Oct/Nov 1998  •   Fiction

Boxcars Differently Traveling

by Paul Dubnor


"Want to dance?"

Susan Weinberg looks at me quizzically, her lipstick thinning on a social smile, stretched across her twelve-year-old lips. Even at this age, we both recognize that a rule has been broken, a violation of social pecking-order, that I from the depths have transgressed a time-honored line.

"Sure," says Susan with perfect politeness, not a hint of condescension or rolled eyes or cartoonishly gloomy face shot toward her onlooking friends. Three of them sit nearby on metal chairs, hands folded on dresses.

Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs boom through the auditorium.


There is a phonograph hiss embedded in the sound, but the bass blossoms, and I can feel the drumbeats permeating my skin.

Susan and I reach the middle of the floor and begin to dance. Susan dances, that is. What I do is a swinging, hopping little two-step: shake one foot, put it back, shake the other, put it back, while the anchor foot executes a popping-toast hop. An older neighbor girl had taught me this after declaring me hopeless on the standard fast dance. "It's not going to get you on American Bandstand," she had said. "But at least you won't look weird."

So now, I cling to those words. Susan and I dance without eye-contact; my gaze is fixed toward the floor, affording me occasional glimpses of her nyloned knees batting against her scotch-print hemline.

"Thank you," she says when the music ends. The air is still reverberating as she weaves her way back to her friends, a bubble floating to its natural level.

But that's fine. The main thing is that I managed without disgracing myself. My neighbor was right. I can dance—more or less. So convinced am I of my triumph that I ask two other girls. That's three—my original goal—or, more accurately, the quota decreed by my mother. "I want you to make an effort, Allen. Just ask three girls. And when you come home, I'm going to ask you if you did it."

At the time this left me humiliated—and hateful. I didn't want her social rehabilitation; I didn't want her knowing I needed it. But by the time I walk back to the cloakroom, I'm buzzing with a heady sense of accomplishment. A major barrier has been shattered. I am no longer a kid who can't dance.

I am just about to snatch my jacket off the fat iron hook when, in the corner of my vision, I spot a flurry of movement. Susan Weinberg, who I hadn't noticed, is also in the cloakroom, doing something in a burlesque manner. Her audience of two girls is laughing raucously, one of them demonstrating a strikingly adult pose as she throws back her head and covers her mouth with her hand. It takes a few seconds to recognize the performance as a replica of my signature two-step. Susan looks up and our eyes lock. Happenstance has snared us both. There is no chance to look away or pretend that I didn't see. The moment just keeps hammering on.



I'm lying in bed two days after the event. It's a depressing pre-school Sunday night, with sporadic wind buffeting the storm windows. A vision of Susan looms before me: her fine brown hair, charcoal eyes and rounded good-girl cheeks, which seem reservoirs of poise as they curve to meet her flat lipline. Suddenly she winces. A large hand has just swatted her hard on the ass. I drink in the sound, the taut smack, the straining hiss. I play the wince again, her mouth now contorted by a yelp. And then I'm Susan. I'm prone on the bed, rubbing myself in rhythm to the smacks. I'm me again watching. I'm Susan crying. I'm the man spanking her—all in the same instant of time. A feeling I've never known takes hold in my groin and expands down the shaft of my penis. SPLAT. SPLAT. SPLAT. The contractions pass through me like slowed thunderclaps. They are sweet, complex, and filled with a timeless dignity. In the aftermath I roll on my back, damp with sweat but utterly calm. I have no name for what has just happened. But I search anyway, scanning a number of words, some utterly nonsensical. The one I stop at is God.


2/8/65 - 3/23/65

I've been doing it every night. I quickly tire of Susan Weinstein and move on to new victims. There is undeniably something vampire-like in the way I scan the rows of my seventh grade class, seeking my nightly prey. It's always girls I'm a little afraid of. The pretty, popular ones, preferably on the feisty side. I have little interest in wimps. Frequently, my daily decision will spring from some random event, like the time Sara Holquist screamed at Tom Benders, "Stop being such a fucking dildo!" Or the time Charlotte Skaggs simply walked up the stairs ahead of me, her butt eclipsing my vision like a striped rayon moon.

Tonight it will be Heide Spivak. I made the decision during recess when I overheard her talking to a friend about someone in a different homeroom, at some point declaring, "He's such a juvenile retard." Fancy words. I could tell she enjoyed saying them, that they imparted a kind of power, which struck me as not only adult and snide, but directly linked to her blossoming attractiveness. Would the same shot from an ugly girl carry such bite?

