Someone Was Awake
by MICAH RUELLE
The last few nights I’ve been sleeping with the window open. A few trains pass by our home in the night, and as you can imagine, the sound is even more robust without the window as a buffer. This nightly occurrence drives my housemate up the wall, stirs up the curses in her when the train’s route is brought up by guests. She rants it's the only reason why she was able to afford a down-payment on the house. But I like it.
All my associations with trains have been very positive. Growing up, my parents had a tiny condo off of Clear Lake, Iowa. We’d drive up on the weekends to ski, fish, visit the dollar theater in town, and spend time in the park. Sometimes, a carnival would come through, and I would be allowed to ride on one or two “safe-looking” rides. Clear Lake is quaint. Thursday evenings are celebrated by locals, during which time they have their own festivals and parades. But aside from a few weeks of the summer, we were one of the invaders — the tourists that come to vacation Friday-Sunday. I’m afraid it won’t always stay so sweet, but a part of me still wants to get married on a white Missouri Ferryboat, lovingly named “The Lady of the Lake,” that has resided there since before I first visited the lake for the first time as a little girl.
One Halloween my parents let me attend a ghost-story night that was hosted on the top deck of the boat, under the stars. Regardless of the time of year, though, in the middle of the night you could hear the train pass through town. And every time I heard it, I remember feeling a warmth, the passing “oh yeah — there it is.” Someone was awake, in the middle of the night, steering the train. Someone was driving a beautiful, metal beast through the flat plains of the Midwest, keeping watch. I always slept so well those weekends, even if it was more to do with the physical exhaustion and heat then anything else.
In my early twenties, I moved to small town in Missouri that was a common stop for trains along the way to Kansas City and St. Louis. The summers there were considerably warmer, stickier than in Iowa. My friends and I would stay up on the back porch, usually lounging in a hammock and a few folding chairs, talking into the early morning hours, the bugs being electrified to death to the soundtrack of some new music L had just found. I miss that girl.
Once I escaped by train from an unbearably awkward situation which occurred during a cousin’s wedding. For everyone’s pride, I won’t go into details, but I was annoyed to the point that I called my grandmother a few hours away in Minot, North Dakota to see if I could stay with her immediately after the celebration was all over. From Minot, I took the train to St. Paul, where I was greeted by a few university friends and flowers. Escaping by train sounds silly and archaic to the point where I expect associations to fork at either a John Wayne western or a Russian novel. The situation is, of course, laughable now. As cliche as it sounds, if it were to happen again, I would’ve done the exact same thing. I spent most of the actual trip to St. Paul watching the sun rise through the train windows and reveling in the sensation of how much I wanted to stay on it — just a little while longer, much like kids on swings.
When I moved to Oxford, my mother and I had planned a mini-trip beforehand. The ride from London to Oxford was considerably less romantic, lots of stuffy commuters and stink and noise. And of course, we were dragging along with us a considerable amount of luggage as I would be staying for some time. Still, I can’t imagine Great Britain without trains, and I hope the day never comes when my associations between the two lessen. There’s something nice, too, in knowing that a massive city was right there, on the cusp of our very old town, just an hour or so out.
It seems nothing short of fitting that my window is just eclipsed by the fence that helps to pull the trains past our home in the middle of the night in Austin. I hope that I always live in a place with trains that sing loud enough for me to hear them, but far enough away for me to still interpret it as just that: singing.
For legal reasons, I can’t touch on this point for long, but at the assisted living home in which I work, one of the residents shares my love of trains. In the car, he always points out what train it is, where it must be going, and how far it could keep rolling if it so desired. He even owns an old hat that he wears religiously with a prominent train logo on the front. It’s the kind of hat a mom would’ve ruined in the wash, or thrown out in secret. He might love trains more than anyone I’ve ever met, and probably ever will. This thought simultaneously fills me and then, all of a sudden, threatens to drench me in a kind of sadness — as is a pattern with so many things I experience. For whatever reason, I’m deeply disposed to melancholy, which I manage — even at moments like this, thinking of mortality. I’ve kept at the managing for years, and have finally grown comfortable enough with it as a companion. We’ve made a truce, but I’m the one that upholds the peace.
My birthday was a few days ago, and I’m struck by how the life I have lived — outside of me — has been beautiful so far. And I say that in a detached kind of way — looking at the facts, people, and places— lining them up on a timeline, finding myself shocked, and weirdly denying that I’m involved. These memories just involve figures that looked like me and thought and acted like me — but distinctly aren’t me. Said figures are passing through that place, loving and being loved by these people, and raising some sort of hell, and listening for trains in the night.
Writing all this about trains makes me wonder if I’d much rather get married on a train than a ferryboat. Yes, and if not on a train, maybe a train station somewhere. Do conductors have the same power to marry people as sea captains? Just so we’re clear, this train-wedding tangent is only half of the absurd girlhood fantasies I haven’t managed to shake in adulthood, if I’m honest. And to put it even more bluntly, I can’t write over 500 words about why I wanted to get married in a water-processing plant for quite some time. It’s a long story that I have no intention of telling, so here I am making myself ridiculous on another topic: trains. Come fall, I’ll be returning to my masters program in the Hill Country of Texas. During my commutes, I will be delayed by the seemingly endless train that cuts through the middle of the town, which will bring on a new-found annoyance for the steaming, huffing beauty. But that’s no matter; all Beauty can act like that.
Photographs by the author.
"Who Are You, Really?" - Mikky Ekko (mp3)