There aren’t many empty seats on the train. I shuffle up and down the carriage, and eventually decide to sit in the cafe car. I brush aside an Amtrak leaflet that’s peppered with instructions about seeing something and saying something in all caps and red underlines, under an effusive yellow-highlighted slogan, “we’re all in this together… literally.” I look around and see two Amtrak employees sitting in the corner, going over sheets and sheets of paper with numbers on them in a half hearted fashion. They don’t look up. I fuss with my jacket, placing it next to me, then on my lap, then next to me again. Nobody notices. Eventually, I lay it on the table I’m sitting at and just look out the window. I watch the landscape whiz by.
The trees are different here. Thinner and taller than I’ve ever seen before. And the sky is grey and purple, sort of cold looking. It’s different. Everything is different.
I wish Samira and Olem were here. I don’t remember much about the last day I saw them. Only fragments really. We sat down, in our usual corner, and pulled out the objects we’d each surreptitiously stolen and palmed into our pockets earlier that day. Our usual game.
Samira had been gripping a small oval photo frame with a velvet ribbon attached. She placed it tentatively on the table and smoothed out the velvet ribbon with her forefingers, fidgeting with the frame, nudging it this way and that. “Why is it empty?” I asked, looking at the space where a picture should have been. She shrugged, and snatched the frame off the table, lodging it swiftly back into her pocket. “Well, if you don’t want it…” she said, irritated, not looking at me. I wanted to take it from her but she wouldn’t look at me after that.
Olem had a piece of paper scribbled with indecipherable important looking notes, handwritten, criss-crossing over each other. “I stole it from my sister’s desk” he said, grinning, proudly. “But you can’t have it” he continued… “I have to put it back before she notices.” I chuckled. Just like Olem. His fleeting bravado never seemed more charming before that day. “Your turn” said Olem, looking at me eagerly.
I smiled, and pulled the little black bashed up tin labeled “Death Mints” from my pocket, and placed it confidently on the table. Samira’s eyes widened, and a broad grin spread across Olem’s face. “How did you..?” Olem asked, in disbelief, as his voice trailed away. They passed it around, each fingering its battered corners. The tin was our teacher’s. Teacher would usually pull it out of his pocket during his lectures, occasionally popping a mint. It was rumored to be hardest object to pocket at school, given that teacher kept it in his pocket all the time. They didn’t know that teacher had given it to me. I didn’t tell them.
On the back of the tin, in tiny red letters, all close together, were imprinted the words “Seattle, Washington.” “See…” teacher had said, when he pulled me aside after class on my last day in Ankara, to show me the tin up close “…everything travels.” He slipped it into my hand, with a reassuring smile. I ran out of the classroom without saying goodbye, partly because I couldn’t, and partly because he might change his mind and decide he wanted the death mints back.
Olem pocketed the tin quickly, before Samira had a chance, and she crossed her arms, fuming. I don’t think we said goodbye either, so much as just left — as if we’d come back tomorrow. Except we wouldn’t, because I’d be in America after that. The rest is sort of a blur. Just like the bad photo I have of us from the car ride to the airport. If you squint, you can sort of make out my mother and father in the front, but they could just as easily be blurs of anyone. I was sitting the back next to Olem, and Samira was next to him.
And just like that, I was gone.
I fiddle around in my empty pocket, as if they were here, and we were all sitting around this table about to share our spoils. There’s nothing in my pocket, of course. So I pull my hand out, and drum on the table for a bit, watching the skinnier, taller, colder looking trees for a while longer.
Everyone was so excited when I got the scholarship. Especially teacher. The envelope had come in the mail, with the letters “Colby College, United States of America” printed in large letters across the top. Mother opened it and told teacher before I came home from school. For months teacher had been coming to to our house in the evenings. My parents would make up a little plate of dinner for us, and we would eat side by side, as we pored over the textbooks he’d brought from America, working into the night. After the letter came, we applied for the visa. It took a long time. Mother would wait outside the embassy and they’d say to come back, and then she would be angry at home. Still, she’d go back all the same, until they sent her home again. In the end we got the stamp, but it said “single entry.” Mother said it would do, and not to think about that right now. After that, everyone was happy. Except Samira.
The trees pass by, and I try not to think about that.
After a while, there is a loud buzzing sound and a half muffled voice belts out “Last stop. Last stop. Passengers for Waterville, change here.” I jump up, startled. I had expected to see a town or something, but there are only trees. Bundling up my jacket under my arm and rattling my bag, I start to hurry down the car. Looking back to see if I have everything, I notice the wayward Amtrak flyer lying askew on the seat, loud letters clamoring for attention. I glance furtively around, stuff it quickly into my pocket and bolt off the train.
It crumples but I’ll smooth it out later.