Online Literary Magazine

Transwesternism | Emily Townsend

Transwesternism | Emily Townsend

1. Raton, NM. 12/29/16. 11:28 a.m.

My throat is so dry. I have read evaluations that traveling by train will make you very thirsty from its arid atmosphere. Five stars to those reviewers, they’re goddamn correct.

I have seen houses at such a grand distance from civilization that I suppose the residents hunt for their food rather than drive an hour for groceries. I have seen small towns of approximately a minute’s worth of sightseeing. I have recognized a stretch of mountains along the New Mexico route, as I had driven past them a decade ago. I have spotted gas stations with rusted pumps and no current gas prices. I have observed wild horses and coyotes and vultures living through their food chain.

In my private sleeper car, I have stumbled backwards into the closed door twice, and hit my head thrice on the top bunk after hauling my suitcase up to make more space on the floor. I have smelled some strangely comforting sense of cleanliness, a sanitized wipe across the pull-out table and the laundered blanket shipped from a laundromat. I have flipped through The National, Amtrak’s magazine, and clipped a few nature shots of Michigan. To my right I watch the highway for truckers on their tenth hour of driving to Missouri or Nevada or Wyoming and vans speeding back home, suitcases crammed in the trunk, a sprig of a dead Christmas tree hanging out the back door, shopping bags full of opened gifts and local trinkets1 for friends. The wind whistles, the bridges crack. Plateaus plateau in the same spot as millions of years before. The sun drenches the wheat in a golden stupor, the blue sky is stamped with cookie-cutter clouds, red brushes crop along the edge of America’s nearly two-hundred-year-old railroad.

1 In Albuquerque, I watch a woman singlehandedly take charge of her New Mexico souvenir stand outside my window. Her items1A are nothing original, but everyone’s gotta have a piece of NM somehow.

1A Turquoise jewelry! Handmade lavender bar soaps! Copper bracelets that snap once bent too far! Those woven ponchos that are dead giveaways that you are an entitled white boy and smoke weed!

Because I’m not old enough to rent a car, nor do I particularly have the responsibility to travel by road alone, and flying is just boring after a while, I have taken a two-hour Greyhound from Colorado Springs to Raton, where I am now on an Amtrak train, the Southwest Chief, which treks to Los Angeles. There I have a fourteen-hour layover and switch to Sunset Limited, which transits to El Paso. I’m staying with my best friend Marissa for five days, and then I board Texas Eagle for another overnight ride to Fort Worth. Three total nights on America’s third favorite way to travel.2

On the first night, I got drunk.

2. Mansfield, Texas. 7/9/13. 9:42 p.m.
My parents hosted their high school reunion party at home. A guest mixed up Hurricanes, and I had downed three cups, sloshing around the place in a happy trance. I loved feeling the world spin around my fingers as I clasped onto a counter to hold my balance. I loved the stupid stigma that all my troubles were diminished and I playfully bopped people on the shoulder and laughed and buzzed alive.

2 I’m assuming cars and planes are above trains for the average American’s preferences, based on time and affordability. Let’s go for a real example: Colorado Springs is 1,084 miles from Los Angeles, and the shortest route via vehicle takes around sixteen hours with minuscule rest stops. Gas, in the west right now, is between $2.13 and $2.71. I don’t know what kind of car you drive, but let’s say a 2014 Ford Focus that has 33 miles per gallon in a 13-gallon tank. 429 miles before the red empty light blinks. Considering traffic, bathroom breaks, and going a little out of the way to find a Dairy Queen instead of McDonald’s2A you’ll have to fill up at least three times, which equals roughly $94.38.2B Factor in twenty bucks for food, considering you are traveling solo, sticking to the good ol’ dollar menu and buy two Monsters for the price of one at Allsup’s, and that brings the total to $114. Flying from Colorado Springs to LAX on American Airlines is $364, and takes two hours and thirty-six minutes to arrive at the city of washed-out celebrities clamoring for a headline. However, you could also fly from Denver, a cheaper airport because it is larger and carries more airlines, and it would cost $75 from Spirit, in the same amount of time. The train, with the sleeper car, is $265. It takes twenty hours, but overpriced meals are included, you are not operating the vehicle, and you can relax while viewing America the Great outside the window. Several components determine which transportation is the best. I recommend the train if you are alone, the car if you’re with (tolerant) family members, the plane if you have a buddy.

2A Only when you want to splurge an extra $1.30 more to get an upside-down approved Blizzard.
2B But of course I could be wrong, I failed college math the first time.

