It’s nice to be home, I’d suppose. It really has been much too long, especially for someone who never truly planned to stay away, and never really has. Two months have passed since I boarded the plane. Maybe longer. I can’t quite say. Time seems irrelevant by now. I know I left in the spring and returned just as Portland begrudgingly accepted another state of weather besides rain. Summer’s here but I don’t feel particularly bright, nor should I really.
I decide to take the light rail home from the airport. I can’t bear to think of driving or taking a taxi, in all honesty. I can’t get the image out of my head, a burning SUV fallen off the beaten path, two bodies tangled amid the ruins. One of the bodies belonged to my older sister Lauren, the other her best friend. Somehow I know it’s all by chance of freak accidents, but I can’t convince myself to take the risk.
The first stretch has me as anxious as the whole trip has made me, with looming paranoia beating around the corners of my mind. It’s incredibly silly, but I suppose I can’t be blamed if I feared the plane from Indianapolis could crash at any moment, or if the taxi to the plane would be sidelined by a semi. Even now, I worry that an electric current from the wires sustaining the train will find its way to my seat and turn me into a charred corpse, and I admit shamelessly that I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to see another burn victim without collapsing into hysterics.
I’ve noticed that after someone dies, your opinion of them increases, and the same can be said for me. All the petty fights we’ve had, the miles of distance between us, the required phone calls all seem to disappear into the memories of us on our grandparents’ farm in Northern Idaho, of chasing goats, gathering eggs and throwing stones into the murky Clearwater River.
Memories that are so sweet still have the pain of fire in my mind, and so I drown them out with a stream of sounds from my Mp3 player, not caring exactly what I hear as long as it doesn’t play up on my emotions. With a smirk, I decide the best place to find emotionless music is on mainstream radio, and so it’s there I go, hoping I can dodge the latest attempt from Adele to play on my heartstrings.
Portland may not shine the brightest or smile the widest, but I find it to be a beautiful rose of a city, and I could never think of living anywhere else. Moving here and creating work in photography was a drastic change from a secure life on the farm, but one I’ll never regret. By the time the train crosses the bridge into downtown Portland, I find myself successfully numbed to the effects of the tragic visit to my sister’s side of the family. I convince myself that it really is good to be back, because it is. I love it here, and that will never change.
So deep into my thoughts I am that I don’t notice an entire classroom full of grade schoolers in the train until they’ve eagerly filled the entire car. Surprised, I remove an earphone, taking in a moment’s worth of excited chatter about the last day of school and getting to the zoo. I chuckle quietly before putting my earphone back in, examining the kid’s antics with amused interest. That’s when my eye catches a very unusual sight, especially for this time of year.
A small young woman with long neon red hair has taken a seat in the far corner of the train just before the operator’s cab, easily avoiding the children that have taken ownership of the center of the car. Indeed, she was quite the sight. Most notably, she was the only one on this fine summer day (a rare commodity in Portland) to be clothed in both a scarf, covering her neck and the right side of her mouth, and a thick snow jacket, which she seemed to be shrinking into as if she was feeling a startling chill. I’ve seen a few tourists every now and again arriving on sunny days prepared for famed Portland downpours, but from what I can tell, she is utilizing her coat to the best of its abilities.
Despite this, however, she seems to be content and comfortable. I can see even from here that what is shown of her thinned lips seems to be turned into a serene smile, which turns into a brief laugh when she finally realizes that I’ve been gawking at her from at least the Pioneer Square station three minutes back. Embarrassed, I turn away and try and focus on my music. I can still see from the corner of my eye the woman staring at me intently, and then the sight of her hand beckoning me over. Still flustered, I wait until we get to the King’s Hill station so I can move towards her under the guise of granting my seat to a young mother and her graciously quiet baby before parting the sea of children on my way to this very unusual red-haired woman.
“You seem very interested in something,” she states, her voice as smooth as a pebble in a river. I can see her smiling as she stares out the window. Nonchalantly pointing to a poster on the roof of the train, she asks “Am I to assume that you find one of these insipid poems near me intriguing, or am I the one capturing your interest?”
With a short chuckle, I reply weakly “I kind of like those poems.”
“Art is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.” With that, she turns toward me, regarding me with a kind smile. “Miriam. Honored to share your presence.”
“Jonathan Fitzgerald,” I introduce myself in kind, holding a hand out for a handshake. She just regards my hand with a short, puzzled look before reclaiming eye contact with me. I myself am puzzled at her reaction but I don’t address the subject. Instead, I try a different topic. “Where are you heading?”
“Mm, nowhere in particular, to be honest. I’m simply exploring the city for whatever it’s worth.”
A tourist. Turns out I had her pegged. “Well, I hope you find some enjoyment here. I think Portland is quite a nice place, for what it is.”
