We’re on the train from Beijing to Xi’an. We had a crazy, eventful day in Beijing, during which we’d visited a school, I’d bought a 6 billion dollar rug made of wound gold, and we’d been caught in a massive downpour as we were trying to get dinner.
But now we’re on the train. It’s one of the nicest trains in China, or so we’ve been told, and it looks like it: the compartments are sleek and efficient, nicely designed and clean. The halls are well lit, and there are both western toilets and squatties, which is good, because this is a train after all, which means moving and rocking, and my balance just isn’t that good.
So we’re on the train, and Lucy is sobbing. Sobbing. Huge, gasping sobs, full-body sobs, boulder-sized sobs that come out of her lungs like hot-air balloons, not to mix my metaphors or anything. She can’t think straight, she’s sobbing so hard.
Part of this is our fault. It’s 9:37 PM, after all, at the end of a long day in a foreign country, and this is a kid who normally goes to bed at 8:00, end of story. When we got on the train at 9, we should have thrown on their PJs, brushed their teeth, and put them down for the night.
But it’s a train, for Pete’s sake. And it’s their first overnight train ride. And what fun is it having an overnight train ride is you go to sleep the minute you board, and disembark the minute you wake up?
Part of it is beyond our control. We have one compartment for our five person family, and there are only four beds per compartment. Which means Jamie and Lucy have to share a bed. No big deal: they do this all the time, toe-to-toe, so that each of their sweaty little heads is at an opposite end of the bed.
But see, if Lucy and Jamie are in the same bed. And if they’re in the same bed, that means they can’t be on the top bunk, because that’s too dangerous for Jamie. And—
‘THAT’S NOT FAIR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
I’m sorry, Lucy: we didn’t quite hear you. Could you say it a little louder?
And she’s right: it’s not fair: Will gets to sleep on the top bunk. And sleeping on the top bunk means that there’s a little cubbyhole over the door where you can keep all your junk—the little dyed Easter egg you made at the school today, and the little bottle that’s painted on the inside with a picture of a tiger beside a beautiful woman. Which, of course—
“IS NOT FAIR!!!!!!!!!!!”
We try to reason with her, of course, explaining the danger to the brother she loves so much (although, right now, truth be told, her eyes are throwing darts his direction), the fact that there’s not real other option, since the beds are small. We explain that it’s only for the night, that it doesn’t really matter anyway, since she’ll be asleep. But, oddly, her six-year-old, exhausted brain doesn’t seem interested in listening to reason.
So eventually, we do what all good parents who have their children’s personal well-being and safety in mind do: we give in.
Actually, we do it one better and reach a stupid compromise that ensures neither Jamie’s safety nor a good night’s rest for Ellen: Jamie will sleep at his mother’s feet in a lower bunk, and Lucy will be alone in her upper bunk, opposite Will.
“But Lucy,” we say, sternly, “you need to know: this is not how we do things in this family. Throwing a temper-tantrum every time you don’t get your way will not always work.”
At this point, Lucy has essentially melted into a corner of her bed, eyes-red, bones liquid. She doesn’t say anything, but her expression—exhausted, runny-nosed, but triumphant—speaks volumes. Or more to the point, it speaks two words: “Yeah.” And, “Right.”
Eventually we get them down, tooth-brushed and PJ’d. Because we only have one room and because we’re exhausted, we go down too.
I wake up in the middle of the night. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m the owner of the world’s smallest bladder, or because I convince myself I’m the owner of the world’s smallest bladder, but I always wake up in the middle of the night with the need to visit the men’s room.
When we’re at home, this is okay: I just get up and go. But when we’re on a train, all in one compartment, and there’s no toilet in our room, this makes me nervous: what if, opening the door, I wake everyone up? What if someone comes in while the door is unlocked and I’m down the hall? What if I get confused, turn the wrong way coming out of the loo, and end up getting sliced in half by a karate master because I tried to enter the wrong compartment?
None of this happens, of course. I slip into the hall, pad down the train car in the little slippers provided in the room (they cover the front two-thirds of my feet), and do what I need to do. Then I pad back, enter the right compartment, and crawl back into bed.
I have trouble falling back to sleep. I don’t know why. The train makes a smooth ka-da-chun, ka-da-chun, ka-da-chun noise as it glides along the rails. It’s soothing, reminding me of the apartment I used to have in Ames, Iowa, two doors down from active tracks.