I loved the scorch of liquor, erasing the insatiate needs yet intensifying the urge for something I could only dream of while sober. I was a hopeless romantic, and there was a boy my age at that party.3

Phillip was the son of Linda, who was strict on not letting him drink. My mother was already plastered and I snuck whatever concoction I could find. Phillip was cute but not my preferred type. Phillip asked me to get him a beer so Linda wouldn’t find out.
Know that I was not a person whose habits involved inviting a boy to touch my body whether I was sober or drunk.

We agreed to meet in my room. I grew excited at being alone with him. We could hold hands. I could lean on his shoulder. I could have what the movies showed before the blackout. Romance was brewing. My skin urged for the graze of his fingertips. My heart exploded with each imagined clip of what he could do to me. My daydreams could erupt from dormancy.

I handed him a cold Coors Lite. “Want to watch Human Planet in here? It’s pretty loud downstairs.” I coyly thumbed the brim of my fourth cup. Perfectly logical in my mind. “You won’t have to hide from your mom.” My body impulsively swayed to some ’70s disco beat pulsing from the stereo. Please say yes! I’m not asking for much!

3 No, don’t go there, I beg you. I did not want sex. All I wanted was that movie moment where the main character,
typically an Outcast Loser™, has that one glorious frame of feeling wanted by some Hot Guy/Girl3A and they are shown sneaking into a bedroom, maybe a few untouched touches3B here and there, and then it fades to black.3C That’s what I wanted. Falling asleep with someone in my bed, knowing that they’ll still be there in the morning, and they’ll smile at me as the sun shines through the curtains.3D

3A How many of these high school romance tropes exist in the Teen Movie Era (90s-00s)? She’s All That, Mean Girls, John Tucker Must Die, Cinderella Story, Never Been Kissed, Superbad to name a few.
3B Cut to the exhale of Outcast Loser™, their eyes shut, their mouth open, a breath shudders out. What? Did this not happen to you the first time? I’m only going off what the movies show. Someone is exploring your canvas, and if you have remained unpainted on for years, you’re going to make a noise at the first stroke of a brush. The bristles of their fingers prickle an ignition to carry on.
3C After some comedic fillers the sun rises, the couple is in bed glimpsing at each other, a squint of affection on Outcast Loser’s™ part, a hint of confusion yet some oddly non-stereotypical relief, that “oh my god thank you for not seeing me as some flawless human being, I’m like you too, I can be weird and normal and fail at others’ expectations” on the Hot Guy/Girl’s face.3C1
3C1 This sort of slightly happened in I Love You, Beth Cooper, minus the sex, where after a night of craziness Beth and Denis sit on the dock of a minor character’s dad’s lake house, and the sun is glowing in between them, and they have a Sentimental Conversation about the future and his love for her and her fear that she’ll never amount to anything and his reassurance that yes, hell yes, you, Beth Cooper, will have a fantastic life, always remember that. Beth thanks him for trying to see who she really is, as more than just a one-night stand. At the end of the movie, they have a full-out snog on his parents’ front yard, and the minor characters look on in cheesy awe, and you, the viewer, are left thinking that maybe, even though you are a loser at times, maybe you can have a moment like this, and you are sold.
3D Like Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love, where the characters expectedly go home together from a bar, yet unexpectedly and quite simply fall asleep together.

Phillip studied my inebriated grin and frowned. “Nah, I’m just gonna play World of Warcraft with your brother.” He gave a pitying smile, deflating the one small atom of physical desire that had never popped up until then. “Thanks for the beer.”

And then he went back to the loft, where my little piece of shit brother sat at the computer, taking away the opportunity for me to try something I had never tried.4

Why did movies shape me into a hopeless romantic?

3. Las Vegas, NM. 12/29/16. 11:49 a.m.
Amtrak provides guests free meals if they have purchased a sleeper car room. The attendant hands me a lunch ticket—like a scoresheet from a board game—and my time is set at noon.

A meal conductor calls for group one. I am led to a booth with an old couple and I mentally scream. I’m trapped. Old people are not the kind of people I talk to. Too many dull pauses and struggles to make a conversation sustain due to a generational gap of acceptances.

Still, I brightly say hello and resign to the menu. Ah, three-cheese tortellini. Damn it. Made up my mind too quick. Now I gotta talk to these ancient fossils.

The lady has eyes as blue as the label of my medicated Chapstick. She glances at my ring finger, which clearly does not sport a diamond, and asks if I have a boyfriend. I tell her no. She says that when she was my age she married the man beside her, and had a kid ten months later.5 Her husband of fifty-three years barely speaks, perhaps out of unease of sitting with strangers. I hastily excuse myself when I finish my Greek yogurt cheesecake. Better things to do.

