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Nana T. Baffour-Awuah | Reverie

I made my way onto the train and down the aisle, angling around people and luggage, and finding a window seat in one of the middle cars—always a middle car; I was never quite sure which end was the front or the back of the train. Finally, I sat, comfortable in the familiarity of the red hide. Hardy brownish-red leather pulled taut across the seats—unrelenting, like an ad for the miracles of Botox. Even as it aged, its garnet luster softening into a duller burgundy, it was always steadfast, sturdy, secure.

The engines fired up and the heavy doors slammed shut, a prelude to the labored clunk-hum of the train as it charged against the weight of its own hefty composition. I’d always found the physics of motion fascinating. From trains to planes, the idea that anything could propel itself, will itself forward from the inside out, inspired a certain hope. A hope of possibility. It was comforting to me, a woman who didn’t always feel hopeful, capable or in charge.

The train finally tugged into motion, lurching me out of my thoughts. I watched as the scenery pulled away from the platform, until the familiar Poughkeepsie sign was just a blurry white rectangle with specks of black letters. Soon, we were speeding along the Hudson, miles of glistening water stretching on forever under the summer sun. Hills and homes rose up on the other side of the water. I’d seen them hundreds of times but every time the same thoughts came to me: Who lives in those homes? What’s their view like from there? Are they happy and wealthy? Are they young and in love? And then, invariably, like every other time in recent memory, my thoughts stopped hovering and landed on Ryan.

I’d met Ry on this train. It was a summer day much like this one, and he was beaming. It was that matter-of-fact glow of a golden boy who knew he was the most beautiful person in the room but he didn’t make a fuss of it. Effortlessly effervescent. Long, sinewy arms, full pecs, silver hair melting into caramel skin, and piercing eyes. His eyes were bright as light, inescapable. I had caught Ryan staring at me from three rows down, the hint of a smile flirting at the corner of his lips. I’d been sure he wasn’t looking at me so I looked past him and then looked away altogether. I looked everywhere else but at him, lest we stumbled into awkward eye contact. And then I looked at him again and there he was, still looking at me. I smiled back, sealed my fate.

Five weeks after our trainiversary, I told him coyly, “You had me at hello.” He responded, “I had to say hello. Have you seen you?” smirking and kissing my forehead with a dimpled grin. The corniness of it was both cloying and delicious. But it was true, at least for me. That day on the train, Ryan had sauntered over, gorgeous and glowing. He sat across from me and said hello, the hint of an accent suggesting multiple homelands. He flashed a full smile, revealing perfect teeth and boyish dimples, an unexpected complement to his sinful body and premature greys. We started talking and his wit twinkled. I was done for.

“Who do you think lives there?” I pointed at a massive bungalow across the water, popping against a swathe of giant trees and shrubbery.

“Some rich fart with questionable taste. More money than he knows what to do with.”

“He? Why can’t it be a she…or a they?” I snapped back in mock outrage.

He smirked, “Because women and queer people have better taste. Basic stats.”

Before I knew it, we’d moved from playful quips to curious observations to trading deeper glimpses into our lives. We talked about how the water took on a cleaner gleam the further north you got, how lakes are better than beaches unless you’re down in Puerto Rico—we talked about his big family in Vieques (some in London), mine in Accra, the uncanny parallels shared between cultures of the coast. I revealed that I never knew which way to face on the train, and he divulged that his grey hairs were hereditary—all the men on his father’s side had thick silver curls by the time they hit thirty (his had settled in at twenty-five). We talked and laughed and teased and flirted, and by the time we got to Grand Central we’d already made plans for our first date.

That first date (or second, sometimes we counted the train ride as our first), in the back garden of a French restaurant in Williamsburg, we ignited something. In that humid breeze, the summer moon shining down on us in witness, we quietly chose each. We talked, ravenous with curiosity about each other. It was thrilling, to feel so connected so quickly, but it was not desperate. It was vivifying. As though we’d both been quenched of a long drought. And we had, both of us recent victims of relationships with no humor or depth. But not this. This was different. This was comfortable and easy and exciting all at the same time. It was scary.

Beacon. My eyes had misted over, but I saw the sign as the train pulled into the station, resolving into focus. By the time we’d visited Beacon, we’d stopped counting the dates: we were “Facebook official”. It was a late summer/early fall getaway and it was glorious. The town was a postcard, painted in rusts and yellows, overlooking the Hudson in a quaint, quiet beauty. We’d stayed for a long weekend, eating and drinking our way down Main Street, antiquing, falling in love. Hard and deep. It was magical. Something bright bloomed in me that weekend and I carried it back to the city with me, giddy with gratitude. People saw it in my eyes, in my step. Jess, you’re glowing! Life was a Hallmark movie.

