A Train to Catch

Sunday, January 15, 2023

The day I began turning blue, I had taken off from work and was striding briskly down Main Street when a man said to me, “Hey, baby.” He smelled like funnel cakes, and he spoke with authority. I had been taught not to talk to strangers, so I kept walking past the quiet storefronts, my neck prickling.

“What’s your problem?” he demanded. “You can’t say ‘hey’ back? At least turn around and look at me.”

I, too, had been taught to respond to questions asked of me, so I turned around, but I looked at his shoelaces. They were grimy and tied in neat little bunny ears. “I have a train to catch,” I explained, then turned quickly back and resumed walking.

He started following me then. It was midday, the sleepy lull between city commuters rushing away and trickling back, and the streets were nearly empty, the whole town shrunk by half. He was a fast walker. I quickened my pace, but he quickened his, too, until he’d gotten right behind me.

“Baby,” he said, low and confidential near my ear, “if you can’t even look at me, you got bigger problems than a train to catch. You know what I think? You’re an alien. You got no right to exist on Earth.”

My breath hitched, but I maintained my pace—as if I were at ease, as if I were in control. This I had taught myself. I could hear him breathing behind me. Then his hand grazed my elbow.

I started running then. Past the barbershop and the Colombian restaurant, past the police station and the bakery cafe. It was an uneven, skittering jog, really. I hadn’t run properly in years and found I had become no better than a hobbyist. He was laughing in the distance, but the noise faded the farther I ran.

I reached the train station and bent over, breathing hard—but I did not catch a train after all. See, I had taken off from work to break up with my boyfriend. Only, he wasn’t really my boyfriend, except for the fact that I thought of him as such. He thought of me, it seemed, as a friend of a friend to echo his voice against and imagine with the allure of sex-toy functionality. He lived in the city, and I had planned to storm into his office—I’d looked up the address—and demand an explanation for his protracted silence despite the clear evidence from social media that he was still alive. But as I watched the Metro-North muscle its way toward the brick stationhouse, my bravado quailed, and I decided it might just be better to send an email instead.

I headed down Monroe, then veered right onto Water Street, passing lined-up boats in a lot, the briny scent of the Sound tentacling the air. Something fresh, I told myself, would make me feel better, wouldn’t it, about what had just happened and the email to come?

At the seafood store, I scoured the counter, weighing my options—a crate of mossy clams? jumbo shrimp curled softly together? Finally I decided to splurge on lobster tail. It was a day old and slightly blue, but reduced to half-price, it called to me.

The clerk’s eyes lingered as he wrapped it. “You’ve got a rare one here,” he said, smiling at my lips. “With that blue coloring.” I grimaced politely back, then grabbed the cold, bagged half-body and clutched it to my chest the whole way home.

I started a pot for the lobster. Then I sat on my couch and stared at my email for some minutes, before opening a new message and punching out all my frothing vehemence. The granddaughter clock my friend Henry had made me years ago tick-tock-ticked behind me. It was a magnificent clock: two feet tall with spiraled wood carvings like tumbling waves, a mirrored interior, and a nautilus shell for its pendulum bob.

I banged “enter” to angrily sign off, but inexplicably I found myself typing “Lobster.” I realized that my ex-non-boyfriend had told me a story about them a few months earlier: to mate, a female lobster molts her shell in the presence of a male over the course of several days. Then they make love. Once her shell grows back in a week’s time, the female leaves her lover’s burrow, and the two never see one another again.

At the time, I’d thought the fierce creatures romantic: the molting, the lover’s welcome. Especially with my ex-non-boyfriend perched on the arm of my couch, his leg all but touching mine, relaying the story to me as he admired my granddaughter clock. He’d been visiting a friend in Bridgeport for the long weekend and had suggested hanging out if he could crash on my couch. As he stroked my clock’s nautilus shell and described how lobster babies spurted down the female’s swimmerets, I was half-listening, half-staring at the way his freckled skin wrinkled around his eyes like crumpled paper—from too much time spent long-distance cycling in the sun and notching that half-smile that was there, just then, peeking from the corner of his mouth.

And then he turned his head to meet my eyes, and for a second’s exhale, it felt like anything could happen, like we could become those lobster lovers if I just bent a breath closer, if I began to molt.