4 Okay, fine. I had never been kissed. I was embarrassed and stung, no, fucking electrified that this boy was not taking advantage of a drunk girl. Oh God. I did not just admit I wanted to be raped. Never. Hang on.
5 Times are a-changing, I know, and this old couple’s generation’s custom was to have kids at an earlier age, but in my generation, people are popping out children due to lack of sex education or stupidity in not using a condom or were blinded by the rush of physical attraction without getting to know the person (I hate Tinder/Grindr for encouraging casual hookups, and essentially, those apps promote free prostitution). As a traditionalist, I cringe when I hear people get engaged after seven months of dating, especially below the age of twenty-five. The human brain does not fully develop until then. What you wanted at eighteen will not be the same as when you turn twenty-eight. Please wait. Please mature first. There are those rare success stories, but that’s the thing: they’re as rare as the discovery of tribes that have avoided modern civilization.

4. Colorado Springs, Colorado. 1/12/16. 4:53 p.m.
“Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie is a hella nostalgic song from 2003. I’ve dreamed up many scenarios based off the music, the lyrics, whoever was around me. I sat on a rock overlooking Pikes Peak, alone, and a guy in a maroon shirt stood, also alone, several feet away. My selfish brain decided to pretend we were in a movie and imagined him walking toward me, the music sharpening, Ben Gibbard’s voice echoing,

I need you so much closer

his eyes locked on mine, softening at the sight of my small smile; my hair drifted in the wind

I need you so much closer

like a slow motion reel; I fiddled with my fingers like a shy girl gazing at a crush,

I need you so much closer

In reality, he walked toward his car instead, leaving my shoulders cold in the 34° chill.

5. A thought along the Old Las Vegas Highway, NM. 12/29/16. 3:02 p.m.
“Trans-” means “across.” In the song, it is meant to depict a long distance relationship, as in one person resides in the UK, the other in the US. There will obviously be despair, melancholy and longing for the one overseas, a craving for physical intimacy. On the flip side, we crave to fill in this image of adventure for others to see so that they can desire our time on the road, the emotional intimacy of fulfilling the idea that in order to experience life, you must voyage somewhere outside of home. We romanticize traveling just as we romanticize love.6

There is something wistful about sitting in a private room and watching red dirt streak into one rudimentary clump outside the window. Birds sweep the landscape, teetering in a dry wind south. The mountains triangle up toward the sky like pyramids. The clouds are strokes of masterpieces secured in modern art museums. There’s a pensive detachment between the train and the highway a median over. Our eyes are free to focus on the scenery while the driver’s must pay attention to the roads. The vehicles can see what’s ahead and we can only see laterally. Neither of us can control the routes that we are on, the daylight closing in, the people following behind or the people we are chasing after.

The train gets so close to a plateau’s edge that I feel like we’re in a mobile coffin launching into our collective grave. As I watch the telephone wires dip up and down an existential crisis rises, and my eyes glaze at the passing eroded rocks.

If I had grown up in a small town where only trailers and manufactured houses clutter the plots, how different would I have turned out? Would I have always wanted to move away to an overpopulated city like New York or San Francisco, or would I find comfort in knowing precisely all twelve streets there are in a different tiny community? What was the point of me being raised in Issaquah, Washington, a town nineteen miles from Seattle, if I’m just going to die in the next eighty years? What was the point of anything? Why am I even here, on a train to see

6 When we tour America, we become familiar with the unfamiliar: the local gas stations, the open land that someday will have copy-and-paste neighborhoods and Wi-Fi and Starbucks on every ten corners, the tense arguments in the front seats and the volley between children on what movie to play in the back rows. We love the aesthetic of road maps, love even more the ease of MapQuest on a cell phone. We take pictures of the yellow median stripe blurring behind, the sunrise bursting in the rear view mirror, slap on the Russ filter from Afterlight. Rest stops, vending machines, walking the dog, yelling at the dog for pooping in the cactus. We grow tired of ordering off the dollar menu at 11 p.m. after arriving at the hotel—a value-sized chocolate Frosty for me, thanks! Smell the heavy waft of chlorine drifting from the indoor pool as you check into your room. Struggle with the shower faucet. Dive under cold covers. Repeat everything the next day. Repeat everything until you have returned to your starting point.

my best friend for the second half of my winter break, when I could’ve stayed home and do absolutely nothing?7

Sometimes when I am so close to falling asleep the thoughts interrupt and explode into my temporal lobes, and I remain awake, shaking in bed until the sun comes up, and my eyes burn so bad that I wear glasses instead of contacts, and that’s how you know I had a rough night.

7. Somewhere near Santa Fe, NM. 12/29/16. 4:12 p.m.
The sky is hazy gold. The clouds wisp like trails of yolk in egg drop soup. Snow bleeds against the red soil. Pinyon pine trees intermingle with sage-colored chamisa shrubs, and I want to hop off the train, take a few pictures up close, and then hop back on.

