Train rides are that space between life. When you are in the middle of something in the most literal sense. On your way to somewhere from somewhere. Maybe it’s Christmas morning and no one really talks to one another. Or you sit next to a stranger you have nothing in common with, except that you’re both on the same train to the same place. You can look differently, act differently, and have different lives. All that bonds you to your seatmate is just that. You’re seatmates.
Unless you pay extra, the seats aren’t comfortable. They aren’t meant to be laid across so you can put your legs up on the wall. Or to hang your knees over the side into the aisle. You move with the train, with every bump. And every sway. Traveling for long distances or for short ones, you always can’t wait to get where you’re going. That’s the catch. You never want to get there, you just want to be there. Unless, of course, you find those nomads who live to travel. They sleep on your couch and use your toothpaste. One bag will do them just fine. They’ll carry it on their back, as not to make one shoulder sorer than the other. It will fit under their seat. That terribly, uncomfortable seat.
Some pairs of seats have an arm in the middle where you have to play the arm rest game. It can go one of two ways. You feel bad about hogging it, or you got stuck next to a hogger. “I’ll never see them again. What’s the difference?” It has run through all of our minds.
Other chairs don’t have an arm between the two, or three. Those were the seats that were meant to be sprawled across. They’re too inviting. “Yeah…I can do this.” You think to yourself, “It’s not too comfortable, but I’m on a train. Public displays of sleeping are forgiven on trains.” You’ll get sleep creases on your face and your body will get weirdly hot. No one has yet figured out why that happens.
It’s a marvel when you are on the train and no one sits next to you the whole way. Maybe it’s proof that there is a God. Just for that one day, you get the two whole seats to yourself. Then there’s the day that the girl on the phone sits next to you. Or the dental student, looking at creepy x-rays and diagnostic photos of tooth decay that she’s studying. Some days when the last thing you want to do is travel, the words “Is anyone sitting there?” or “Is that seat taken?” can be like someone rubbing mustard in your eyes. It stings and you know now that you have to deal with it for an allotted time. You’re stuck in that train-time-continuum.
Time spent on a train is a modern marvel. People can be who they want to be and portray themselves as a different person. You don’t have to hide or change. It can just be a simple saving face game you can play every time you travel. Maybe without it, some people would have nothing. But Hal has nothing to lose.
He travels between cities for work frequently enough to have a Rapid Rewards Membership ID barcode on his keychain. Dressed keenly in three piece suits, he is tailored and lean. He doesn’t hang his legs over the side into the isle. And he doesn’t hog the arm rest. Rarely does Hal even take off his suit jacket. Forget about seeing him without his shoes on.
A thin man, he’s a child living a man’s life. Hal’s tattoos are neatly covered, most days, living underneath his polka dotted dress shirts. Other days they hide under his loud, neon pastel shirts that somehow go well with his plaid, striped, and black suits. Actually, they really pop out at you. Which, we assume, is the plan all along. Two small hoop earrings remain in one ear, and an unnoticeable silver stud in both. His facial hair is never the same two weeks in a row. Sometimes it’s just a mustache. Other times Hal has a full, shaggy grey beard. Rarely is he clean shaven. His hair is natural, not dyed. And when he wears his black horn-rimmed glasses it just adds to it all, nicely reminding you that he is that strange poindexter you can’t put your finger on. In the end, Hal is not the easy traveler. Due to his fancy outfits, he travels heavy. Hal’s bag cannot fit under the seat. He carries two.
Unmarried, Hal chooses to sit next to women, when he can. The train is Hal’s stage. Becoming someone he cannot be in the office, he lets young women swoon, and laugh at his tasteful vulgar commentary. He might gesture to the small of their back. Hal might even give them chills.
Work reimburses Hal for his train fare. He gets the nicer train, nicer seats. It travels faster. No one keeps a businessman waiting. With every bob and weave that comes with the quickness of the train, his hair (some days resembling a mullet a little too closely) moves with it. So much time on a train, Hal barely notices its movement to being with.
Hal also embraces the looks he gets from his seat mate when his tattoos are in fact showing. He’ll catch that early morning train dressed in plain clothes. His three piece suits folded and tucked away. Or Hal will work through the night wearing tight jeans and a green baseball tee. It will show just enough to make out the snakes that curl up his wrists. On those baseball shirt days Hal might swing his legs over the aisle. And put his feat up on the seat. While the businessman will sit at work on a train with his ankles neatly crossed, baseball Hal will find himself sleeping, and weirdly warm. He’ll wake up with a sleep crease. He’ll wake up at his other home.