But now Heide is getting her comeuppance. SPLAT. SPLAT. SPLAT. I'm lying on my stomach, imagining the blows, drawing my bathrobe about my legs so it will feel like a skirt, when suddenly an impossible thing happens: one of the smacks leaps from my fantasy and becomes real. The concussion is hard and stinging, catching me flush between my undefended globes. I spin around and see my mother.

"What are you doing, Allen?"

My breath loses its rhythm. My stomach becomes a squirming gyrating thing, passing through serial contortions as if trying to find the magic shape that will make me vanish. My mother looms at the corner of my bed, looking at me over her eggplant breasts, which the cups of her nightgown barely contain. I notice a TV guide in her hand and realize that this is what I was swatted with. Scenario: she couldn't sleep, went to the living room to watch television and heard the bed rock. Jesus, why didn't I lock the door?

"Humph?" I grunt, trying to simulate grogginess, though I haven't quite worked out the strategic benefits of this ruse.

"Answer me."



"I was dreaming." For a second I regard this as brilliant, until I realize she isn't buying it.

"Don't lie, Allen. You're making it worse." She walks in alongside the bed and pauses directly over me, her high-boned nose and sunken cheeks appearing vaguely luminous in the dim light from the hall. But even in the dark, her eyes track me relentlessly, hot clairvoyant pinpoints, attuned to my every twitch. I can feel my secret about to be ripped from me. But when I consider how crazy the details would sound, I realize I have to hold out.

"I don't know what I was doing. I really don't."

"Were you rubbing yourself?"

"Yes," I admit after making sure I have control of my voice.

My mother ponders my confession, and to my surprise her eyes turn slightly softer. "Your father's never talked to you about this, has he?"

"About what?"

"About sex, the facts of life, all those things you should be starting to understand at your age, like masturbation. Do you know what that is?"

The word buzzes inside of me like a trapped hornet. I know instinctively: this is the name for what I've been doing. But now is hardly the time for total candor. "No," I reply faintly, and it even occurs to me to sound a little victimized in hopes of exploiting this new proposition in the air, namely that this is somehow my father's fault.

"It's a habit that boys have and not a particularly good one. It can lead younger people to sex before they're really ready for it. And these days kids are having sex earlier and earlier."

"Not anybody I know."

"Well, maybe not that you're aware of."

"Mother, they're not doing that," I shoot back with exaggerated vehemence, hoping to distract her from the point.

"You know what, Allen. I think it would be a lot better if you had this talk with your father. You can do it tomorrow when he comes home from work. And tell him what you were doing."

The suggestion makes me recoil. Conversations about the White Sox are as personal as my father and I have ever gotten. And she knows this. I think of him driving his bread truck, his biceps shimmering in tandem with the steering wheel, his face set in that craggy impersonal gaze suggestive of many things: overwork, boredom, a bitterness over the unobtained, but not a bent for discussions about what his son has been doing with his penis.

"I can't."

"You're doing it, Allen."

"Mother, please." My shrillness surprises even myself; it's the uncontrolled panicky whine of someone begging at gunpoint.

"Forget it, Allen. You're doing it. And before you go to bed, I'm going to ask you to make sure you did."



I walk home from school the long way. My route takes me along Ninety-fifth street, which is bordered on one side by a high embankment of railroad tracks. Tonight is my father's bowling night, and it occurs to me that if I get home late enough, perhaps he will already have left, and I can avoid talking to him—at least for one night. This will hardly solve my problem for the long-term, but I can only handle one night at a time.

The word masturbation shadows my every step, just as it has all day—through classes, recess, lunch, quick stops at the drinking fountain. How could I have missed this word? How many people my age know of it? Remarkably, through all these weeks of indulging in my new hobby, I've given scant reflection to its greater ramifications. But now questions come in a torrent. Spanking girls? Rubbing myself while I think about it? I think about it quite a lot, don't I? And what does it mean that the essential ingredient of my nightly celebrations is another's pain, which I track not just through thoughts, but with a thumping, euphoric penis?

There is one explanation that I've been pushing aside all day. It keeps coming back, possibly because it's the only explanation that holds up: I'm insane. And insanity is something I know about. I know about it from television. It's grotesque, evil, laughable, pathetic, and absolutely irreversible. The insane are to be shunned. The insane are to be chased by police cars. The insane litter the planet with hideous acts and rarely live out their lifespans. And I am one of them. The thought seizes me in such an imploding, punishing way that I have to tear my mind from it for fear I will publicly scream. I force my attention to a row of slow-moving boxcars, and find momentary comfort in their monotonous song and the endless procession of names: MONONON, SOO, ERIE LACKAWANNA, SOUTHERN PACIFIC.

