What if I was going to write a story about you and me, what would I call us? The man and the woman she said. That's what we are. The man and the woman on the train... Two strangers meet on a train bound for Los Angeles. Each is brimming with secrets; each is fleeing a life in ruins. No names are exchanged, but intimacy grows as the gentle hills of Ohio and the stark desert plains of the Southwest fly by the window, and the man and the woman begin to reveal themselves to each other. The man understands that the woman has recently returned from the far side of human experience, and he desperately craves the deeper knowledge he believes her story will impart. Consenting to speak of her former life, the woman's tale unfolds like a rich tapestry of image and emotion. Victim, fighter, lover, healer-- she has been all these things. Hers is a pilgrim's quest for the truth hidden inside herself. The essence revealed. The body spoken. Sexy and profound, Janice Deaner's new novel is a provocative exploration of the nature of male and female identity and an unforgettable portrait of a woman for whom love is the only law.
|Publisher:||Penguin Group (USA)|
|Product dimensions:||5.38(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
Read an Excerpt
She told him she'd been living as a man for five years. When he asked her why, she looked straight into his eyes and said it was much too long a story. He complained that she shouldn't have told him that much if she wasn't prepared to tell him the rest, but they were strangers on a train, and a remark like that could only get him so far.
The Amtrak train had been crowded when it left Penn Station and everyone had to share a seat. It was she who sat next to him not the other way around, and it was she who uttered the first word that ever passed between them. She said a few things before she announced that she had been living as a man, but nothing of any consequence. She made conversation, like how hot the weather was now that it was August, how the train was crowded for a weekday, and how the prospect of leaving New York behind was like a breath of fresh air.
It was when he'd asked her her name that she'd stumbled. He first saw the confusion in her eyes, then heard it in her voice.
My name, she said. I was, well. Oscar Lourde
She stopped speaking and looked at him helplessly, as if she were lost. Then she said it:
I've been living as a man for five years.
She said it, as if to explain herself, as if she were trying to tell him, I don't know my name anymore. I haven't lived as myself for so long. He would have liked to have known more, but he could tell she had never meant to say that much, that it had just slipped out the way provocative things sometimes do betweenstrangers. She apologized for it and then put a finger to her lips.
When the train sped through the heat-stroked backyards of a small Pennsylvania town, she uttered another thing. She'd been watching out the window for a long time when she turned to him and confessed, I just took a cab to Penn Station, bought a ticket to Los Angeles, and without a phone call or a fax to anyone, I left my life in ruins.
She smiled and looked away, and it was hard to tell if she was serious or not, but the words in ruins echoed inside him.
In the afternoon she retreated to her sleeping quarters, where he stopped in to see her a few hours later. She had a first-class deluxe bedroom, for which he knew she'd paid a great deal of money. Certainly more than he had paid for his standard bedroom, which came with a small cotlike bed and nothing more. Hers had a private bath and a window, and if you paid a little extra money (she did), you could have white cotton sheets and a red velvet drape that could be closed to cordon off the bedroom from the tiny sitting room.
It's the closest I can get to the past, she said.
And she was interested in the past. She was interested in putting the present behind her, even if it was just for a week. She wanted to escape it one last time before there was no escaping it anymore. She wanted to pretend she belonged to a time when certain things didn't exist, like Formica countertops and plastic chairs, when there weren't fax machines or internets or terrorists. A time when dames were dames and men were men, she said and smiled.
He wasn't so much interested in the past as he was in knowing what lay beyond the present. He was interested in becoming someone he wasn't now; he wanted a whole other way of thinking to emerge inside his mind, so he could see the world in a completely different way, to think different thoughts than the ones he always thought now. That's why he'd done what he'd done, he told himself.
At the thought of it, guilt surged through him, a few images flooding his mindbroken dishes, the overturned table, the shredded curtains. He tried to thrust them out. It had all been a part of creating a rupture, he told himself. That's why he'd done what he'd done, he reasonedhe'd broken with his life so brutally to change himself. Then he'd climbed onto the train, to borrow time, to reckon with what he'd done, to see if in his act, which had been so unreasonable, he could become someone else, or discover another piece of himself perhaps, a piece lost to him or at least invisible. He told himself this was true, but he couldn't be certain.
