Outside the window of our Coast Starlight compartment, little towns along the track flicker in and out of view. They look forsaken and forlorn, but here in our private Superliner Roomette, we’re feeling free. We are drinking Champagne out of plastic glasses. We are alone, our first trip without children since our first daughter arrived, four joyous, relentless years ago.
A voice sparks through the intercom: our table in the dining car is ready. My husband stops by the bathroom while I walk on. The attendant leads me to a booth that is already occupied, and gestures for me to sit down. This isn’t at all what I had in mind. I don’t want to share our precious private time with a stranger, but perhaps it’s train protocol to seat solo travelers with others. It feels rude to refuse.
“You look Latin,” he says. His snowy-white hair hangs to his shoulders and the way he reflexively flips it off his forehead reminds me of teenage surfers, casually cool. We’d passed him earlier in the Observation Car. His hair is a beacon, but it’s his eyes that command a second look. They are Arctic blue in a deeply tanned, heavily etched face.
“Name’s Cooper,” he says, saluting me with his glass. (Cooper isn’t his real name, but my revealing it would feel like a betrayal, somehow.) “Third bottle of the day. I’ve been on this train since Sacto. You know, Sacramento. Heading back home. Back to Alaska. Overnighting in Seattle. Not that I have a clue where I’m staying.”
My husband enters the dining car and raises an eyebrow at the sight of my dining companion. His arrival and handshake do little to interrupt Cooper’s monologue, which gathers steam as we place our orders.
“I was living in the Dominican Republic,” he tells us, “but I started to feel like a dirty old dog. I was doing some ‘International Agricultural Distribution’ if you know what I mean, so I had a lot of people after me, but I met a lot of girls, a lot of girls. Some folks judge those girls, you know, in the Philippines, in the D.R., but it’s a career choice, it’s a real career choice. They don’t have an education, but they have street smarts and it’s nothing to be ashamed of, you know?”
Our waitress comes over. Are we enjoying everything? Cooper orders another drink. My husband and I stop sawing our overcooked steaks and squeeze each other’s hands under the table.
“A social worker I had a long time ago told me, ‘Cooper, you belong away from people, at the end of a long, dirt road.’ Made me angry when she said that, real angry. I thought some — well, some pretty unpleasant thoughts, but years later, I realized it wasn’t an insult: she was right. I don’t like people. Never have. That’s why I’m headed home, back where I started. I’m gonna go get me a cabin and a dog — love animals, always have — and we’re gonna live at the end of a long dirt road. If anyone comes looking for us, I’ll have that dog. And probably a gun. If anyone comes looking.”
The waitress clears our plates and asks if we want dessert. My husband and I shake our heads, no, thank you.
“I had a daughter — have a daughter — well, she’s my stepdaughter and her and her mother live out in Arizona and aren’t talking to me right now, but I tell you what. She was the sweetest, smartest thing I ever saw, a good horseback rider, ribbons and all that jazz. Proud of her. She didn’t deserve what her dad did to her, no little girl deserves that. If I could’ve, if I’d known where to find him, if it was the last thing I ever did, believe me, I’d’ve killed her dad. I’d’ve done that for her.”
Cooper’s eyes are glassy now, and wet. We stand up to go. My husband shakes his hand goodbye. As we pass, I rest my palm briefly on his shoulder. We leave him sitting at the table and go back to our compartment. The two inches at the bottom of the Champagne bottle have gone warm and flat.
My husband and I sit across from each other in silence, the scenery outside forgotten. The past hour lands in my body and I burst into tears. “He’s so sad,” I say, as my husband nods. “He’s so sad.”
Cooper never mentioned his mother in his ramblings, but his father came up a few times and the mental picture I got was of a harsh, unforgiving presence with obsessively pressed pants. Cooper might be a life-ravaged 50 or substance-survivor 70; it’s impossible to say, but I can’t help thinking of him as a boy. Elfin, eager — and so easily crushed. It’s almost unbearable, the contrast between Cooper’s early life and that of the girls who will bearhug my husband and me when we return home in two days. The man now holding my face in his hands is the one of us who gets up in the middle of the night to shush and rock our daughters back to sleep. Each day, he scrambles to be back for dinner and bath time and “Little House” and lullabies. He tells our girls that of course they can be dancers and heart surgeons and play professional soccer. They can be anything — and everything — because we love them.
In twenty minutes, we arrive at Seattle’s King Street Station. We’re about to open our compartment door when I hear Cooper just outside, talking the ear off the attendant manning the exit. I touch my husband’s knee, wait a minute.
At this hour, the station is mostly deserted, the sound of our shoes on the marble floor echoing off the cathedral ceiling. As we wheel our luggage towards First Avenue, I stop and look back. Cooper’s standing in the Compass Room, the grand entryway to the station, staring down at the ragged Army duffel at his feet. He’s alone in a constricted circle of light, shut in by shadows at all sides.
My husband and I turn the corner and head off into the night, walking towards our expensive hotel, seeking the promise of comfort.
* * *
Angela Uherbelau is working on a memoir about being the only woman on a self-guided, 25-day raft trip down the Grand Canyon — in February. You can read more of her work at angelauherbelau.contently.com or follow her nascent Twitter exploits @girlwonderau.
Andrew Standeven is a freelance illustrator and fine artist – as well as an equestrian, historical reenactor, university librarian and FedEx material handler – residing in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a frequent contributor to Narratively.