At age fourteen I was aboard a New Jersey Transit commuter train as it derailed on our way back home from New York City. Moments before the crash, my best friend, Kristine, and I lay peacefully napping on the rust colored bench of the train car across from our mothers with our sunburned limbs dangling like tree-branches. Kristine was visiting from Virginia where her family had moved a few years prior.
My mother had picked me up from another friend’s house that early June morning. I smelled of the fire-pit and the dampness of the lake. We had spent the night camping with a group of classmates—my first co-ed sleepover.
For all of us back then the first day of summer wasn’t determined by the solstice—that ink-stamped sun on the kitchen calendar. Summer began on the first day after the school year when alarm clocks, book bags, and packed lunches weren’t the way we’d start our days anymore. That year we picked a trip into Manhattan to visit the Museum of Natural History as our first-day-of-summer celebration, a welcomed break, even for our mothers, from monotonous school day routines.
We spent the morning of that early June day meandering through the labyrinth of the museum, shaded from the unseasonal heat by a giant shell of neoclassical grandeur. Cool filtered air and a chorus of voices radiated off the stone walls and the floors, echoing in a confusing delay before the vibration of the place finally reached our ears and made goose bumps on our bare arms. Our mothers watched us with our wide yet sleepy eyes, as we took in the African artifacts, the snowy scenes of far-away lands, and the gritty smell of that room with the elaborate crown molding upstairs where they keep the dinosaur bones. Kristine didn’t seem to mind, or even notice, the smudged Plexiglas partitions, or the fading red velvet ropes that separated her from the displays, things that annoy me like typos in a novel that remove you from the experience of the thing. We browsed the exhibits, lingering a bit longer in the Hall of Human Origins, my favorite part of the museum, and I can imagine myself saying, “Aus-tral-o-pith-e-cus. I came from that.”
On the way back upstate, the train pulled out from the Hoboken station entering a series of tunnels that darkened our train car; the lack of light and rhythmic rocking putting us to sleep within minutes. I was dreaming of the boy down by the lake. The train jerked us forward and the slow rolling waves I envisioned behind my eyes crashed in synch with the movement. The hum of the train car became the song of the cicadas; the strobe light effect of passing vistas, the sparks from the crackling wood. And I saw us there under the moonlight, our young mis-matched heartbeats lying together in the warmth of the fire. I thought of how I must have looked to him, and in my half-sleep state I must have blushed thinking of how uncharacteristically bold I was. (Such is no longer the case. I guess you could say I’ve evolved.)
Not long after the stop at Secaucus Junction, the train began to sway unnaturally, disrupting me from my daydream. Before I had time to realize what was happening, fear crept into my throat and burned there like a lump of hot coal, one I imagine that years ago men would have shoveled into the hungry mouth of the train’s engine to move it forward with its big billows of smoke. I glanced at my best friend who was still sleeping soundly on that rust-colored leather bench and looked across the aisle at our mothers in horror, unable to articulate what I didn’t want to say even if I could. The train began to make painful howling noises—I assumed someone had pulled the emergency brake. But the train didn’t stop just yet. Somehow in those few microseconds, life slowed down as the train refused to. I saw Kristine in this moment as she slept, carefree and trusting. She didn’t wake when her seat detached from the floor, or even when the train car made its final bow off the tracks, landing on its side. She just kept on dreaming, and let that train take her wherever it wanted to go.
If you ask me about the time I was in a train wreck I always think of young love, and the boy down by the lake. But I also always think of my friendship with Kristine–she being one of the only persistently positive forces in my life that have spanned from infancy to adulthood.
I read in the paper about the accident. A garbage truck backed onto the tracks, the lop-sided iron ledges causing the derailment. I read about the many injuries, and the few fatalities, and I can imagine the sirens, the screaming voices, and the flashing lights, but I can’t really remember them. I know that we were pulled from the train by a group of uniformed men and women and dragged out into an adjacent lawn. I remember it seemed odd how nice the day was, the sun shining down on us, hazy blue-skies the backdrop for a disaster. Parts of the mangled train tracks were now erected in the air like an artist’s sculpture of a double-helix. Finally, somehow, staring at this absurd scene around us, I realized we were all okay. We had survived a disaster.
Through the kaleidoscopic memories of that day all those years ago I’ve forged a narrative—that ever-present impulse to make sense of things. And I’ll admit the story of survival and the references to the adaptive forces of evolution that we had observed at the museum seem almost too contrived. But isn’t this what we do? Isn’t the existence of places like the Museum of Natural History a narrative of ourselves that we struggle to piece together in some sort of logical way? If we can make a story out of our lives, if we can get a sense of how we got here, it seems more likely we’ll understand where we might be headed, how we might prepare, or how we’ll have to adapt. When we look into our family photo albums, isn’t it like looking down the Hall of Human Origins? Don’t we want to say definitively, “I came from that,” without a question mark.
Kristine married a wonderful man in the summer heat of August about a year and a half ago and I was her maid of honor. I left the stagnant heat of New York City and my oven-like apartment to spend about a month with her in Virginia before the wedding. I always imagined us as opposites growing up. I thought Kristine always had everything together. She was neat, sophisticated, controlled; I on the other hand always seemed to be living in some sort of perpetual chaos. But I realized that summer of her wedding–truly one of the happiest days of my life– that the value of our friendship was not simply that we’ve known each other since the day I was born, thanks to our mothers. To me the value of our friendship lies instead in where we’ve gotten to in the present and how we have learned to grow together like sisters, to challenge and inspire each other, and to be strong when the other feels weak. We let each other bend, but never break. We have learned to adapt to each other as we continue to adapt to changes in our own lives. Although at first glance many would still call us opposites, I can no longer agree with that.
I didn’t know it at fourteen that Kristine would teach me so much about myself. Over a decade later I now know I’ll never stop learning from her. When I think of our friendship I think of the magnet on her refrigerator in the apartment she and her husband have since moved out of. It read “take care of each other,” a quote from a Bible verse summoning the image of Jesus as a shepherd leading his flock. It was probably an engagement gift given to them a while back, but when I saw it I suddenly realized that the entire time I thought I was helping Kristine with her wedding preparations, she was actually helping me come back to life after my own engagement collapsed. As we all struggle to get through this existence, what more can we do than take care of each other? No one survives alone out there. Just read Call of the Wild.
So, survival of the fittest? Yeah, I buy that. But I sure as hell wouldn’t be here without my original home girl, my survival kit, my very best friend.
(I love you, HH!)