He went looking for her and found her in her room. She looked happy, in the corner, tucked away, amid the white cotton sheets and red velvet curtains. He stayed no longer than fifteen minutes. She was reading, he could see. When he left, he closed the door behind him and walked a few steps down the corridor before he remembered the book he'd left on a small table next to her bed. He knocked quietly and opened the doorit'd just been seconds since he'd closed itand found her sitting cross-legged on her bed, her eyes closed, her hands palm-down on her knees. He thought perhaps she was praying, but he didn't ask. When night fell, he came by and found her eating her dinner, while she was reading a book and watching the string of towns, like pearls on a strand, slip through her fingers.
They met a few hours later in the passenger car. They sat for a while in the darkness, talking occasionally, her voice easy and soft like talcum. It was late when she finally invited him into her room. It was awkward at first, he didn't know where to put himself, until finally he stretched himself out on her bed and crossed his long legs. She sat next to him, her back against the wall, her knees drawn up like an adolescent girl's, her hands motioning up and down when she talked, as if they were shadows of her words. She gestured for everything, and her voice was low and excitable. She made sound effects and spoke in accents, and used expressions, like smoking up a storm, that amused him. He tried to pinpoint her accent, but he couldn't. He wondered if she had tampered with it over the years.
While she talked, he squinted his eyes and tried to imagine her as a man; she had short, dark hair, a long, pale neck, and green eyes. He wondered what she had done to change her face, how she had worn her cropped hair, how she'd carried herself. She was fairly tall and was by no means a tiny woman, but still she was a woman: the curves were in the right places, the sway of her hips, the movement of her hands were just right.
She wore a long white skirt with a slit up the side, and her lips and fingernails were painted red. He thought she was beautiful, although she laughed when he said it. But it was true; her mouth was full, her cheekbones high and delicate. She looked glamorous, he said. In fact he worried that she might be a bit out of his league, but at the same time it attracted him immensely. He even told her, joking, that he thought she might be too glamorous for him. She said it was the red lipstick and the red fingernail polish, which she hadn't worn in five years. She told him it was the strangest thing when she caught sight of her hands and saw those ten red tips and when she was in the bathroom and her face appeared in the mirror, red-lipped.
Because you lived as a man? he asked.
Yes, she said.
He asked her again to tell him why.
It's too long a story, she said.
But we have nearly four days on the train.
It's not so much the length, she said.
She gave him a look which he took to mean that it was the depth of it that she found too long.
Could I at least ask you a question? he said, and when she nodded, he asked the question that had distracted him, and which he now felt embarrassed to ask.
Genitally speaking, are you a man or a woman?
She thought it was very funny and repeated it back to him on and off all night. Genitally speakingshe'd insert it where she could. It was the first time he'd really heard her laugh hard, and after he'd heard her, he tried to arrange for it again and again. It was a worthwhile sound, he told her, productive and abundant.
Later that night, when they were lying side by side on her bed, she said, I've always wanted to take a train across the country and meet someone I've never met before and will never see again and make up a story about myself. Make up the whole thing.
Have you ever? he asked.
She turned to him and smiled.
No, never, she said.
Are the things you've told me so far true? he asked.
I've told you almost nothing, she said. We've talked about impersonal things mostly and we've laughed.
Except, he said, that you told me you lived as a man for five years.
Yes, except that, she said.
Then she looked at him, at the bruised look on his faced bruised from being shut out, and said, I'm sorry I told you. I shouldn't have. It just slipped out. It even surprised me when I said it.
Her face lost its life and suddenly she looked as bleak as and one had ever looked, as if she'd seen whole crops fail, laid husbands to rest, placed stillborn babies in pine caskets. He knew then that she'd lived through something. He recognized the face, the downturned eyes, the slack corners of the mouth when you were caught grievinghe'd seen that same expression of his own face many mornings in the mirror while shaving.
