What she sees here is her first memory: a white blanket draped over the world, the way the falling snowflakes outside the train emerge from the fog and strike the window and turn to water droplets and become thin, twisting streams that slide horizontally across the glass, leaving tiny glistening specks. Her world opens with that image; before it, she was an empty easel. It’s like being born, only instead of protesting her birth with cries and gasps she just looks down at her small pale white hands for the first time and tilts her head a bit to the side and says “Huh” quietly in a way that’s more amused than confused.
Around her the train’s full of empty gray seats, with only a few people in the passenger car. There’s a man sleeping across the aisle from her. She sits for a while, not thinking, looking at her hands. Then she checks her pockets—she’s wearing dark jeans—and, of course, finds nothing. She checks beneath the seat in front of her, and finds nothing again, checks the empty place on her left and finds nothing once more.
A voice in her head asks her what color her hair is. She doesn’t question it. She checks and finds she has light hair.
She goes to the bathroom with her eyes closed and splashes her face with water and takes a breath and looks into the mirror. “Hello,” she whispers, and touches her reflection, leaves a faint fingerprint over her eye, which is the same color as her hair. She’s not very old. Maybe twenty-five. Sounds about right, the voice in her head tells her, and she feels comforted by the fact that she knows what twenty-five looks like. Looking at her face isn’t like looking at the face of a stranger, exactly, because the image in the mirror is hers. She tells herself she’s seen this face before, so she knows it belongs to her, but the voice in her head tells her that while this might be the case, a face without a name is meaningless. She says, “I know my name.” She stands there looking into the mirror and realizes she doesn’t. There are puffy crescents under her eyes and a little circular scar on her nose, and this is good, because it means she came from somewhere, that she hasn’t just popped into existence in the window seat of a snowbound passenger train.
Back in the aisle, she steps on something as she’s returning to her seat. She moves her foot—she notices her shoes are gray sneakers—and picks up a pen. It’s black and heavy. Across the aisle, on the floor in front of the sleeping man’s seat, there’s an unzipped backpack lying on its side. There’s an open notebook beside it. She bites her upper lip, closes her first around the pen, steps into the aisle and reaches for the sleeping man’s shoulder.
“I’m awake,” he says.
She pulls her hand away. “Oh.”
He has dark eyes. He’s not much older than her. “Is that my pen?”
“Yes.” She hands it to him. “It was on the floor.”
“Thanks.” He’s stuffing the notebook into his bag, zipping it up, shoving it under the seat with his foot. The pen, however, he slides slowly into his pants pocket, and he keeps his hand there. He gives her a little smile.
She stands there, and this is one of those places where the road forks, where the possibilities diverge. She realizes she can just sit down, shut up, try to figure things out on her own—or she can make this man part of the life she now knows, from this point going forward on her timeline, however long (short?) and twisted (because we’re pretty fucking sure it’ll be twisted) it may be. More importantly, he’s probably been there a while; maybe he knows where she’s heading, where she got on the train. The voice in her head asks her why she should bother the guy, and asks her why she doesn’t have a ticket in her pocket, but what she does is say, “Actually I wanted to ask you something.”
And he answers: “You did have that look.”
“This is going to sound really crazy.”
“Eh.” He takes his hand from his pocket, interlaces his fingers over his chest. “You love crazy.”
“Well—wait, I do? Did we talk before? Earlier I mean?”
He says, “Maybe we did. You’re Charlotte.”
“That’s my name,” she says.
“Yeah,” he says, “that’s your name.”
It sounds right to her, and even the voice inside her head admits it seems accurate. In fact now that she knows the name, she can’t believe she could ever have forgotten it. She moves closer to him, places her hand on the back of his seat, leans towards him ever so slightly. “Look, I know this sounds insane, but until you said my name I literally had no idea who I was.”
His laugh ends before he can open his mouth. “You’re serious.”
“Yes, I’m serious.”
His eyes widen some. He looks startled, but more than that he looks intrigued. “So, our whole conversation while the train was delayed, you don’t remember any of it.”
