Essay from Ann Tinkham

Waiting at the Wrong Track

I perched on a tilting café stool next to my fiancé, trying not to taste the greasy McChicken sandwich I washed down with a bitter double espresso chaser. We were dismayed that McFood was the finest culinary experience the St. Charles train station had to offer. In the foreground, sleek bullet trains bound for Paris screeched in, loaded up with sun-kissed Mediterranean vacationers, and zipped away from Quais E, F, and G. Assuming our train would leave from one of these tracks, we settled in.

As I tuned out rapid-fire French spoken at adjacent tables and broadcast over the intercom, I overheard a language that carried me home. The slow-moving dialogue was peppered with wide open vowels and harsh R’s, the consonants of Des Moines, Boise, and Wichita. My eavesdropping tendencies kicked in; I became a stealth voyeur, comforted by an oasis of familiar auditory cues.

A twenty-something American couple with backpacks and roll-away luggage in tow, was also awaiting a train over delicate white espresso cups. She was pale with dark wavy hair framing her baby face. A scarlet-colored Euro-tied scarf draped around her neck. He was part punk rocker, part frat boy with cropped hair, blue jeans and a black sweatshirt. Upon closer inspection, I discovered a baby stroller among their sea of luggage. They had started early, determined that their bundle of joy would fall in love France as they had.

Their conversation shifted from audible to tense hushed decibels where eavesdropping would have required a concealed microphone. I reverted to observation, a much more conspicuous form of snooping. The woman hypnotically rolled the stroller as her expression went from wide-eyed to downcast. She preemptively mopped her eyes and nose, hiding behind her available hand. He chugged his espresso, pushed the cup and saucer away, and assumed an erect, rod-up-his-back pose, shifting away from his little family. He placed one Converse tennis shoe on the ground and one hand on his luggage.

I imagined them in earlier years, carefree traveling gypsies, bouncing from Paris to Istanbul and Bangkok to New Delhi on a whim. They’d snap and post pics of themselves wearing the Eiffel Tower as a hat, chomping on toasted grasshoppers in Mexico, and ferrying in a hand-crafted boat in Phuket bay. In their vows to each other, they had promised to never let mortgages, PTAs, and Little League interfere with their wanderlust. They had tucked their wee one into a backpack and journeyed across the Atlantic to Paris and south to the white cliffs of the azure Mediterranean Sea to never forget.

She twisted toward the stroller, tears streaming more swiftly than she could wipe them away. By fixating on the baby, she missed her husband’s eyes and mouth frozen into steely slits. I overheard, “If that’s what you want.”

He leapt off the stool, slung his backpack over his shoulder, and yanked his roll-away luggage, vanishing into the station, not looking back even for an instant. I rooted for him to reconsider and to remember they could still have it all.

She dabbed her face, drew her hair back into a messy bun, and hovered over the stroller to kiss their baby, her face obscured. She positioned the luggage and the baby carriage side-by-side for convenient solo station motoring. At least she still belonged to her child. When she spun the stroller around to leave the café, I knew her young husband would never return. The infant had almond-shaped eyes of wonder, miniature ears, a flat nose and a gaping mouth with a protruding tongue. Down’s. Parental hopes funneled into dreams of grocery store bagging.

Seconds later, it struck me our assumption that the only Paris-bound trains were on Quais E, F, and G was mistaken. I dashed to check the train schedule and discovered our train was departing in minutes from Quai A. We sprinted, heaving our overstuffed luggage. The humorless conductors slammed the gate behind us.

We’d soon strike silly poses wearing the illuminated Eiffel Tower as a hat.


Ann Tinkham is an anti-social butterfly, pop-culturalist, virtual philosopher, ecstatic dancer, political and java junkie, and Kauai-lover. Her work has appeared in the Adirondack Review, Word Riot, Toasted Cheese, Synchronized Chaos, and others.