“This is Harlem, One-Twenty-Fifth Street. The next and final stop is Grand Central Station.” The train lagged to a stop, the heavy metal doors shot open and interrupted my thoughts. I watched as a thickset woman with thick, fresh braids left the train. I wondered if she was going home to someone who loved her. Someone who saw all of her and loved her because of who she was, not in spite of it.

Ry and I made it past three months, the point at which they say most relationships crash and burn. When the honeymoon is done and the icks and uglies are in full glare. We thought we’d beat the stats. We lasted a full six months, counting from our train encounter (T-Day, we’d dubbed it). Then it rotted in ten days.

He changed. Or perhaps, I did. Chickens and eggs, it doesn’t matter. I started to feel him pulling away. It started with delayed texts, first a few hours, then several. He’d apologize, explain that work was overwhelming. I’d roll my eyes and ignore it. I was an investment banker, beholden to capital markets and money-minded clients; he’d left corporate law to become a content creator—and he was thriving on his own terms. What did he have to be stressed about? I’d chipperly gloss over it so my annoyance wouldn’t show. Then he stopped apologizing, stopped acknowledging his silences altogether.

I started broiling in anxiety. What was I doing wrong? Why was he ignoring me? Was he losing interest? I didn’t know the answers. So, I clung. I tried to text things back under control. Ironic. Months later, I’d look back on our iMessage chains and see blocks of blue preceding lines of grey and I’d cringe. My anxiety quickly hardened into rage. Couldn’t he see I needed him to respond! I wanted to lash out, but I didn’t want to turn into a tired trope. I’d been there before and I hated myself for it. I’d hated how I’d torn myself apart trying to get answers, how I’d flung my tattered self at men and demanded that they love me. Never again. So I settled into a stifling resentment instead. I stopped texting. By day five, he had started texting more, but I was set. I’d send back monosyllabic responses. I was pissed. I was justified, I told myself. How could he go from ignoring me to texting me and then just expect me to jump because he said so? My anger wasn’t righteous, it was right. I was protecting myself.

Babe, are you okay…are we okay?

Sure.

Can I call you later this evening?

Sorry. Busy.

I hated how things were but I felt angry and stuck. I kept up the prickly pettiness. On day nine, he called. I saw it and I ignored it. By now, we knew each other well enough to know that he never cold-called, and I never missed a call. He preferred the control and predictability of texting; work had trained me to always have my phone in hand, ready to respond. Both of us had stepped out of character—and the other knew it implicitly. Hyperaware with this knowledge, I was nervous to check my voicemail.

Hey…just wanted to check in. (Ryan never used “just”. He said it was unsure, undermined confidence.) I hope you’re okay. I hope we’re okay. I know I haven’t been exactly forthcoming this last week and I’m really sorry. Can we talk? Please call me back.

Hearing his voice flooded me with emotion. I was drowning in a sea of longing. I was angry and aching, scared and hurt, but seething with spite. But it wasn’t totally about him. It was also all the guys before him who had let me down when I let them in. All I truly wanted was to hug him, smell his warmth, delete the last week of cold, gaping distance. But I couldn’t let him take me for granted. I steeled. I didn’t call back. The next morning, day ten, I texted.

new york train
Image: F. Muhammad Pixabay remixed

Hey, sorry I missed your call.

Cool. We need to talk. There was something snippy and hard in that text. It was unusual and foreboding. A dry lump formed in the back of my throat. Still, I was rooted in my rage. I planted myself deeper in my ego.

Sure, I’m busy today but I can talk at 7.

OK. I’ll drop by yours.

Ryan showed up at 7-sharp. He was always punctual, he considered it a sign of respect. I’d hoped he might show up with a bouquet of red roses, classic and apologetic. But there were no roses in my doorway, just his handsome face and his sandalwood scent. I ached for a hug.

“Hey.”

“Hey.” He planted an obligatory kiss on my cheek and walked in—slowly, considering every step. When we each had a glass of Macallan in hand, we started to talk.

I don’t remember the details of how we got to it—or perhaps I don’t want to remember—but it turns out Ryan had been feeling abandoned. He’d gotten a big brand deal and I’d never asked him about the project or how it was going. In my defense, I didn’t realize how much this project had meant to him, and in his typical too-cool-for-school way, he’d never shown much excitement beyond that one and only, “This is huge! We’ll see how it goes.” Apparently, when he’d started pulling away, he’d hit a big snag with the project. He really was stressed. He’d hoped I’d ask more questions when he told me that work was stressful. That I’d show care. To him, I’d simply brushed it off. But how was I supposed to know?

“Ryan. That is not fair. How did you expect me to know? You were ignoring me and giving me vague explanations. What did you want me to do? Jesus!” I slammed my glass on the countertop and the ice cube jumped out of it, startled. “I texted you so many times throughout the day—”

“Well, you iced me out too.” His voice was cool but he was heated. “You texted me reams about your day. You barely asked about mine. And then you barely responded to my texts, Jess. But I figured that maybe I was being a shithead and taking it too personal. So, I put my feelings aside and tried to text you, I tried to reach out! I tried, Jess. It’s like you…you didn’t even see me.”

