Jake and I were standing on the northbound platform. It was a raw October evening, six months into our biweekly New Haven-Princeton commutes, and as he waited with me for my train back to Connecticut, an Acela wooshed by on the inner set of tracks, whipping my hair against both of our faces and making me burrow my nose deeper into his shoulder against the cold.
In his bed last night, I had mouthed the words to myself as he snored, trying to decide if I needed to say them because they were true or because I wanted to hear them said, and knowing that I could say them only if it was the first.
The large clock hanging over the platform advanced another six degrees, counting down the minutes until my own NJ Transit train would rush in. I shivered in my thin purple pea coat and stared down the parallel rails to their vanishing point.
With two minutes to go, I pulled away from his body and looked into his blue eyes. He asked what was wrong, and I said I needed to tell him something, but then I lipped at him like a fish, unable to get the first small word past my larynx.
It was only when the engine headlight appeared in the distance and a soft horn crescendoed quickly toward us that I took a deep breath and let the words pour out before they could be drowned by the roar of the approaching train:
“I love you,” followed quickly by, “You don’t have to say it back.”
I felt the water in my eyes immediately, not because I knew in that instant that he wouldn’t lie for me, but because when I finally heard the words out loud, I knew for the first time that they were true. All of them.
He took my jawbone in his palms, and from five inches away, he stared straight into me. “Babe. That means so much to me.” Over the pneumatic hiss of the brakes and the deep rumble of the engine, he had to shout, but for the few seconds that he spoke, it was just the two of us there on the platform. The rattle of the opening doors and the bottleneck of Princetonians detraining and boarding faded away.
And then in an instant it all came flooding back. “Get to school safe,” he urged, “and we’ll talk about it soon, okay?”
He wrote me a few days later and said in his thick handwriting that he had cried all the way home, knowing that he couldn’t yet give back what I had offered so freely and imagining how sad I must have been on the ride back to Yale. He told me never to forget that I make him so happy. He signed the letter, Yours in everything.
I kept using the words, but sparingly, mostly when we said goodbye.
Every Friday afternoon, the Yale Skeet and Trap team caravans to the practice fields in East Lyme. Last year as a freshman, I would hurdle into the far back of our coach’s old Chevrolet suburban. Jake, a senior, usually sat by a window in the middle row. We took I-95 to and from the fields, weaving weekly through the hillsides of Middlesex County as hot September dragged into late autumn.
Jake and I grew closer on these relaxed Friday drives, making quiet conversation to the smell of residual gunpowder and the tunes of soft country radio. One winter evening on the way back to campus — long after the oak leaves had darkened, dropped, and been buried under snow — I asked him about his summer in Baden-Württemberg studying German. We spent the entire 40 minute drive talking about language and travel and communication, I leaning forward against my seatbelt with my elbows propped on the middle bench, and he craning his neck back at me. He told me much later that that was when he first thought, “I could really like this girl.”
We kissed for the first time just a few weeks before his graduation, so we agreed to take it slow over the summer and see what happened. We wrote letters and sent emails, and he took an Amtrak from Jersey to visit me at the apartment I was subletting in New Haven. By Fourth of July weekend, we were experimenting with labels, tasting the words boyfriend and girlfriend between sips of I.P.A.
The next day we took an early Metro North into New York, armed only with my dying BlackBerry and a printed Google map to the Botanical Gardens in Brooklyn. Late in the afternoon, just as we were about to board the Downtown 6 at the Union Square subway station, Jake asked if my phone had died yet. When I reached into the side pocket of my bag to check, I realized that it had disappeared.
An hour later, after retracing our steps and then filing a theft report at the underground police station, Jake took my hand and said cautiously, “Well, what now?”
I told him we were going back to the 6 train, and we would see the Brooklyn Bridge as planned. At his bewildered expression, I explained that my phone was almost dead anyway, and that I had insurance to get it replaced, and that yeah, it was a pain in the butt, but my thousand-dollar Nikon D90 with all the pictures from the Gardens was also tucked into my purse and had not been stolen, and that things could have been a lot worse.
A few minutes past midnight, we finally boarded our return train to New Haven. We settled in on an empty leather bench, and before I fell asleep in his lap, I felt him reach with his foot to slide my purse closer.
I used to love flying. When I was young, airline tickets always meant vacation — new mountains to hike or warm sand to sift through my pedicured toes. I coveted window seats, where I would curl one leg underneath me and press my foot against the plastic interior of the fuselage until circulation slowed to a deadened tingle. Staring down at the quilted Midwestern plains, I imagined that I would never walk again and could instead remain far from the reaches of Wi-Fi or cell phone reception, suspended in the stratosphere.
Turbulence was an added bonus, a free rollercoaster ride through the clouds. I would giggle at the sinking of my stomach while other passengers screamed or prayed. And I was rarely disappointed: returning to a home in the Windy City usually made for a bumpy reentry.