“I . . . well, I actually remember a conversation. And the train being stopped.” Which she does, suddenly and out of nowhere. Charlotte remembers the train car being dark, people moving back and forth through the aisles, talking into their phones while she sat, trying to sleep but unable to do so because of the pain above her right eye, which sent a wave of nausea through her throat into her stomach and back again with every pulsebeat. “We were stopped for so long.”
“Yeah. Eight hours.”
“This must sound so crazy.”
He waves her concern away. “Here, have a seat.” He slides over to make room for her. Charlotte hesitates a moment before sitting. “By the way,” he says, “in case you don’t remember—”
“I really don’t.”
She says, “That’s right,” because now she remembers.
Michael tells her they met after the train had been stopped at Union Station for five hours, around midnight or so, just after the dining car ran out of prepackaged coffee cakes and half-frozen sausage biscuits. “Oh,” Charlotte says, “I went back there for water. I never got it so I stole a cup and used the bathroom sink.” Michael says, “Yeah you told me that, and I was pretty fuckin grossed out.” “I’m sorry.” “Actually I ended up doing the same thing, so yeah. Anyway.” He says she was looking for ibuprofen, or Tylenol, or even aspirin, anything for the headache, because she didn’t have any in her bag—“I had a bag?” Charlotte asks. Michael says, pointing: “You have a bag, it’s right there.” She sees it under the empty seat next to the one in which she was sitting at the moment she made what she still thinks of as her first memory, because the ones Michael is dredging up from the muck at the bottom of her empty skull feel newer and fresher, even though they are chronologically further back along the timeline. Anyway, she feels like an idiot, because obviously her bag has been there all along, and she simply missed it earlier, how silly of her to panic like that, to not stay calm and pay attention. Except here the voice in her head interjects and reminds her she never once panicked, that she played the whole thing cool, didn’t even wake anybody up except homeboy here—and how convenient is that? “What’s that supposed to mean?” Charlotte says aloud, to which Michael responds, “What’s what supposed to mean?” She shakes her head, makes a twirling motion with her forefinger to propel him on. He says that he stopped her by touching her arm lightly and saying, Excuse me, do you want a Motrin? and she turned to him and said she would hug him, if only her headache would let her bend that far over without passing out or throwing up. He laughed, and after downing the pills with a gulp of bathroom water she sat in her seat across from him and they talked while her headache slowly went away. First, he says, they just complained about the delay. Fuckin snow, right? is what Michael said, but Charlotte reminded him of the conductor’s announcement—“Something about changing engines,” she says. He nods and says, “Yeah, they change engines south of DC. Different tracks or something, I dunno. But it’s the snow that delayed the new engine, I think.” “Right.” So yeah, he says, first they just talked about the delay, but then they started talking about each other, and this is the part that’s most useful to Charlotte, so she leans in and touches his hand lightly, feeling more excitement than confusion, because this is helping—thank God, it’s helping. She says, “Wait, did I give you my last name?” “Just Charlotte.” He says she told him she was traveling from New York to home, which is true, of course, but she has no idea where home is, and she neither develops a memory nor gets an answer from Michael, who just shrugs and says, “Sorry.” She twirls her finger again.
He doesn’t go on, though. His streaming narrative’s hit a wall, and he just sits, looking a little uneasy for the first time.
Charlotte says, “What’s wrong? Is something wrong?” The voice in her head tells her that clearly there is, because she can’t remember a damn thing about anything except the few bits she’s gotten from Michael here, to which Charlotte responds—silently this time—I know that, you know what I meant. The voice in her head is skeptical.
Michael shifts in his seat, moves a few inches away from her, a few inches that feel like yards. “I don’t—I mean, you did say you were going home, but I don’t think you meant home like, literally.”
Michael nods in the direction of her bag. “That’s the only thing you brought on the train, right?”
“I . . .” For a second she doesn’t know, and then she does. He’s right. That bag is all she’s got, and it isn’t even big enough to carry a laptop. “Yeah. That’s it.”
“You didn’t say where exactly you were going,” Michael says, “but you didn’t sound excited to get there.”
Charlotte folds her hands in her lap for a moment, then reaches across the aisle and snags the bag. Inside it, even less than she assumed. Toothbrush. Toothpaste. Crooked glasses. Travel-size bottle of saline solution. Contact lens case. Rolling Stones t-shirt. Two pairs of socks. One pair of jeans, rolled up. The end.