It was when she took her sweater off after the air condition had failed that he was sure of it. She had two long knife scars of her right arm, one long and jagged, thick as a twig, the other fat and shaped like a horseshoe. He noticed she did nothing to conceal them, as if she were proud of them. He couldn't take his eyes off them.
What happened? he said.
A steak knife, she said.
Who did it?
But that's all she would say.
She wouldn't tell him her name, either. She said it was enough that she'd told him the name she had used as a man.
Are you running from something? he asked.
Not running, she said. I'm taking a train away from it. Car must travel away from a ruin to gain the distance necessary to see it for what it is, and then to cut oneself from it. I've told you. She paused and smiled. My life lies behind me in ruins.
He thought she meant it, but even so she was conscious of the drama she created and seemed amused by it.
What kind of ruins? he asked, playing along.
She smiled again and touched a finger to his lip.
Denied specifics, he formed images in his mind, images of her bed, swathed in white cotton, unmade, a rose silk slip, like the one she had, flung across it, images of Limoges dishes in the sink, of a faucet dripping over them, of a window open and a white curtain fluttering and sailing while a telephone rang and an answering machine picked up, time after time. A lover. A husband.
But "in ruins" was all she'd give him.
When she lay down on her back, he did the same and turned his head toward her.
What will we call each other? he wanted to know.
We don't need to call one another. We're on a train.
I could call you Oscar Lourde, he said.
He watched the sadness creep back into her eyes, the corners of her mouth draw down. He could see that there was some age on her. She was somewhere in her thirties, thirty-two, thirty-three, he guessed.
Don't call me that, she said.
And he knew she meant it. She turned over on her side, putting her back to him.
He waited a few moments before he asked her, What if I was going to write a story about you and me, what would I call us? He said it playfully, to win her back.
The man and the woman, she said. That's what we are. The man and the woman on the train, she said, drawing it out with mock seriousness. Like in one of those pretentious Swedish films, darling, with the subtitles you can't read.
He played along, flicking his cigarette with bored nonchalance, and asked, Will it always be so?
She looked over her shoulder, a bit of her face, a portion of her eye showing, playing at being a woman.
I don't know, she said.
He liked that about her, that she never pretended to know anything. In the short time he'd known her, she had never assumed an authority on any subject other than herself. She understood that life had a way, a way of moving that was all its own, without reason, without care, that life had a way of subverting all expectations. And she understood it fully, without bitterness. Perhaps better than he.
When he asked her what she'd done for a living, she said, I'd rather not say.
Why? What does it matter? he asked, a trace of annoyance in his voice.
It doesn't, she said. It doesn't matter either way, but this is my ride across the country, and that's how I want it. You have a choicebe with me on the train, or don't be, but this is how I want my train ride to be.
So he wouldn't know her name, or what she'd done for a living. But she ended up telling him other things that night. And he found himself collecting the things she told him, as if they were the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that someone had flung out a windowa jigsaw puzzle that once pieced together would answer some question that burned inside his body like a cellar light that never went off, that would rearrange the pattern of his thinking, until he thought differently, until he wasn't the same man who'd climbed on the train. He hated to admit it but he needed something from her. He wanted to know what the rupture in her life had been, the one that had caused her to live as a man. But mostly he wanted to know what she'd learned: had she returned as someone else, as someone completely different?
What it was they did in her room the next night, as the gentle hills of Ohio swept past the window, was hard for him to categorize. They made things up, like what they would do if this happened, or if that happened, or the way it should have been or the way they meant it to have been. He tried to remember the next morning, to connect all the stories, but he couldn't. When he tried to place her, to form her in his mind, there was nothing there. No real facts, just random, floating topics, connected to nothing. The world in her room was white cotton sheets and red velvet drapes (a world he didn't know) and a window through which they watched the countryside passthe farmlands of Ohio and Indiana as they stretched out endlessly, the fields rolling and darkened under the glow of the moon; the tall grasses and the delicate tips of wheat shining faintly as they bent in the wind. He couldn't exactly remember what they'd said. Sometimes they said nothing at all, just lay there lulled by the constant tha-thunk of the train, their skin touching. By the time he got back to his room in the morning, their words were already gone, like air.
