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A Rare, Unique, Unthinkable Thing


Past the Willis Tower, past the graffitied cement and billboards you see through your train window, past the high-rises and the cold, metal buildings in the distance, past that sudden hush that seems to overtake you—like going into a trance—as the bustling, chaotic energy of city life blends into the muted quiet of the surrounding suburbs, you see the man from last week in your train car again as you ride the Metra from Chicago to Hinsdale. This time, he wears a loose red shirt that seems to envelop him in a sea of crimson polyester, and his tan face now has a smattering of stubble under his nose and chin. 

“Can anyone help me?” he professes to the train car, appearing immune to the wobbling as the train makes its way west, toward Cicero, Riverside, Brookfield, and Western Springs. “I was robbed on my way to Union Station this morning and I have no phone or money. I just want to go home. Can you please help me?”

He can’t be older than twenty-five, you deduce, as he stands in the middle of the aisle. His voice is loud, booming even, and as he says these words, he has a white-knuckled grip on the row of sunken blue seats next to the emergency exit sign, as if these seats are the only things keeping him from collapsing. 

You take the train often. Almost every weekend. These were the same words he said last weekend on your train ride home. Last weekend, you felt bad for him. You felt bad for him as you gave him five dollars and tried not to notice the black under the fingernails of his outstretched hand.

But today, as you sit on this train on the way to Hinsdale Hospital because that’s where your dad has been since this morning, since he collapsed from a heart attack while you were in your college dorm room in the city, you have no sympathy for this red-shirt phony. In fact, you wish the train would be struck by lightning in the exact spot that he’s in. Or maybe, somehow, the train car would split down the middle by some powerful force, and he would fall through. You want the walls to rattle and his grip to break from those train seats. You want the pungent, sour-grapefruit smell of metal and electricity to overwhelm his nose like it’s been doing to you the entire time you’ve been sitting on this train without knowing if your father—who you thank God is even alive—will have lasting damage to his heart.

And now you realize that you have been staring hard at this man, and he’s making his way toward you with that haunted look in his dark eyes and he’s saying, “Please, I’m trying to make it to the Aurora stop,” and you find yourself pulling out a few crumpled dollar bills from your school backpack anyway, just like last week, and as you drop them into his once-again outstretched hand and he says, “Thank you so much,” you want both him and God to realize the significance of this moment—how kind you’re being, how calm, how peaceful, how good Samaritan-like.


§


Past the budding spring trees and wet grass, past the strip malls and Old Route 66, past the brown Brookfield Zoo sign with the smiling tiger perched atop like it’s nothing more than a harmless housecat, you think about the stupidity of the time difference between rush hour trains and normal ones, and how you could’ve been at the hospital already if only the timing worked out. Or if every train could be thirty minutes instead of forty-eight minutes, like the one you’re on. But heart attacks (or any calamity, for that matter) spare no mercies and, in your haste to make any train you could, you also forgot a jacket on what newscasters will later say is one of the coldest Aprils to date. And because clearly the world is really out to get you, today is April 24th, which also happens to be your dad’s birthday.

Your father, who is supposed to turn fifty-seven years old today. Your father, who taught you how to drive, and who took you to your first driving test (which you failed because you ran over the curb), and who took you back five months later to take the test again (which you passed, but barely, because you ran over the curb again). Your father, who you inherited your dark brown eyes and rounder face from, your square chin, your short thumbnails (as opposed to your mother’s long, oval-ish elegant ones), your penchant for anger when hungry, your continuous need to always imagine the worst-case scenario.

Your father, who, you found out later from your mother (once she could finally look at you and tell you what happened) had just gotten home from an early morning workout at the gym; who was standing in front of the TV as your younger sister ate her cereal before your mom was going to drop her off at the high school; who had suddenly put a hand to his chest, flexed his left palm, open, close, open, close; who had answered yes when your sister asked if he was okay. He had fallen on his knees first, before the rest of his body came crashing down in the middle of the living room, with Good Morning America playing in the background, your sister frozen, your mother dialing 9-1-1, and you, still sleeping in your dorm room seventeen miles away.