Michael says, “Like I said, sorry I can’t help more there.”
“It’s okay, I think. Tell me more, though.”
He doesn’t look any less nervous. He runs a hand through his hair, touches the pocket where he’s hidden his pen, says: “That’s actually pretty funny. Yeah.”
He says that after talking for a good two hours, they moved over to the same row of seats, sitting “Pretty much where we are now,” and by now the other passengers were returning to sleep, their wee-hour rant phone calls home finished, their attempts to contact train people of importance, or, otherwise, reach customer service representatives, failed. Michael says Charlotte was getting tired, her headache gone, allowing her body to relax, her mind to go at ease, and their conversation had gotten, well—“Flirty,” Charlotte says dryly, and Michael says, “Yeah, I guess that’s the word for it, flirty. You remember?” “Yeah, but it’s hazy.” “Ah, right. Anyway,” he says, it started with her head on his shoulder, his cheek against the top of her head, it progressed to his arm around her, her hand in his, and finally, the kiss—
“I did not,” Charlotte says, and the voice inside her head agrees vehemently, there’s no way she did that, it says, just ain’t no way, talk about out of character, especially for her. But really, she thinks at the voice, how can we know if it’s out of character? It seems right, and honestly she’s starting to remember it now. Whatever, the voice inside her head sighs.
“I mean, you did,” Michael says. “Don’t you remember?”
“I’m getting there.”
“I’m sorry if you’re embarrassed. It was a good kiss.”
“It was only the kiss, though, right? We didn’t, like, sneak off . . .”
“No, we didn’t.”
Over the speaker system, the conductor tells them that they’re nearing the next stop. Michael stirs. “This is me.”
“What stop did he say this was?”
“We’re in North Carolina.”
“So this is—”
Something like a smirk flicks over his lips, but only for an instant, so that after it’s gone she immediately doubts whether or not she’s seen it at all. “Charlotte, yeah. I have a place in Genesis Park.”
She begins to stand. “I guess I’ll get out of your way.”
He touches her arm. “Hey, look, I feel bad about not being that big a help.”
“No, you have been.”
He looks at her. “Seriously, I don’t think you really talked with anyone else on the train. You don’t know where you’re going?”
“I’m sure I’ll remember.”
He shakes his head. “You don’t even know your last name, Charlotte.”
He’s right, is the thing, and she knows it. This is the point in the timeline where the reality of her predicament finally strikes her, hits her broadside like a volley of cannonfire. She sinks back into the seat, shivering, and she lets him put his arm around her the way she now foggily remembers it happening last night. She says, “I don’t know what to do.”
“Hey,” Michael says, “Just come with me.”
Michael’s place is a small gray single apartment on a generic street of dozens of such places, all of them painted somewhere along the non-color spectrum between black and white and set in the center of small lots bordered by cracking concrete. It’s no longer snowing, but there’s a layer of heavy wet slush on the ground and they trudge through it on their way to his door. Inside, he says, “I know it’s a little barren,” and the voice in Charlotte’s head agrees, because there’s only an empty sofa and an old TV and a sink without any dirty dishes, which is disturbing. He drops his wallet on an empty counter and pushes a button on a coffeemaker.
“I lied to you earlier,” he says, while they’re sitting on the sofa next to each other ostensibly trying to think of what she should do next.
“What about?” Charlotte says.
“Well . . .” He edges away from her a little, leans with his elbow against the armrest. “You probably won’t remember this, and so if I say it I’m gonna come off like a freak—”
“Please,” Charlotte says.
“Well I mean, you did tell me where you were going.”
The voice says, yeah, he’s a liar, and for a moment Charlotte agrees, and slides away from him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You said you didn’t want to go back to New Orleans,” Michael tells her. “Then you asked if you could come visit me for a while.”