"SANTA FE" strikes me as particularly evocative, though it also evokes the name "Santa Claus," which, by contrast, I deem insipid and babyish. My mind is trying to take this further, to leap to some larger connection, when an unexpected insight blossoms: my mother only saw me rubbing myself. She could not have known the crazier elements prancing through my head. She had summed it up in a word. And in all likelihood this word—the only thing I've really been accused of—refers strictly to the act of rubbing, but has nothing to do with spanking girls. And in this sense, my secret is safe.



"Hello. I'm Allen Kline of the Chicago Tribune. I'm calling to see if your paper is coming okay."

The man, who sounds drunk, says something unintelligible, so I try again.

"My order ticket says you subscribed last week, Mr. Wendt. I want to be sure that service has started."

"Cold fucking... mambo cunt..."

The three possible choices on my verification slip are: OK, NOT OKAY, CONTACT CARRIER. I could of course just hang up, but that would reduce my total, and my boss, Calvin Trifone, a humorless toady with inspirational work slogans posted all over his cubicle, has been relentlessly tracking my output.

"I'm glad your paper is coming." I finally reply, checking OK. If necessary, I can always claim I misunderstood.

An hour later, I'm heading home on the Jackson Park el, happy that I have only a month left on this summer job before I'm off to the University of Michigan to pursue liberal arts and ultimately, astronomy.

The train lurches and sways, making its frequent stops as I read my copy of the National Lampoon. It's their special "press issue." The article I'm reading is a fake newspaper from the future with headlines referring to President Tom Hayden. In the future sports page, the baseball standings include teams from Disney World, Tokyo, and Niles Shopping Center. The next article is a parody of an alternative newspaper, the central joke being that even though the paper professes to the loftiest humanitarian ideals, its advertisers are all blatant smut vendors. It's one of the smut ads which seizes me. It promises nudes, twats, titties, whips, chains, and girls being spanked.

I read the text several times. I even restart the article so I can sneak up on the pertinent words, just to make certain this really implies what I think it does. My heart races, as a sensation of bloodborne lightness rises up to my scalp. This is the first time in my life I've encountered evidence that there are others out there who share my obsession.

The train stops at Garfield Boulevard, and I watch a group of black teenagers gather impatiently at the door, which refuses to open. Finally it activates and they're gone. I look down again at my magazine. It still says "Girls being spanked."


9/28/74 (afternoon)

"Do you have any sexual fantasies?"

"What do you mean?"

"Oh you know, Allen. Secret turn-ons... maybe something you like to think about when you do it."

Terry is sitting in an upright lotus on her futon. She tracks me with a fluid half-smile, her eyes slatey and reflective in the light of this sun-filled apartment. There's a flirtatiousness in her pose, but I know it's not serious as the taboos between us are formidable, the principle one being that until recently she lived here with my best friend Peter Lasko.

"When I do it? When would that be? I've probably had two dates all year."

"Not that I haven't made a million attempts to fix you up. Peter tried too."

"I know. It's hopeless."

"Because you're so picky. You don't give anyone a chance. Do you want a beer?"

"No thanks."

"I do."

She departs for the kitchen, and remarkably, I start to follow her butt, an impulse which stridently underscores my cowardly evasion of her question. Do I have fantasies? The part of me that would welcome this discussion is alert and strumming. But I'm not sure what I'm prepared to reveal. I absently gaze into the dining area, which has the unexpected effect of making me miss Peter being here. It was the scene of many family-like pow-wows: their announcement of marriage plans, a three-hour-discussion about my decision to switch majors from astronomy to social work.

"So what did you mean about fantasies?" I ask when Terry returns, hoping to sound off-handed, while keeping the topic afloat.

Her smile clearly sees through me. She pulls the tab off the beer can and dabs the foam with her finger.

"You want to know the truth?"


"I always enjoyed talking raunchy with you. I'm sure I've told you things I never even told Peter. But feel free to stop me if I overdo it."

"No, it's not that. It's just a difficult subject."

"You don't have to talk about it."

"I want to, at least partly"

"What's the other part?"

"What if I told you something, and you thought it was weird?"

"I don't think I would judge it like that."

"How can you know that?"

"It's a fantasy. To me that makes almost anything fair game."

"That's easy to say in the abstract."

She makes fun of this pedagogic construction with a mugging face, then assumes a clinical tone of her own.

