Before I ever knew what it was, the 6:47 train leaving from Summit, New Jersey, to New York City was my absolute enemy. On Monday through Friday, my mom would slip out of the house at an unruly hour to board a silver bullet, leaving me behind to fumble over fractions at school. In a town where most mothers stayed at home, my mom was an outlier; cheated of out after school ice cream runs, I detested the train, New York, and everything that ripped her away from my sticky fingers.
My mom tried to bargain with me.
“It’s fun, Carly. Don’t you want to see New York City? You can visit me at my office!”
I paused, contemplating.
“You can be my assistant for the day…” she coaxed.
I was not convinced. What could a moving metal box provide that my best friends and the playground could not?
Finally, on my 10th birthday, our debate reached a head. Regardless of my wishes, our nanny was out sick, and without school, I was forced to take the train into the city with my mom.
I cannot help but appear at least slightly excited. As we wait on the train track, I glance around at the other passengers waiting to board. There are hundreds of people, briefcases and coffee in hand, idylly scrolling through their emails.
“Do you know them, Mom?” I ask.
She laughs. “Some of them, I recognize. Do you know what I do when I get bored? I create stories. All these people, Carly, they’re going into the city like you and me. See that guy over there? With the nose ring? He’s definitely preparing to produce his own album. And the lady, with the cheetah-print scarf? She works at a fashion company, and today, she’s going to style a model for the next issue of Vogue.”
“Is it true?” I ask. Mom shrugs her shoulders and smiles.
“Maybe. Why not?”
With an impish grin, I face the swarms of people. Switched into the circuit, my brain ignites, and I raise my voice higher and higher as we step into the adjacent car.
“See the old man, Mom? See him? See him? He’s going to go kickboxing even though he’s 90. That’s why he has bruises on his arm!”
She is pulling me quickly through the cars as we try to find two seats together. Babbling, I continue. “DO YOU SEE THE KID WITH PIGTAILS? MAYBE IT’S MY LONG LOST TWIN!”
Synchronized, businessman and dawdlers alike raise their heads to look at me. My mom is blushing furiously.
“Carly, SHUSH!” She bends down and whispers in my ear, glancing apologetically at the other passengers.
“There’s a silent car?”
Over the years, the train becomes my quirky fascination. It is a bizarre collection of individuals, most of whom would never choose to interact normally, but for one hour, and then maybe never again, their lives will collide, violently and spontaneously.
Naked men, crazy-ex girlfriends, and homeless people; I see them all, and I watch them, perhaps obtrusively, ride further into their lives. I learn that poverty prevails across the city, but those lacking food possess rich singing voices. Businessmen tend to scowl at noisy children crying on the train but will soften when their own children call them.
Imperceptibly, my perspective is widened, flipped, and thrust years into the future.
I am 16 years old when I board the train alone. The first stop on a crowded Saturday line, I do my best to walk through the empty rows as I stumble towards the last car. The air is sticky. There is no single, so I choose an empty row. The seats are warm like they just have been vacated, and I cannot help but slip into a gentle memory.
“Soon, you’re going to go into the city without me, Carly.” Her voice is firm, sliding her hand from the small of my back. “You’re going to be fine, because you are resourceful and smart and independent and beautiful.”
I miss her; this fact hits deep in the chest at random and inopportune times. I wish she were here; we would be laughing about the college student draped over the aisle, or maybe the poor soul lugging an oboe across state lines. The pain is beyond any explanation, but strangely I feel the most relief here, sitting silently as I ride the train into another facet of her life.
She is here, in the warm gaze of the teacher sitting two rows ahead, and the passion of the Suduko-er scribbling furiously on the newspaper. She is here, and I am comforted, if in no other way, that I am sitting here smiling, doing exactly what she would be doing on 6:47 on a Thursday.
Carly Noble is a 2019 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Silver Medalist. She is a senior at Summit High School in Summit, New Jersey.
This isn’t the first time my father has pointed Gillette Castle out to me through a train window. I was 14 last time, about to start my freshman year of high school. We were on our way to Vassar, my dad’s old college, then, too.
He taps me on the shoulder, and points past me, directing my gaze over the glittering water outside.
“There it is! The Sherlock Holmes castle.”
It occurs to me how much has changed since then, as the small, green island and its partially-submerged ruins fly by outside. I’m taller, I dress like a 16-year-old instead of a middle schooler, I straighten my hair often enough that some of my newer friends have no clue it was ever too curly to manage.
He doesn’t have to explain the significance of the castle (or what’s left of it) to me; I remember everything he tells me, even two years later. But of course he tells me the story again anyway, because that’s how our relationship is, how it’s always been. I notice things, and he gives me context. I ask him questions, and he give me answers, then tells me why they’re true. He finds something interesting, he tells me everything he knows about it. This is how I came to understand a variety of unrelated topics in vivid detail, including, but not limited to: music from the ’60s, philosophy, black-and-white movies, obscure westerns, and the theater business.
He tells me how William Gillette wrote and starred in the stage adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, how he toured for years in the role, and made a fortune. He used that fortune to build a literal castle, in disrepair now, but mysterious and beautiful regardless. These days, I don’t spend as much time with my father as I used to. We only really talk on our nightly, 10- or 15-minute dog walks, when I update him on my daily life in an outpouring of stories, drama, friends, teachers, schoolwork, dating, and the rest of it. Sometimes, I catch him ignoring me, and ask if I’m boring him, which makes us both angry. We fight, and even though we make up quickly, my inclination to open my world to him drains.
As he sits back in his seat, smiling about William Gillette, I start rattling off everything he’s missed from my life—it’s been a while since we’ve spent time like this together. And it’s a train. Isn’t this what you do on a train? Reflect? Pause everything, even though you’re in constant motion? I have my chance to tell my father about me. Except, I keep catching him distracted.
“Are you listening?” I feel a pang. I’m boring. I’m terrified of being boring.
“I’d just rather we talk about something else.”
“I’m sorry if I’m boring.” Sounds passive-aggressive, I know. But I really mean it.
“No, no. There’s just so much more we could be talking about.”
Without missing a beat, he starts listing better things for a father and daughter to talk about on a train. All of which I’ve listed above.
“But why don’t you want to hear about me? If I’m going to tell you anything remotely personal, you can’t ignore me. Why would you always rather just discuss whatever you find interesting from out in the world.”
“Because I like hearing what you have to say about the world. You’re interesting.”
Interesting. That doesn’t make sense. How can I be interesting, if my life isn’t?
On the bright side, tomorrow we’ll get on the train back to the city, and I’ll go straight from the station to the subway. I’ll go back to school, in my universe, with my people.
I pause to think.
“If you think I’m interesting, why do you only want to talk to me about things that have nothing to do with who I am?”
His next words are calculated.
“Because you’re my legacy.”
He isn’t talking about the college admissions kind, even though that’s the whole reason we’re making the trip.
“I have to talk to you about bigger things, about the world, because you’re what I’m leaving behind.”
“You know, Gillette wrote and starred in another play that toured for a long time.”
“Really? Tell me about it.”
I smile. It wasn’t the first time my father pointed Gillette Castle out to me through a train window.
Grace Goldstein is a 2019 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Silver Medalist. She is a senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City.