It’d been a cloudless-blue day of sunshine in South Carolina when Michael took a cab to the Amtrak train station. No doubt, what was ordinary autumn weather in Greenville was dull rain in Chicago, and Michael hadn’t been very excited to go in the first place. It wasn’t that he didn’t care his brother was getting married. Veronica had been Lincoln’s blessing from the first and it was lucky, probably luckier than Michael knew, that she’d given his brother a chance to settle down.
But making a two-day trip on a train had been Lincoln’s idea, because he was supposed to spend the week at Michael’s first and he hated flying – flying is for boring working people, he’d said. But boring and working enough to take the plane was just what Michael happened to be.
“Sorry, Mike,” Lincoln had said on the phone a couple of weeks ago, after cancelling his trip. “V wants me to spend some time with her parents before the wedding – you know they never really had a chance to warm up to me. Who could blame them, teenage prick that I was. Anyway. You don’t mind, do you?”
Michael hated to sound like the whiny little brother who’s being stood up. Any argument or protest he could think of started with But you said that or You promised, both of which were ridiculous in the mouth of a grown man.
“Of course I don’t.” He answered. “I just wish you’d told me soon enough for me to change my reservations.”
“Nah, a long trip will do you good. I want you looking all ruffled and rugged at my wedding, less handsome than me if possible.”
“I’ll try my best,” Michael tried to sound genuinely cheerful.
“You do that, Mike. And try not to be too gloomy about the trip, all right? Who knows, you might even meet someone.”
However unhappy he was about the change of plans, Michael couldn’t repress a burst of laughter. “Come on, Linc. Who ever meets anyone interesting on a train?”
He was actually pleased to note the seat next to his was empty. Awfully rude to think that, probably, but Michael couldn’t help but relax as he settled by the window, on seat B13, putting down the black case in which he stored his computer and some business-related files. Though this was hardly the ideal environment to get some work done, maybe he’d manage to go over some of the latest blueprints his boss wanted him to check out. Besides, the view was decent, though it didn’t beat the one you got from an airplane.
Just a few minutes before the train was due to leave, Michael removed his coat, reached for his case and started unlatching it around the same time that a tall, breathless woman dropped her purse on the seat next to his.
His disappointment at being flanked with another passenger after all caught Michael by surprise – he wasn’t usually so keen on solitude, but he’d really been looking to go through those blueprints. Then he took a better look at the woman, slightly tousled hair and cheeks warm-pink from catching the train at the last minute no doubt, and his disappointment dropped like a cold useless rock in his throat.
“Right on time, aren’t I?” She said, though only casting a brief look at him. She’d taken a seat, but she was still busy sliding off her coat. “I never used to be late for anything. It’s the job that does it, of course. Sorry. We’ve not even started rolling yet and I’m already rambling.”
“Not at all.”
She met his eyes and this time Michael could make a true assessment of her. He never managed not to look at someone without paying attention to each detail, as if it said something about them, as if he was working out the emerging image of an unfinished puzzle. The hair was what had first caught his eye, fortunate shades of red are hard to come by, and hers had been a stunning strawberry flash, curtaining most of her face. And it was a nice face. Incredibly well-carved cheekbones. Her eyes – the shade was light brown, not hazel but cinnamon – were nearly too big, taking you off guard, giving her a somewhat childish air. But the smile… Oh, the smile was a winner, Michael determined, during the few seconds that they sat looking at each other. That smile would melt through ice and steel.
“I’m Michael,” he said. Force of habit almost had him extend his hand, but it would have looked awkward, their seats were too close to one another.
“Sara,” she replied.
“Sara,” he caught himself repeating. “Where are you headed, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Washington.” She sighed. “You?”
“My, and I thought I was in for a long ride.”
There came that smile again. Michael answered with an embarrassed chuckle. “Well, my brother’s getting married next Saturday. I would have usually taken the plane, but he thought it was for boring working people.”
“So where’s your brother now?”
This time Michael managed a decent smile in response. “In Chicago, with his fiancée.”
“Oh, I see. You’ve been ditched.”
Michael felt quite blind to the train which had started quietly rolling and to the announcement which informed them of the location of the dining car, where lunch would be served from 11.30 to 3 o’clock.
“Yes,” he says. “That’s actually it. And you,” he didn’t think of whether it was too early to ask, whether she’d not really meant to start a conversation and some pulp fiction novel was patiently waiting in her purse. “Why the train?”
“Who knows, maybe precisely because it’s longer than the plane. I’m meeting my father in Washington – I suppose I wasn’t in such a rush to see him.” No irony in her tone, he marveled. It actually sounded as though irony had been incorporated so long ago it no longer bothered to make itself heard. “In any case,” she concluded. “It looks like we’re both headed to a family reunion.”
The silence that fell between them had something ambiguous. Chance encounters such as this one could turn on a dime. Absolutely anything might happen. She could go for her bag and take something out of it – a book, her cellphone, something to pass the time, while he would study the blueprints as he’d meant to, and they’d give each other polite smiles once in a while when their eyes would inadvertently meet.
For whatever reason, Michael felt in his bones that this wasn’t what he wanted.
“Family reunions,” he repeated. “Aren’t they meant to be some kind of hell?”
“Maybe the worse kind.” Still smiling with that heart-stopping smile. “But Michael, we might be a while if you get me on about that.”
He shrugged his shoulders. The blueprints could wait. “Well, we have something like ten hours ahead of us, don’t we?”
Of course, he didn’t usually talk to strangers in public transportation – did anyone? – and he couldn’t have been more reluctant if he’d been told it’s what he’d be doing during that train ride.
But there was that cunning look in her eyes, as if she’d seen something of the world she didn’t expect anyone else ever had. Something eager about the air between them, silence waiting to be devoured. And that attractive, haunting smile.
Then, all of a sudden, making him feel quite ridiculous, a quote from a 1940-something movie he’d never watched flashed through his mind.
‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.’