The next morning, at breakfast, I meet a rich boy from Venezuela, wearing an Yves Saint Laurent sport jacket, who is also going to L.A. He has recently been to El Salvador and he keeps talking about how beautiful the country is and how people put it down far too often, about the Lionel Richie concert he attended there. While we wait for breakfast, the boy flips through a new copy of Penthouse and I stare out the window, at endless patches of fields and rows of refinery towers and trailer parks and radio relay towers jutting up from red clay ground. I open a notebook I brought with me and try to organize some papers I still have to rewrite from last term but I lose interest as soon as I start. The train stops for a long time in front of a Pizza Hut in some nameless city in Arizona. A family of five comes out of the Pizza Hut and one of the kids waves at the train and I’m wondering who takes their kids to Pizza Hut for breakfast and then the Venezuelan boy waves back to the kid in front of the Pizza Hut, then smiles at me.
I eat my breakfast slowly, pretending to concentrate on stale hash browns and hard, black-on-the-bottom pancakes so that the boy from Venezuela will not ask me anything. Sometimes I look up and out the window at pastures and at the cattle grazing in them. I pull a Valium from my pocket and squeeze it between my fingers. Except for the rich boy from Venezuela who has been to El Salvador, the only other person remotely my age is a homely, sad-faced black girl who is staring at me from across the dining car, which causes me to squeeze the Valium harder. I wait for the girl to turn away and when she finally does I swallow the pill.
“Headache?” the Venezuelan boy inquires.
“Yes. A headache.” I smile shyly, nodding.
The black girl glances once more at me and then gets up and is replaced by this totally fat couple who are wearing lots of turquoise. The Venezuelan boy actually looks at a centerfold and then at me and grins and my father was probably right when he told me on the phone two weeks ago, “You should just take MGM, baby,” but I’m amazed at how every now and then the ground seems to drop out below the train as it passes over rivers the color of chocolate or a ravine.
I call Graham, my brother, from an Amtrak station in Phoenix. He is in a hot tub in Venice.
“He’s going through with it,” I say, after a while.
“What a scandal,” Graham says.
“He’s going through with it,” I say again.
“You sound stoned.”
“You sound sad when you get stoned. You sound stoned.”
“I’m not stoned yet.”
“I’m looking at a huge slot machine, the size of a double bed,” I tell Graham. “You should talk to him.” I light a cigarette. It tastes bad.
“What?” Graham asks. “Why are you calling me?” and then, “Talk to … him?”
“Aren’t you going to talk to him?” I ask. “Aren’t you going to do something about this?”
“Oh man.” I can hear Graham inhale, then blow something out, slowly. His voice drops three octaves. “Like what?”
“Just … talk to him.”
“I don’t even like him,” Graham says.
“You just shouldn’t sit back and watch him do this.”
“Who said I’m watching the fool do anything?”
“You said, Graham, you said …” I’m on the verge of tears. I swallow, try to control myself. “You said she has seen Flashdance nine times.” I start sobbing quietly, biting my fist. “You said it was her”—pause—“favorite movie.”
“She’s seen it probably …” He stops. “Yeah, nine times is probably right.”
“Graham, please, just for once …”
“She’s not that bad,” Graham finally says. “In fact she’s sort of hot.”
Valium, peering past the curtains, Spanish-style train stations, signs that announce NEEDLES or BARSTOW, cars driving through the desert at night toward Las Vegas, raining again and harder, lightning illuminating billboards on a road heading to Reno, huge drops of rain hitting the window, splattering apart. My reaction to being startled: a blink. Someone calls out over the intercom: “Anyone who speaks French please come to the lounge area” and the request seems tempting, seems so beside the point that it moves me to brush my hair, pick up a magazine and head for the lounge area even though I don’t speak French. When I get to the lounge area I don’t see anyone French or anyone who looks in need of assistance from anyone French. I sit down, stare out a window, flip through the magazine, but there’s a drunk woman across from me who seems to be talking to herself but in fact is talking to the fat couple in turquoise, who are trying not to pay attention to her. The woman keeps talking about the movies on HBO she has seen while staying at her son’s house in Carson City.