”
With Liz occupied for the moment and the Quakers quiet, I reached for my sketchpad. I had long dreamed of being a cartoonist. I’d drawn superheros since I could hold a pencil, at least I did until Mary left. Since then I’d been working on a series of realistic graphic novels. Liz had known my earlier work and that was how we got together, at a comic convention in French Lick, Indiana of all places. She stroked my ego. But now those characters felt flat and silly—always facing impossible odds to save the world and they always managed to save it. There’s the occasional gray storyline but it’s black and white in the end, don’t be fooled. The space that exists between me and you when we’re conversing, that’s where the world hangs in the balance, where the most minute decisions can have life altering consequences, and in that space there is never any black and white and no one knows what to do.
I began writing up a character sketch for my female lead—physical attributes, motivations, goals. I did this for each of my characters before I could draw them. I had to write it out first, to know them as real, otherwise I’d stare at the paper and freeze up.
Smart, funny, with a cutting laugh that echos, even in a crowded room. Long strawberry blonde hair, wide eyes, arms crossed often but in an inviting, rather than defiant, manner. Stylish, not much money, drinks and smokes, more European than American, independent. Still a bit of baby fat on her cheeks, but in the most beautiful way.
It was Mary. I knew it was Mary. This time it wasn’t even thinly veiled, it was her. During the trip my character sketches had lost fictional qualities with miles covered. I couldn’t draw female characters anymore without it turning into her. No matter how it started, how far removed from Mary, part of her kept finding its way through.
“Attention passengers, Rita Marie down in the club car. We are now open and serving snacks and beverages. Haven’t had your morning coffee yet? Come on down. We also have a variety of snacks including chips, pretzels and refreshing fruit-flavored candy. Come down and see us.”
I put down the pad and tried to figure out what to say to David when we got there. I’d been trying to figure that out since we left 68 days earlier. Draft after draft, from outright anger to depression, to blaming him, to blaming me, to blaming my ex, his ex. To blaming his fiance—the one I found out about online. No, in our brief messaging she seemed more excited to see me than he did. In the end the best I could figure was he didn’t have room for me anymore. He was successful and so were his new friends. And I was the same old fuckup that I’d always been, drawing away at my little comics.
Grabbing the sketchpad again I finished sketching Mary. Always Mary. Done, I got up to use the bathroom. The one nearby was occupied so I went down to the first level and locked myself into the handicapped one. Compared to the normal train bathroom, which I couldn’t turn around in but had to back into, this was a palace—a round, pod-shaped palace. A womb within a womb. Too bad it didn’t have a window so I could see the ocean.
I only had to pee but sat down to gather my thoughts. I took out my phone. The first picture on my feed was one of Mary. Mary and a guy I’d never seen before. They were leaning against a wall, unlit cigarettes falling from the secret smiles on their mouths. Dismissing it, I checked in, telling the world I was en route to LA, continuing this great adventure of mine. Of course, I hoped she’d see, see I wasn’t afraid to go places, that I wasn’t all talk. There hadn’t been any acknowledgment from her during the previous 68 days but maybe she was watching, there was always a chance.
I shoved the phone into my pocket, flushed the toilet and washed my hands. The club car was adjacent and I went in. The attendant behind the counter said hi. The famed Rita Marie. Her starched white shirt and blue vest matched her smile. Her body gave no indication of being in motion and I figured she must have been attached by a complex series of hidden bungee cords to keep her so steady.
The walls were filled with prepackaged snacks. The sweet and salty stuff of childhood brown-bag lunches. That, and mini-bottles of wine for $11. It would cost me more to get drunk than it did for the train ticket. The clean stainless-steel of the car was nice though, even if it did smell like an old factory. I eyed the touted fruit-flavored candy—it did look refreshing—but in the end settled on a $2 cup of coffee.
“Thanks,” I said as Rita Marie smiled straight through me.
The coffee was a pleasant surprise—decent beyond all hope. Dry countryside flew past the window. What would the fires be like this year? The landscape of the 2,000 miles we’d traveled had been so varied, so beautiful. The one and only constant was graffiti. No matter what, no matter where, if there was a bridge, a wall, any surface really, there was graffiti. Go deface your own property, punks. No one cares about your tag, you’ll fade as fast as the rest of us, and the rest of us would like a graffiti-free world to fade away in.
I thought David and I would take a trip like this sometime. We never even took a road trip over an hour. Twenty years ago we ate lunch together, swapping what our mothers gave us. From then on we’d been inseparable, even lived together awhile. It was when my father got sick that David began removing himself from my life. I didn’t know if there was any connection or not, but as I watched the strongest man I knew fade into a corpse, my best friend faded as well. And now he’s engaged. I’ve never met her and can’t remember the last time I saw him. Hell, I don’t even know what he does for a job.
And so all things pass. I tried to go into these next days without passive aggression and with no score to settle. I wished to understand what happened, yes, but above all I wanted my friend back in my life. I went with an open heart.