"Is your fantasy something specifically erotic?"

"No. It's something you wouldn't normally consider erotic at all."

Her brow narrows, and, for a moment, I fear she's re-evaluating her disclaimers to judgment.

"Allen, You know what my gut impulse is?"


"I think you should tell me so we can act it out."


9/28/74 (evening)

After two more hours of discussion, she convinces me. I help engineer this process, of course, drawing out her serial, re-worded assurances with the persistence of a municipal committee. Finally, I return to the front door, and we greet each other with new personalities.

"Why were you so late?"



She turns and walks down the entry hall, insouciantly swinging her rear. She's changed into a pair of tan cotton shorts, which, thanks to the lack of back pockets, hug her contours like a second skin. The legs terminate in turned-up cuffs, which pulse with her thighs as she walks.

"Would you like a drink?"

"What have you got?"

She turns and faces me, arms akimbo.

"You know, Allen, I consider that a very rude question."

"I'm just asking."

"Well, you're acting like a total cocksucker."

"Funny, I thought that was your area of expertise."

She shoots back a venomous glare, which manages to strike a node of fear even through our burlesque. "I wouldn't be sarcastic, Allen. It looks juvenile on you."

I push myself to say it. "You know what you need?"

"Nothing you've got."

"A good spanking."

She throws her head back and laughs. "You haven't got the balls." Then, catching me entirely flat-footed, she swings out her arm and cracks me across the face. It's hard enough to sting, leaving after-trails of fingers radiating down my cheek.

"And that's something you need," she declares triumphantly. She rears back to do it again, but this time I catch her hand and drag her over to the couch.

"No you don't... no you don't. Cocksucker!"

She digs her heels into the carpet to prevent movement, but not so efficiently that I can't pull forward. I plant myself in the middle of the couch, then haul her over my lap as she continues cursing. "Asshole... Cocksucker... Jagoff!"

My hand rises and descends with several soft pats.

"You can do it harder," she whispers, momentarily violating character.

So I do. Not viciously, but hard enough to redden my palm. I'm trying to get into it, but, for the most part, this all feels contrived and silly; I even fear for the long-term consequences on my fantasy. But eventually I feel the familiar spell. I take in the sight of her flailing legs, her shimmering globes, and the way the material of her shorts stretches and reshapes as she squirms. And I think: this is it. This is the image I've tracked all those nights. This is what I tried to squeeze from the darkness.


I'm increasingly aroused. I'm erect. I can sense bits and pieces of my personal history bouncing across the room. Spanked. Someone I've been erotically drawn toward, who I can't have, who exceeds me in personal power, who has just acted extremely sassy and is dressed quite provocatively, is being... Spanked. The elements draw on me, I can feel them within, riding rebounding corpuscles and the wind sheers of quaking breath; they twist through wormholes of improbable geometries, trying their utmost, their futile utmost, to pin down one particular thing.

"How was it?" asks Terry, finally rolling off my lap and looking upwards, through a mop of fallen hair.

The word I blurt forth is "God."


5/19/78 - 8/1/94

I complete my Masters at Michigan, move to San Francisco, and take a job as a public aid caseworker.

I also find myself embarking on a chain of serial monogamies. This is not by intent, but it seems the way my life is propelled. Many times over I experience the cycle: burgeoning hope, dazzling illusions, followed by the inevitable crash.

My hobby is never a relevant factor in these endings. But where it does require some reckoning with is in those relationships that appear destined to endure. There is then a decision to be made as to how and when I will introduce my true erotic wishes. The most frequent lead-in is the one I learned from Terry: Do you have any sexual fantasies? I even develop an adeptness at finding ways of getting new partners to draw me out. It's a certain little flip, which, if properly executed, can trigger a litany of benign encouragements such as, "Oh come on, Allen. You can trust me."

The result is that about half the time I get something close to my desires. I even discover women with erotic secrets as intense and consuming as my own, who are eager for trade-offs and sexual play. Others want no part of such things. This is a disappointment but never a deal-breaker, especially if there is hope remaining when the other million relationship variables are inventoried. In these cases my spanking fetish is not pushed further, and I indulge privately, with the help of my growing stash of porn.

This becomes the arrangement with my wife, Marilyn, whom I marry in the spring of 1985. However, after five years, my fantasy is briefly dragged out of the closet at the behest of a marriage counselor, in an effort to perk up our fading sex lives. When we divorce, almost six years to the date of our wedding, our erotic differences are not amongst the areas we identify as our "dividing issues." And if the truth be known, even those sore points—some of which hold legend status in my life saga—lose much of their edge when I learn in 1994 that Marilyn has died of leukemia.



