The boy had beautifully manicured hands and a sweet face. He was maybe fifteen. His arm was around his younger brother seated beside him. They were alone on the train. Why did she feel they were exiles? Their story was taking shape in her head. She gave them names. They would speak Romanian, the modern tongue closest to Latin. She would try to see America as they would be seeing it, passing by. He wore a cloth coat with a leather collar.
There were so many rules. No matter what sport she was watching, she had to constantly ask. It was as if the teams were playing not against each other, but against an arcane set of restrictions. Whistles and penalty flags, boundaries and the encoded gestures of officials. She enjoyed watching the players, admired their fitness and grace. Ballet with a ball. But there were only certain players whom she chose to wonder about, invent a homelife for, a past.
These were her meditations—creating biographies for strangers. Shop girls with tattoos. An old man asleep on a bench. A priest buying apples. She gave them lives, secrets, worries. It was a habit she’d learned as a child with her dolls and no friends. Real people, strangers, are more interesting than characters in books or movies, aren’t they? They wear and walk and wince their mysteries. Given no speeches, they cannot lie.
She liked rowing regattas because there were so few rules involved. Were there any besides stay in your lane, go forward, and don’t mess with the other boats? She would go down to the Charles to sit on the banks and watch. She liked the way they glided, like a fish or a bird, not human motion at all. She would be the coxswain, facing the straining rowers, directing the pace of their sweeps, focusing on one and wondering what he was thinking. He was young. Was he in love? They glided by too fast.
How can the inevitable be unexpected? Don’t whistles or horns blow at its approach? A penalty, a death, and all play is suspended. Time stops—aging interrupted. What are the rules, anyway? She decided to drive. It was only 800 miles, inside the limit of not having to suffer the tortures of flying, with always a plane change in Charlotte. She had never really known her sister—older enough to be mean—never wanted to know her, never imagined her life. Half-sister, actually, her sole sibling, now none. She would have to sit in a church and endure an hour or more of sacred-escapist bullshit. She had packed a proper hat. It was at a Hampton Inn outside Buffalo, half way there, that she met him.
Certain faces challenge you. Ones that know why you are staring at them. Faces so aware they are unreadable. The eyes that met hers radiated wrinkles. He was reading her. His head was tilted slightly to the side, as were his shoulders. He did not blink. She had just lit a cigarette. There was a spot outside the motel’s front door where you had to go to smoke, a sort of sinner’s corner with a bench and a cement ashtray. He was standing off to one side. He knocked his ash into the shrubbery, still watching her, as she turned away.
His name was Martin. At least, that’s what he told her when she introduced herself. From the way he said it, she wasn’t sure if it was true, if it wasn’t just a name made up for her—their secret. They sat on the cement bench and took turns inventing stories for the other motel guests as they arrived. Why they were travelling. Where they had come from. Martin indulged in assigning occupations. Nearly half of the passing pilgrims were angry, irritated. Anger—after fright (rare)—is the easiest emotion to read. Some hid it better than others. Younger arrivals were often wholly engaged with their pocket devices and not worth a second thought.
They collaborated on the memoir of an older couple. There were so many clues, and they had longer to observe them. They moved slowly. The wife used a cane; her husband pulled their rolling suitcase. They stopped beneath the entrance portico. The wife had forgotten something. She sent her husband back for it, taking the suitcase. He ventured back, the patient, bent, pain-tamed, swaying gait of a man who had spent his working life on his feet.
“A new grandchild?” she wondered.
“Perhaps,” Martin said. “Nothing solemn. Geriatrics seldom travel far for funerals. Plenty close to home. I wonder what they’re driving.”
“I’d like it to be something half as old as they are.”
“An Oldsmobile,” Martin said.
The old woman was now leaning on the suitcase handle as well as her cane. She saw them sitting there, watching her. She smiled and nodded, raised her cane slightly in greeting.
“Being wed, she assumes we are, too,” Martin said.
“Is she imagining a history for us?”
They met again in the breakfast room. Martin was there when she arrived, and she presumed to join him.
“French honeymoon couple, table by window, having a lovers’ spat,” Martin said as she sat down.
“Maybe she didn’t like Niagara Falls.”
“You’ve never been there,” he said. It wasn’t a question. “You’ve never been on a honeymoon, because you have never married.”
“Oh?” He was right on all counts.
“You’re a long way from Boston. Do you like it there?”
“It’s home. I don’t live in the whole city, just in my neighborhood.”
“In fact, you rarely leave there. You don’t like to travel.”
“I do prefer my own coffee to this.”
Martin was wearing a short-sleeve shirt this morning, and for the first time she noticed the long tattoo on his forearm. It was intricate and delicate, unlike any tattoo she had seen before. “Your Red Sox aren’t doing so well this season,” he said.
They took their refilled coffees out to their bench for a smoke. While they were seated there, the old couple from the night before went by, leaving. They were more fancily but not formally dressed this morning, dressed for an affair. The old lady smiled when she saw them, gave a little wave. Now she would be certain they were a couple.
“Ah, off to a wedding,” she said.
“No,” Martin said, “I fancy a baptism.” The old woman was wearing a pendant cross. “But you will have no stock in such cult superstitions.”
“Tell me about your tattoo,” she said. Some topic other than herself.
“You don’t have to go, you know.” Those eyes, so much younger than the face, were on her now. “What is it? A funeral? Whatever, your presence is not essential.”
“Are you married, Martin?”
“No. You should have known that.”
“All along I assumed you were headed west like me. But you’re headed east, aren’t you?”
“Doesn’t matter. We are both headed out.” He got up to leave. “Drive carefully when you get to Erie. There will be a pile up there.”
There was. Her car ended up turned around on the grassy median. She headed home.