The voice in her head makes an angry strangled sound. Charlotte says, “I did?” and asks herself two things. First, why would she be so desperate to avoid going home, wherever home was? Second: What if he’s lying? The voice inside her head manages to clear its throat and tell her that clearly he’s full of shit, but as Charlotte sits there looking at Michael, who seems embarrassed, fidgeting and apparently unable to figure out whether or not he should walk away or embrace her, she realizes she remembers now. If only I had a few more days, is what she remembers saying to him on the train, just a while to get my head together, you know? And he told her yeah, I get that, and she looked into his dark eyes and said, Look, I know this is going to come off as really forward, but would it be okay if—
She says, “I remember.”
He smiles a little, gets closer to her. “So how do you feel now that you’re . . . here?”
The door isn’t far away, but she doesn’t stand, doesn’t run to it. She doesn’t want to. “I feel . . .fine,” she says.
“Do you wanna go downstairs? There’s a better TV in the basement.”
Charlotte says, “Sure.” The voice inside her head warns her that her headache is going to come back, because it’s going to make the damn headache come back if she goes down into the fucking basement. They stand, and Charlotte stretches her arms and says, “Hey, do you have that headache medicine from the train?”
“Yeah, sure,” he says, and reaches into his bag at the side of the sofa, keeps his eyes on her while doing so, pulls out the little bottle of medicine he’d given her earlier, gives it to her.
Which isn’t right.
The voice in her head gloats.
This isn’t how she remembers it. He gave her Motrin on the train. She remembers the little bottle, the feel of the orange pill between her fingers and the taste of the bathroom water, the way it always takes her just a little too long to swallow a pill, so that she inevitably gets a bitter blast of grit across her tongue. That bitter blast is always different depending on the type of medicine, because Tylenol doesn’t taste like Motrin and Motrin sure as hell doesn’t taste like Excedrin. The voice in her head, still gloating, tells her that what she actually remembers is what he told her, and he told her he gave her Motrin. Now you’re here in Charlotte, North Carolina, the voice in her head tells her, how convenient is that for him, because it sure would suck to be named Greensboro, wouldn’t it?
He has her by the arm, his grip just a little too tight. They’re walking down the stairs into the dark basement. She tries to casually pull her arm from his grasp, but he hangs on, his other hand over the pocket where he kept his pen. “Hey, uh,” she says, “I actually need some water. I need to take this pill before my headache comes back.”
“You took it just now,” Michael says.
“Uh.” She suddenly remembers doing just that, the same hazy sort of memory as almost everything else in her head, the sort that feel so much more distant than the image of the snow and fog blanketing the train, of the flakes turning to rivers flowing against the outside of the window. “No,” Charlotte says. “I didn’t take it.” She stops on the third to last step before the bottom. He goes down one more, looks back up at her, a moment of anger shooting across his face, a bit of red flowing in his cheeks.
“Oh,” he says, “Which of us has the more reliable memory around here?” It’s an awful thing to say, Charlotte thinks, but she does remember now, and anyway she looks at her hands and realizes she’s not carrying the Excedrin bottle anymore, so maybe he’s right. But just maybe, because the basement is so dark, and there’s a sort of deep barely-there groaning in her ears, it’s coming from somewhere in the blackness and while she realizes it’s probably a water heater or furnace, what she almost sees waiting for her is the outline of something huge and fanged and shapeless, and she wants to jump into bed under the covers wherever home is before it gets her. But he leads her to the bottom and into the darkness. Her head begins to throb, and the world begins to swim. The voice there tells her it told her so. Charlotte and Michael take a few steps together, and then he stops her, looks straight at her and licks his upper lip.
“So yeah,” he says. “There was one other thing.”
“What was that?” Charlotte says, squeezing her eyes shut and then opening them, because he’s suddenly become very blurry, and she’s suddenly feeling very lightheaded. She says, “I think I should sit down.”
“There’s a bed over there,” he says, and leads her farther into the basement and guides her to the edge of a bed that feels too soft and too clean and fresh to be in such a dark place. “Anyway,” he goes on, and sits beside her with his arm around her shoulders, “This is pretty embarrassing too, I mean I was embarrassed when you said it, but there it is.”
“What . . . what did I say?” She really wants to lie down, if she can just lie down everything will be better.
Michael says, his breath hot on her ear: “You said, ‘I want to fuck you.’”
“I don’t,” she starts, but then she kind of does, “remember that.”
