The Train to There
A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Lace"
Originally featured on 03-07-2007
As part of our series "Anniversaries"

The train to the city took two and a half hours if you were lucky, if there were no abandoned couches on the tracks or mechanical difficulties to be dealt with. Sometimes the train would stop and the lights would go out, leaving you in the fading light of a random Poughkeepsie evening. I loved Penn Station. I would watch the numbers and letters flip on the train arrivals board and I would think of the millions of people who had done the same, exactly where I was standing, and it felt good. I liked that about New York City. Nothing was new, but it felt mystical.

Sometimes my sister would pick me up; sometimes I would wander out on my own, always the same way—past the Baskin Robbins and up the stairs into the daylight again, taking each step slow amidst those taking two at a time. My sister taught me how to tuck in the zippers on my backpack so that no one could open it on the sly, and this made me feel like an old pro. Still the smell always caught me in the station and in the subways, and with the summer heat or the winter numbness and the roaring of the trains, it could be too much. I was in awe of the noise the city could produce, even on the 27th floor of my sister’s apartment overlooking Lincoln Center. The street air lingered up in through the windows breathing warm thick city breath.

I was a sophomore in college when my sister was preparing for her wedding, and the maid of honor. She was twenty-eight. My sister had gone to college when I was ten, taken the bar when I was sixteen, and as far as I could tell, had it all figured out. The departing train was late.

We were going to pick out bridesmaid dresses. Despite my mother’s pleas for eggplant, my sister wanted black, any style we wanted. I could already imagine how the air would feel on the streets, how I would watch the oncoming lights of traffic waiting to cross them. I thought of my sister getting married, this same person who let me sleep with her when I had nightmares, in her room of Chia pets, INXS tapes and Nancy Drew collections.

My job is to hold the bouquet, I thought while boarding, and the train of the dress. The very edge of the dress is lace, I remember, from holding it up in the mirror of the bridal store, its weight pulling on my biceps.

The seat next to me is empty, and I am grateful for this. I pull up the center armrest and spread out, sitting cross-legged. I have brought Joyce with me to read, who my high school English teacher recommended to me under his breath after my denouncements of William Faulkner. My first train ride had been J.D. Salinger, then Vonnegut, Kerouac. The classics were the best traveling companions.

This train was a rattler, as if something were loose underneath the seats. I saw a few people around me looking up towards the ceiling and down to the floor with questioning looks on their faces and I smiled. I had long since learned not to wonder or inquire about these things. The mysterious Amtrak force was better left alone.

Out the window the skies were darkening, and suddenly the streets in my imagination were now slick and shiny glass black. We would take a cab instead of walking. The rattle became louder as we slowed down. I recognized Yonkers without looking at the signs.

I wondered if I would cry at the wedding or only pretend to cry. I knew her, but I could never understand what she was getting into, as it was always a part of life I had yet to come upon. I was surprised when she asked me to be the maid of honor, as I felt my knowledge of her lacked significance. It seemed that way when I made my way up the stairs from the tracks to the main floor of Penn Station and saw her waiting under the sign in her running gear, hair pulled half up. I couldn’t read her mood through her quick hug, or through the mental list she was now vocalizing, looking at me with resolute blue eyes.

“You need to find a dress?” she asked. She didn’t need me to answer, only to facilitate the making of her list.“We can go to the apartment and drop your stuff off, and then we have to meet Michelle at the Starbucks on 49th,” she said, smiling her tight smile.

We were going to her new apartment, the one she lived in with her fiancé, slightly bigger than the former Lincoln Center place, as now she was an associate at a good law firm, as was he.

“We should look at a dress I found at Ann Taylor,” she said, once we were in the cab. Her shoulders were tensed up as we drove off, her thin eyebrows furrowed together. I felt myself relax into the seat, watched the numbers on the meter run, looked up to the tips of the buildings, the now deep purple sky.

“Sure is gonna rain,” the cabbie said, guessing my thoughts. He cleared his throat and I murmured agreement.

“We were going to wait until spring,” my sister said, “but we decided to do it in November instead, because we didn’t want to wait.” She pulled her hair from its tie and fluffed it out with her fingers.

“Do you think that’s crazy?” she asked, pulling out her wallet. I quickly took out a five and handed it to the cabbie as we pulled up alongside her building before she could object. She shook her head.

“It’s romantic,” I said, sliding out of the car. She smiled.

Her dress hung from the open closet door, reigning over a cascade of dirty laundry and shoes.

“Steve’s at work,” she said, before I could ask. I could smell a bit of aftershave in the bathroom and notice a neat pile of papers on the kitchen table next to a folded down laptop. The fridge was full of diet coke and leftovers, and I helped myself to both.

The feeling of this apartment was different. The windows were closed and the hum of the air conditioning echoed off the walls. The furniture wasn’t the mismatched, stained and grimy stuff from before, but included gently used things from both set of parents, a futon I used to have in my bedroom, urbanite looking things from Ikea and Target. This was something new, less threadbare. The air here was cleaner, brighter, and in it something of her life here, of its trajectory. There was the pile of fiancé things, the hanging dress, the planning, the mix CD’s for each table, the font for the invitations.

It was almost fall, but the air was still humid as we walked to the Starbucks. I knew Michelle instantly, as she was the woman whose face lit up when my sister entered the coffee shop. I thought she was going to begin squealing when I was introduced as the maid of honor.

“You must be so excited,” she said to me, her eyes growing wide as she grasped my arm. My sister rolled her eyes at me as she took off her coat.

“You two look so alike!” Michelle gasped, gesturing at our faces, “you must be really close.”

By the time I was in the dressing room at Ann Taylor, I had heard Michelle’s entire life story. Her large mocha served as lubrication for her storytelling, and as I was pulling the zipper up past my hips she was describing in detail her sister-in-law’s fertility problems. My sister was pulling every black dress from the racks, and I could hear her quiet, firm voice asking,

“Do you have this in petite?”

The dress she had chosen was layered silk and fell to my ankles. A narrow band of lace empired it, and two bound spaghetti straps held it up. It fit perfectly, and despite my curls, made wild by the city wind, it looked good. I recognized my sisters knock on the door and I let her in.

“Do you like it?” she asked, pulling a little on the back.

“Yeah,” I said, and Michelle begged that for me to come out so that she could see.

“Are you going to wear your hear up or down?” my sister asked. I thought about it as I looked at her standing next to me in her dark jeans and zipped tight red sweater.

“We’re all going to get out hair done together, right?” I heard Michelle ask, but I only nodded. I was looking at my sister in the mirror as she smoothed the wrinkles on the dress and tucked her hair behind her ears as she bent down, and it seemed that she had always looked this way, and had always been the person she was right then. I imagined us standing together in our parent’s living room, out heels sinking into the carpet, hair thick with gel and dresses falling as perfectly as they could. It would be different—there would be a professional taking the pictures, not my father down on one knee motioning us into place.

“Yeah,” I said and smiled into the mirror, “we’re going to that place in Latham.” Michelle beamed and began telling me about her experiences in high school trying to dye her hair blond.

“What a disaster,” she giggled, and I had to shake my head. My sister smiled as well.


She dropped me off at the departure sign where my train back to upstate was on time. The dress was draped over my arm, sliding within the plastic bag it was carefully tucked into. The people rushed back and forth behind her as we hugged. I watched them carefully; this would be my last glance of New York City as I knew it—the fresh, dingy, independent city I had grown up with was becoming responsible, defined, clean. It looked the same, smelled the same, but I knew it was different. The train was on time, the ride uninterrupted, and the world I stepped back into after two and half hours was different as well—it was mine.

Read More By Liz Varley

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