The Three Trillion Train

The first thing I noticed about the apartment was its three large windows. The second was the neon display at the deserted gun store outside the windows. As the landlord carried on, I stared at the sign until the train arrived. Faint at first, then loud, it blared past the trees partially blocking the view of the tracks, located a few hundred yards from the balcony. I watched it disappear, promptly missing the ruckus.

Next week, after I signed the lease, I breathlessly introduced the apartment and the tracks to my son, then five. He squealed, but soon found a much better view, from a 3rd floor shared balcony. Every day upon returning from school he would drag me there to stand for a few minutes, patiently waiting for the next train. His favorite was the evening freight train. That one went on forever, more cars than we could count. He named it the 3-trillion train. It was his favorite number.

The train station was a 10-minute walk from our building (eight if you walked like he did, said my landlord). It got loud at various intervals during the day, but the only one that was initially bothersome was the 5 am train, the first Metro of the day. But we got used to it quickly. Noise had never bothered me before, only its absence in the three months Ali and I had spent by ourselves at the quiet two-story house I had left behind.

*

I moved with our half a U-haul worth of belongings two weeks after 2016 began, and a week before the biggest snowstorm that winter. My friend drove 90 minutes from her house in Virginia to help me assemble my bed and keep an eye on me, lest I break down and change my mind about exchanging my once-beloved home and 8-year old marriage for the tiny 2-bedroom with an “interesting view.” We put out the blue rug I had gotten on my last trip to Pakistan on the laminate wood floor. She looked approvingly at the petite, sunlit living room and called it charming. When I complained that my oversized sofa set, purchased for a much larger space, took up all the walking space, she distracted me with the size of the windows.

I settled down fast. I was too afraid of losing my nerve, as I had many times before. Within a week, the apartment was ready for visitors. All boxes had been unpacked, spare suitcases hidden away in two surprisingly spacious walk-in closets, almost the size of the living room combined. It was like having Carrie Bradshaw as architect. One small cardboard box, containing old photo albums, full of pictures from a European honeymoon and miscellaneous travels remained taped. I tucked it behind the suitcase with the wedding clothes.

Some evenings, Ali would ask me to take him for a “nature walk.” This was the path of our nightly visit to the aptly named Giant grocery store a block away. We would take the longer route, through a courtyard facing the four buildings in the complex. A modest fountain in the center of courtyard had tiny green lights at the bottom, and Ali would stand staring at them for a few minutes, sometimes picking up a leaf from the ground and gently tossing it into the water before I’d pull him away.

Often on the three nights that Ali spent at his dad’s each week, I would walk over to the Popeye’s Fried Chicken nearby, and get a fish sandwich that was not on the menu, but that they always agreed to make for me. I would eat it in front of the TV, finishing off with the Cajun fries, on my oversized sofa. Some of those nights I would cry, breaking down for hours, not quite sure how, when, or why to stop — or what else to do with my newfound alone time. I felt unequipped for this aloneness, having spent 25 of my 33 years living with my parents in Pakistan, and the remaining with a husband, sans interruption.

Eventually, I did stop, and figured out what to do with my nights off. I started to go out, and I made new friends. After his dad picked Ali up for the night, I would get dressed and put on some makeup and leave, without telling anyone where I was going or when I was coming back. I started saying yes to weeknight dinner plans in the city, to invitations to stay back for the chai, and taking the Metro late night and walking home. I learned to come home to an empty, dark apartment and not feel lonely or like I had to cry, but to just be tired and ready for bed.

I eventually moved out of the apartment I called home for the first 11 months of my separation. I don’t live alone anymore. I share a sprawling house with a backyard and a pool with my parents, who live upstairs, and insist on waiting up for me on the nights I come home late. But each time I return to this beautiful house, with all of its lights on as I am awaited, I miss the three trillion train tearing through the silence of my small apartment. Sometimes, Ali and I drive through our old street, and pass by the complex, and without fail he wistfully reminds me that this used to be “your old house, mama.” He never calls it his old house, and though I always remind him that it was ours, I don’t really mind. It was my old house

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