The second passed. I tipped back and laughed, too high-pitched. I said, “Well, good night then!” and flitted into my room, shutting the door behind me.

I saw him off the next morning, smiling brightly, determined to mask my confusion and disappointment, brushing off his thanks for letting him crash on the couch. We were both dressed for work, but after walking him to the train station, I would have to backtrack half a mile and jog a little to get to my office on time. We talked about the hexagonal windows of the tapas restaurant and passing sports cars I pretended to know something about. Once we arrived at the station, just before he headed through the doors, I dared myself forward and wrapped my arms lightly around him. “See you,” I said, trying to encompass everything I felt in my grasp.

He did not respond to my email sent at our regular interval a few weeks later. Perhaps his girlfriend had finally discovered our years of messages and read into them what I did. Perhaps he was appalled by my cowardice. Perhaps he was appalled that allure had threatened to become corporeal.

I deleted “Lobster” and moved my mouse over his name in the email’s “To” field. Just send it, I told myself. Just send it—now.

But from the corner of my eye, I saw steam drifting out from the kitchen. I jolted up and ran inside.

I could barely see the pot through the great steamy cloud. My eyes, somehow, were thick with it. This happened, sometimes; it was a humid summer, and I had no air conditioning. Lobster tail in hand, I reached through the stinging heat, determined to cook what I had bought, but the tail missed the pot and went clacking across the tiles.

I sank to the floor, gasping. My problem, I thought wildly, swiping at liquid from my eyes, is that I’ve never been in love. In crush, yes. In obsession, sure. But love, no. Not love like a relationship. Not love like actually being brave enough to kiss someone, or have sex with someone, or lean forward just enough to touch someone. By age twenty-eight, who the hell has never been in love?

“I need to do something,” I said aloud. I had a vision of blindfolding and spinning myself, trying to pin the tail on the donkey of what—probably because I had just grasped the lobster tail with one hand and with the other was swiping my eyes with a dish towel. But would a donkey really want a lobster tail for its rear? Surely it would prefer something mammalian.

 And then it came to me, clear as a donkey’s ass. Just what the man in the street had told me to do: I had to become an alien.

I nodded, feeling the rightness of this decision. And with it spreading through me, I stood, marched into the other room and, just like that, pressed send on the email. I marched back to the kitchen, threw out the lobster tail, shut off the stove, and got out leftover rice.

As I filled my mouth with the clammy pellets, I noticed my pinky toes were covered in cold blue stains, reminiscent of the lobster tail, but neon-ified. I nodded again, pleased. My decision had already begun taking effect.

You see, when I was eight, I dressed as an alien for Halloween. My dad had inspired the costume. “You must be wary of anyone with excessive composure or metallic appendages, kiddo,” he’d joked at dinner one night. I’d been buzzing about the surprise show-and-tell we’d had at school, and my mom had forgotten she was supposed to be listening. “They’re the telltale signs of an alien. After all,” he continued pointedly, “what advanced race wouldn’t use robotics to control their emotions and channel clicking speed?”

My mom glanced over from the TV in the corner, eyes vacant for a moment, cheeks long, as if her face were sliding off her bones. Then she reanimated, setting the remote down with a dry laugh. “I’m sorry, honey,” she said to me, pushing her lips into a smile. “Tell me again?”

That Halloween my dad had a conference and my mom had to work late, so after whisper-arguing after they thought I’d gone to sleep, they decided to have Grandpa take me trick-or-treating. I had only known Grandpa as a gruff window-blind salesman who never had time for anything without shutters. But that afternoon, he let me cut up wires and thread them through my hair like antennae. He helped me twist old blinds and screws and chopped-up slinkies into my clothes. He made bad jokes that sounded like he’d gotten them from popsicle sticks, and I laughed too hard at them. I remember thinking at that moment that I loved my Grandpa.

