SCENES FROM THE AMTRAK
Jaye Viner

Novel Excerpt

I buy a Nut Roll and a milk from the Amtrak vending machine. I eat while sitting on the platform, facing the distended Eduard Munch heads of graffiti figures on the side of a Mexican restaurant that used to be a Pizza Hut. I’m not in a hurry, After so long, what Brandon can wait a few more minutes.  

Five years and sixty-three day ago I stood here, heavy headed after trying and failing to sleep on an overnight from Denver, still wearing the heady duty maxi pads the nurse had given me for the spotting she said was normal after the procedure. While I stood trying to decide what I would do, now that I’d arrived in the city I thought would be the most difficult place for Brandon to find me, it began to rain. I considered going inside to the waiting room. But at the opposite end of the platform sat this miniature old lady in a red hat with matching luggage and I thought if she wasn’t going inside then I wouldn’t either. I remember trying to catch her eye so we could share a moment of being women who didn’t mind a little rain, who didn’t mind a lot of things.  

I used to take pride in my ability to be accepting. I liked being the one who helped other people get what they wanted—their choice in restaurant, their favorite music in the car—and I never forced anyone to do what I wanted or stepped on any toes or hurt anyone’s feelings.

That’s what I thought I was doing when, two weeks after returning from my honeymoon, I made a doctor’s appointment I didn’t write on the family calendar and asked for birth control pills. What Brandon didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.  

One football season Saturday he had the guys over. Someone brought a root beer keg and they all camped out in the living room drunk on adrenaline and too little sleep to watch USC take on Stanford. The living room was directly below our bedroom where I was ensconced studying for my semester practicum exam. Everything they said projected up to me through the air vent. I listened with half an ear as I made flashcards. The country music station was playing a retrospective of Patsy Cline. At some point, I became aware the voices downstairs weren’t as loud.  

“When do you expect it will be?” asked Phil, always the worrier. Every time he spoke I imagined him making contingency plans in his head.  

I crept out of the semi-circle shaped columns of rainbow colored index cards I’d made around me on the floor and lay down beside the vent.  

“When is it that’s the best time?” asked Brandon.  

“Just before they sleep isn’t it?”

“Not during?” asked Tommy, joking, uncomfortable. This clued me in. They were talking about me.  

“I switched the pills two weeks ago,” said Brandon.

“So she could be now. What’s nine months from today?” asked Jason, my older brother.  

I remember feeling so guilty for eavesdropping on them, it didn’t even register that Jason, who I had obeyed without question the whole of my life, was not at all fazed by my husband’s plot to get me pregnant.

“June,” said Phil.  

“They’re going to score again!” cried Tommy.  


"I used to take pride in my ability to be accepting. I liked being the one who helped other people get what they wanted"

I tried to form animal shapes out of the texture of the ceiling while blotches of delayed color blinked around my vision. I experienced my first taste of the dread that has since taken up a parasitic residence in my gut as I counted how many times Brandon and I’d had sex that month. Maybe twice, a very slight chance of pregnancy, but still a chance.  

Patsy Cline sang with peppy nostalgia, “I’m back in baby’s arms—how I missed those lovin’ arms. I’m back where I belonged.” I sang along, even danced a little as I pointed the boom box speakers towards the bathroom door.

In the bathroom, I dug through my drawer of hair brushes, rubber bands and dusty nineties scrunchies until I found my pills in their compact disguise. I’d never seen Brandon open that drawer. Certainly he had no reason to look all the way into the back unless he was searching for something particular of mine.  

The pills in my drawer that night looked exactly like my real ones—a cardboard circle with a calendar, each day marked by a little pillow of tin foil. I popped out that day’s pill. I set it on my tongue and let it dissolve rather than swallowing it with water. Instead of sour medicine, my tongue found the equally displeasing but distinct taste of baking soda.  

I braced my arms against the counter and gave myself a good long stare down in the mirror. What I saw was not the face of a mother. Try as I might, she wasn’t there.  

I am going to be a mother. I put on this definitive condition and tried to mold it around me into something that could be understood as real. But I couldn’t focus. I kept hearing Brandon say, I switched the pills two weeks ago. Switched how? I had just started a new month so he’d have had to switch them twice. The man who didn’t notice when I wore new earrings paid enough attention to my secret pills to switch them twice?

