I remember being seventeen and standing on the railroad tracks. I could see the train approaching – its bright light shining directly upon me through the darkness of the cool, late summer night. I could feel the cold metal vibrating beneath me and I shut out the sounds of my friends egging me on along the tracks. I felt fearless and free as I leaned back, arms outstretched, my long brunette hair resting right atop my buttocks and then blowing with the breeze as the train chugged closer.
I felt like I was in some Generation X movie – like I really should have been wearing my boyfriend’s flannel and leather jacket, a pack of Camels in the pocket and Doc Martens on my feet. I would have been dating either Ethan Hawke or Stephen Dorff, or some other young male with poorly groomed facial hair, long, disheveled locks that hung in his face, and a “reality bites,” “damn the man” attitude.
The tracks shuddered more forcefully beneath the worn Converse sneakers I wore in reality. I heard the incessant shrill of the train’s whistle and jumped from the tracks, landing in the dirt and rocks to the side. The gravel grounded me to a reality where I didn’t have a rock star boyfriend with a leather jacket, I didn’t smoke Camels, and I wasn’t too cool for school. I was actually a girl who should have been worrying about her college applications and finding summer employment to pay for said education. However, such fears of my future could not be heard as the sound of the train rushing swiftly past my petite frame overwhelmed me. I could somehow taste and feel the engine’s noise, and it tasted delicious – sinfully delicious.
Reflecting upon that moment, I suppose I should have been more afraid and got off the track a bit sooner, but I wasn’t and I didn’t. I invited the risk and the rush, and reveled in my momentary abandon. Although my friends stood to the sides of the track, I felt like I was all alone in the world. That was the only time I literally stood on the tracks, and I will always remember the pure freedom of that moment – of my beautiful, uninhibited youth.
However, at many other moments in my life, although no physical train was anywhere in sight, I have felt like I was standing on those tracks again. But, in these metaphorical moments, the feeling was neither beautiful nor freeing. It was black and frightening, and I wouldn’t be moved despite all the good advice. I stubbornly stood on the tracks and let my mind and body be propelled to the ground by some evil engine. I let the train pummel me down when I should have forgiven, but remained angry. I let the train blow me so low when I should have set down the bottle, but kept on drinking. I lay on the hard, metal tracks in discomfort for the pleasure of strangers.
But now I keep a safe distance and respect the flashing red lights that caution me of potential dangers. This change in me was recently made evident through my reaction to passing trains.
There’s a track that intersects the route to my home, and I have often had to stop as the train passes by. Two years ago, if I encountered the train and was forced to wait, I cursed my bad luck and cursed aloud as well. “Damn train; fucking train. Shit. I might be late for work. C’mon you mother fucker. Hurry up.”
But a few weeks ago, I encountered that train again. This last time, my two young children were in the back seat. Rather than the ordinary rush of anxiety, there was a calmness and joy that came over me in sharing this sight with my young daughter. “Look, Emily. That’s a train. We have to stop so it can pass safely. Do you want to wave at the train? Is it like the trains on Chuggington? And do you see the last car? That’s called the caboose. Did you know that sweetie?”
She nodded her head in affirmation. Yes, yes, she did know that was called the caboose. And I knew that I didn’t need risks in my life to feel alive anymore. My children, buckled safely in the back seat, were all that I needed in this world to know that I was alive and more important than any momentary rush. With children that are dependent upon me, I have become far too essential to stand on the tracks again and ignore the warnings that my poor choices are going to run me right down.
There are far brighter lights in my life now than the blinding flash of the locomotive’s headlight, flooding upon me in my memories of age seventeen. I am not alone in this world anymore. I have brought life into the world, and thus I promise to be more careful with my own beating heart and subsisting flesh.