It was the first time they had held hands.
On their way back to Philadelphia, the night train crawling from the cocoon of New York like a defeated caterpillar, they emerged from the darkness of the tunnel into the softer half-light of an autumn dusk. Far away, the lights of the traffic lay like decimals on the water, dividing the creek between them. She sat by the window, her body half turned to him, her back wedged into the corner between seat and wall. Her eyes had the bleary look of the ring a glass leaves on a table when it has been left out too long. She had been crying. She looked exhausted.
The conductor came by and checked their tickets. The carriage wasn't particularly full, but there were the usual strangers - some dozing lightly on their seats, others reading, still others staring out of their windows into the day-dreaming vacancy of space. He noticed none of this. The sadness he saw in her face drew him like a newly risen moon, to which the other passengers were as the pricking of stars. Setting the bag out of his way, he moved closer to her, began to stroke her hair. Again and again his fingers traced the outline of her skull, as if hoping to discover in it the shape of her grief.
His other hand slipped into hers.
Afterwards, neither of them would remember how it happened - when he found her, how he unclenched her, what passed between touch and touch. It was just there - the moment coming together somehow, past and future locking like two sets of lonely fingers, a triumph unconsciously achieved that neither of them, had they noticed, would have had the courage for.
He realised he had been babbling. The empathy in his voice was real, of course, but his words made little sense. Logic danced through them like a shadow, ready to retreat should she turn to them like a searchlight, seeking the truth in what they said.
She had no such light. Lulled by his words, she rested her head back, slipped slowly into sleep. Her mouth fell open a little, her shoulders gave way. Now and then she twitched a little, as if trying to struggling out of a dream. But otherwise she was still.
Staring at her, he felt a wave of affection wash over him. He felt deeply protective of her, almost possessive. As if this plain, almost clumsy body was his to hold and comfort, his to defend. There was no real attraction here, there was only sympathy, and the need to have something to care for. On the seat behind them a little boy jumped up, waving his toy bow. He scowled at the boy, willing him to try something so that he could leap to her defense. He must keep her safe, he decided. It had been a long weekend. It was the least he could do.
After a while, he became aware of being watched. People were staring at them. Slowly, trying to appear casual, he removed his hand from her head, stopped stroking her hair.
Ten minutes later, his arm was beginning to ache. He realised how uncomfortably he was sitting. In the ardour of the moment he had paid no attention to this - so that the hand that held hers was at an awkward angle for him - the arm crossing his chest and turned a little outward. He tried to ease his hand away from her, but she was holding it too tightly. If he pulled it away now it was sure to wake her. He must keep still.
That was proving difficult though. Now that he had noticed it, the discomfort increased rapidly. His muscles were beginning to tighten, ache; he felt a cramp coming on. He must pull it away. She seemed to be deep in sleep by now, surely she wouldn't notice. He tried again, a little more forcefully this time. His hand started to slip free. Then, instinctively, she tightened her grip on his fingers, like one clutching on to a slipping blanket on a cold night. It was no good. He would just have to leave his hand there.
A stab of pain shot through his arm. He gritted his teeth. This was it, then, the test. He mustn't let her down. Let's see - they were already at Edison - that meant another half hour before they got to Trenton. He would have to wake her then. Surely he could hold on for that long? For her?
The thing to do, of course, was to take your mind off it. Think of something else. Do something else. His book! He eyed his bag, lying in the overhead, and realised there was no way he could reach it without taking his hand away. A cigarette perhaps? But you probably weren't allowed to smoke on the train, and anyway, how would he strike a match with only one hand to do it with? Gingerly, with his one free hand, he reached over and grabbed her magazine. The Economist. He leafed idly through it, a cacophony of figures leaping out at him from every page.
His arm was starting to go numb now. He was sure he could feel the circulation shutting down. How long could you not move an arm before it froze in place and gangrene set in and they had to amputate? What rot! Gangrene, I ask you! He was losing it.
But maybe he should wake her anyway. After all, she probably hadn't noticed that they were holding hands when she fell asleep. He certainly hadn't. What if she were embarassed afterwards? Shouldn't he spare her that? If he just yanked his hand away now, she would wake with no memory of them holding hands, and only a vague sense of what had woken her. Surely that would be best. Not that he cared about the ache in his arm. Of course not. He was only thinking of her.
He looked at her face. She looked so peaceful, so relaxed. He couldn't disturb that. He sighed and went back to his magazine.
Now the conductor had come over again. What did he want? He signed to the conductor to keep his voice down - pointing to her and miming sleep. What do you want, he mouthed? He wanted the tickets; apparently you were supposed to leave them clipped to the seat after they had been checked. Very well. Where had he put them? In his wallet. In his back pocket. On the wrong side. Damn. Very slowly, with the conductor watching in amazement, he half stood up, twisted his body in a grotesque corkscrew (the other passengers were watching now), reached back to his pocket with his one free hand, pulled out his wallet, opened it, yanked the tickets out with his teeth, dropped the wallet in his lap (he was sitting again), took the tickets from his mouth and handed them to the conductor who eyed them suspiciously and then took them gingerly from one edge. And all this without moving his other hand away.
As he eased back into his seat, he was aware of people staring at him. He could feel the sweat breaking out over his brow. New Brunswick. The movement to get his wallet out had jogged his arm out of its numbness. It screamed with pain now. It was excruciating. He brought his other hand over to massage it, but it did no good. Princeton Junction. Only ten minutes more. He gave up on the magazine and sat counting the seconds. One hundred and one, one hundred and two. Time crawling across the floor of his mind slow as an ant.
Just after Hamilton she awoke. Her hand slipped out of his easily, quickly - it took him a couple of seconds to realise that it was gone and he could draw his suffering arm back. He looked at her, waiting to see what she would say. Was there a hint of embarassment in the way she looked at him now, a sense of shared intimacy? She said nothing. Could it be that she hadn't noticed? Surely not. He scowled, slowly stroking his arm back to life (the pain was flowing out of it fast; he would recover after all).
As they drew into Trenton, he felt like screaming at her. "You ungrateful, unfeeling...thing!", he felt like saying, "do you realise what I did for you? All that time - one whole hour - holding your bloody hand while my arm MOANED in agony. Risking amputation, or at least severe muscle strain. Not being able to get to my book, not being able to smoke. And the people staring, and the conductor. Do you have any idea what it took out of me? Have you nothing to say about that? Nothing?!"
Behind her, the darkness had turned the window into a mirror. It showed him his face. He realised suddenly how ridiculous he seemed, sitting there so indignant. As they drew into the station, he smiled. "Better grab your luggage", he said, turning to face her, "this is where we get off".