Yet I don’t want to hop on a dick.8

Am I grossed out by a man’s phallic member? I wouldn’t know. The media9 is my only reference. It’s more the intimacy that I fear. Claustrophobia imprinted its terrors in third grade. Something snapped then, either from a bicycle crash because someone got too close, or from being squished in a cramped elevator for too long. It escalated into aphenphosmphobia in high school because no one tried anything with me, aside from a few flirty texts that I quickly dismissed due to my awkwardness and selective preferences.10 I cannot imagine someone wanting to be that close to me for however long.11 No one has attempted to break into my skin.

7 Not because it was my turn to visit her, but because I wanted to. I liked having someone to visit, someone to return to for a short while, even if she lived 700 miles away from Mansfield.
8 Oh how I make myself cringe.
9 Cosmopolitan! Snapchat headlines! Wacky articles about a woman cutting off her cheating husband’s penis!
10 The guys who talked to me were definitely not my type, didn’t say the right words. I’d switch the digits in my number if they asked for it online (back when Facebook messaging was in its prime).
11 I am also the most hypocritical and contradicting person alive about my stance on relationships and sex.

8. Nacogdoches, TX. 2/15/15. 10:37 p.m
It took me a long time to realize that I am asexual.12 An excruciatingly long time of confusion and beating myself up for not wanting sex or even intimacy,13 a long time of people saying that something was wrong with me. All of my friends have done it and told me about their experiences. One friend allowed me to “borrow” her boyfriend for my first time.14 I only want to explore a person’s mind, not their body.

When I think that someone can hear oxygen flowing out of my lungs, it cuts off and red spots glitter behind my eyelids. My breathing abbreviates into raspy gasps when someone stands too close. An extended family member’s hug pricks my limit, triggering explosions in my respiratory system. How am I supposed to deal with another human torso on top of mine?

If you were to put a thermal map on all the places I’ve been touched, I would show up blue in every region, the darkest black spreading from the atriums and ventricles of my heart.

9. Dallas, TX. 6/23/16. 9:43 p.m.
Marissa visited me with her boyfriend for a week. I was jealous of their relationship’s mannerisms—the hand holding, the smiling when one wasn’t looking, the chummy pet names. I’ve never had that. I know I’m a hopeless romantic, but I’m just fucking hopeless. As much as I construct sappy scenarios, I can’t imagine anyone creating a cute name reserved only for me, or holding my hand when it gets cold, or watching me watch the sunset, the laugh lines crinkling.

The three of us went to Club Dada to see the Cactus Blossoms. While waiting for the concert to start, we hung out in the backyard of the place, playing a question game from Tumblr. Normally I bullshit a happy answer to steer away from a Sentimental Conversation, but being around a couple drained me in all of their reminders that I was alone.

12 Asexuals would rather make an emotional connection before considering sex. Romance is fine. Romance is better.
13 Like, I want intimacy, but if the situation were to present itself I’d run away. Because I had never experienced a physically intimate moment, I would not know what to do. And the lack of experience would freak me out and make me feel incompetent. So really, I’m screwing myself by not allowing any passes of intimacy directed to me.

“What do you want right now?” Mitchell asked. Marissa said something, and I stared at the candle on the picnic table thinking about my own answer. “Emily?”

“A slow dance. I’ve never done that,” I blurted out, surprised at myself that I told the truth. I actually wanted a Blue Moon.

We went inside the venue and when the band slipped into a slow song, Mitchell held his hand out to me. I looked at Marissa, and she nodded.15 Stage lights shadowed us into silhouettes, neon bar signs reflected in his glasses. Thirty dialogues around us bled into none. My heart pumped wild blood, maybe I could feel an eclipse of happiness.

Instincts are misleading.

I almost took his hand. I wanted to. Here a guy offered to complete an unfinished daydream, but no, it wasn’t right. I patted his shoulder, disappointed yet relieved with my decision. “It doesn’t count since you’re not my boyfriend. Thanks, though.”
I needed it to be real. As real as the mountain ranges seemingly untouchable in the distance, as real as the geometric fences blocking cattle from the tracks, as real as the dusk settles into dusty ultramarine blue during the Twilight Wedge. I needed my own version, not someone else’s temporary repair to a broken rail.

15 I still don’t understand why my best friend would let me have a “romantic” dance with her boyfriend of two years. Maybe they felt sorry for me. I didn’t go to prom with a love interest; the guy I blindly “loved”15A went with his girlfriend.

