Sunday, February 9, 2003

Train riders made a connection, or did they?

They met at the Santa Fe Depot station in San Diego, Cindy and Fred, strangers waiting for a train. Cindy was 56, married 25 years, divorced in the past year. Fred was a lifelong bachelor. They started to talk. When the train came, the Surfliner, six hours to the end of the line, straight up the blue Pacific coast, Cindy and Fred boarded together. They sat in the row behind me.

I was going to San Juan Capistrano, 90 minutes north. They talked. I listened.

Life is more interesting when you listen.

"You know what's great about being single?'' Cindy asked.

Fred, being single, probably had an idea. "What?'' he answered.

"You don't have to make your bed,'' Cindy said.

Her ex-husband was aloof, isolated, authoritarian. "We never discussed anything,'' Cindy told Fred. "It was always, `I'll take care of it.' I never felt like we were partners.''

Some people you wouldn't tell the time if you were wearing Big Ben. Others, you tell the novel of your life.

Cindy was reading chapters. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment in San Diego.

She was a liberal. She campaigned for Jerry Brown in the 1960s. She had an 18-year-old daughter at Colorado State University.

She hadn't made her bed in a week. "It's kind of nice,'' she said.

Fred was interested in Cindy's marriage. The mechanics of it.

"Did you love your husband?'' he asked.

"I thought I did,'' Cindy said.

"It took me a long time to realize I didn't have to be the one doing everything. If we had guests, I'd be running around.

I'd have to ask him if I wanted him to do anything. `Could you please make a fire? Could you please chill the wine?'''

She felt she had to be perfect, she said. Her husband felt no such obligation.

"It got to where we only talked when we were arguing.''

Cindy had lots of male friends in college. "Nothing sexual. We were buddies,'' she said. She'd hoped to have a friendship with her husband. It didn't happen.

"What about you, Fred?'' she asked.

Fred never found the right person. "Forty-three years,'' he said, more than once. What did he mean by that? He was older than 43.

Fred said he worked too much to have a serious relationship. Every time things got serious, Fred had to choose between two loves. Fred said he didn't feel empty.

The train from San Diego hugs the coast. Cindy knew all the sights.

She was riding to Orange County to visit her mother. She'd made the trip before.

When Fred got too interested in Cindy's marriage, she'd say something like, "We're coming up on San Clemente.''

Half an hour into it, Fred went to the men's room. Cindy got up, pulled a quart bottle of Scope from her bag, and rinsed.

Mouthwash odor drifted to my seat and stuck to the sports page of my Los Angeles Times.

"Isn't this wonderful?'' Cindy asked when Fred returned. It was more a statement than a question. "Beautiful day, beautiful views and I've met this handsome man.''

"Yes,'' Fred said.

"Do you like rock 'n' roll?'' she wondered. He did. "I love the Beatles,'' Cindy said.

They started singing "All My Loving.'' Close your eyes and I'll kiss you . . .

Cindy reached between the seats in front of her, and bopped me on the head with a rolled-up magazine.

Maybe she knew I'd been listening. "It beats talking on a cell phone,'' she said to me.

"Isn't this fun? You never know who you'll meet on a train,'' Cindy said.

Fred said yes, again.

The train skimmed past Dana Point, some sailboats.

"Do you sail?'' Fred asked.

A little, she said. On Mission Bay. "You can rent sailboats'' there, Cindy said.

"If I came back down, would you take me sailing?'' Fred asked.

Sure, Cindy said.

They went quiet for a few minutes after that. Maybe each was pondering the sort-of commitment they'd just made.

Fifty-six-year-olds just out of a 25-year relationship aren't cavalier with their hearts; those who've been single "forty-three years'' might have analyzed things too much.

"That'd be good,'' Fred said, finally.

The train curled away from the ocean and into San Juan Capistrano. Cindy was going to Irvine, the next stop.

Fred intended to get off in downtown Los Angeles. Maybe he did. Maybe he got off in Irvine. Maybe Cindy stayed on until LA.

Maybe they're sailing on Mission Bay. Right now.


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