§


Past the quaint suburban houses with wraparound porches and blunt lawns, past that cracked road with the thick tar streaks and the huge pothole that someone must have filled between this week and last, past the taco restaurant with the green awning opening and the little French café with the best shortbread closing, you remember that before this day, trains had always been a source of comfort to you. Maybe the comfort stems from memories of traveling from Chicago to Colorado by train with your family for every spring break when you were little. Twenty-two hours spent staring out the window, watching the flat plains of Illinois blend into southern Iowa’s creeks and rivers to Nebraska’s farms and grasslands and prairies to, finally, Colorado’s white-capped mountain ranges and thick-as-icing snow tunnels. You would sleep, of course. Or try to. That was your favorite part: drifting off to the soft lull of the train horn as the thick, black night surrounded you like a weighted blanket, and then waking up to all the snow, the air steaming off the train and the foggy windows reminding you of a reined-in beast; a snarling, fearless creature that is one with the serene terrain as it silently chugs along.

This train you’re on now does not feel like that one. When you’re at peace (or maybe when you have all the time in the world would be a better way to put it), travel is something that is a luxury—something to be enjoyed, even if it means spending twenty-two hours in the same spot. 

When you’re not at peace, or, say, it’s taking everything in you not to break into the front train car and urge the conductor to move faster so you can get to the hospital—traveling is not a luxury, but a means to an end. Everything will go wrong in your eyes. Things that your ancestors would have marveled at hundreds of years ago, such as the ability to sit in a machine in the sky or to go miles underwater and still be alive, are merely rife with inconveniences or worse: a cage that you cannot escape from.

You recall a time nearly six months before this train ride, when you were on a plane from Chicago to Columbus to visit your cousin at Ohio State University. As the plane took off, you were annoyed with the smell of antiseptic and the blast of cold air from the vent above your head that belonged to the stranger next to you. You had thought about reaching up to turn it off, but didn’t know if there was some sort of plane-rule not to touch your seat neighbor’s air vent; or if it was alright since it was only blowing air on you, and how inconsiderate is this person that she doesn’t realize that—

Across the aisle and two rows behind you, a woman started wailing. It sounded as if someone had shattered the window next to her or ripped a hole in the sturdy aluminum wall of the plane, and her screams meant she knew her life was over.

“I need to get off this plane,” the woman began, her voice modulating between a shriek and a cry, her cellphone dangling from her right hand. “My mother just died. Get me off.

Across the aisle, the person next to her—who, you couldn’t tell if she knew her or not—held tight to the screaming woman’s hand, but other passengers, you included, turned away. You couldn’t handle it: this woman’s grief, like cracks in a mirror, when you were on your way to a weekend that you had been looking forward to for the past month. A weekend that was supposed to consist of late-night junk food runs surrounded by carefree state college kids, bass-buzzing music, and seeing an actual college football field for the first time.

It was overwhelming; this confined space holding you and this woman and all these people with their own reasons for going to Ohio from Chicago and their own anticipations or excitements or fears.

“Oh my God,” she whispered as you kept your eyes pointed to your tray table. “Oh my God. Oh my God.” 

A few flight attendants brushed past you and spoke in hushed, soothing tones to the woman. 

“I need to get off,” was all she would say. “Please, get me off.”

As the plane began its descent, you wondered if her mother was in Ohio or back in Chicago. As the plane touched the tarmac and rolled to a stop, you rushed to get off before the woman so that you didn’t have to see her face. And as you walked through the airport, your weekend bag flung over your shoulder, once you figured you got enough distance from the woman, you imagined her. Imagined what it would be like to lose one of your parents when you were 36,000 feet in the air, trapped and surrounded by people who did not know you and who could not do anything to help you. 


§


Past the old field where you used to kick a soccer ball around on as a child, past the bridge over the highway with the plastic cups stuck in the fence that spell out “Kelli” in faded blue letters—a tribute to a girl who was murdered in the neighboring town six years ago. The train lurches forward past Hinsdale Hospital. Somewhere in one of those whitewashed rooms with the cool metal chairs and beeping machinery lies your father. 

In a few short minutes, the train will stop in downtown Hinsdale, and you will have to get off and face this monstrous, red-bricked building. When you walk into that building, your dad won’t be the only patient you see. You don’t want to see injuries, sicknesses, ICU staff, and waiting-room families teetering on the edge of hope and despair. You contemplate staying on the train, letting it take you all the way west to its last stop in Aurora. You want to stay in this limbo of not knowing for a little longer. You want to put off any news that you know will be available to you as soon as you enter the hospital. Maybe when it reverses direction and heads back to the city, you will be ready to get off in Hinsdale. 