When he washed up in the public bathroom, he looked in the mirror and saw fear in his blue eyes. He was stooped over, his height and broad shoulders too great for the small room. He pushed his straight brown hair from his eyes and splashed water on his face. As his long fingers moved across the well-defined planes of his cheekbones, he remembered her words in ruins. It was true, he thought, he'd left his own life in ruins.
The passages of his bronchial tubes began to constrict in an asthmatic spasm. He'd had asthma since he was a small boy; it was debilitating then, now it was inconvenient. He gasped for air and reached into his pants pocket for the inhaler. After he put it to his mouth, he took a deep breath, and relief came within moments. He thought perhaps it was the small cramped space of the bathroom which had brought on the attack, as if it were too much like the oxygen tent he used to lie under countless times as a boy. He remembered its sickly vapors and his mother's face wavering outside the plastic as if she were underwater, her hand constantly touching his legs, his arms, his chest. How he'd longed to get away from her, but he'd been so thin and weak. He stuffed the inhaler deep into the dark of his pocket, as if it were a piece of thought he wanted to suppress.
Fear surged through him at the thought that perhaps his act and his flight onto this train were not radical acts, that they were not part of some grand personal quest. What if they were something else altogether, something more drab, more mundane, something simply banal? He told himself, no, it was not this way, that these fears were merely evidence of repression, of an internal policing the culture had imposed on every man to keep him from his darkest impulses, to keep him civil. No, he was justifiedby doing what he did, by breaking violently from his life, by climbing on this train, he was breaking this policing. It had to be done. There could be no discovery while being repressed, while being censored, while being pinioned beneath convention. It was death to anything creative. Whoever looks into himself as into vast space, and carries galaxies within himself, also knows how irregular all galaxies are; they lead into the chaos and labyrinth of existence. This stilled him.
The sun was beginning to rise on the last of the Indiana farmlands when he found her in one of the passenger cars. He had walked down the aisle in his long, even gait, and had stopped just short of her seat, where he watched as she sat with her legs tucked beneath her, a gray scarf wound around her neck, while she looked out the window. He quietly slipped into the seat next to her. When she felt his presence she turned and smiled.
Why don't you ask me what I do? he began. But he wasn't the least bit interested in telling her. He was just curious about her minda woman's mind that didn't care what he did.
I've heard too many life stories, she said.
Like whose? he asked.
Like whose? he insisted.
People like you, she said seriously. People like the people on this train. People from the country, people from the city, happy people, sad people, old people. She paused. Men on Death Row.
He hadn't expected her to say this. He could tell that she meant it. Even so, he could see that she was aware of how provocative it was.
Now he wanted to know about these men on Death Row; but he was afraid that if he asked her too pointedly, he would scare her away, so he spoke carefully. How did you happen to hear the life stories of men on Death Row?
But he had sounded too eager, had pressed too hard, and she closed down. It gave him hope, though, because things leaked out of her like that. He figured it was only a matter of time. If he was silent enough, if he slowed himself down, like a cat, watching, she would give herself away. Before they reached L.A., he would know her.
He wondered if he had unconsciously linked knowing her with knowing himself. He didn't understand it, yet it felt that way in his mind now. He'd gotten on the train with the idea of becoming someone else and somehow she had been woven into it, this woman who'd lived as a man, who'd known men on Death Row. Why her? he thought. Of all the people on the train, why had this woman sat down next to him?
He spent some of the early evening alone in the cafe car, a place that looked and smelled like a moving McDonald's, and over cups of coffee and cigarettes he read a battered paperback he'd picked up and then a Newsweek he found laying around. He thought about the dark-skinned man from Kenya in the Newsweek photograph who was standing in the middle of the road, dressed in the traditional skirt, a spear in one hand, a cellular phone in the other. An image like that in an American magazine: at one time it was new and had brought with it a certain way of thinking, but it was nothing new anymore. He wondered what would replace it, what would appear next as new, and where it would lead thought. He was most interested in this.