“Yes you do,” he whispers, and he kisses her, and she doesn’t pull away, because she realizes he’s right. She does remember after all.
There’s light on her face when she wakes up and finds herself in a perfectly normal bedroom, naked in bed, under the covers. She feels okay, turns her head and sees Michael standing at the open window near the bed. He’s wearing boxers and he’s smoking a cigarette, letting the smoke waft through the window, not shivering even though the air seeping into the room through it is freezing, she can feel it from here.
He notices her, smiles at her, stretches his lean body with his arms out behind his back, kills his cigarette in the glass dish on the windowsill. “Hey, babe. How are you feeling?”
She’s babe now? Why is she babe now? After babe comes baby, and she doesn’t wanna go to that place. Not with Michael. Not until they talk about things, figure out where the relationship is heading after last night—
She stops. What, she thinks, the fuck am I doing? The voice in her head tells her that’s a very good question, just a fine dandy wonderful piece of inquisition, and gives her a headache. She touches her forehead, above her right eye, puts pressure on it, says, “I’m okay, but I need some headache medicine.”
“Oh, sure,” Michael says. He points. The bottle of Tylenol is on the nightstand, next to his wallet, on her side of the bed. She takes it, looks at the label, which is supposed to be green, because it’s not supposed to be Tylenol, it’s supposed to be fucking Excedrin.
She thinks, My God.
Michael’s closing the window, not looking at her. Says: “Hey, I’m gonna grab a shower, then I’ll make you some breakfast. You like pancakes?”
“I love pancakes,” she says, even though she has no idea whether or not she has ever had pancakes before.
“Okay babe.” He comes to the bed, leans down and kisses her. She kisses him back. When they pull away from one another, his face hovers inches from hers for a while longer. He’s smiling at her. “L-word, dear,” he says, touches her bare shoulder lightly with his fingertips, and goes into the bathroom.
She waits until she hears the shower running, then gets out of bed, drops the Tylenol, finds her clothes in a pile on the floor and puts on her jeans and socks and shoes and her bra, but not her shirt. She just holds that, looks over at the nightstand, picks up Michael’s wallet. There’s ten twenty dollar bills inside; she takes them and stuffs them into her pocket. She starts to close the wallet but changes her mind, pulls out his driver’s license. His name is Michael Peterson, he’s six feet tall and weighs a hundred and seventy pounds, and he’s twenty-nine, and in his picture he’s got bad facial hair and glasses. She puts that in her pocket, then takes his Mastercard as well before replacing the wallet on the nightstand.
She goes into the living room, finds her bag near the sofa, pulls out her black Rolling Stones t-shirt, shoves the other shirt into the backpack and zips it up. She ties her hair up behind her head, hefts the bag up onto her shoulder, considers heading for the exit, but doesn’t.
Back in the bedroom, the shower is still hissing, steam flowing up into the room from under the bathroom door. She finds his pants on the floor, feels inside his pockets, closes her fist around his pen. It’s still black and too heavy. She says, “Fuck you, Michael Peterson,” and takes the pen with her. She turns to leave the bedroom.
This is when he comes out of the bathroom with a towel around his waist. “Need more soap—What’re you doing?”
She squeezes the pen tightly in her hand. “I’m leaving.”
“Why? Why do you have my pen?” He moves towards her.
She slides back away from him. “This is my pen, Michael.”
He stops. “Are . . . are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. I had it when we met, remember?”
“Oh,” he says. His eyes are glassy. He touches his forehead. “That’s right. Fucking headache. Why are you leaving?”
“Because,” Charlotte says, “We’re finished. We just talked about everything, Michael. Clean break. Remember? I’m just here to get my shit and go.”
He’s rubbing the sides of his head. “Can we talk about this more—I mean I remember but it’s all so hazy.”
“I think we’ve had way too much of each other already, homeboy,” she says, and brushes past him, leaving him staring motionlessly after her with steam pouring out of the bathroom behind him, little clouds rolling across his bedroom floor.
The voice in her head tells her maybe there’s hope for her yet. “Always is,” she tells it, and she pulls on her gray denim jacket and walks outside alone into the cold.