15A Again with the movie scenarios. You know High School Musical? The guy was basically Troy Bolton, and I pretended to be Gabriella Montez, except I wasn’t all that smart, nor have I ever sung karaoke with him on New Year’s Eve, or had a conversation past “hello.” However, we shared a favorite music artist, and I’ve always felt tethered to the boy, because no one else in school knew about the musician. He was my false source of romance for eight years, all of the stupid fantasies about running into him in the hallway, having Sentimental Conversations in a field at sundown, slow dances in empty parking lots. I thought I loved him, but I never once had a secluded moment with him. Two years ago, I finally realized that I done played myself. He was beautiful but he didn’t mean a thing to me. I really blame Disney for this mess.

10. Yuma, AZ. 12/30/16. 1:22 a.m.
There is nothing to be seen in the darkness except the occasional truck streaking past and a freight train striking like lightning. It’s terrifying to see an eighteen-wheeler flash into nonexistence in mere nanoseconds. I shut off the overhead light and, after ten minutes of adjusting to the dark, I identify a constellation of stars that appear like a question mark—Big Dipper, actually, rotated ninety degrees counterclockwise—and I panic.16

If you want a half-assed heart attack from scaring yourself silly by thinking about how life does not matter once you die, how everything you have done for yourself and others does not matter, how inane relationships really are, how fucking stupid you are for thinking that whatever romance you have created in your brain could pop out in 3D form exactly to the blueprint and speak the script you drafted, go right ahead. Hold your hand up to the window and focus on your fingers and see in the background the sparse streetlights, car lights, building lights soften into a gleaming circle photographers call bokeh, which closely resembles what one might see when they squint at a decorated Christmas tree without their visual aids. Do it. Pick any song17 above, listen to it on blast. Your mind will go silently blank and sonorously chaotic simultaneously. The world does not matter. Terrify yourself, just once, to understand how I feel all the fucking time. And no, you can’t drag your significant other into this experiment. That’s not fair. You know I don’t have anyone to hold me when I’m gasping for air.

16 The sudden anxiety is akin to those scenes where the main character looks out a window while it’s raining and contemplates life and shit. Don’t you have those moments? It’s pretty standard while traveling, especially at night.
17 Sigur Rós for Maximum Hysteria: “Álafoss” and “Dauðalogn” are treacherous.

11. Los Angeles, CA. 12/30/16. 8:12 a.m.
The next train to San Diego has arrived, and I am alone in the Metropolitan Lounge in Union Station. I check in and the woman’s eyes widen upon inspecting the departure time on my ticket.

“Wow. You’re here for… fourteen hours.”

“Yep.” I had tried to get either my cousin or aunt to come from Visalia for the day, but they couldn’t make it. “I don’t really know how to get around this city, so I’m staying.”18

I sit down at a table to read, but I’m distracted by the odd sensation of oscillating. Much like stepping off a cruise after sailing for a week, I can still feel my body shifting from the train sloping along the tracks. It’s like I’m leaning forward on a cliff while someone yanks my collar to keep me from falling. I don’t get motion sickness, but I am so damn tired of feeling like there is hope when hope itself is hopeless. I’m young, but come on. Teenagers are in relationships. Octogenarians are in relationships. People with a significant age gap are in relationships.

18 Public transportation exists, I know. Even Amtrak has a smaller train, the Metrolink, which slinks through Los Angeles. But remember: I have a suitcase. This station does not have lockers. So I’m stuck. I don’t trust leaving my stuff here, and I don’t trust walking around with my valuables.18A

18A Okay, I gave in. Adventure was calling! One of the lounge staff offered to store my suitcase and bulky backpack in a supply closet. So I secured my stuff, bought a TAP card for the Metro and then dispensed $1.75 on the bus and visited Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Now that I’m safely back at the station, something that bothered me within the first ten minutes of leaving came to mind.
I’ve been stared at in a creepy, open way for the first time.
An old Asian man stared at me behind tinted sunglasses on the Metro for seven stops, and got off at Wilshire/Normandie. When he walked out, he still stared at me through closed doors, and my skin melted off my entire body.
Come on! When will a cute boy hit on me! I don’t want old Asian men locking their peepers on me!
I don’t find myself desirable at all. I’ve always thought I was immune to silent objectification. That’s what hot friends are for: I am the DUFF.18B
18B Which is another teen movie where the Outcast Loser™ gets the popular boy in the end. Damn it! Stop being a hopeless romantic! It hasn’t done you any good in the last twenty-one years, just endless disappointment and failed expectations and has even ruined chances of a relationship!

Let me fall. Kill the romantic. Rise a cynic. Taper away the dreams of maybe someday, maybe, who knows, I mean, if the movies show sudden rescues then it can happen, perhaps someone will fall in love with me as they’re saving my life, and no one will yank at my collar, and I won’t choke as I smile that finally, finally, something good is happening to me.