He wondered too if she was an example of what was new this woman who'd lived as a man and who was so wearied of it, was now dozing in a first-class bedroom, complete with red velvet curtains and white cotton sheets, seeking the past, wanting nothing more than to shut out the reality he was most in search of? What was it she knew?
He looked up at the young men who'd gathered at the next table in the cafe car to play a game of cards. Their heads were shaven and across the youthful muscles of their upper arms and over the sinews of their forearms tattoos careened. What they thought was subversive had already been absorbed by the culture, he thought. He'd seen Calvin Klein ads featuring tattooed flesh and shaven heads roar past on New York buses. It was nothing new anymore, yet he could see in their postures, in their language, in their carved flesh their need to be free from convention. Some part of him longed to join them, but their way was already a relic. He turned away from them, from their cruel laughter, and wondered how long it would take before their thoughts were no longer their own, before their bodies and souls were utterly lost to them.
He heard in his mind now the words, You have to be a man. The words that had so enraged him, the words of someone who had no idea what it meant to be a man. Yet why did they ring in his mind now? Why were they lodged there like a piece of glass? Was it the cut of truth, or was it another example of the culture, of its incessant voice to be this, to be that, to be good, now so internalized it enslaved him?
He lit a cigarette and snuffed out the match between his thumb and forefinger. She didn't know about him, and she wouldn't, he decided. It was good that she didn't ask where he'd been or where he'd come from or what he did, or even his name. He'd spent years racing from women's questions, their need to know. Yet he'd wanted her to ask him, wanted her to hang over his shoulder while he tried to sleep on his side, prying into him with her eyes. I need to talk, he wanted her to say. But she didn't. He wondered if she was being aloof to bring him to her.
When he left the cafe car, he found her sitting in one of the passenger cars. He sat down next to her, and when he caught himself hanging over her shoulder, asking, Did you ever sleep with a woman, when you were a man? he imagined he was being like a woman.
I was never a man, she said, bitingly. I only lived as one.
Okay, he said. Did you ever sleep with a woman when you lived as a man?
When he heard himself ask this, he remembered almost perfectly a night when a lover had hung over his shoulder while he was trying to sleep and had asked, How many women have you slept with besides me? He felt foolish now that she wouldn't answer him; he remembered how stupid he thought his lover's question was. He told himself not to push it, to let it go, but he heard his voice asking again.
It doesn't matter, she said.
I know it doesn't, but I'd like to know.
The words his lover had used, he remembered.
No, she finally said. I didn't. Not really.
Once the train began to wind its way through Nebraska, he found her sitting mesmerized, watching out the window as the flat green prairies reached back miles to meet the horizon and the expansive blue sky. He had wanted to be near her, and had walked slowly through all the cars, looking in every seat, searching for her. He found her transfixed, her nose three inches from the glass window, as the tumbleweeds and windmills paraded past.
I've never been through Nebraska, she said.
It's beautiful, she said. The grasslands are like blowing horizons. The windmills against the half-cloudy skies are like prayers, like hands folded in prayer.
Her face softened and her eyes filled with light. When she lowered her eyes, he knew she had given something away. She was poetic, he thought, romantic.
When he looked out the window again, he saw the grasses and the windmills as if he'd never seen them before. He wondered how she could get away with saying something like this, thoughit was corny, yet she'd said it truthfully, in a way few people could, and that impressed him.
When they had a two-hour stopover in Conklin, Nebraska, she found out from an elderly couple inside the train station that the best restaurant in town was the Linklaen House. They walked through the deserted town in the evening heat, down two blocks of red-brick buildings with storefronts that now stood cut out against the starry night sky.
The Linklaen House was on the corner. They climbed the stairs and walked through bright red doors into an extremely elegant dining room. There was carved wood everywhere, the deepest tones of black and brown mahogany. The white linen tablecloths were a bit tattered and moth-eaten, but in the hazy light, it was barely noticeable. The linen was stiff, and he saw her feel it for its quality. He watched her eyes as they moved across everything, lovingly; the silver candlesticks and platters, the chandelier above them, the crystal gleaming muted under dust, the rug under their feet worn, but beautiful in its deep red.
