When I moved to Ottawa in 2012, I think I was most excited for the four hour commutes back to Toronto. Every time I booked my Via Rail ticket, I thought it was going to be shit straight out of Hogwarts. I would get there to this mysterious platform, and wait outside in the balmy fall weather while conversing with others about how your carrier pigeon never really made it back after you drunkenly gave it a scroll to send the cutie pie in the other dorm. I was hoping to make a ginger friend who has a long family history of being ginger because I don’t have a lot of those.
I had this picture painted in my mind that these long distance commutes would shape who I am for years to come. I thought I would find companionship, romance, or some weird holographic card that magically disappears because somewhere out in the world there is a Blue Eyes White Dragon has better things to do than hang out with you on a train.
My first Via Rail experience…happened to say the least. I remember getting to the train station on the Friday before Thanksgiving and I was sitting and waiting to find my Ron and Hermione, and slowly people started to shuffle in. To my disappointment, not a single pale, red-headed person with short shaggy hair who walked in. We got in line to get our bags checked and my romanticized train adventure slowly started to fade.
I got up and joined the line, and I started to blast The Wonder Years, with hopes that someone would strike up a conversation about pop-punk and relive my Warped Tour days (remember friends, hardcore never dies, and I was never hardcore, but more of a pseudo-scene kid minus the hair with a pinch of emo and a lot of normcore) (if you just understood that last sidebar, we’re officially married and you can’t do anything about it). My headphones were plugged into my iconic Blackberry Torch and I had this half-smile on my face, welcoming anyone who wanted to partake in the angst.
That’s when I felt a tap on my shoulder. My heart skipped a beat. Did my plan to win someone over with angsty music win someone over? Am I about to turn around and find the love of my life staring me in the eyes? I’m beaming. I am so ready to see who is ahead of me. My half smile becomes full, and I slowly turn my head, my eyes are huge. As my head shifts over my right shoulder, my eyes meet those of a small Indian man asking me where the bathroom was in Punjabi.
I was disappointed for two reasons: 1) this man was not the love of my life that I was hoping for and 2) I let this little man down because I don’t speak Punjabi.
My dreams were still alive and well. I still had the hope of sitting next to a total babe who will like my shitty taste in music and my horrible Harry Potter references. We made our way onto the train, and stuffed our large suitcases into small spaces. I get to my window seat, and notice the seat next to me is empty. I knew that this was my chance for some beautiful person to come sit next to me and we could sit and chat for the four hour train ride and exchange Instagram handles and virtually swoon one another.
It’s almost five minutes until the train is suppose to leave, and there are only a few empty seats left on this car. The aisle seat, that I opted out of, was still open, and I started to create this cinematic vision in my head. The girl of my dreams would come running down the platform, and would run to the seat next to be, and while she’s still catching her breath, she’ll turn to me and say hello.
T-minus three minutes. Dream girl is coming. I can feel it. I can see a few people running to the train and I knew she was one of them. Five people enter the car I’m sitting in. I look out the window, acting pensive, but hiding the fact that I know that I am going to meet eyes with the most gorgeous human being out there (I’ll even settle for top 10).
I feel a body fill the seat next to me. My pensive half-smile becomes full once again and I turn to my left. And sitting next to me is the short Punjabi man who I didn’t understand earlier. He looked at me with a hint of anger, crossed his arms and closed his eyes.
I didn’t speak to this small man. We didn’t make eye contact after the bathroom debacle. I could not even remember if he had eyes, but I know if he did, it would be ones that I did not find true love or companionship in.
This was one of the many blunders I had while taking the semi-dependant national railway. Some days I didn’t have Wi-Fi. Some days I had people take naps on my shoulder (will drool included). Some days we suffered through multi-hour delays because there is always something wrong in Kingston. But my romanticism of the railway did not end. I was determined to have a successful and enjoyable trip on the Via filled with laughter and that stuff that happened in the Sorcerer’s Stone.
It was late into the Winter semester. I had planned to take my last trip home on the 5354 train back to Toronto. My dreams were still obtainable, and I was determined to end my year long Via Rail experience with a huge fucking bang. Everything all at once. Romance. Friendship. Gingers. The whole nine yards.
I didn’t talk to my parents much that first year I was in school. I was trying to find my independence and making sure that I could carry out my life on my own. A huge reason for me leaving my parents household was to figure out what I was doing with life and who I really was. Hence, these movie-like expectations for even the small things like a train ride. I had no other reference point for trips like this other than what I witnessed on a variety of screens, both big and small.
The week leading up to my final train ride, I have received multiple calls from my parents and my sister. It was nothing over the top or anything, just checking in to say hello, asking me about classes, girls, and if I partake in the alcoholic vices. The conversation was always standard: good, nothing really, and maybe but you’ll never know!!!!!!!!!!!
On Wednesday, the tone of this conversation started to change. My mom’s voice sounded tired. She was worried about something, but I couldn’t tell what. We’ve never been an open family, so I didn’t ask what was wrong.
I got another call on Thursday. This was weird because I’m sure I got more phone calls from my parents that week than I did all year. My mom informed me that my grandmother wasn’t doing well. I had known this, she hasn’t been doing well for months. Every time I had come home, my grandmother would always be in the hospital for one reason or another. I wasn’t overly worried. I knew, and I still know that my grandma is a fighter.