12. Los Angeles, CA. 12/30/16. 10:00 p.m.
After a long day of being on full alert mode19 I board Sunset Limited, and I am on the top level, and it is raining outside, the tracks lit in a slick red and sepia. The lower bed is made properly—because I didn’t know how to make the bed last night, I had curled up on the right side cushion, settled in a life-threatening neck bend, my short legs awkwardly extended to hang onto the other side. I drowsily tuck myself under the thin blue blanket and watch the world disappear. As we pull out of the City of Angels, it looks the same as this morning: hindered with strangers straggling through the mist of the county’s pollution, transferring home.

13. Quartzside, AZ. 12/31/16. 7:14 a.m.
I wake nineteen minutes after my alarm. A rainbow faintly fades, the clouds tinted rosy orange, breaking behind the mountains. As the world stretches its colors, the sky turns gray on the west side, and blue on the east. The sandy dirt appears saturated gold against a rainy canvas. Arizona is the kind of place where you look outside for a few minutes, look back at your laptop screen/book/wall, and then when you look outside again it’s somehow a more renovated landscape.20 Cacti springs from the ground, trailers and junkyard shit sits, drilling rigs pump oil.

19 Because, you know, a girl in her twenties is apparently not shielded from perverted ogles, so she gotta protect herself and exude an air of confidence and security in knowing what she is doing and where she is going. She drains her phone’s battery by checking MapQuest every bus stop to make sure she knows where to get off, so she doesn’t arrive at a prison or bad part of town. It’s exhausting.
20 Like a channel that switched from the news to a similar news station covering the same event with more developed, this-just-in details.

I arrive to breakfast at 8ish, and sit with yet another old couple and a solo traveler. The couple irritates me when they gripe loudly that the service is slow. I’ve been a waitress before, so I know what it’s like to blunder around with trays of food in tight quarters. The old woman complains that her scrambled eggs are cold. Her husband remarks that the server does not seem enthusiastic to heat it up.21 The Australian lady next to me is on holiday for two weeks. She and I stay forty-five minutes after the ungrateful couple left. I ask what brought her to the States. Some uncle lives in California. I am disappointed with her answer. I had thought that I could insert a trite quote like “America the Beautiful is, indeed, beautiful” or “Well, I just had to see what all the fuss is about!”

The sky is a gray-white, like the underbelly of a whale. It’s a very western aesthetic outside. 1800s brown telephone poles, cows roaming along the wires, sepia colored grass. Come on Australian Lady, the countryside of America isn’t what drew you here?

14. Wilcox, AZ. 12/31/16. 12:13 p.m.
The nicest dining companions are Joan and Ed, Ed retired, Joan getting there. They met while bicycling in San Francisco. We talk about my disdain for kids getting hitched so early, and I speak too soon: Ed proposed to Joan two months after they met. But they were much older, Joan in her forties and Ed in his fifties. That’s okay, though I still dislike it. I ramble on about how I think people should date for three years before deciding to get married.


21 God, can I punch them? Heaven’s got a place for me, but I need these two to shut up. I want to take notes on all this, but it’s hard to do so when the subjects are sitting inches away from you. I’m only able to jot down an announcement21A about the dining car.

21A “Laaaaaadies and gentlemen,” the meal conductor drawls, “just because the car is currently sitting in the Tucson station, it does not mean the dining cabin is closed. It is possible to have a full breakfast while sitting still.”

“You seem very mature,”22 Joan says, “based on your reasoning.”

I’d rather not get burned if I can easily avoid it. “I learn from people’s mistakes so that I don’t go through the same thing,” I reply.

“No matter what you do, it’s all a risk,” Ed says, inspecting the sugar dose on his sugar-free pudding. “There’s a person out there who’s right for you. But you can’t go around thinking that once you have someone, there is someone else who’s better than the one you’re with. It’s not fair to settle if you think there’s a better alternative that you’ll probably never meet.”23

The meal conductor theatrically declares on the intercom that reservations for 12:45 is ready. The same guy comes to our table and asks if we want dessert.24 I order cheesecake for the third time.

“What a dramatic guy,” Ed murmurs after the meal conductor sets down my cheesecake with flair. Joan laughs and looks at him with a lot of love, the saccharine affection in her eyes transfusing into his. I feel like I am ready for that someday. Give my love to someone who actually deserves it.

22 Heh. Not really. Haven’t even done the nasty.
23 High expectations. Waiting on better opportunities is the quickest tactic to disappoint yourself. I know that well.
24 “You should never, ever, ever finish your meal,” the meal conductor pitches, “so that you can eat dessert! We have a delicious toffee cake, a warm chocolate melting cake, which I think is the best onboard, and cheesecake, if you’re feeling plain.” His hands move as he speaks, his voice booms for effect, his eyes widen to demand our forced attention. Amtrak, put this man in a theatre.