Time has stopped here, she said.
She ordered rice and vegetables and a bottle of red wine. She ate exactly half of the rice and vegetables and asked for the other half to be packed up for her. He ordered veal and drank the greater portion of the wine. She had only one glass, but he was sure it was responsible for loosening her tongue; when they went back to her room, aboard the train, she told him something.
Inside her room it was hot and stifling. The train had stood in the station for two hours without any air conditioning. He took off his shirt, and she took off her blouse and revealed a white, sleeveless T-shirt underneath. He noticed her breasts, he couldn't help itthe T-shirt was tight and he could see through it. He wasn't quite sure why he hadn't noticed them before, but now that he could see them, he was aroused by their roundness. Her breasts weren't huge, but they were full. He couldn't help imagining his hands on them. He wondered what she'd done with them when she'd lived as a man.
How did you conceal your breasts? he asked.
I bound them, she said.
What do you mean, how? I bound them.
Tell me the details, he said.
So she pantomimed binding her breasts, saying that she had used a long strip of a particular kind of elastic, like an Ace bandage, but stronger, and that she had wound it around and around her torso. He watched, fascinated.
Was it comfortable? he asked.
Yes, she said.
But not now?
No, not now.
When was the last time they were bound? he asked.
Two weeks ago.
This surprised him. Her living as a woman was very new then, he thought. He sensed then the thinness of her skin, the fragility, and understood he would need to respect it.
Where is the elastic band now? he asked quietly.
At the end of my bed.
He couldn't get it out of his mindthe idea of her unbinding her breasts and flinging that elastic band across her unmade bed of white cotton. He could imagine her breasts, warm and unbound, as she fell backward into the whiteness.
Where were you when you first bound them? he asked.
You can't be serious?
Oh, but I am, he said.
She sighed, and said, All right. I was next to my bed, in my apartment in New York. I had found the elastic in an old trunk I was looking through. Is this the kind of thing you want to know?
Yes, he said.
It was very hot, not so unlike tonight. A night in July, or it could have been August. A man had just left, and something drew me to the trunk, my father's trunk, and it was in there that I found the elastic. When I looked down at the elastic, I understood I was to bind myself with it, though I can't explain how I knew this exactly. I walked over to my bed. I lay the elastic on the pillow then took off my shirt and flung it down at the end of the mattress. I unhooked my bra and dropped it in the wastebasket. Then I picked up the elastic and began to wrap it around and around my chest. A faint smile played on her lips. Am I being specific enough?
Yes, he said. Please go on.
After I was finished, I put on a white T-shirt and looked in the mirror. I was transfixed by my reflection, as I had already cut off my hair, and now I could see that I looked like a man. Well, more like a teenage boy.
Like Oscar Lourde? he said.
Yes, she said, like Oscar Lourde.
He watched the way her breasts rose and fell under the white T-shirt, swelling a bit when she took in air. He had the urge to pull off the shirt, to unclasp her bra, to unbind her breasts completely, to let them breathe.
He reached out and touched the scars on her arm instead. The long, twiggish one first, the fat horseshoe one next. She didn't mind. He sensed that she even liked it, but when he tried to run his tongue down the scar, she said no.
Why not? he said.
We aren't that for each other.
But why can't we be? he said.
Because we don't know each other.
That's not my fault, he said. I've been trying to know you ever since we got on the train.
She looked at him for a moment. He looked left out, and he saw her eyes open to his need.
I know, she said. I'm sorry. Then she spoke quietly and said shyly, I've forgotten how to be a woman. Then she touched his face with her fingers.
He wasn't sure what she meant him to feel.
After a long pause, he tried again to run his tongue down her long scar, and this time she held quiet. He started up near her shoulder and ran his tongue down through the fine blond hairs, over the hot blue veins, to the hollow of her elbow, where he tasted her flesh and rolled it around in his mouth, down to her slender wrist, where the scar ended abruptly. He took her fingers into his mouth and sucked them, and when he looked up at her, he could see her eyes were closed and a tear rolled down her cheek.
