“Two Years and a Train” by Kiri Sinha, Roosevelt Middle School
Third Place, Middle School Level, 2019
By Kiri Sinha
Roosevelt Middle School
I hate it when people romanticize crying. Crying isn’t poetic, or beautiful. Crying isn’t a waterfall glowing under an indigo sky of stars. Crying is desperate, and spitty, and snotty. Crying is hopelessness. I cried that day, two years ago, the last time I was here.
Two years haven’t changed much. It still smells like sewage. I shift my backpack to my other shoulder and shake some water from my hair. The rain took a break for a few minutes, but the clouds are a suspicious gray. I hop over some soggy trash and make my way to the edge of the rail. There aren’t many people here today. Cigar smoke floats from a man on my left, and the sharp smell of perfume comes from a tall woman to my right.
The train comes in with an impressively loud rattle and a gust of hot air that blows the water straight out of my hair. I smile at it. The clouds part for a moment and send a clear light over the dripping side of the train car.
It’s pretty crowded inside. I grab a pole by the door. The train starts and I sway into a large man behind me. He doesn’t acknowledge it, so neither do I. Soon, we’re in an underground tunnel. I study the people on the train through their reflections in the dark window, trying to distract myself from my destination. Most are hunched over their phones. One guy is talking into earbuds, which he’s rested on his lip, making hand gestures for a conversation that no one understands. A woman rubs at her lipstick with fingers ending in long red nails. Some people get off at the next stop, and I’m able to sit down. I put on my headphones, but don’t turn on any music.
My leg shakes. I’m not going to lie; I’m nervous. The last time I took this train I had just been kicked out of school. I was on my way home to a family that would hardly look at me. But this time will be different. This time I have success. And money. Today, maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to make things right again.
I look up and put my headphones around my neck. “Pardon,” I say.
A woman who looks around forty leans over my chair. Her large bosom is directly level with my face, and I shy away, examine the train the ceiling.
“Are you Ranesh Gupta from Singing Sensation? My family loved you on that show! Your voice is just the most beautiful thing in the world!” I always feel strange when people tell me stuff like that, things like “You’re the best in the universe” or “You’re brighter than all the stars in the sky.” I want to ask them, “Why worlds? Why universes?” Less than infinite is good enough for me. I’m just one person. I don’t need to be compared to millions of stars.
“Yes, that is me. Thank you.” I nod my head. She smiles and asks for a picture. I’m still not used to being recognized in public. I auditioned for Singing Sensation two years ago, after my family all but disowned me. I didn’t think I would get anywhere, but soon I had millions of fans in America and a million dollars in my bank account.
I put my headphones back in and turn on some Bollywood hits. I haven’t listened to Indian music since I left home, and the jingly beats bring back years of nostalgia. I figure it’s better to let it hit me now, before I step back into my house. I close my eyes and let the train lull me into the music. I imagine my mother twirling around the kitchen, hips swaying and feet tapping to this song. I can practically smell her spices. She’s like me—we both always have to have music playing.
The train slows, rattles, and then stops. The doors open. I open my eyes and look up, bringing myself back to the present. I see grim, tired people.
That’s when I notice Allison. She’s standing straight backed by the door, not holding anything, and she’s staring at me.
I try to look away, but I can’t. She starts pushing through people, coming towards me. She still has the control I remember her best for. Completely balanced, completely focused, walking through a crowded moving train.
She stops in front of me. “Can I sit here?” My mouth drops open. I clench my jaw and give her a stiff nod, move my backpack then scoot over.
“Ranesh?” she asks after she sits down. At least she’s not pretending we’re strangers. I keep my gaze out the window. Raindrops swerve up over the glass.
“I can’t believe it,” she says. I lean my head against the glass and give her a cautious look. She angles her legs towards me, and taps me with her boot. Her hair is longer, and she now has blonde tips. I remember she always wanted to do that. And I notice that she still has her small braids in the front. She always braided the front of her hair during the day, when she was nervous, or bored, or just thinking. Then at night, she would lean her head against my chest and kick her legs over the side of the couch and carefully separate the strands of hair.
I force that thought out of my head, remembering what my mom used to tell me. Your mind is your most valuable asset. If someone gave you a million dollars, you would throw it in the trash? No. So why do you dump your mind on these useless thoughts?
While I went to Madison, Allison and I dated. We were together for two years. Now, it’s been two years since I last saw her. But her betrayal is still fresh. I guess two years isn’t so long after all.