By the time you stepped into the Question Mark Cafe, I had not been with anyone for six years. In retrospect I think this was a good thing, as I desperately needed respite from the relationship wars.

Even in that span, much seemed to have changed in the realm of courtship protocols. Personal ads, once the domain of crackpots and oddballs, had come into a certain respectability. And I liked your ad:

Forty-two year old New York transplant, avid reader, music lover, walker, talker, appearance more than acceptable. Compassionate truth-seeker, though my therapist may beg to differ.

I knew it was you the moment you entered, not because of the wavy hair, dark complexion, or hazel windbreaker, but because of the way you glanced anxiously about the cafe as soon as you passed the threshold.

"Hi, I'm Allen," I said, walking over and shaking your hand.

"I'm Linda. I was afraid I would go up to the wrong person."

An awkward moment ensued. You had to break off contact to get your coffee, while I remained at the table in limbo. By the time you returned, I had a line all prepared. I was going to let you settle into your seat, pick my moment and say, "We've got to stop meeting like this." Instead, you threw me off with a more earnest, "I hope you're not an old pro at this. This is only my second time."

"What happened the first time?"

"Nothing." You said this with dramatic irony, and we both laughed.

And then what? Siblings. Politics. Dating. The Internet. Our mutual discomfort with proliferating area codes...

We talked for an hour and decided to leave for a walk. On the way out the door, I made some remark about the weather being destined to change, and you accused me of "classical deterministic" thinking. I hadn't heard that term since college, but I was impressed. These were hardly literate times. And I thought to myself: She knows from deterministic thinking.



On our second date we drove to the wine country, where we sat in the Buena Vista tasting room, sampling a range of medium-priced reds.

On the way back we talked nonstop, and somewhere along the line we got into that playful debate about popcorn. I maintained that Orville Redenbacher's was worth the few extra cents. But you said it was blatant image-peddling, and that next they'd be "yuppifying Draino."

"Look what you've done to me, Allen. You've got me sounding just like my father."

"He's another cynic?"

"Well, not at the moment. He died two years ago."

"Oh. I'm sorry." You had already told me this, and I privately winced.

"Don't worry. I'm fine with it. Anyway, pointlessly argumentative was what I meant. He could get into the most self-righteous rants over nothing."

"So you didn't get along?"

"That would be stating it mildly."

"What would be the un-mild way?"

"He was abusive."

"You mean physically?"

"I'll put it this way: my mother and sister were the other females of the household, and he left his marks on all of us. I once saw him slap my sister so hard a tooth went flying out of her mouth and cracked against the window. He also put my mother in the hospital more than once."

Anger was creeping into your voice, certainly contained, but enough to leave the air a little more laced with tension than it had been. I felt fearful, partly for the younger version of yourself in your stories, and partly for the potential danger of this darker mood to the fragile house of cards developing between us.

"Thanks for letting me blab on," you told me after we had driven a little further. "I can tell you're a sympathetic listener."

I believe I was. And I believe this was not diminished by that stealthy other part of my brain, monitoring with a completely different agenda, which had just concluded: you were not a candidate for the fantasy question.



By Labor Day we had slept together three times. We had also logged four movies, six dinners, and even survived our first spat, a minor run-in over whether to use Clipper or 17th Street to get from the Mission to the Sunset. One night I even came close to using the word "love" but managed to stop myself.

So I was in an ascendant state when I rushed out to replenish the zinfandel on the last night of our three-day weekend. About the last thing I expected was to return and find you in tears.

"Linda," I rasped, concerned, puzzled, but also covertly savoring the possibility of a hero's ride to the rescue. Such was the puffery which filled me until I noticed the item on the floor that had been holding your attention. It was a magazine page turned sideways, on which a female leg could be seen kicking up into the fold-line. Your body obscured the rest, but I knew exactly what it depicted, exactly the angle of the exposed buttocks lying over the knee of someone dressed as a naval officer, exactly the pattern of flying hair that entirely covered the model's face, a feature which occasionally helped me pretend this was a grownup version of Susan Weinstein. About a dozen other magazines with such photos were strewn about the floor.

"I opened your dresser to look for a sweater," you explained, tears glistening in the light of my three-way lamp, turned to its highest power.

The magazines belonged to a former roommate. I weighed the lie, speculating on whether I'd be able to keep the threads straight, but finally only managed to utter, "God."