“Agreed,” Miriam confirms, before inquiring “Another visitor?” with a fleeting glance at my plain red suitcase.
“Oh?” I find myself off kilter as the red suitcase brings back the faintest memory of my horrible experience in Indiana. “Oh, no. Just got back from a visit, actually.”
To my relief, she doesn’t address my journey. “Well, that’s good to hear. I’m glad that people who live in this town enjoy it so much. I enjoy people who enjoy their homeland.”
Her vocabulary impresses me, and I find the desire to listen to her speak more. “Well, thank you,” I reply in kind. The train screeches to a halt at a stoplight, reminding me of the fact that the ‘light’ in light rail certainly doesn’t account for light speed. Trying to continue the conversation, I ask “Well, where are you visiting from?” I observe her appearance again, with the winter jacket and the gloves and the pale skin. I’m thinking Russia, but she doesn’t seem to have an audible Russian accent. Maybe Canada or Alaska would be a better guess.
I would be incredibly wrong, as it turns out. “I’m from the sun,” she tells me.
“Huh?” As any average person would be, I’m surprised by her confession. Hardly a confession; playing her words back in my head I notice the evident conviction in her voice, as honest as one could be stating a simple fact.
Miriam gives a short laugh, clearly amused by my slack-jaw and puzzled eyes. “I take it I haven’t convinced you.”
Honestly, not really. This is Portland after all, a city that brags about its unusual citizens. If someone were to claim a solar nativity, they’d probably get enthusiastic thumbs up and possibly a ‘right on, sister!’ from a green haired guitar player who simply loves all the crazy little devils around this city. But I doubt anyone actually believes it. Some level of logic has to win at the end of the day.
Even if I haven’t said anything out loud, Miriam sighs, stating again “No, it looks like you will not be swayed so easily.”
“Honestly, you’re not the first person to make crazy claims around here,” I inform her, not knowing the weight of my words. At the word crazy, her smile turns into an offended frown, as if she’s wondering how I could possibly find such a simple fact so crazy. Quietly, she retaliates with “So narrow minded.”
“More like logical.” The train finally pulls into the next station, Goose Hollow, as I taste the bitter air between us with a grimace.
“Logical?” Miriam scoffs. “I highly doubt logic is of much use if what you think is logical and what I think is logical are by two completely laws of logic. Has that ever occurred to you? I should hope so; you seem like a very smart man.”
“Oh?” My indignation starts to boil over as I get more and more frustrated by this stranger (if it’s even her that I’m projecting my negative emotion towards). “I thought I was narrow minded.”
“The smartest people often are,” as she claims this I realize that she has grabbed my hand, squeezing my palm slightly within the grip of her fingers. I’m not sure what her intentions are, but I sit there silently until the train closes its doors and she lets me go. “Relax,” she orders me. Surprised, I try, letting my muscles lax within the seat. She seems satisfied enough and begins to face out the window, observant and eager.
“The tunnel’s the best part,” I find myself saying. “More than 700 feet below ground level and more than three miles long. Deepest tunnel in the world, as it turns out.”
“Intriguing,” she replies, although she doesn’t sound the part. Eventually, she sits forward in her seat once more, facing the cab of the train. Uncomfortably, I observe her as she drums her fingers listlessly on her leg before she finally snaps “I’d like you to tell me what is so illogical about my being from the sun.”
I’m blindsided by her command and the hint of anger in the voice that commands it. Feeling egged on, I immediately go through all the reasons that it should make no sense. “It’s astronomically hot there,” I declare. “Anyone who tried to live there would be set ablaze.”
“Unless the people who lived there can adapt to the heat,” she counters. I notice her again with her winter jacket and chilled skin, realizing that she made a valid case if one could possibly be found. Miriam seems completely out of her element and frightfully cold, as if unadjusted to our temperatures.
“The sun is millions of miles away,” I try next, feeling my argument shake just a bit on the foundations. “There’d be no way you could get here.”
“No, there’d be no way for you to get here, as you have not mastered a form of transportation to safely make it to the sun,” she sighs. “Just because it’s the case for one side doesn’t make it so for both.”
I run a hand through my hair, frustrated. “You don’t seem like you’d be from the sun.”
She laughs as we finally make it into the tunnel. “Let me ask you this. Exactly what do you know about the people who live on the sun, other than the fact that they supposedly do not exist? I’ll tell you,” she interjects before I can respond. “Absolutely nothing. And it’s for a very simple reason; you do not wish to learn. You simply want to be right.”
I have no logical response to formulate as I see the scenery outside the windows change into pitch darkness occasionally broken by fluorescent lights. As it turns out, she has a solid case.
She softens her metallic gaze on me and offers a smile. “I’d be much warmer of a conversant if you were to stop denying my very existence.”