But I can’t sleep. Maybe it’s because the bed is too small. Or the pillow too flat. Or my brain too active, convincing itself that my bladder feels full again.
All of that said, it’s not unpleasant, laying there on the train, listening to the sound of the rails. I’ve slept on trains before, but never one as nice as this: in Africa, a quarter century ago, when traveling with a woman I loved as only a 20-year-old on his own for the first time could; maybe a year after that, going across Siberia with my friend Rich, who I haven’t heard from since (probably because I didn’t love him as much as I did Sarah; or maybe because I did). I once woke up from a deep sleep on a train from Venice to Rome to find a whiskered man with dark curly hair digging through my back pack.
“What are you doing?” I yelled, sitting up in the dark. He straightened, stared at me, started to speak, gesturing, as though there were some possible rationale explanation he could give: “Oh, so sorry sir: I was hungry and thought you might have some Chips A’Hoy.”
Which I did, of course, but that’s entirely beside the point. I yelled at him, gesturing for him to get the hell out of the compartment, which I had to myself. Eventually he did back out, but not without another word or two. I stayed there, shivering in the cold half-dark, freaked out beyond belief, too tired to think straight, too tired to go back to sleep.
Eventually a ticket collector strolled by and I slide back the compartment door, hailing him.
“There was this guy,” I said, “digging through my bags. He was trying to rob me!”
The conductor, or guard, or whatever he was, looked at me, spreading his hands slightly. “No English,” he said.
I gestured down the narrow hallway, pointing in the direction the man had just come. “I woke up,” I said, assuming ‘No English,’ meant, ‘Speak louder and faster, and using lots of words I’ve never heard of.’
“I woke up,” I said, “and there was this man”—he frowned—“this man, digging through my bags.” I motioned, frantically, like a dog going at a rabbit hole.
He just looked at me, steadily, and shook his head. He may have shrugged as well, but I don’t remember.
I gave up, went back to my compartment. Moving my backpack so that it was by my torso, I leaned my back against it and faced the door, figuring—I don’t know what. Figuring I was a kid, I guess, alone in a country where he didn’t know anybody, didn’t know the language, didn’t know what he was going to do for the next two hours until the sun rose.
And then the man came back.
And he came through the compartment door.
And he said something, leaning toward me, in Italian.
And then he made, and I’m not making this up, a slashing gesture across his throat.
And then he left.
I’m 44 now, and I’ve been to maybe two dozen countries. I’ve walked the streets of New York alone at night, toured behind the Iron Curtain, hitch-hiked in rural Africa.
That is the only time I’ve ever seen anyone make that gesture—finger across the throat, imitating knife—without irony.
Which isn’t what I’m really thinking of that night as we’re rolling through Eastern China. No, I’m lying in my lower bunk, below Lucy, across from Ellen with Jamie at her feet, kitty-corner from Will who’s across and above me. I’m listening to the ka-da-chun, ka-da-chun of the train, and below that, I’m trying to catch the breathing of my children. I love sleeping in the same room as them. Every parent knows that we love our children most of all exactly five minutes after we’ve put them to bed and are heading down the hall to get a glass of wine and recover from the day. And I guess lying in the same room with them, listening to them sleep, is just a way of trying to extend that feeling.
The next morning, I’ll get up at 7, will put on my shoes to get my feet warm, will look out the window and see shocking yellow fields of rapeseed, will see small villages full of buildings made of earthy brown bricks, will see small green mountains that rise and fall quickly, will see quarries, will see hillsides with burial tombs dug into them.
The sky will be gray and dull. Lucy will get up at 7:30 or so, and will be in a perfectly fine mood; less so Will, who will discover that his egg has been crushed by one of the suitcases. We’ll pass dig through the backpack until we find the bag of Frosties, and we’ll pass some out to each kid. The girls from next door will knock and come in, saying hello. A young woman in a blue train company uniform will step in collect our garbage, wave a hand questioningly at our slippers: are we done with them? Yes, we are done.
I’ll have a cup of cheap black coffee, which is the only way I like coffee, and Ellen will take pictures out of the train window, trying to capture this feeling, this place, this moment, this mood. And eventually she’ll give up, and lean back in her seat opposite me. And for a while we’ll both look out the window, watching the countryside go by, listening to the kids chatter.
And once or twice, we’ll catch each others’ eye and shake our heads, asking ourselves, over and over again: Is this really our life? Is this really real? Are we really this lucky?