Train of Thought: Leslie Jamison
How a long-haul train ride forged one of the great friendships of my life
Every friendship eventually claims its own myth of origins, and if I were going to tell you about me and Colleen, I could tell you about the years we spent living in a railroad apartment above a Brooklyn smoke shop, when each of us felt like a perfect answer to the other’s loneliness. But if I really wanted to go back to the beginning, I’d tell you about an overnight train ride from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, to Granby, Colorado.
When we took that ride, we were living in Iowa City, both graduate students who desperately wanted to be writers. Colleen was writing a book about her year living in Cuba and I was writing … what? Short stories about being female? I didn’t know yet. I was figuring it out. I was also drinking a lot, getting my heart broken so I’d have something to write about.
It was during the aftermath of one of these breakups that Colleen invited me to take the train with her to Colorado. The trip was ostensibly a mission to pick up an old Jeep Colleen’s aunt had offered her as a hand-me-down, but I think I said yes because I sensed there was deeper intimacy that lay between us, as-of-yet undiscovered.
I could tell you the mythic version of that train trip: We brought a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade to drink at sunset, as the horizon glowed fiery above the prairies; and slept on side-by-side seats, then picked up her Jeep in the snowy mountains and drove it back to our home in the heartland.
But in truth, the train ride wasn’t myth. It was actual and awkward, full of tiny frictions like motes of dust catching the light: We got woozy from drinking sweet booze on the rumbling train, hard lemonade sloshing in our stomachs and nowhere to lie down, because we’d purchased $40 tickets instead of sleeper cars.
As dusk fell, we watched Nebraska last forever: junkyards and crop sprinklers and auto-body shops. I loved that we were never far from the land rushing past our elbows; it was never going so fast we couldn’t see particular farmhouses and wonder: Who lives there? What did she eat for breakfast? What did she dream last night? I loved Colleen’s unapologetic awe at the world, even at its ordinary cornfields and its truck stops, and the sense—with her—that every conversation could unspool for hours, that there would always be more to say, that our talking could swallow even the infinitude of Nebraska. We ate chicken on china in the dining car at twilight, and felt like aristocrats from another century. She told me how she’d inherited her wanderlust from her father, and how it ached sometimes, not to be able to capture the song of the world when she wrote it. I knew that ache.
That whole trip, even its friction—the gristle of reality alongside the giddy realization that someone might become a friend for the rest of your life—was all fodder for the ongoing yearbook entry of our friendship: When we got excited about white linen in the dining car of the train. When you told me about delivering seed with your dad in upstate New York. When we picked up your stick-shift Jeep and you couldn’t drive stick. When your big love was done, years later, and I was trying to bring my own big love back to life. When you got a bike and felt happy being single. When I didn’t quite believe you. When I almost fainted one night at dinner and couldn’t stand. When you took me to the hospital. When I lay on the cold examining table and you stood in your scratched-up brown leather bomber jacket and held my hand. When you still had your bike but being single felt harder. When you spent a winter eating green apples. When my relationship was finally done and I was going off birth control so we wouldn’t sleep together anymore. When you told me your apartment still felt haunted by your ex and I told you I needed to move to a city where my ex didn’t live and we thought: What if? That’s how friendship begins: getting on a train to a place you’ve never been, speeding toward a home you can’t yet imagine, thinking, What if?