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by Louis McKee
When I boarded the train at Pennsylvania Station,
he was already sitting across the aisle,
and he was talking to himself. I thought
he was singing, maybe some song in his head
that he was bringing home with him from Boston.
Maybe he had gotten on in Boston; maybe
he was going home. I was going home.
A long weekend in New York, a romantic rendezvous
that had been long overdue, had blown apart
in the first few hours, and now, after just one night,
I was heading back alone, tired, frustrated more
than angry. The anger had passed. This was 1970.
I was twenty. The clearest thought I could conjure
was that I had wasted five goddamn years
with the first girl I’d known. I said that to her.
Hours later, getting on the train, I felt those words
like a swollen tongue fat in my mouth, tasted
the hurt and fear that came from them like blood.
I remember how quickly everything out the window
was Jersey. It looked sad. I tried to see
my face in the glass, but it kept disappearing.
The soldier across the aisle, though, he stayed,
his head and shoulders rocking with the rails,
saying something, his mouth going.
This was no song. He was fighting.
You could see it in his eyes.
And if that wasn’t enough, his fists –
he was punching his hands, his legs, and the whole time
his mouth was slurring words that his eyes enunciated
clearly. Trouble with a woman, I decided.
This was 1970. The war was going on. Hell,
just being in the army would have been enough
to drive some men to talking to themselves.
The haircut alone. That uniform and hat. A woman.
I was twenty – what did I know? New Jersey
was black and the biggest state in the union
that night. By the time we pulled into 30th Street
I felt as though I’d been up for three days running,
like I’d walked the hundred miles in fatigues,
through jungles and dark, a pack strapped to my back
with everything that was mine, lighter though, less
a woman, less five goddamn years.
I stood on the platform a moment or two,
let the rush to the escalators pass. I watched
for the soldier when his car went by; he was on
for the whole ride. I nodded to the window
where I thought he should be, but I couldn’t see.
I had something to say. Even if he were looking,
he wouldn’t have heard, but he might have seen
my lips, read the sad sounds through the glass.
I had to tell him – it was important –
more important that I say something
than for him to have heard me. I was twenty.
This was 1970. The war was going on.
What did I know?