A cocktail of indignance, sadness and shame burned in my chest. A wave of exhaustion hit me. I wanted to raise a white flag, apologize for my part in the stupid mess now that I could see things more clearly. Now that I could trace a line around our poor communication, it was all so silly and trivial. Somehow, I knew it rested on me to let my guard down. But something in that whiskey fueled the flame in my chest and my anger burned bigger than my regret.

“OK. What about me?” I spat back. “You’re talking about me not seeing you—did you see me? You’re such a self-centered jerk. And you think you’re a good guy, but you’re actually not.” As the words left my mouth, I wished I could take them back, scoop them out of the thick, loud silence and vanish them back into nonexistence. But I couldn’t. And when I saw the way his face froze, turned to glass—the way his body tensed like frightened puppy, I knew I’d really fucked up. The silence lasted a few moments but it was massive, physical.

“Jessica…we don’t talk to each other like that.” His voice was heavy, hoarse. Hard. I could hear exhaustion and hurt, his anger in check.

“Ry, I’m sorry…I didn’t mean it.”

“You did.” Something had snapped. I’d hit below the belt and he knew it was intentional.

“Babe…”

“I’m sorry. I can’t,” he said, his hands raised in resignation. “This is just…maybe, we’re just too different. I don’t think this is working anymore. I’m going to leave.”

My heart crumbled. Blood racing. Eyeballs turning to lava. I was crushed, drowning in a swarm of emotion. But through the haze of rage, hurt and regret, I could also see that he had a point. We’d had something exceptional, but if I was being honest with myself, I’d never let my guard down enough to fully feel at home. As much as I desperately wanted us to be soulmates, as happy as we were, the ways in which we moved through the world weren’t really congruent.

He liked predictability and order; I liked to organically feel my way forward. He had all these ideals and ideas about the way things should be, the way people should be; I figured, whatever will be will be, you only have control over yourself. And even though he possessed a great wit, he was usually stingy with words; I believed in speaking up and speaking out, and I often had a lot to say…for better or for worse. But I’d only gingerly shown these parts of me, not fully sure if it would push him away. Perhaps, it was always meant to end this way anyway.

He stood up to leave, a small, mournful smile on his lips. He finally looked like the apology I’d been waiting for, but it was too late. He was apologizing for something else now. He hugged me and I froze, retreated into myself. I knew that I would break if I hugged him back, I’d beg and I’d hate myself for it. I watched him walk to the door, drop his set of keys on the table and turn around.

“Take care of yourself, Jay,” he said, quietly. Gently. Then he left.

As unexpectedly as it all started, it had ended. I never saw him again. In this vast, small city, he had vanished from my life.

“This is the final stop, Grand Central Station. Please make sure to…” The train clunked to a halt, the swirl of travelers rising and bustling towards the exit. The commotion pulled me back to the present. I watched them hurry off until it was down to a handful of people, then a trickle, and then just me.

I sat there in my thoughts. Thinking of how things might have played out differently if I’d simply said I understood, that I was sorry too, that he was wrong but so was I. What might another six months together have looked like? Would we have landed exactly where we did? Would I have shown all of me, unafraid? Would our differences eventually get the better of us? Or would they have pulled us closer, refining each other until we fit perfectly together? A difficult but perfect pair. I sat there, my mind racing as my hand found a loose thread in the leather seat. I picked at it aimlessly, admiring how perfect the red-brown stitches were, how they fit, kept the leather together even when some strands came undone.

I sighed, finally getting up to leave. And then I saw him. No way. But it was definitely him, unmistakably—even from several feet away his eyes were piercingly bright. Arresting. Before I could decide what to do, he’d seen me too, both of us now awkwardly frozen where we stood. Three years and a chasm of hurt stood between us. I never thought I’d see him again. I had no practice and no plan.

He offered a small smile. It was the same one I’d last seen on him.

I took a deep breath and smiled back.

————–

Image: Dall-E modified by AW

Nana T. Baffour-Awuah
Nana T. Baffour-Awuahhttps://www.whatnanawrote.com
Nana T. Baffour-Awuah is a writer and strategist based in Brooklyn, by way of Accra. In his free time you can find Nana trying to perfect his bachata hammerlock, or making (very slow) progress on what he hopes will be the next Great Ghanaian Novel.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Sweet and sad at the same time, but the writer leaves us with a little hope for the couple at the end. Yay! Good one, Nana.

  2. Such an interesting read! The Author took me through a wave of emotions. The eloquently descriptive sentences made the story very easy to relate to as well as easy to visualize. Looking forward to more write-ups from Nana!

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