15. El Paso, TX. 1/5/17. 5:33 p.m.
For someone who has an abundance of patience, the train’s delay irritates the hell out of me. I’m standing outside Union Depot holding a bag of gifts from Marissa and trying to keep my zealously overstuffed suitcase upright because I cannot ever under pack for a vacation.25

Finally the Texas Eagle arrives, I say goodbye to Marissa and her schmaltzy boyfriend, and resume solitude.

16. Socorro, TX. 1/5/17. 6:22 p.m.
At dinner the third night, the meal conductor is painfully exuberant,26 trying to squeeze dollars out of our pockets. I had been careless for all the past meals and forgot to tip each time. I forget my cash this time as well, and I really want to tip him. The dining car is five cars away from my room, and I had crashed into coach seats and stumbled into elbows and said excuse me ten times to moms swinging their crying babies and men who stretched their arms out to the opposite seat, so if I see him in the morning I’ll give him double.27

17. Sonora, TX. 1/6/17. 3:42 a.m.
There is a star that follows the Texas Eagle, traveling along the window, curving as we meander above the tracks. A lone car drives beneath, headlights fading in the fog. It flickers like an airplane’s beams, and stays stagnant at the same level as I trail the path.

25 What if I meet a boy who asks me on a date and I don’t have a dress like Hazel magically did in The Fault in Our Stars? Gotta be prepared. Fold up a floral skirt, black turtleneck. Flats that match the red fabric. Sparkly earrings.
26 “Alllllll riggggghhhht, I’m bringing out a utensil that airlines would never allow: a steak knife!” I don’t know how these meal conductors come up with flawless segues. Does Amtrak train them during orientation to be like commercial actors who clearly did not make it on Broadway?
27 Thinking about it a week later, I wish I had realized that of course staff members rotate within schedules and stops, they can’t be an attendant for the entire train’s length, like how cruise workers are stuck for a prolonged duration. My room attendant was the nicest and deserved a good tip for making sure I had plenty of water.

I am drinking Coke with Jack Daniels’ Tennessee honey whiskey, and I wish I had someone sitting here with me, clinking cups, leaning against my suitcase as we chase this star that remains fixed in one spot, yet it moves, or we move, or the train moves, and we are sharing earbuds to an Existential Crisis Song, and I feel so far removed from the whole of the situation, removed from this imaginary person next to me, removed from my own life, removed from the star that guides to nowhere.

Trains pass like glowing Atolla jellyfish in the abyss, ghosts aimless but destined to end up somewhere beyond inevitable graves.

18. Temple, TX. 1/6/17. 1:18 p.m.
My final free meal is a Hebrew National hot dog and kettle chips, and a fifth cheesecake. My tablemate is Ralph, traveling from Austin back to Wisconsin after a week of visiting his sister. We discuss marriage and divorce. This is a recurring conversation with every dining companion. This time I don’t try to wrestle out some eloquent answer.

Ralph drips ketchup onto his burger and ignores the pickle on the plastic Amtrak stamped plate. He asks if I go to school and I say yes, I will graduate in May, and he brings up his wife. “If I could never have gotten married, I’d go for it. I mean, I love my wife. We’ve been married for thirty years, had kids. But I miss freedom. College was the best time. I depended solely on myself. There were no children running around, no wives irritating you to get groceries. No money issues that involved someone else. A buddy and I were at Dick’s Sporting Goods looking at golf clubs, and I found one I really liked. ‘I’ll have to talk to my wife,’ I said. My friend just bought the clubs on the spot! Outrageous. I miss being able to just buy whatever I wanted without consulting someone.”

I could understand that. Not living with my parents during school meant I could stay out late or eat dinner whenever I felt like it. But eventually I want to share my life with someone. Someone to make up for all the loneliness that haunted me for the past two decades. Someone who anticipated me coming home to them.

19. Fort Worth, TX. 1/6/17. 2:44 p.m.
It is insane for me to write that snow is falling as I drag my luggage off the train at my final arrival. North Texas, if it ever dips below freezing, ices over instead.28

My mother waits for me at the end of the Intermodal Transportation Center, and my heart burns for her to be a different person instead. She hugs me with the ferocity of a two-week absence grip, but I crave what I see of the people around me: husbands breaking into a giant grin as their wives approach through the flurries, girlfriends leaping into their boyfriends’ arms, a puff of air billowing between their mouths after they kiss. I want the comfort of knowing that someone beside my mother was devoid of my existence.