Jake was still living with his parents in Moorestown, NJ, when I went to visit him for the first time. We both would have preferred my large bedroom on Crown Street, where we could drink and screw and fall asleep side by side, but he was starting his job at a consulting firm the following Monday, and his mother wanted him home so she could finish nursing him through a bad summer cold. I asked if he was ready for me to meet his parents, and he said sure, why not.
I boarded my first Amtrak that Thursday afternoon. Not 10 minutes after pulling away from Union Station, I tucked my bare legs underneath me to protect them from the refrigerated air in the coach car, regretting the sundress I had carefully chosen. When the conductor came by, he pointed out that I hadn’t authorized my ticket and showed me the signature line. I spent most of the three-hour ride checking my hair in the reflection on the window and worrying at my cuticles.
I texted Jake as we were platforming in Trenton. He told me to turn to the right when I walked into the station and to look for him outside in his new Elantra Touring. I waited for 10 minutes on the curb with my suitcase before I called him, flustered, but he insisted that he had already arrived. It took a few seconds of dead air before I realized what had happened: I was so nervous that I had turned left.
When we spent three days on the New Hampshire coast in August, Jake surprised me with a 7 a.m. alarm and tickets to go whale watching on the Gulf of Maine. After boarding the boat, we climbed to the upper deck and bundled ourselves against the morning chill and sea spray. As the captain steered us away from the shore, I leaned over the railing and snapped a picture of the white surf we left in our wake. The motor rumbled so loudly we had to shout to be heard, so we settled for smiles and pointed fingers and gentle squeezes when a right whale’s dark fluke broke the surface.
Four hours later, we turned back to find the land that we had left far behind, and Jake lay down on one of the metal benches, resting his head in my lap. I stroked his hair absentmindedly while he snoozed, and I grinned out at the blue horizon, bits of salt water clinging to my aviators.
In early October, when Jake and I met halfway for a day in New York, my mother had already been ignoring my phone calls for three weeks. Our last conversation had ended after she yelled at me for half an hour and accused me of always running away from my problems. Then she had hung up. It was the most recent jolt in a relationship that left me afraid to come home to her in the fifth grade, distraught at age 13 when she told me never to have children, and indignant and ungrateful the summer before I finally left for college. Now I was realizing that no matter how old I grew or how far I fled, it wouldn’t be any simpler to hate or to love her. One Saturday morning, after it had become clear that I was not going to get her on the phone, I had called Jake sobbing, and it took three tries before he could understand that I was saying, “I miss my mom.”
I waited for him at a Starbucks on 43rd Street. When he knocked on the window in front of my latte and grinned at me through the glass, some hidden tight muscle in my chest instantly eased. On the subway to Greenwich Village, I stood behind him with my left hand grasping the greasy metal pole and my right arm wrapped around his waist, my cheek resting on his shoulder as he watched for our stop.
That night we walked in Central Park, our joined hands still sticky from Ethiopian injera and the taste of fenugreek lingering on our tongues. It was cold and windy and we warmed up by making out on a secluded bench.
Around eleven, we finally left the park, and he took a detour with me to Grand Central before riding the rest of the way back to Penn Station. When we parted deep underground, I tried so hard not to cry, but I couldn’t fight the tight heat in my cheeks when I thought about falling asleep that night alone. We hugged there in front of the turnstile, and the only reason I let him go was that he had a train to catch.
One of my favorite toys growing up was my Brio train set. I could stay entertained for hours crouched over a maze of track, building and deconstructing and tinkering, perfecting my fantasy world on the hardwood floor of my mother’s bedroom. My designs wound effortlessly over coursing rivers and through imaginary forests, splitting off in different directions and meeting up again miles later, following elaborate loops and traversing hills as high as I could stack the Brio support blocks before they tumbled over.
These days I am overflowing with tickets. I buy them round trip from the automatic vendors when I visit Jake for the weekend: a two-way, light blue Metro North and a pair of rosy purple NJ Transits. I store the second of each for the return journey safely behind my driver’s license. By now I have at least three MetroCards to get me from Grand Central to Pennsylvania Station, the newer ones purchased in moments of panic with a growing line of Manhattanites behind me as I try to remember in which wallet I left the first card and try to keep track of my suitcase all at the same time.
Stapled to a bulletin board in my dorm room, next to the construction-paper whale-watching ticket, there are perforated Amtrak receipts that display their varied prices. These I buy online and print out at a kiosk when I get to the station. If I plan ahead, I can get them for as little as $36, about what it costs to take the two commuter trains. But I’ve splurged before too, spending close to seventy when I’m just too lazy and tired to haul my baggage all over New York.
Jake splits the cost with me. I used to protest, but he argued that when I visited, it was valuable to him too, and ultimately what it came down to is that he has a job and I don’t, so I take his money, and I always do the dishes after dinner. But when he tried to give me cash once for a cab back to campus, I shook it away. “You’re my boyfriend, not my parent,” I told him.