I can’t help but laugh. I’m still not convinced but I decide to roll with it. I try and find a way to change the conversation but the next question that pops up in my head is out my mouth before I know it.
“Why Earth?” I ask her. “Why would you decide to go here?” I raise my voice to make up for screeching of the train and add “I mean, it hardly seems that impressive to me. Charming at best.”
She shakes her head. “Honestly, I think that you’re undermining your planet. I’ll admit that you humans have done somewhat of a number on it, but as it stands, it’s in pretty decent shape. The cities are illustrious and the nature is consuming.”
“You like it here?”
“Quite. Earth is an interesting place, with interesting people. It’s quite different from the sun, admittedly, but that is where the adventure comes in.”
“Different? In what way?”
“The way people think that everything else is different from them. They think that because they’re five feet tall walking things that own this planet that on any other form of life they must be giant robed green monsters with stretchy heads or some other sort.” At the end of her statement, she is grinning ear to ear. It illuminates her face clearly; perhaps that’s just the lights speeding by in the tunnel.
“I’ll admit this, Miriam. Sci-fi is perhaps the weirdest thing on Earth.”
“My sentiments exactly.”
She’s still grinning when silence dominates the air again. The train pulls in to stop at the Zoo station, more than five hundred feet below the destination. Miriam observes the children outside her window as they eagerly pour out the doors like air out of a deflating balloon. Their excited cheers echo through the cavern as they run towards the elevators faster than the teachers can catch up with them. Soon enough everyone is out and the train is oddly quiet.
As the artificial voice of the train declares that the doors are closing, Miriam sighs “What it would be like to be a youth again. A simpler time that we can never get back, I suppose. I’d never be able to live in a world again where politics and discrimination were unheard of, where things were as simple as they should be, when there were so many things I did not know but did not care to learn, and where death just meant someone was going to visit the gods.”
I feel a sorrowful lump roll around in my gut as I reminisce my own simpler days along the Clearwater river, where my sister and I would play together and I’d never have to fathom that I’d watch her die a charred corpse along the interstate. I nearly bite holes through my lower lip trying not to cry but find the strength to nod.
“Life is weird,” she mumbles. I find it odd that the solar being would find anything weird, but at the same time it’s oddly comforting. “There are just so many things that don’t make sense no matter where you live.”
I find that, again, she’s right. “Agreed.”
She looks behind her to see an older couple sitting together below the steps, staring out the same side of the train as Miriam and I. I notice that they’re both male and yet it’s a legitimate romance; something confirmed as they exchange a brief kiss. They seem content and relaxed, carefree even. I realize subconsciously that in most parts of our world such a kiss is thought to be an illegal or disgusting action.
I guess life really doesn’t make much sense.
I turn to Miriam, who has turned back towards the cab, her illuminating grin lighting up a blush along her cheeks. “America, the so-called land of independence. And yet, you’ll rarely ever see someone sitting alone and smiling about it. You certainly weren’t.”
“You’re right about a lot of things,” I say stupidly.
She giggles. “I try.”
I can’t help but think that every time silence takes place between us it’s because Miriam is figuring out the right thing to say. I wait patiently, drumming my fingers and taking the occasional glance at my travel companion. Eventually, she blurts out “I just don’t get how someone could kill another person for being different from him and love another person because she’s different from all the other girls.”
Her statement is jagged and confused, maybe even haunted. “Pardon?” I ask.
She clears her throat, acting as if she said the wrong thing. “What I mean is that I don’t get why everything has to be different. We’re not that different. You and I, we’re not that different.” Her voice is uncertain but her eyes observe me closely. But I’m not sure what to say.
She fills the empty space with her words again. “Just… humor me, Jonathan. What harm would it do for you to believe that maybe I am what I say I am? You may never see me again, and I can assure you that our solar rulers have no plan to zoom in on flying dinnerware and invade your planet. Personally, I’d find it to be interesting to have someone with such a different perspective, but... I just don’t get how this can’t be as simple as it sounds.”
I look into the tree-bark brown hue in her eyes. They remind me of my own. They remind me of Lauren’s. Especially of Lauren’s. It sends a chill up my spine to finally realize how similar their eyes are.
I decide I can at least humor her. Her lips are turned downwards, anxious, reluctant to say more. If she won’t, then I will.
“What’s life like on the sun?”
She contemplates her answer as the train wails through the tunnel, the screeching sounds of the metal on metal echoing through the chambers. “The same, yet different.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that we’re certainly not twenty feet green people with an endless amount of tentacles,” she informs me with a crooked grin. “In fact, we’re a lot like you humans, only adapted to the heat of the sun.” She shivers, pulling her jacket even closer to her. “Not as much to temperatures like this.”
“That makes sense,” I admit. “So you’re humans, just like Earthlings?”
She laughs at that one, her frame shaking within the coat. “And here I was thinking that Earthling was a slang term we used on the sun. I was worried about dropping that one around you because you’d be offended.”
