The Golden Gate Bridge is visible across the freeway as the Amtrak rumbles toward Emeryville. A sudden flash of light startles me--a Japanese tourist has taken a picture through the laminated glass. Now he steadies a video camera on his shoulder, hoping to capture some of the beauty of the bridge at sunset, the fire in the sky behind the burnt orange paint on the girders. Weary, I lean against the window and stare blearily at the postcard framed by my window. I am glad to be going to San Francisco, even if only for a week.
We shuffle on over the undulations of steel on steel. I watch a softball team walking in from the field, game called for darkness, and close my eyes. Too many papers to grade, too many students beyond the kind of help I can give them with lessons about parts of speech and punctuation. Students who can't read, who sometimes startle me with the things they know, but who know nothing about life outside this tiny town on the side of the freeway. Most have never wondered what it would be like to be someone else, somewhere else, in another time, presented with different options. A Catholic God controls their world. They do not question and I want to shock them from complancency, make them see past this theory of design. We study Sophocles, talk about the overthrow of his gods and they are certain this is right but do not connect the overthrow of those old gods to an examination of their own. I do not want them to give up their God--but I want them to know the relief, the power, of shouting at Him. Were this my fate, I think, I would howl at the moon, I would curse a life where I was born unwanted, where even the smallest children work in the fields under the unrelenting sun, where I would likely die young. I am dismayed by their resignation, stymied by their dearth of imagination.
The women, especially, are limited. When I ask for academic questions, am I married, they ask, or engaged? When I say no, they shift in their seats and narrow their eyes. The room is silent, but their thoughts are so loud they echo off the concrete walls: Dangerous, I hear. Dangerous.
I am relieved they do not ask if I am Catholic.
They are like that when they first come, a colleague tells me. They will leave when they marry, but will be back when they divorce, small children in tow, hoping you can teach them enough to survive. Sometimes, you can.
"We were allies in the Second World War, remember?" I hear someone say in a clipped tenor barely softened at the corners by Spanish romance. "If not for the Yanks, the Germans would have kicked England's ass." I am awake, though I have not moved. I peer out between nearly closed lids, my arms folded across my chest, and warily survey the voice's owner. He has been speaking with three teenage girls, but they have excused themselves by now and he is addressing himself to the Japanese tourist, who nods politely, uncomprehending. They talk about Kyoto and cooking schools. The man, whose pronunciation sounds European, introduces himself as "half-German," and confides to the entire car that he is a freelance journalist who will be working for National Geographic. "My boat is in the Bay," he says gaily, "and I'm going to take her around the world."
His first words have put me on edge. My suspicions are confirmed when he broaches the topic again. The tourist gets up, walks to my side of the aisle to gaze again at the bridge. As he leans over the chair in front of me, he starts to hum. His voice is quiet, soft and lulling, but I cannot sleep.
It sounds like my classroom in this car and I don't want that, especially that, to follow me here. The German pontificates, rattling off the places he has taught and lectured, and the Japanese man indicates that he, too, teaches at a university. He turns to ask me, "Do you also teach college?" I am surprised and impressed by his intuition.
"Yes," I say.
"Oh," bellows his new companion, "So you are one of us!" I can see the surprise in the tension of his jaw muscles--such a question would never have occurred to him. I am too young, I am a woman. I am not an equal.
"No," I say, and open my journal to write. But it is a farce. I am listening and he knows that I am. Remembering where he is, he concedes, "But Hitler killed his own people--that's not right." He settles calmly back into his seat, satisfied.
I begin to wonder if there is any hope at all if there are people like this man teaching students like mine. I am like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, holding back the flood. For the hundredth time, I idly ponder what would happen if I didn't go back.
The Japanese man takes out a piece of purple paper and begins to fold it into impossibly tiny triangles, one after the other. I watch stealthily, fascinated by the flurried precision of his hands. To the side of us, the German is complaining about having to take the train. "They," he says, stole his van in Tijuana. He's been on the rails entirely too long. I agree, thinking of my students, who are the "they" in this scenario, and feel a rage growing in me I have not felt in some time. I tell myself that I am protective of them though they do not understand me and hope I am right. I stand to gather my things, and the tourist hands me a slip of paper with his name on it.
"My card," he says, his voice mellow and warm. It's an oversized card, in the Japanese style. At the top is his name, Yoshihisa Arai. He is a professor of American Studies. I smile, and he thrusts another piece of paper at me. It's purple. A crane.
"Thank you," I say, and I mean it. I place them carefully in my journal and pack it away.
The car lurches as we pull into grimy Berkeley station and I stand to stretch my legs then sit again. I have one more stop. Yoshihisa smiles, arranges his cameras on his neck, grabs his luggage, and moves softly down the stairs. Nearly the entire car, a good forty people, are getting off here. They brush past my seat, hands at eye-level. With a start, I realize that unlike me, Yoshihisa has been busy. Every one of them is clutching a tiny paper crane.
I move to the other side of the car to watch him walk away. He is looking up at the window. He is looking at me, a Japanese Dutch boy. A fighter. Finally, the train lunges forward and picks up speed. I see him turn and start toward the station. After a moment, I return to my seat and undo the latches on my bag. I pull out my ticket.
I check the time of my return trip.
Melanie Levinson is a freelance writer based in Lemoore, California, where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing.
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