When he ran out of wire, Grandpa went into his closet and pulled out Grandma’s crinoline skirts. “Too many damn clothes in here, anyhow,” he said. Grandma had been a stage actress, she’d died only months before, and according to my dad Grandpa hadn’t cried one tear to mourn her death. As he hacked at the wires with scissors, Grandpa looked between the skirts and me, like he was trying to answer a question. Shreds of sheer fabric floated in the air like plucked wings. “Beautiful, aren’t they?” he said finally, face pinched. It seemed like he might cry, right there, after all this time. So I pulled the scissors from Grandpa’s hand and insisted that he give me blue skin. He’d painted the living room blue last year, hadn’t he, and what was more alien than blue skin? He nodded, a tic twitching his cheek.

While I lay on plucked wings, Grandpa painted my face blue. Grandpa told me to take off my clothes, and Grandpa painted my whole body blue. The paint was cold, and the paintbrush was stiff. Grandpa told me to take off my underwear. He painted in and out, around and between. He painted inside, hard and jerky. I lay still, pretending I didn’t feel it, keeping my eyes on the popcorn ceiling so I couldn’t see what he was doing with his other hand.

After trick-or-treating hours later, I scrubbed every splotch of blue away in the bath until I was red.

If only I had been a true alien: robotic, hard-skinned, and impassive. Then I wouldn’t have felt at all.

The granddaughter clock tick-tock-tick-tocked. Beneath the kitchen table, I studied my blue pinky toes and determined that, yes, I would no longer be human. I would no longer be part granddaughter here and part failed lover there, part forgotten friend and distant daughter, all of my parts damaged and misshapen and nowhere to find myself. I would be firm and cold, smooth and emotionless. No matter how long it took to push out love’s weight, I would push it.

The clock ticked and tocked out seconds, hours, and days. As the blue spread across my feet, I wore high socks and flared pants in public. I no longer nodded back when neighbors passed or returned their how-are-yous since I didn’t care to know. I stopped smiling at gurgling babies and the wagging tails of puppies outside grocery stores; they weren’t so cute anyway. The blue spread up my legs, growing bluer, colder, neoner.

At work, I wore thick tights with my summer skirts and waited with bated breath for my colleagues to notice I had changed. But everyone kept sending the same meeting reminders and progress inquiries. At last, after a brands meeting a week in, my boss took me aside and asked if I was feeling okay.

“Your presentation,” she said. “It lacked . . . personality. And any sense of interest in the brand. Why didn’t you include images? Colors? Do you need time off? You know you can always take it.”

“Actually,” I said, “I find that images and colors get in the way of the truths of the brands we’re trying to promote.”

She cocked her head.

“For example, if we were promoting Kleenexes, the messy emotions attached to their use just get in the way. What consumers really need to know are the mechanics with which Kleenexes remove facial fluids, how many come in the particular box we’re selling, how many trees were planted to replace those destroyed in their production process, and the percentage of landfill space they’re projected to occupy now and in the future.”

My boss nodded. “Okay. Well, we’re going to have to take you off the kitten costumes account indefinitely, then. Let me know when you find that images and colors no longer get in the way.”

The coworker everyone was buzzing about because her boyfriend was dying came over to my desk. “Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked, looking me up, then down at the tights I was sweating through.  “You look a bit off.”

“Nope. Better than ever.”

“Great! Can you respond to my initiatives report by noon, then? It’s overdue.”

Before long, I could no longer spot my former humanity in my kneecaps or my bellybutton or the moles on my hips, because they had all turned blue. Every time I passed the granddaughter clock, I halted the nautilus shell to peer in the mirror at the blue creeping up my torso. But then the shell cracked and fell. Silence pervaded the apartment. I did not cry, nor did I laugh. It was a sign: I was ready to reveal my transformation.

I called my mom. “We’re not very close,” I said. I had the nautilus shell cradled in my lap and was trying to superglue its rough beige shards back on.

She said, “What?”

“We don’t love each other,” I said.

“Of course we do, honey.”

The biggest shard kept unsticking. “Mom, I used to love you so much. For my seventh birthday we went roller skating, remember? Stacey gave me a bead kit, and when I skated over to show Henry, I tripped on some lady’s purse and the beads fell everywhere. You picked up each bead while I cried and the purse lady criticized you for not watching your children.”

“I remember,” she said slowly. “You made me a necklace with that kit.”

“But, Mom,” I said, trying with the smaller slivers. “I don’t think we love each other the same way now.”

“Why not?”