"This turns you on?"

"It's complicated."

You glanced at the magazine and flipped through the pages as the ludicrous images went flying by: a nurse splayed face-down over an operating table, a school-girl being spanked by a lifeguard.

"Look, everything you see there isn't necessarily what appeals to me."

You stopped flipping and read one of the captions. "Cherry thought she could get away with anything, including wearing provocative clothes to get the guys all steamed up. At the first flicker of interest she would scream 'sexual harassment.'"

"Linda, these are fantasies. This has nothing to do with anything in the real world. I can tell you about feminists I've known who have rape fantasies. That doesn't mean they want to be raped."

Somewhere in there I heard the zip of a purse.

"Linda, please..."

"Don't touch me."

You stepped past me with the fluidity of a sprite, then turned to face me with one hand on the door, apparently primed to slam it upon my first forward move.

"My father was a fucking tyrant, Allen. He did this sort of shit. You could have come by our house almost any night of the week and gotten your jollies."

"Look, Linda. This is a fantasy. Something very personal. Please don't judge it this way."

"Judge it?" Oh, I'm sorry, Allen. Let's screw judge and get right to the sexy part, like the sound of my mother's head hitting the floor after the fucking prick pushed her."

"Linda, this isn't..."

The door slammed.

I heard your feet on the stairs.


"Hello. This is Linda. I'm sorry I'm not home to take your call right now..."

You did not return my messages. I tried staggering my calling times, hoping to slip through your screening, but the results were always the same.



I called in sick just so I could take my best shot at approaching you on your lunch break. You'd be leaving your office at the Senior Center about noon and heading for the delicatessen on Mission Street. The first twenty seconds would be critical, a thought which spurred me through endless rehashings of my opening words, contemplated in various cadences and tones.

I arrived early and spent most of the time leaning on a lamppost, feeling like a sociopathic stalker. By 12:30 I was still waiting, and I wondered if you might have used a different exit, or if possibly you had not come to work at all. Then you appeared. You walked slowly down the long central stairway, wearing a pair of loose brown pants, which reminded me that this was the day you lead painting classes.

You spotted me with a terse, shallow breath of recognition, your eyes quickly darting about as if sizing up routes of escape. But you, too, apparently had words ready for such an encounter. "Allen, please. I don't want to do this. I'm not judging you. Let's just let it be."

"Can we talk for a few minutes? After that, if that's what you want, I'll never contact you again."

"I'd rather we didn't."

You sped up.

I kept pace. A man walking in the other direction craned to observe us.

"Linda, please. You're making me feel like a pervert. We don't have to do it like this."

"We don't have to do it at all."

"Can't you just listen?"

"If you don't get away from me I'll scream."

You walked even faster, and this time I simply stopped and watched you depart. One of the electric Mission Street busses whined past, its destination sign scrolled to the wrong terminal. I stopped at a phone booth, called work, and said that I'd be coming in after all.



In concluding this chronology, I am also ending my attempts to contact you. Any further communication will be your prerogative, and your choice not to exercise it will be absolutely honored.

My hope is that in presenting these events as they occurred, and as I perceived them, they will stand for whatever they were, and not as anything larger or more frightening. Oh hell, these days perhaps there's a case to be made for splitting at the first sign of weirdness. But if I've learned anything through my umpteen monogamies, it's been to hang in when instinct tells that something special may be possible. We barely got to know one another, but I had that instinct. So lucky you.

Is my optimism that this letter could change anything deluded? Possibly so. But in writing this I've come to realize that part of my agenda has been to further sort out this aspect of myself I thought I had long come to terms with. In that regard this narrative has helped, at least as much as I could expect it to. This may be exactly the wrong thing to tell you, especially if I hope to hear from you again, but I want to be entirely honest: this quirk, this oddity, this psychic crick is still very much with me. I can't even tell you that I wish otherwise. It still brings comfort. I think of it as a friend.

And you are a friend, too, gentle Linda.

Whatever you decide, I wish you well.



A twelve-year-old boy walks along an embankment of railroad tracks. A determinist would say that he is already on his way toward you, that your meeting, convergence, and eventual separation are already etched into the clockwork of things.

But at the moment he is not concerned with that. At the moment he is in a panic; he has become convinced that something at his core is so off the known scale of transgression that it offends the very universe. He doesn't know about your childhood hell, or that one day you and he will come together and briefly feel less alone. He only knows the trains bring comfort. He reads the passing names, and sometimes they form on his lips: Santa Fe. Santa Fe. Santa Fe.