When my grandma lived in Africa, she was shot during a robbery. The bullet was lodged in her shin, but that didn’t stop her. She raised three kids, supported my grandfather, cooked for everyone, and was a ray of sunlight every day of her life. She took care of my sister so my mom could keep working, and she never failed to give me a toonie for a chocolate bar every time I would see her. When she moved to Canada, she started to feel the effects of the bullet wound that wasn’t properly take care of. She soon needed a walker to get around the house and live her life.
That didn’t stop her. She cooked, she provided, and she smiled more than anyone else I knew. After a few years, my grandparents moved into assisted living, so my grandmother could have someone check in on her. Her nurses loved her. She barely spoke English, but when she did, she always told a joke to keep the wonderful people who took care of her entertained.
One of my fondest memories with my grandma took place right after prom. There is an expectation that is never mentioned, but exists for brown skinned folks to date other brown skinned folks. Well, at least it felt this way. I took a white girl to prom (well she was half Hungarian, half Chinese but for the purpose of this story, she’s a white girl to create a stark comparison, because if you haven’t figured it out, my skin tone is right between BJ Novak and Aziz Ansari; Toast with a hint of olive) and I had taken photos to show my grandma. Someone in the room said “Wouldn’t it be nice if Arif dated a Muslim girl?” and without hesitation my grandmother smiled and said he should be with whoever makes me happy.
After my mother hung up the phone on Thursday. I wasn’t worried. Because of everything above. I knew it wasn’t her time, and I knew she wasn’t ready to go yet.
My Friday went on as per-usual. I was still buzzing from last nights Thirsty Thursday, and I knew that the only thing between me and my mom’s cooking was a introductory class for political science majors. I sat and listened to some international relations theory that I can’t remember now, so it probably wasn’t important (or too important that it overwhelmed me so I panicked and started to look at dogs on /r/aww). I left class early, and packed my bags for my last chance at a romantic train ride.
This time, when I got to the station, it was empty. No cutie pies. No one wearing a pop-punk shirt. No gingers. It was almost an urban wasteland. We started to file onto the empty train, and just my luck, I was one of the only people on the train with someone next to them. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember one important thing about this non-ginger, non-pie, non-punk human being — he liked baseball. We became friends. Chatted about sports, and made bad baseball references that we didn’t even fully understand ourselves.
I had finally done it. I had achieved my train dreams and they were chugging along flawlessly.
Everything about this ride had become ideal. We didn’t slow down, the Wi-Fi worked, and the new homie even had beer nuts. If that isn’t considered living the dream, then I don’t know what is.
Baseball homie told me he was feeling tired, so he took a nap for the last hour or so of our trip. That didn’t matter much to me, because I was already on top of the world, living out my dream world.
Do you ever have a feeling that something is going wrong, and you have no control over it, and it’s going to happen no matter what you do? That there was a mission you had to face, and no matter how possible it seemed, it was always impossible? Like not even Tom Cruise could make the mission possible kind of situation.
At first, I thought it was a bad case of beer nuts, but then the night started to flush itself out more and more. We start to pull away from Oshawa and my phone buzzes. Its my sister. She was suppose to pick me up, so I assumed she was calling to say that she was running late. I pick the phone up after the first buzz, and let out a small laugh and pretend to be my sister telling me she’s going to be running a little bit late.
I wasn’t met with a laugh.
My sister is breathing uncontrollably on the other side of the telephone. She asked if I was okay and if I could talk. I got up and ran to the shared bathroom on car #2, and locked the door. After I was securely perched over the toilet, I told my sister I was alone, and she broke down. She could not make out a single word. The only sound she could make was the one of her trying to catch her breath and holding back tears.
She didn’t have to say anything. I knew what happened. I understood the feeling I had earlier. My eyes were red, and I could barely breathe. My sister tried to calm me down over the phone and told me it was going to be okay, and that everyone was going to be okay. She told me to be strong through her tears, and told me that my grandmother was no longer suffering.
I needed a minute. I hung up the phone, washed my face, and went back to my seat. I pretended like everything was okay. Thinking about what the last words I said to my grandmother were, and why I couldn’t even remember them.
I blamed myself for not being there.
I blamed myself for leaving home for that freedom I craved.
I blamed myself because I thought I was selfish.
I hid my head in my hands, because I didn’t want anyone to see the person I was.
Eventually I looked up. Baseball homie was still sleeping, people on the train were still in the same position, watching the same movie, listening to the same music, and it was like nothing happened. I sat in my seat, my heart was broken. The people in the train seemed unmoved. Lost in their own thoughts. I started to wonder what was going through their heads. Like the guy two rows up blasting Drake, did he listen for pleasure or to learn about Toronto? Or the girl to my left who was watching Friends. Was she imagining her life? Was she wondering how shows about nothing slowly became a cultural phenomenon?
It was an eerie experience, because for the first time, I was able to co-exist with others, as they lived their lives while I sat there in pain. But no one knew. Everyone had their own battles to fight. No matter how big or how small. That was the romance I was craving. The ability to be, and yet not be at the same time. To feel your most raw emotions, and share it with others, without them knowing your first name, or why there are tears streaming down your face on the MTL-TOR Via Rail corridor.
Needless to say, my romantic experience with trains ended this day.
I take the Greyhound now.
No romance there, I’m trying to avoid heartbreak this time.
Note: I’ve been writing this for a few years now. I have never been able to express this emotion before, and I never thought I would be ready. If you made it here, thank you. If you didn’t and you’re reading this fancy italic font. You tried, and you’re getting a gold star.