Six Dreams About the Train

I dream about you and the train all the time.

This is how it ends:

There is the train and there is you and then there is only the train.


Sometimes we’re on board the train, together. (This is my favourite dream because I’m next to you.) You have the window seat and you’re sleeping—your face bereft of all defenses, eyelids shivering with secret visions, hidden nightmares. Outside the dirty glass, the darkness unfolds itself while the train rocks us, softly, like I would rock you when you were still small enough to be held. Our reflections are superimposed on the world outside, afloat, like sky and clouds in water. We are uncertain apparitions, and, for a moment, I fear we are nothing but reflections. Maybe there is no me, no you, no us, only these images floating across the world without being part of it. And if I were to try to touch you in that moment of dread, my hand would dip into cold water, marring what I thought was us.

Then you wake up and look at me and you smile and I know who I am again, that I am real, that you are real, that this is the world as it is supposed to be.


Sometimes, I’m driving the train. I’m the engineer. It’s night and I’m coming down the tracks at high speed, traveling through that narrow section where the vines and bushes hang over the concrete edge from above (where the sparrows nest; you know the place). I’m used to the smell of diesel and metal, the thunk of wheels on rails, holding on to my insulated coffee mug, humming some old tune to myself. And there you are: just a kid, shoulders too slight to carry the carcass of the world, stumbling along the tracks. It’s as if you don’t hear the train bearing down on you with all its steel and rust and rain-streaked dirt. As if you don’t feel the thrum of its approach through the soles of your shoes, the rumble of it in the chill night air, rattling the spikes and sleepers, shuddering through the sharp gravel and rocks beneath you. Maybe you’ve got your headphones on. Maybe you’re drunk or sick. Or maybe you chose to walk here, knowing the train would come.

When I see you, I do whatever an engineer does. I make that whistle blare. I pull the brakes, but the train is too heavy, too long, one hundred cars (give or take), boxcars and hoppers, centerbeams and tank cars, carrying coal, ore, lumber. Or maybe it’s a passenger train, full of people, containing all their love and their loneliness. Or maybe the cars are empty, the contents already unloaded, the spray-painted graffiti on the sides of the boxcars vaguely luminous in the starlit dark.

It doesn’t matter. You are in front of the train and I can’t stop it.


Sometimes, you call me in the middle of the night.

“Hey,” you say, and the sound of  your voice is a silvery thorn of suffering, like those tiny spines on a cactus that hurt even though you cannot see them, much less pull them out of your skin. Although I’m muddled with sleep, I get out of bed.

“Where are you?” I ask, and you are silent for so long I fear you’ve hung up on me.

I put on my clothes, fumbling for my purse and keys. My glasses fog up in the cold when I get into the car. I drive through the dark, past the 7-Eleven and across the train tracks. My car is a mess and so am I, but there you are, waiting on the sidewalk. You don’t smile when you see me, but you get in the car and that is all that matters.

When we drive away, I hear the bells clanging at the railroad crossing.


Sometimes, I go through all the trouble of building a time machine and I travel back to stop trains from ever being invented. But it’s hard work to stop an idea when it is determined to become real.


Sometimes, we are train robbers you and I, characters from an old pulpy western. We wear snakeskin boots, faded denim, and bandanas. We rob the train. We ride away. My horse is a steady old bay. Yours is a showy blue roan. You ride so fast across the golden grass of the prairie it makes my heart shudder to see it. Leaning low over the neck of your horse, urging it on, your long hair streaming like a banner behind you, and I know you’re smiling even though I cannot see your face because you’ve left me so far behind.

I don’t mind being left behind. You were always moving through this world with the quick grace of a sparrow’s wing, or soaring high, like a spear point piercing starlight.


I don’t like the sixth dream.

In the sixth dream, I sleep through it all, safe and warm in my own bed, unaware that you are walking the tracks. In the sixth dream, I don’t see you, I don’t hear you, I can’t help you. Maybe you called and I didn’t answer. Or maybe you never called, because you thought I didn’t care or love you enough to come for you when you needed me.

This is how the sixth dream goes:

There is the train and there is you and then there is only the train.

* * *

When I open my eyes, I can’t hear the train. I still feel the thrum of it beneath my feet, but I don’t know if it’s approaching or receding. Standing outside your bedroom door, I listen for the sound of your voice, the shiver of your breath, the flutter of sparrow wings. Hoping you’re here, hoping you’ll stay, hoping we’re both awake.