“Allison. I—” My instinct is to tell her I’m sorry, but I have nothing to be sorry for. She puts her hand on my arm.
“I didn’t expect to see you here. I suppose I should tell you congratulations.” For the money, or for my talent being recognized? I don’t respond to her. “And give you a long overdue apology.”
I want to tell her it’s okay. It’s not. The end of our relationship was messy, at best. We broke up after I refused to let her meet my family. She wanted to. I said she couldn’t. When she asked why, I told her that I just wanted to keep those two parts of my life separate. I couldn’t really explain why, not without hurting her more.
We fought, and I thought that was the end of it. But then I beat her for the top student of our year. She was mad at me before, but after that she was livid. She told the principal some lie about me, and the next day I was gone. I was a scholarship kid; I knew I had no room to screw up.
“I really am sorry. I made a rash decision.” Allison and I used to get into little fights, and this is how they would always resolve. Both of us apologizing, no buts, no anger. Then we would move on. She squeezes my arm. “It’s the worst thing I could have possibly done. It’s the worst mistake I’ve ever made. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. If there’s any way I can make it up to you…”
“There isn’t. I’m doing fine now. Maybe we can both forget it.” The part of me that used to love her wants to forgive her, but logically, I know shouldn’t.
“I understand. I completely understand.” I put my headphones over my ears. I expect her to leave, but she doesn’t. She lets go of my arm and rests her hand on her leg. She’s wearing orange corduroy pants, and her nails are painted white. I gave her a ring for her birthday once, and I’ve never seen her without it on her thumb. She’s not wearing it now, of course.
“Ranesh, can we please talk?” I take off the headphones again.
“What is there to talk about?” We’re both talking pretty quietly, and the noise of the train on the tracks is loud.
“Us. I miss you.” I hoped she would miss me when I left. I hoped it tore her up inside. But now, hearing her say it just makes the situation so much worse.
“I loved you. I still do. I think about it every day. You’re genuinely the best person I’ve ever met. I can’t believe—I . . .so sorry.” Allison is always in control. Completely. Seeing Allison lose control is like seeing a TV personality without makeup. It rarely happens.
I’m about to give in. Tell Allison it’s okay. Tell her I forgive her. I just want to see her be Allison again. Then she does something I’ve never seen her do before. She starts crying.
I don’t know what to do anymore. Tears turn her gray eyes grayer, and soon her cheeks are wet too. She’s wearing some kind of blush and bronzer, and the pigment darkens where tears streak her face. I let her bury her face in my shoulder. Her hand is on the back of my neck, and I can feel her shake. I stay frozen.
“I heard you on TV . . . you sounded so broken.” My nose is resting on her head now.
“It’s okay. They liked that about me. The viewers ate it up.” This makes her cry harder. I wonder what happened to Allison in the past two years to make her cry like this.
She lifts her head and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. Her mascara leaves a smudge on my white dress shirt. She rubs at it with her thumb. The robotic announcer’s voice comes on.
“This is my stop,” she says. She’s collected herself again.
“I have a job interview.”
“Oh. Good luck.” I suddenly realize there’s so much I want to tell her. She stands up and brushes off her legs as the doors open.
“Allison,” I say, before I can stop myself. “I love you, too.” The speakers announce that the doors are about to close. Allison bites her lip. She glances towards the doors.
“Come with me.”
“Anywhere. I still have a half hour before my interview. We can go get coffee. Then you can take the next train out.” People shove Allison as they rush to get out. “Come. Please. We have to go now.”
“I—” I want to. I want to follow Allison to the end of the world and never look back. Never face my family.
“Come, now, please Ranesh. Just this once, please.” She’s begging now. Her eyelashes are still wet. She has flecks of black on her cheeks. This is my last chance.
I jump up. The second I do, she breaks into a large smile and flies out the door. I grab my bag and follow her.
The rain has completely stopped. The station is crowded, but my eyes follow Allison like a beacon of light. We climb out of the station and onto a street. It’s rather unfriendly. Layered graffiti crawls up every building. Usually, I like graffiti. But this stuff is angry and unoriginal: cusses scrawled in messy black. Homeless people are curled up along the side of the road, nearly indistinguishable from large trash bags. I remember when I lived that way myself.
The buildings are angled in a way that no light reaches the street, and I’m guessing it never does. Allison seems nervous. Forcefully, she grabs my arm and pulls me along. I hike my backpack over my shoulder as we turn onto the next street.