His bathroom drawer had a razor, deodorant—all the usual things. I moved to the cabinet beneath the sink, I searched behind the trash can and moved all the toilet paper rolls. I searched the medicine cabinet, nothing.  

Next stop, the bedroom. I tripped over the boom box and left Patsy singing into the carpet. My search gained speed as I fully committed to the idea Brandon had hidden fake birth control pills somewhere in our house. No drawer was left unopened, no clothes pockets unchecked. If I had become as thorough a cleaner as I was a manic searcher that night my mother would be so proud.

Downstairs erupted in groans of agony as USC dropped another pass. I prayed to the football gods for the game to go into overtime so Brandon wouldn’t come up to check on me.

I’d worked up a sweat by then. My hair stuck to my face and my neck, the back of my nightie to my lower back. I leaned over on the bed to catch my breath. That’s when it hit me. The bed. 

One, two, three, heave! I dug my fingers under the lip of the mattress and shoved it up into the air until its opposite end slid off the other side and crashed into Brandon’s end table. Spread in a pool of silvery foil circles on top of the box spring were, one, two three…fifteen months’ worth of baking soda birth control pills.  

Greedily I scooped them up, I pinched them together and bent them. I ran downstairs with them. Oops, dropped one. It was surprisingly aerodynamic. Through the entryway we went, me in my ‘marriage eyes only’ nightie, breasts bouncing, nipples ripe enough to cut glass, and fourteen pill packs. We burst into the living room.  

“Brandon, look what I found!” I flung the packs up into the air showering the startled men with my discovered treasure.  

He sprang back as though touching them would burn him.

“I am not ready to have kids.”

“That’s not just your decision.”

“Uh, guys, the game?” Tommy waved his hand in front of Brandon’s face. The others turned to avoid glimpsing my indecent exposure.

“Then you don’t love me!”

“Love doesn’t lie, Jane.”

Like hell it doesn’t. But at the time, I backtracked. Of course love didn’t lie. And I had been lying by omission about the pills for over two years. I let him wrap me in a blanket. He patted me like he was putting out a fire. “It’ll get easier,” he said. “We’ll do it together.”

“I really don’t think I want a baby.”

“That’ll change. Just be patient.”


"I experienced my first taste of the dread that has since taken up a parasitic residence in my gut as I counted how many times Brandon and I’d had sex that month. Maybe twice, a very slight chance of pregnancy, but still a chance."

It didn’t change. Every night I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and told the reflection I was a mother. My reflection spit in my face and laughed. But I did not think of terminating the pregnancy until my first sonogram provided an image of the life growing inside of me. That was when the shit got real.  

With retrospect, I like to think I had some subconscious sense of what was coming next—that I would wake up one morning and realize I wasn’t the person I’d been pretending to be, that becoming a mother was the final straw in a long line of labels—daughter, wife, woman, Christian, conservative—I used to mask a self that increasingly fit none of them.

One weekend, while Brandon was on a hunting trip, I skipped my women’s Bible study to see my first and only Daniel Helston movie. Until then I had done what I considered an above average job of stifling my memories of meeting the actor in New York along with the associated daydreams that occasionally inserted themselves into my thoughts. And on the days I couldn’t stop thinking about Daniel, and wondering where he was and what he was doing and if he was thinking of me, I balanced them with thoughts of Brandon and how I was learning to appreciate and respect him. But being pregnant is not about balance or purity or staying in control of emotional impulses. The hormones make emotional balance of any kind impossible. Once I decided Bible study wasn’t happening, I drove to the theatre like a mad woman in search of the last Starbucks at the end of the world.

I sat in the back near the emergency exit so I could rush out and pee if necessary. The woman who sat next to me had a bulk that felt like a living wall with floppy arms spilling over the armrests and soggy legs squeezing under the seat.  

The Daniel on screen only slightly resembled the man I’d met in New York. I was alarmed by the ‘shirtless scene’ when waves of sighs rolled through the audience at the sight of his muscular arms and chiseled abs glistening sweat under the top lighting. The woman next to me flapped her arms up and down fanning herself. I left the movie before the end, driven to find some better way to reconnect to Daniel the surfer who loved the ocean and didn’t bother with hairspray.  