I shrug with a smile. “No, no. You’re fine.”
She sighs, relaxing again. “Good to hear. But to answer your question, we’re not exactly like Earth natives, or,” she snickers slightly, almost embarrassed to use the term, “Earthlings. Whichever you prefer. We have our own advantages, I suppose.”
“Oh really? Such as?”
“Well, aside from resistant to extreme heat, we have heightened perception skills, especially when it comes to reading emotions. If I wanted to, I could look into even the blankest of stares you have to offer and determine how you’re truly feeling.”
The idea makes me shudder, and again reminds me of Lauren and how she’s dead. I don’t want to let on, though, so I avert the attention from myself. “So, I’d imagine that it’d make for an honest environment where you come from?”
She snorts. “Hardly. We’ve just become better liars.”
I notice her eyes have closed and that the light that she seems to radiate has dulled. Before I can coax her into conversation, she continues on her own. “Unfortunately, I’ve found that we can still get away with hiding how we feel from our own kind if we’re careful enough. It’s much too easy to put on a convincing smile and say ‘I’m fine,’ and push our own troubles out of our mind until the next time we’re bitterly reminded of them.”
Her eyes haven’t moved open a smidge and by now she’s wearing a deep frown. “Are you okay?” I ask by instinct.
She cracks a small grin. “Just fine, Jonathan.”
I frown, knowing that I shouldn’t be convinced. I fumble around for her hand, and when I grab it I realize that her skin is as cold as she claims to be. It helps my own body cool down and fight the sweltering heat, or at least what I would define to be sweltering. She opens her eyes and brings herself to sit up straight, gently leaning her head against my shoulder. “Good, Jonathan. You’re catching on.”
“Experience,” I mumble.
That’s how we sit through the rest of the tunnel. My brain is burning with sorrow which eats a hole inside my stomach. Tears threaten to brim over but I’m able to fight them with some strength. I look over at my traveling companion, whose eyes are wide open but nearly without expression, searching and haunted. Her entire lower lip is under the pressure of her teeth, and I feel her grip tighten on my hand. When we break out of the tunnel, we’re greeted by powerful rays of sunlight, uninhibited by clouds or mist as they beam down on the train, soaking through the windows.
Another question crosses my mind. “Miriam, what do you think of when you see the sun from here?”
Her voice finally cracks. “I… I think that I’m not too far away from home.”
The honesty in her voice is enough to convince me of everything she said. Perhaps it’s just my grief, perhaps it’s hers, perhaps it’s the fact that our two grieving souls have found each other for just a moment and we’re willing to believe and feel anything that will make us feel better. Right now, though, I realize that whether she’s from the sun or from the Pearl District or even escaped from a psych ward, she’s not that different from me at all. I understand what she means now, why it wouldn’t mean much to believe where she’s from. It doesn’t make her as different from me as I’d have thought.
I realize that we’re still on the train when the artificial female voice announces that we’re approaching Sunset Transit Center. I hear Miriam laugh at the coincidence as she pulls herself up and off of my shoulder. “This… is my stop, actually,” she tells me.
“Mine too.” It’s a lie, but I find that I don’t want to leave her company just yet. She shakes her head, smiling. “I wonder if I’ll see you again.”
“That’d be nice,” I add honestly, a bit dazed by the magnitude of this fifteen minute train ride. Somehow, I have a feeling that it won’t happen. There’s little explanation to that feeling but it seems to be an unavoidable truth.
Miriam seems to agree, but she doesn’t let go of my hand as we get ready to leave the train. As the doors open, we stand in the station, reluctant to move, reluctant to depart. I look her in the eyes that are just like my dead sister’s, feeling the chill move through my body again. Finally, she speaks.
“I think this will pass,” she tells me, reassuring me, reassuring herself. Before I can ask her to elaborate, she continues. “Grief, death, tragedy. It’s hard, for both of us, to lose a sister... but… I think we’ll survive. Somehow.”
I’m astonished that Miriam knew, but as I realize that she claimed (and probably did) have the ability to read my expression, my resolve breaks and I gently embrace her. She doesn’t hesitate to return, holding onto my chest tightly as if she fears the consequences of letting go as much as I do. At that moment, she is incredibly real, every last detail in her haunting dark brown eyes and every last beautifully spoken word of her story.
I don’t feel the tears sting my eyes anymore, nor do I feel any across my shirt, but I’ve never felt this broken. It’s as if I’ve finally recognized that everything that happened to me, to Lauren, is true, and that something like it happened to Miriam too. I don’t know how either of us are going to let go, but we’re going to have to eventually. It’d be nice to be safe where we are, safe from sorrow and anxiety and nervousness and confusion, but we can’t block it out forever.
For now, though, we have our moment in the sun.