“Yeah,” he said, “but a lot of the time you don’t really have parents.”
Over my winter break, we drove to the nearest Blockbuster and rented all three of the classic Star Wars movies. Tequila made me giggly, and I teased Jake and his roommate John as they reminisced about old-school videogames where you could pod race on Tatooine or destroy enemy Tie Fighters in celestial battles.
The ship I had loved most growing up was the Millennium Falcon, a YT-1300f light freighter piloted by the roguish smuggler, Han Solo. When the gray ship jumped into hyperdrive, pinpoint stars would streak into long white lines, and in seconds the great Falcon would rocket forward into a hidden fold of space-time, leaving her pursuers in the galactic dust.
It was late when we started the last film, Return of the Jedi, but I drunkenly insisted that we watch it in its entirety. I thought I had the whole movie memorized, but there was one scene I had forgotten: as Han Solo and Princess Leia are caught in a firefight outside the locked door of the shield generator on Endor, Han turns to Leia and, for the first time, shouts, “I love you!”
“I know!” she shouts back at him. Then she aims into the redwood forest and shoots down another Storm Trooper.
Jake picked me up at Newark International Airport on the 29th of December. The night before, he had waited up to listen to my tears over the phone after a sushi dinner in Chicago with my mother had ended, predictably, in silence. I told him how she had responded to my, “I love you. We’ll talk soon,” with a despondent, “I don’t think so,” and that she hadn’t returned my hug.
In the morning he held me twice as long outside Terminal A.
For New Year’s Eve, we went to a Drive By Truckers show in Midtown West, tumbling exhausted onto his bed back in Princeton just as the sun came up, after a tipsy subway ride, an overcrowded NJ Transit train back to Hamilton station, and a 15 minute drive screaming “All I Do Is Win” with T-Pain at the tops of our lungs to keep awake in the car.
Since Jake had to go back to work that Monday, I spent long hours alone in his apartment planning my schedule for the coming semester. I pored over course descriptions in the Yale Blue Book, making useless contingency plans and promising myself that I didn’t need my mother.
But I still couldn’t sleep that Saturday night, convinced in the dark that I should just take a semester off, worried that I needed Jake beyond what he could give me through cellular words and 120 miles of railroad, more worried that I would pretend that I didn’t need him when I actually did, and scared that I cared about him for what he could give me, not for who he was. As I lay awake in his bed through the early morning hours, I kept hearing my mother’s words in my head — you always run away from your problems — and I wanted so bad not to run this time, but I didn’t know anymore which direction was running away and which direction was just moving forward.
Every time I visit him, I travel a slightly different permutation of the route. Sometimes I grab a bagel on campus, and other times I get a sausage, egg, and cheese at the Dunkin’ Donuts on my way to the platform — I always order a medium coffee now, because the lids that come with the smalls don’t keep the hot liquid in the cup when the train bounces. If it’s nice out, I walk the mile to Union Station, navigating the tricky intersection where State Street hits Frontage, but otherwise I’ll call the Yale Transit for a ride, or if I’m really lazy, I’ll pay seven dollars for a cab.
Though I promise myself every time that I’m going to get work done, I usually keep my eyes open just long enough to pass the conductor my ticket. Then I slip easily into a half- awake consciousness, the motions of the train transmitted to me through a synesthesia of mumbled groans and track vibrations that well up under my feet. I still love window seats. Once I settle in, I rest my head against the cool glass, and my temple quivers to the rhythm of the passing railroad ties as we pick up speed. We sway around curves, and the forces of inertia rock my body gently in time to the braking and acceleration. Through my lashes, I catch glimpses of factories or a trailer park between the long stretches of red elms and reservoirs, and a few cemeteries, so old that ground creep has tilted and fractured the headstones, emerge from the trees. Hushed gossip echoes from the seats around me, and as I drift in and out of sleep, I piece together strange stories about cruel professors, coworkers with bad hygiene, and near-encounters with the NHPD. And then I’m out, white ear buds dangling toward my iPod, a playlist of our favorite songs on repeat.
On the evening of Sunday, January 9, I gathered my things from around Jake’s room, and we headed to the Trenton Transit Center. As he turned onto South Clinton Avenue, I told him he could just drop me at the curb, it was silly to pay to park.
So he pulled into the drop-off area and got out to help me with my bags, and we stood by the trunk of his car, putting off the goodbyes. Then I said that I loved him, and that I couldn’t imagine another person I would have rather spent this time with, and that I would call when I got back safe.
He responded with four small words, grinning wide at my gaping eyes half a second later when I realized what had just come out of his mouth.
The first thing I said was “Fuck,” through the tears that started to flow, and I punched him in the shoulder as I wiped at my eyes. I had been so determined not to cry this time when we parted. Then we held each other, until I finally pulled back and stared into his blue eyes again. With one hand still at the nape of his neck and the other pressed against his chest, I managed to whisper, “I know.”