A Storyby Sarah Balakrishnan
The Amtrak left the station at twelve, vanishing its passengers into the white damask of country fog that covered the Hudson Valley. The last stop had been Rhinecliff, and more people had gotten off the train than on. The quiet car emptied except for Marnie, alone in a four-seat booth. Ribbons of flax-blonde hair, dark brows, and a pale imploring face that she thought of as beautiful stared back at her from the boggy pane of the train window, racing away to the north.
A nighttime trip two days after New Year’s. When she’d boarded at Grand Central, the carriage had been half full. It drained quickly: grandparents returning from their children’s for the holidays; businessmen with their tired briefcases; a college student or two, put out by the change in semester. Even Marnie was not supposed to be there. At the station, she meant to buy a ticket home to Hartford, but at the last second she changed it to Montreal. “Oh, why shouldn’t you?” her cousin Renée had laughed on the phone. “Who wants to be with your parents when we can be single together in an actual city?”
The train shunted uphill, bulleting through the narrow canopy of pitch pine and oak.
It was this point—her parents—that got to Marnie. Spending Christmas with her boyfriend’s family in New York, only to break up the day after New Year’s, was a story that, once her parents got hold of it, they would tell forever. Her older brother, John, would remind them all of the dance when fifteen-year-old Marnie had abandoned her pimply date for a better-looking suitor at the gym door. Her other brother, Alvin, would recount the time that she’d switched her short-lived college major from psychology to art history, claiming that this was what Kate Middleton had done.
At thirty years old, Marnie had grown weary of this tireless grinding down, the effacing of her pleasure with herself.
In the window, a white moon glowered through a tight net of leaves, flickering, fleeting. She could not remember ever being so aimless.
The train hiccupped over a turn, when the carriage door opened and a man walked through.
In Marnie’s life, there would be three other astonishing moments. One morning, she would be standing on a platform in the London Tube when the girl beside her leapt onto the tracks at the exact moment the train rushed in. Not a screech or lurching splatter. The gray soles of feet would simply vanish, replaced by the subway doors.
In the afternoon of an ordinary work day, Marnie would be stopped by an FBI agent in the parking lot outside her office. The man would take her for coffee, joke with her, ask her to spy on her boss—an immigrant from Afghanistan—and she would agree, whether out of fear or excitement she would never know. Six weeks later, the boss would stop coming to work, and no one ever collected his things.
When she was forty years old, and it was Easter Sunday, her brother John would leave her a voicemail, sniveling like he had a cold. “You’re leaving now, aren’t you?” he’d ask. “I’ll see you for dinner, won’t I?” Yes, she would text back, without moving. Instead, she would pack the children’s bags late, stop on the road to feed them, stop another time to use the toilet. When they arrived, her husband would walk ahead to find John on the kitchen floor, dead since the afternoon. Bacterial meningitis.
Tonight would stand out simply because it was the first moment of its kind: a moment when every second split as fine as hairs, in which each of the decisions that Marnie made would seem to testify to the very nature of who she was, as opposed to who she could have been, and for whom else this change might have made a difference.