We walk for five minutes through a small cluster of office buildings and stores until we reach an old looking stone library. It’s pretty in contrast to the basic commercial buildings that fill most of this neighborhood.
Allison runs up the steps quickly; I take them two by two to keep up. There’s a cafe in the front of the library, and we both order plain black coffee. Once we sit down, Allison gets serious again.
“Ranesh, I’ve already said it, but, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say except that. I’m so sorry.” She’s fingering one of her braids. I avoid looking at her as the crushing sensation rises back to my chest.
“Allison,” I start, pausing to think about the way the familiar syllables roll off my tongue.
“Please forgive me,” she says. My eyes wander around the room. A girl in fishnet tights glares at me. She’s holding a stack of the Twilight series.
“I spent three nights sleeping on a park bench,” I say, meeting Allison’s gray eyes. Because of you, I finish in my mind.
At first I’m afraid Allison’s going to cry again, but she doesn’t. She sets down her coffee on the table and stands up. I can see her ribs under her pale skin. Then again, Allison’s always been naturally skinny. She walks behind me and wraps her arms around my neck. She smells like vanilla. I lean into her. I forgot how strong she was.
I’m the one who starts crying this time. “We’re a mess,” says Allison laughingly. We’re both quiet for a few moments, and I notice the music playing in the background.
Allison starts humming along. By the chorus, we’re both singing under our breaths. This song is familiar, but I’d never paid much attention to it. Now it feels like everything.
“I need to tell you the truth.”
“What?” She steps back. I take a deep breath.
“I was at Madison Preparatory on a scholarship.”
“Oh,” says Allison. “So . . . ?”
“I wasn’t living with my family. I was staying with some distant cousins that I may or may not be related to. My family lived four hours away.”
“You could’ve told me.”
“No. I didn’t belong there.” Maybe Allison doesn’t realize she thinks like this, but I know she looks down on people with less than her.
“I wouldn’t have judged you. Is that why you didn’t want me to meet your mom?” The coffee maker starts grinding in the kitchen.
“Well, yeah. And . . . I’m not really allowed to date white girls.” Allison actually laughs at this.
“It’s not funny,” I say, snickering too.
“Ranesh, this all seems so stupid now.” Allison sits down across from me again. “I’ve always struggled with being good enough.”
“I know,” I say.
“And when we got into that fight. Well . . . I’ve never been good enough for my own family, and then I wasn’t even good enough for yours.” My heart feels a little heavier.
“I’m so sorry,” I whisper.
“It’s okay. I felt cheated when you beat me in that test. We studied everything together, but I made all the notes and research and talked to all the teachers.
“This isn’t an excuse. What I did isn’t excusable.” Her voice is even and easy.
“What did you do?” I ask.
“What did you tell them?”
She sips her coffee and puckers. “That you cheated off me. I didn’t expect them to kick you out. I thought you would just be disqualified from that one test. But now I get it.”
She starts apologizing again, and I tell her to stop. “It’s okay now,” I say.
“I’m so happy I found you, Ranesh. I’m so happy we can be together again.” She’s glowing in the window light. Her face looks less perfect than usual, but also more real.
“I wish we could,” I say.
“I wish we could be together.”
“What do you mean? Is this about your parents? We can deal with your parents.”
“No, it’s not about my parents. It’s me. I can’t go back.” I’m calmer than I ever imagined myself in this moment.
“Back where? Ranesh, please explain.”
“I’ve moved on from Madison. When I first won Singing Sensation, I wanted nothing more than to share it with you, Allison. But then I realized that’s not the part of my life I need to go back to. I’m going back to my family.”
“I still don’t understand! You don’t have to choose. You can have me and your family!” Her voice raises a few octaves. Twilight girl gets up to gawk at us.
“I know. But I can’t waste myself on useless things.”
“Am I useless to you?”
“Of course not. You’re not useless. Not for one second. But you’re also not the only thing in my life anymore. It’s too late. I have to go forward. I’m sorry.”
There’s nothing more to say after that. Allison’s persistent, but she knows me well. We both get up and walk out of the cafe in slow motion. A blank veil covers Allison’s expression.
I feel like I owe her something as we stand in front of the library and watch pigeons bob their heads at each other.
“I’m glad we ran into each other,” says Allison.
“Me, too.” It feels like closure.
Back on the train, I stick my head between my knees. I can feel strangers glancing at me. Some with curiosity, some with pity. I hear a few people say my name. No one tries to approach me, or comfort me, which is good. I feel the worst I have since two years ago. I hate it when people romanticize crying.