Three years after this, you will get a remote job working at a cancer magazine, where you interview cancer patients and cancer survivors, men and women who have gone through things like breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, mesothelioma, neuroblastoma, in all sorts of stages and grades; have had their hair fall out and needles poke their flesh; have gained hope and lost it, and then gained it again. And they will trust you to listen to them. To share their stories. And it will crack something in you to know that you try to avoid any reminders of mortality and loss when these people have to stare at its face every day.

You will interview a woman in her seventies with terminal lung cancer named Kathy, and during the interview when you ask her what goals she has planned for the rest of the year (like you do with every person you interview), she will say something like, “I try not to have any goals. I don’t know how long I have left, and I don’t have time to spend looking forward to something I might not be here to see.”

She’ll end the interview by saying, “I like to knit. I like embroidery. I like going on the fishing boat with my husband; here, I’ll send you pictures,” and after you end the call, you think about how you might not ever speak to her again.

After that interview, it will be months before you think about Kathy. Just a passing flash in your memory, but you remember the picture she sent you of her windswept gray hair on a fishing boat; her complicated embroideries she told you she loved to make; the soft way in which she talked to you on the phone, as if everything she said was a secret between just the two of you.

“When will this article be published?” she asked you at the end of the interview. 

You told her that it would be in three months. “We’re a magazine that publishes quarterly,” you said. “We publish an issue every season.”

She said, “Three months. That’s a long time,” and you remembered that you were talking to a stage IV lung cancer patient, you thought about how stupid you were to be telling her dates months in the future when she might not be here.  

When you didn’t answer, she said, “Don’t worry, three months is fine. I will still be here.” Like it was an act of defiance to still be alive and fighting. Like if she said it enough times, and thought it enough times, and really, really believed it, then it would have to be true. 

So she said again, “I will still be here. Don’t worry. I will.”


§


Past the Hinsdale station, the train stops, its brakes screeching and smoke dissolving into the empty, blue sky. Your mom calls you.

“He’ll be okay,” she says, and the heavy lump of fear that you had carried with you from Chicago to here slides off your shoulders and onto the train floor. 

“Okay,” you say. “Okay,” because you don’t want to know the details yet. You just wanted to know this.

You do get off the train now. You put one foot in front of the other and step down and into the same town you have known for most of your life, and it somehow feels the same as it has every weekend you’ve stepped off this train to go home. But it might never be the same after today, because “okay” is not the same as “healthy,” and it is not the same as “normal,” and it is not the same as knowing for certain that your father’s scars from his heart attack won’t manifest in other ways later, down the road.

It was a rare occurrence, you’ll later learn. A case where your father’s arteries were not blocked, but a piece of plaque from the left artery wall had fallen in the perfect place to block blood flow to the heart anyway. A widow-maker heart attack is what your father’s doctor will call it. Something that only around twelve percent of people survive if they are not in a hospital already.

And in some ways, that will be worse: how infrequent this rare, unique, unthinkable thing that happened to your family is. Because if it did not have a cause, then the effect is something that can happen again with no warning.

This realization will stay with you, worming its way into other aspects of your life slowly, and then all at once. There will be things that manifest as superstitions—curses to break like in those fantasy books you absorbed as a child. Always put only an even number of treats in the dog bowl; kiss your boyfriend three times goodnight, maybe four, but never six and never nine; the TV volume must always end in a four or an eight—and maybe this will be the reason it doesn’t happen again, that nothing bad will ever happen again, because you’re doing everything right now. You must have been doing something wrong before.

You will turn twenty, then twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three—and there will be times when you think you’ve mastered the art of “whatever happens will happen and I have to let it,” and there are other times when you’re tracking your boyfriend on your phone at eleven P.M. as he drives home, the tiny green dot on the virtual map representing the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, and you have to watch that dot make it home safely because if you don’t, then who will? There are other times when you’re at home with your parents and a movie is playing and the Christmas tree is up and the snow is falling softly, soft enough that you can’t quiet the thoughts in your head from asking how to extend this moment until forever, how to forget that there might always be loss around the corner and you have to do everything in your power to stop your life from rounding it.

The train doors close again with a squealing whoosh. As you stand outside in the cold but bright sunlight, you see the man with the red shirt in the window. He bends his head and rests his elbow against the glass, keeping his head down as the train pulls away. 


 


FRANCESCA HALIKIAS holds an MA in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University. Her work has appeared in Emerald City and the undergraduate journal Oakland Arts Review. She currently resides just outside of Chicago and can be contacted by email at francescahalikias@gmail.com.











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