An open heart but an empty coffee cup. I wished I had two more dollars.
As I climbed the stairs I heard German mutterings and the faint beginnings of a song. Liz was curled up, but not as I left her. Her entire body was tense.
“Who is she?” she said, turning her head with a fury. Her face was red with tears.
“What? Who is who?” I said, sitting down.
“Her!” she yelled as she threw my sketchbook at me. I stared at it on my lap. My only thought was that it was technically a journal, not a sketchbook. I bought them because they were cheaper than sketchbooks. And it was closed when I left. Now, open to the page I had been working on, the ink from my scratchings was running down the page, apparently from Liz’s tears.
“You read my journal?” I said.
“Who is she?” Liz yelled again. A few Quakers turned around. I gave them a shrug with my look but Liz didn’t take her cold eyes off me.
“A character. For my graphic novel. What is wrong with you? Why would you read my journal? I’d never do that to your things.”
“It’s not a character and you know it.”
“Really. Who is it then?” I said. Liz knew about Mary of course, but only in the vaguest terms. There was no way she could know the resemblance.
“Her! All of them. Real and make believe. All of them come before me, don’t they? Why did you even bring me along?”
“This trip was set long before I met you. You’re the one that came along.”
“You invited me!”
“I never thought you’d be able to get all the tickets at the last minute! You failed to mention your family was rich. Things get tough, just buy your way out of it, right? That’s not how it works for the rest of us.”
“You are such an ass,” she reiterated, pushing her hair behind her ears.
“Oh I know. And you don’t give a damn for adventure, your only want is to be distracted from your hollow, meaningless life. Would you have given a damn about me if I wasn’t an artist? It was never me you wanted, it was being able to say you’re with an artist.”
“Artist? That’s a joke. You’re a sorry hack and…no, you know what? I’m not doing this. I’m done.”
Fighting to get up from her seat she knocked the second energy drink out of the cupholder, spilling it on both of us.
“Jesus Christ! What are you doing?” I said.
“I told you, I’m done. Get out of my way, once we get to LA I’m going home.”
“That’s right, buy your way out of it, like you do with everything else!” I yelled, but she’d already disappeared into another car. “Why couldn’t you have done that 68 days ago?” I added.
Righting the can, I drank down the few drops that were left. The singing had caught on with the rest of the car. Some sort of work song. I picked out occasional words—day, night, child, family—but the meaning was lost on me. I put on my headphones and tried to block it out.
The man in front of me was studying the menu in the seat back pocket in great detail. I visualized grabbing the guy, shaking him and ripping it from his hands. You can’t have any of that! It’s not available, put it down! Forget about it! They have delicious fruit-flavored candy down in the goddamn club car, go get some of those and stop it, just stop it!
The song was followed by laughter and then the noise petered out. Silence once more. Thank god. I tore out the page still wet with Liz’s tears and stared at the blank white sheet. I had thought about breaking up with her in Baltimore. And Rapid City. And El Paso. But I didn’t, and now she was the one who walked out on me. I shook my head to dislodge the thought and picked up the pencil.
“Dear David,” I wrote. But no other words would come. Next thing I knew we were pulling into Los Angeles Union Station.
“Attention passengers, Rita Marie here, we’ll be closing the club car for our arrival at Los Angeles Union Station. For those continuing on with us we’ll reopen shortly after we get underway. If this is your final stop thank you for joining us this morning, we hope you have a great day.”
I fumbled with my phone as the train hugged the platform and slowed to a crawl. 8:46 a.m. 5:46 p.m. in Paris. Thirty-two people had liked that I said I was on my way to LA, a handful of which also commented. Most of those were people I’d stayed with, those that had been a part of this trip, that had allowed this trip to be possible. But none of them were Mary, none of them added the color and flavor that I craved.
As I was holding my phone it vibrated. It was a text from David.
“Sorry, be a little later. Wait for me at the station.”
I’ve been fucking waiting long enough.
None of these lives that I visited were my own. I showed up in them and peeked around, but would never be a full part of any of them. Dabbling. Sampling. Swishing them around and spitting them out. Cleansing the palate with a train journey, or bus ride or flight and starting over again. No moss and all that. I kept trying to convince myself this was for her. Or that somehow it would make us closer. Everything was out of balance. And I didn’t know where to begin to make it better. No more energy drinks, that was for sure.
The Quakers filed out in an orderly fashion. I watched their simple colors, their sense of community. Everyone on this train used to be a child and none of them ever asked to be born. Maybe we were happier then, maybe we were free.
Gregory T. Janetka
Gregory T. Janetka is a writer from Chicago who currently lives in San Diego. His work has been featured in The Birch Gang Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Gravel and other publications. He is terribly good at jigsaw puzzles and drinks a great deal of tea. More of his writings can be found at gregorytjanetka.com.
If you enjoyed Quakers and Energy Drinks, leave a comment and let Gregory know.
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