“When was the last time either of us picked anything up for the other?”

I heard her shifting on the other end. “But—is there anything to pick up?”

The slivers were supergluing to my fingers. I sighed, using my forearms to readjust the shell in my lap. “It’s probably my fault. I should have called you instead of going to poorly organized networking events, or spending hours writing messages to my boyfriend, or practicing conversations with myself. Did you know he’s my ex now? It’s going on three weeks since I emailed him saying that if he was going to ignore me, we were over. He hasn’t responded yet. Also, I’ve decided to become an alien. Even my fingernails are turning blue.”

“Honey. We’re just thirty minutes by train. You can always visit if you’re feeling out of touch. That reminds me—your birthday dinner’s coming up, right?”

“Mom, you’re not listening! I can’t bear to waste our relationship like this. I’m afraid we’re going to have to stop loving each other. Well, I will stop loving you. I know I can’t stop you from loving me. I’m just going to suggest it.”

I paused, giving her a chance to change my mind. But after three long seconds of silence, it became obvious she wouldn’t.

“Goodbye,” I said.

I sent a mass mailing to my extended family members, friends, and acquaintances. I called them “dear” and confirmed that I had very much enjoyed being an extended family member, friend, and acquaintance.

“However,” I wrote, “I have decided that we can’t love each other anymore. I apologize for any inconvenience this may bring. If I see you walking down the street, I will still say hi, and you may, too. Be warned that I am now blue, and I may appear alarming. Even my elbows are turning blue. I have become an alien. Best wishes!”

I called my grandfather as I wrapped the nautilus shell in a cardboard box. I said, “I’ve hated you for twenty years. We’re going to stop loving each other.”

“Marla, is that you?”

“No.” I squeezed the cardboard cube for support. “Marla is my aunt. I’m your granddaughter.”

“Are you behaving in school, Marla? I didn’t send you to college just so you could sleep around.”

I pulled off a screeching strip of tape. “Grandpa. I talked to a therapist.”

“We’re short on staff, and I’ll be installing blinds all week. I don’t have time for any nonsense.”

“Okay, so it was two years ago, and I only saw her once, but that doesn’t invalidate consultations.” 

“It’s your own damn fault if boys start stalking you again.”

I placed the tape over the box flaps and pressed down. “The therapist said you did something very wrong to me.”

“You can borrow my shotgun if you need it.”

“Goodbye, Grandpa. I don’t love you.”

“Goodbye, angel-puss.”

At the end of Henry’s letter, I added a postscript: “By the way, your clock died. They say there is a time to every purpose under heaven. Do you think that’s true of a timepiece? Anyway, I thought you might appreciate the shell remains. I’m including them here. They were getting stuck to everything I own.” I taped the letter to the box, put on a long-sleeved jacket and gloves, and delivered it to the post office.

I noticed many benefits to living without love. I no longer spent all night scrolling through social media replies, laughing and tearing up as if I were part of the conversation. I stopped cursing at cars when they honked at me crossing in front of them, because I held neither malice nor goodwill toward clamorous strangers. I watched couples on the street smiling and laughing as they shared unguarded looks of happiness. I almost pitied them (except I couldn’t feel the emotion), for I knew what would happen. Sure, they’d get married and have kids and experience love. But soon they’d catch resentment, jealousy, paranoia, boredom. Unguardedness leaves these things free to float in, like mustard gas, until you can’t breathe or speak.

I, for one, unlike my coworker with the dying—now dead—boyfriend, no longer mixed up the professional emotions one was supposed to feel on the job with those swinging erratically through one’s head.

“The orange color palette,” my coworker said breathily one Friday morning, standing at the front of the meeting room. “I just think it conveys such warmth and openness.” Her chin trembled. “Like a hug. The hug someone wraps you in every night when you come home.” She covered her face with her hand and let out a sob. My colleagues flocked to her with soft pats and I’m-so-sorrys.

It didn’t matter to me, now, that people carried so much patience for the grief of losing a boyfriend to death, but not an ex-non-boyfriend to the void of reality. Yet it did matter to me that she was wrong.