At the music store I found the movie soundtracks tucked away in a small shelf by the PC software. I had Daniel’s list—three years and it hadn’t left my purse. He’d promised it would be music for a new life. But I had been a naive college sophomore then, imagining ‘new life’ held infinite possibilities but not the marriage that I fell into three months later. I wanted to know if the music could still solicit the change of life direction it had promised.

In less than twenty minutes my arms were full. I didn’t read the cases. I didn’t look at the covers to see who was in the movie or what it was about. I just grabbed and bought based solely on Daniel’s recommendations. This was what my mother and almost every adult I’ve ever known would call a ‘slippery slope,’ a flirtation with an apparently innocuous thing that led into temptation. From there it was only a hop, skip, and a jump into sin and, ‘mistakes you’ll regret the rest of your life.’ Feasting my ears on Daniel’s music the regret I anticipated for the rest of my life was not being allowed to dream of Daniel, of having a child who would be dependent on me toeing the line for twenty more years and doing it well enough she never realized her mother didn’t believe as fully as she should. The worst thing I could imagine was causing someone else to doubt because of my need for a different kind of life.  

For the next thirty hours, I floated through the depths of a symphonic ocean on adventures in an infinite world of water and sky. I played movie music while I slept, though I didn’t sleep much. The music traveled with me in the car, while I studied, while I shopped for groceries. I didn’t answer the phone because I didn’t want to pause during an important theme. I delayed taking a shower until a CD finished. I held one-sided imaginary conversations with Daniel where I told him how I enjoyed this or that track. I reveled in the simple melodies and contrapuntal orchestrations. For almost forty-eight hours I completely forgot to ask myself if what I was doing was right, if I could morally justify this use of my time against things I should have been doing.  


"But being pregnant is not about balance or purity or staying in control of emotional impulses. The hormones make emotional balance of any kind impossible."

When Brandon came home from his hunt, he found me browning meat for spaghetti sauce and crying, seriously weeping into the steam coming up from the pan while listening to Once Upon a Time in the West. This one track of the main theme had been playing over and over as loud as possible on the little portable speaker set I kept in the kitchen. The theme opened with a xylophone entirely exposed, a series of notes illustrating a cherished memory, a lost love, something that could not be returned to. Then the background orchestra came in to support a cello solo of the xylophone melody and I was transported back in time to that memory, that love, that place lost forever before I knew it existed. I poured buckets of tears into my frying pan wishing I could to return to that place.  

Brandon jerked me around by the shoulders, probably terrified that something had happened to the baby. I tried to articulate an excuse about hormones making me emotional but the more I cried the more nervous he became. Finally he had the sense to turn off the music. In the sudden silence, the cello continued to weave its melody between my ears. “I just need to be alone.”

Since I had been alone all weekend, Brandon was confused by this. It didn’t occur to him I meant a different kind of alone. After dinner he sat down to watch football. I offered to run out to Dairy Queen to get him desert. Instead I drove west out of town. I didn’t stop until I reached the Colorado border.  

I didn’t leave a note. I’ve always thought it was kinder for him to think what he wanted than have to face the absolute certainty of my abandonment. I couldn’t admit all his hopes for fatherhood—the crib we’d put together in the small bedroom, the stacks of parenting books he had underlined and dog-eared and flagged with an army of Post-Its—would only ever be hopes.

But as I’ve been telling you all this, I’ve realized I’m not so proud of my accepting fortitude. Even in my moment of betrayal, I remember thinking, I should really go get him ice cream since I promised ice cream, and then I’ll leave. I was still thinking about how disappointed Brandon would be not to get ice cream three hours later when I reached Kearney. And now, I feel that residual care with his feelings, as though I still have some responsibility to make his life as easy as possible. He’s waiting in my condo, thinking he’ll surprise me into revealing where I’ve hidden our daughter. I still don’t know how I’ll tell him the truth.

 

Author's Commentary: Scenes from the Amtrak is an excerpt from her master’s thesis which follows a woman’s journey of self-discovery after she flees her family’s cult and tries to make a new life for herself only to fall in love with one of her family’s victims. Scenes from the Amtrak was inspired by a news article about the manufacture of placebo birth control pills.


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Jaye Viner holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska. She currently teaches freshmen how to write academic essays and pines for the house full of cats she can’t have due to allergies. She is on Twitter @JayeViner.