I watch a man hurry back to a woman for another hug, another kiss. I can imagine their script: I love you, I love you, I love you. I’m never saying goodbye to you.

Isn’t that what happens at the end of the film? Even though one is leaving the other, they will return. Right? Right. Don’t fail me, random couple. Show me that movies can be realistic.

28 My mind launches into the last scene of Serendipity, where David Gray’s “January Rain” plays, and it’s snowing as Jonathan lies on an ice skating rink in NYC, waiting to see if Sara will show up, and after a while, after the snow evaporates on his face, a glove mystically falls onto his chest and holy shit! it’s Sara at the edge of the rink, walking towards him in classic slow motion, and they clasp hands and introduce each other and finally kiss, and the lens flare transitions them smooching in the department store where they first met, and oh my god how cliché is this! I fucking want this moment!

20. Nacogdoches, TX. 1/29/17. 5:21 p.m.
Traveling displays the garage sale rejects in cluttered backyards, the stray dogs running through the streets. The upscale apartments across the Guadalupe River in Austin. The community swimming pool covered by a tarp for the off-season. Unmowed baseball fields. Water towers by neighborhoods you’d never imagine living in. Trailer parks, shacks, tents pitched beneath freeway bridges. Corroded windmills adjacent to a cement factory. Fancy cities decorated like Christmas at night; smaller towns cheerless and bare.

There is a person who has walked in any of those places that will eventually make their way to you. We travel transatlantic, transwestern, for that one moment where we collide, unscripted yet drafted into some unrehearsed scene, because of course these kind of things happen, because of course the sappy upbeat ballad plays in the background as we run up to each other, and I just want to be loved, and have someone pick me up at the train station who is not my mother, and say they missed me.29

29 This is the new year, and I hope, despite all my cynical beliefs, that I’ll find someone to experience and explore new things with, someone who will hold me in the dark as I tremble against the wall by my bed, someone who will know the map of my skin but not press their pushpins in places I don’t want to be pierced.





Emily Townsend is a senior English major at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Superstition Review, The Bookends Review and Junto Magazine, and an essay is forthcoming in Sink Hollow. Her nonfiction essay has been nominated to represent SFASU in the AWP Intro contest. She hopes that someday she will have someone to return to after traveling solo.

5 Questions with Emily Townsend:

TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?

ET: I had planned on seeing my best friend in El Paso after visiting my dad in Colorado Springs, and I was trying to figure out how to get from CO to TX. I had wanted to take a long-distance train since last August, and as a Christmas gift my dad bought me the ticket. 10/10 would recommend.

As for the idea, I talked to my nonfiction professor, Michael Sheehan, about this trip weeks before going, and I asked how to approach an essay for it. Michael recommended David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” as a format with all the time stamps, and the way Wallace socially criticized the cruise was how I could approach the train, though I went a different route and will tackle that idea later. He suggested that I write about the thoughts I had while on the train—he remembered a lot of what I’ve already written about and as he listed them off, I realized he didn’t say anything about sexuality. I immediately knew my direction. Plus, I like to be vulnerable in my writing, and admitting that I am asexual wasn’t easy. Nothing I write about is naturally said—I’ve kept my sexuality a secret for a long time because I was still struggling with understanding what it meant. Each essay is closure for me.
I am also mega obsessed with Death Cab for Cutie’s 2003 album Transatlanticism, in which the title track is the background to all of my paradoxical daydreams. I hadn’t written about my contradicting hopeless romantic/cynical beliefs, and I wanted to make it one giant encyclopedic essay. The voice is different here, too, in that I’m usually very depressing and dark, and I wanted to be funnier while still melancholy and bitter.

TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
ET: For now it’s Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius for the humorous paranoia; Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams” for its lyrical and hella relatable lines. I have many pages of quotes I loved in a notebook. I typically follow one author’s work for the base of a specific essay, but Eggers and Jamison are all-time favorites.

TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
ET: Computer 12D in the Stephen F. Austin State University’s library is where I go immediately after class if I don’t work that day. I get an iced coffee and bagel from Einstein’s, eat real quick, put in my earphones, tap on Pandora, and start researching or writing. Being in a public atmosphere means I can’t open Netflix. A lot of people have told me they saw me in the lab, or if they ask where I am, they already know the answer. I also really don’t like being by myself, so I’ll avoid going back to my room until almost 11 p.m. and just edit or submit stuff.

TD: Favorite word?
ET: Because it’s so pretentious, I love “aesthetic.” I drop it in a conversation often. For writing, though, recently it’s either “coruscates” or “breach.” They sound so beautifully cool.

TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
ET: I read the last line of anything before starting. It’s awful. I like knowing what happens in the end and then speculating throughout reading how the author got to the ending.