“Excuse me,” I said, tugging down my long, fringed sleeves. “We’re considering tree wall stickers for a spring collection. The green palette is clearly the appropriate choice. Maybe mix in some yellow, some white depending on the tree. But orange is for fall. Besides, no one in a stable state of mind would see orange trees and think, ‘Oh yay, I’m about to be hugged.’”  

My colleagues glared, silently closing ranks around my coworker. My boss stalked over and hissed, “Pack your things and go home now. On Monday we’re going to talk about your behavior lately.”

“Fine,” I said, pushing my chair back. “I look forward to it.” I waved goodbye to my coworker, who was slumped on the table choking on teary phlegm.

The sun was overly bright as I strode down the sidewalk on the way home. “The color of butternut squash,” I muttered to myself. “Of pumpkins!”

I almost didn’t recognize the grimy, bunny-eared shoelaces when I passed them. But then I stopped and turned around. There they were, the very same from so many weeks ago. Slowly, I made myself look up from the sneakers, past the man’s chest, and boldly into his face. It was large and bull-like.

“Hi,” I said.

He ignored me, punching on an old iPhone.

I cleared my throat and pulled up both fringed sleeves. The blue covered nearly all my arms now and had been seeping around my shoulders for days. “I said hi. Hey. Remember me? I’m the alien.” I wiggled my arms a little for him.

He glanced at me. “I can see that,” he said. Then he went back to the phone.

“So,” I said, hardening my voice. “What are you gonna do about it?”

He glanced up again. Then with only the slightest quirk of his lips in warning, he launched himself at me. “Boo!” It was a fake-out. He boomeranged his body back, laughing loudly.

I turned away quickly, stabbing my shaky legs forward and pulling down my sleeves. I touched my collarbones, my neck. Was the blue there yet? How much longer would it take?

That evening, my dad called. I watched his photo pulsing on my phone. I watched it fade away. Call Missed. But then he texted: “Hi! I’m outside :)” A moment later: “Will you let me in?” And: “¿Por favor?”

I debated whether I could ignore him all night. Then I set my jaw, tugged at my sleeves, and buzzed him up.

I folded my arms and stood against the far wall of the living room as he walked in, all smiles, arms open. “Didn’t Mom tell you?” I said, unmoving. “I’m an alien. The blue’s just starting to spread up my collarbones. We can’t speak.”

“So I’ve been told,” he said. “By a few people. I always knew aliens lived among us.” He crossed his arms, too, and leaned against the wall opposite me. “Hey, do you remember what you did on your third birthday?”

I suppressed a sigh. “No.”

“You peed on me.”

“Do you want me to say I’m sorry?”

“Are you sorry?”

“There was probably a good reason.” 

“You had to hold it for our trip to Massachusetts, and you couldn’t hold it any longer. Sometimes we just have to let things go.” He smiled, pleased with himself.

I rolled my eyes. “Look, you should go—”

“Tell me, kiddo, is your urine blue?”

I pursed my lips.

“I thought not. It’s not always easy turning things blue.”

“I’m sure it’ll turn blue eventually,” I said, tightening my folded arms. “But you need to go. I’ve got a lot going on right now."

He settled further against his wall. “It reminds me of that 1,600-meter race you trained for.”

“In high school?”

“You trained so much we hardly saw you. Some of your classmates thought you’d come down with mono. When you raced at state, you were ahead the whole middle half.” 

“And then I burned out. I never had enough talent. It was a wasted year.”

“But tell me,” he said, lifting his chin like he was delivering the most profound wisdom. “In those moments when you were getting up as the sun rose, running until you’d reached your rhythm, wind rushing past your face, didn’t you love it?”

I scowled. “No,” I spat. “I hated getting up when it was dark. I hated how tired I was every night. I hated losing half my friends.” My hands sprang from my arm-fold, something big and hot churning up inside me. “I hated how it didn’t matter! I hate how none of it, the good, the bad, the awful, none of it even matters!” I clawed at my neck as if I could rip out what was inside. “Get out,” I pleaded with my dad. “Please get out, just get out!”

My dad’s mouth had fallen open. He was staring at me. “Okay,” he said, “okay.” He opened the door. But then he turned back. “I hope you’ll still come for your birthday dinner tomorrow,” he said softly. “Six p.m. Your mom’s been looking at recipes all week. And—” He kept his eyes on my face. “It’s not so bad, you know. It’s my favorite color.”

