I had both spent a long weekend at a writing retreat in the February-infected deep dark woods of Pennsylvania. It was lovely there, in a dim sort of way. The buildings of this Quaker retreat center were gorgeously simple rectangles, old white. There was a window seat in my bedroom. I wrote a lot, and I napped a lot. I had recently stopped having panic attacks and improved to the point of just feeling terrified most of the time I was awake. Hence the napping.
I had noticed this tall woman with spiky hair during the retreat, and I thought she looked cool, but I had not had occasion to talk to her.
As everyone was gathering in the main house to say their goodbyes, I overheard her talking about going to the train. I was going to the train. Almost everyone else was getting cars or cabs. I told her I was going to the train, too. We would walk together.
She was a New Yorker. Ah. Now I understood why she was the only other person who thought it reasonable to walk three-quarters of a mile in February cold, in rural Pennsylvania, to get to the train station. Why wouldn’t you walk? She was going home to New York, and I was going to spend the second half of my trip there.
She was Irish, raised in Ireland, and a New Yorker for many years after that. We pulled our luggage along roads without sidewalks and we chatted. When we got lost, she knocked on the window of a passing car to ask directions. I would have walked ten, maybe twenty miles before I asked someone in a car for directions.
She was a Zen Buddhist, and her wife was whoever is in charge of a Zen Buddhist place. At the train station, we looked up and down the tracks. I wondered which side our train would come on. I have no sense of direction. A train came. It was on the other side.
“Do you think this is our train?” she said. The train sat there. There was no one to ask.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I think it’s our train!” she said suddenly, and pulled her suitcase, bump, bump, across the tracks, in front of the train.
“No, no, it’s not!” I called, suddenly seeing the sign that told that train was going away from Philadelphia. The train started coming to life, moving toward her, and she scrambled back towards me.
“Phew, that was close!” she said. I would also, never, never run across train tracks in front of a train. I wondered how she had lived this long. And I was amazed that she was so brave.
I sat on my suitcase. We talked about writers we liked, and she mentioned she had met one of my great heroes.
“Really?” I said. “I can’t believe she’s, like, a real person.”
“Yeah. So this is the funny story. I was at a dinner party with her, and she said, ‘I love your sweater. I really love your sweater. Can I have it?’ And I didn’t know what to say, and like a dummy I just gave it to her. I didn’t know what to do.”
I laughed. I was so terrified, not of finding the right trains or reading my writing in front of 100 strangers, but of everything else, and she was so not afraid, to the point of showing herself and my great hero as weirdos.
“A couple of months later, I got this package from her. Now my sweater was an Eileen Fisher sweater, you know, a really nice sweater, and in the box from her was a sweater sort of like mine, but it’s from the Gap, and I was like, whatever.”
The train came, and I was still chuckling. “Who does that? Asks for someone’s sweater? That’s crazy!”
We rode to Philadelphia, and helped each other find the Amtrak platform there. I had tickets for a train that was leaving right away, so I ran, and I never saw her again.