“You haven’t asked about Cheryl,” he finally says.
“I haven’t?” I ask.
“No.” He takes a drag, exhales.
“Yes. I have.”
“On the way into town. Didn’t I?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m pretty sure I did.”
“I don’t remember that, honey.”
“Well, I think I did.”
“Don’t you like her?”
He smiles, looks down, then at me. “I think we’re getting married.”
“That’s, um, so, congratulations,” I say. “Great.”
He looks at me quizzically, then asks, “Do you really think that’s great?”
I lift the glass to my mouth and tap the side to get the ice at the bottom.
“Well, it’s, um, slowly dawning on me that you might be serious.”
“Cheryl’s great. You two get along.” He falters again, refrains from lighting another cigarette. “I mean, when you met her.”
“I’m not marrying Cheryl. You are.”
“When you give me that type of response, baby, I know how you really feel,” he says.
I start to touch his hand across the table, then something in me stops myself.
“Don’t worry about it,” I say.
“I’ve been so … lonely,” he says. “I’ve been alone for what seems like forever.”
“You get to a point where you need someone.”
“Do not explain this to me,” I say quickly, then with less harshness, “because you don’t have to.”
“I want your approval,” he says simply. “That’s all.”
“You don’t need it.”
He sits back in his chair, puts down another cigarette he was about to light. “The wedding is in December.” He pauses. “When you get home.”
I’m looking out the window at hard, cold snow and gray clouds the color of asphalt.
“Have you told Mom?” I ask.
At lunch on the train, the waiter sits me at a table with an old Jewish man who is reading a small, frayed black book and keeps muttering to himself in what must be Hebrew. The Jewish man doesn’t look anything like my father though the way he’s holding himself right now is reminiscent of the behavior of many of my father’s friends who work at his studio. This man is older and has a beard, but it is the first time since that lunch with my father that I have been this close to a man during a meal. I don’t eat too much of the sandwich I order, which is paper thin and stale, or the lukewarm vegetable soup. Instead I finish a small cup of ice cream and drink a Tab and am about to light a cigarette when I realize there’s no smoking in the dining lounge. I nibble at the sandwich, stare out over the crowded dining car, noticing that all the waiters are black and that the train’s passengers are mainly old people and foreigners. Outside, a sepia landscape passes by, small adobe houses, young mothers wearing cutoff jeans and halter tops hold small red babies up to the train, waving listlessly as it passes by. Empty drive-ins, huge, seemingly deserted junk lots, more houses built of adobe. Back in my room, staring at the dress, my Walkman on, I’m listening to Boy George sing “Church of the Poisoned Mind,” a song on the tape he bought me in town last November.
Nights are bad. I can’t sleep even after I take Valium, which only makes me drowsy enough to pace the short length of the compartment, trying to keep my balance as the train speeds through deserts, stopping suddenly, without warning, jerking me forward in the dimly lit cabin. Opening the curtains, I can’t see anything except the tip of my cigarette illuminated in the window’s reflection. Announcements are usually made about sand being blown onto the tracks and there is one, at about three a.m., that involves a coyote. Falling asleep for a while, I wake up as the train passes through some kind of electrical storm on the border of Arizona. It is completely dark, then suddenly in a flourish of purple, violet lightning streaks across the sky, illuminating small towns for seconds at a time. As the train passes through these towns, you can hear warning bells, the glow of red flashing, the headlights of a lone pickup truck, waiting, as the train passes, lumbering on into the night, and these awful towns pass by, getting smaller, farther apart from each other, and I came by train not because I don’t like to fly and not because I wanted to see the country but because I do not want to spend an extra three days in Los Angeles with either my father and Cheryl or Graham or my mother. A closed mall, a neon gas station sign, the train stops, then moves on, the uselessness of postponing the inevitable, the closing of curtains.