When the door shut behind him, I whirled to the empty clock mirror. Neon blue was winding up my neck, tingeing my cheeks. I clapped my hands to my face and felt the cold pulsing.

As the night passed, first my urine turned blue, then so did the whole of my face. It made me exhausted, seeing it in every reflective surface, and I could barely meet my own newly blue eyes. I wore long jeans tucked into socks and a hooded sweatshirt to bed, hiding myself from myself.

The following day was gray and windy, unseasonably chilled. As the afternoon fell into evening, I went to check my mail and found a package from Henry. Tightening my hoodie around my face, I leaned against the lobby wall to tear it open. Inside was a letter. Henry wrote:

It was great to hear from you! Ha, turning blue—I’ve missed your humor. I was thinking the other day about how we used to stay up all night watching movies and playing cards. Remember that time we waited to see the sun rise over the lake?

Sometimes, I think I should’ve stayed in clockmaking. But right now, well, there’s only enough time for the odd hobby piece. I’ve been tinkering with this one for a while, though, and you sent me the perfect final touch. Let me know if you like it.

As for your question: if there’s a time for every purpose, there’s got to be a time for time, right?


P.S. Hope to see you the next time you’re home! It’s been too long.

Beneath the letter was a smaller package, this one palm-sized, ticking faintly. From out of its wrappings I unraveled a thick bronze pocket watch. The cover was inlaid with nautilus shell—but this was not the same ugly beige I had sent him. He had cracked the nautilus in two and polished the interior into a shiny segmented spiral.

When I opened the clasp, I found filigreed white hands, bronze Roman numerals, and a cut-away center where the gears lay exposed. Opposite the watch’s face, Henry had placed a picture of our college-age selves.

I was dressed in a stiff taffeta gown and clear glass earrings. Henry wore a suit that was too short everywhere. It was our college winter formal and the first and only time we’d danced together. For most of the song we’d avoided one another’s faces, swaying in opposite rhythms, but toward the end, he’d tightened his arm around my waist, pulling me closer as he leaned in.

I used to like Henry in secret. My roommate claimed I loved him. I, however, would never have tossed the word around like pizza dough. And I told Henry as much when I jumped away and shouted, “No thanks!” He shrugged, and we left the dance floor for grape vodka shots.

Was it still love, to hope your friend might one day become everything she couldn’t?

Yet Henry’s letter did not prepare me for what I saw in that photo. As clear as my nineteen-year-old self’s glass earrings, I was blue. A shining neon blue.

Wind caressed the lobby door. The door creaked in its struggle to remain closed. I watched the watch’s second hand tick itself around and around again. Didn’t it know it wasn’t going anywhere? I tapped the watch face, irritated. And if it was going somewhere, turning seconds into minutes, into hours and days, why would it keep going if it knew time couldn’t be made without being lost?

Before the next tick, I hurled the watch at the lobby door. The sound of shattering ricocheted off the walls.

I’ve killed it now, I thought. I’ve killed it with my alien strength. I covered my eyes with my hands.

There was still a tick, tick, tick, though. When I peeked out, I saw the nautilus cover had broken off its hinge. The sleek watch face had cracked. But the ticking hands were as punctual as ever. It was 5:34:15.

I wrapped my arms around my waist and closed my eyes. Now it was 5:35:20. Now 5:38:12. And then I unwrapped my arms and looked down at my hands. There was a slight iridescent sheen to the blue. In a certain lighting, the fluorescence of the lobby, it could maybe be seen as breathtaking.

Finally, I came to a decision. A purposeful one. I bent down and scooped up the pocket watch halves. I carried them upstairs, and when I came back down, I had changed into a tee shirt and shorts. I opened the lobby door and stared up at the gray clouds twisting around one another. Then I ran.

The breeze numbed my ears and broke my bare arms and legs into goosebumps. My pounding feet sent a tremor through my head. My lungs were trying to gasp in more oxygen than they could absorb. This is what running had felt like, I remembered: like torture you chose to try and transcend.

I ran and I ran and I ran. Because, one day, I’d have a train to catch. 

Sunday, January 15, 2023