He knew then the skin covering who else she had become was thin, like tissue.
After a few hours they parted. She wanted to read some, she said, and he understood that she wanted to be alone. He didn't go to her room later. He found it ridiculous that he should feel this way, but he wanted her to come to him. He lay on his cot, on his back, his hands behind his head. He felt he was stalking her in some odd, benign way, but stalking her nonetheless, and he wasn't the type to stalk women. They generally stalked him. He lay there listening for her, lulled by the rhythm of the train, content to be inside its ribcage, waiting for her.
He couldn't help but wonder why this experience had awaited him on the train and not some other. Why a woman on a train who had lived as a man, and not a murderer or an adulteress or an ordinary man. Was it just random, a matter of chance, or was there something more at work? He told himself it was simply random, the chance of events, but he wondered if something in the psyche, the part that yearned for freedom, had the power to order circumstances, to bring about a certain collision, and then look purely random. Had he and the woman on the train been drawn to one another by something inexplicable, something one could never know or see, something completely beyond reason? He didn't know, but he understood that all else had ceased to exist to him. He was going to uncover her, to split her open, to take what he needed. There was nothing else to be done.
When she came, she opened the door and peered in at him.
Here you are, she said. Her face was flushed; her short hair, mussed. You don't want to be with me?
He found himself answering in a way that surprised him; it was so transparent.
You're toying with me, he said.
It came out of his mouth before he could stop it, but it was the truth.
She stared at him for a few moments, searching his eyes, but said nothing.
He hitched himself up on his elbow.
The first thing you tell me is that you lived as a man until recently, he said, and then you won't tell me why. I can't know anything about you, and I'm not to tell you anything about myself, no names, nothing, and yet you let me touch you. You are playing some game, some weird man-and-woman-on-the-train game, and frankly, I don't want to play.
We are on a train, she said, trying to make a joke.
It had gone past that, he knew it and she knew it, but there was no saying it yet. Something else had to be said first.
I don't care, he said at last. It doesn't matter. We could be alone in an igloo and I would still have trouble with this arrangement. You're toying with me, and I don't like it.
She took a deep breath, then closed her eyes and thought for a moment. You're right, she said. Of course, I'm sorry. She paused, then moved closer to him. What can I do to keep you? she asked quietly.
He held still, and looked at her.
You could tell me about yourself, he said.
It's a long story, she said again, and I don't like to tell it much.
Yes, so you say. But tell it one more time and then never again, he said.
Their eyes locked, and hers gave way first.
All right. I'll tell you about what happened when I was fifteen years old. But after that, it's overthe telling.
Why when you were fifteen? he asked. Why can't you tell me about why you lived as a man?
I can't tell you that without telling you everything that came before it. It would make no sense, and anyway I am only offering this one story.
Then, after you tell me this story, then what? he asked.
You'll probably want to tell me something about yourself.
You make it sound so awful, he said, and suddenly he was aware that he felt like a small boy clamoring to show his mother his coloring.
That's my offer, she said. Take it or leave it.
So they left his berth, and he followed behind her, through the gray darkness of the second-class slumber coach, down its skinny, narrow aisles clogged with half-dressed people, to the wider, well-lit hallway of the deluxe first-class coach, where there was a door she opened with a key. They walked in, and after they settled themselves behind the red velvet drapes, he noticed how different the air in her room was from the air in his. It was the scent of her perfume, her rose night slip discarded at the foot of the bed, her German clock ticking evenly.
She pushed her skirt up past her knees. Her skin was so pale, her calves so slender, the ankles as delicate as any he'd ever seen.
Is this really going to be true, he said, or is it going to be the story you make up on a train?
She smiled, and he looked straight into her eyes and noticed the distance, as if she lived ten or fifteen miles behind them. He longed for such distance. How had she gotten it? he wondered again.
Are you ready? she asked.
Yes, he said.
All right, she began. My mother had visions sometimes and prayed three hours a day. I think that is the best place to start.
Okay, he said.