The familiar anxiety creeps over my arms in angry goose bumps as the rusted cars of the freight train amble slowly into view. I know—or I hope, at least—that this time will be like every other time: The freight will crawl away, my car will cross the tracks, and I’ll reach the station just as my Metra ride pulls in, three blessed minutes late.
I always board at the same time; same car, too. The same people are always there, talking about the same things: How was your weekend? Did you bring your cat to the vet? Tell your wife I said hello. Don’t even get me started on my boss.
I sit. I watch. I wonder what it is about the routine that soothes me, despite the fact that the routine itself is something I’m quickly coming to despise.
It’s all very quaint, almost comically so. I live in the suburbs and work in the city. Commute? Metra. Work? Cubicle. Lunch? 12. After work? The gym, then spending time with friends for an hour or two, then bed.
Rinse, wash, repeat. And on and on and on.
It’s been a month and a half, but at times it feels like I’m standing between mirrors, watching copies of myself roll groggily out of bed at 7:10 a.m. into infinity.
I’m making money writing vacation content, selling homes I’ve never been to and places I’ll never visit with fluffy adjectives and pretty pictures. Right by the beach! Plush king beds! Luxurious whirlpool tubs!
I’d call it a nightmare, but it’s more like a deep restlessness. You know you’re supposed to be doing something else, something besides staring at the ceiling with a buzzing brain and heavy limbs—you just can’t.
Bustling, busy, sidestepping city buildings, dodging cars and Greenpeace initiatives because I’m three minutes late like my train. It’s early enough in my life that I’m not too worried I’ll be doing this forever, but then again, I have trouble taking risks. I can see myself ambling slowly along this current like that outdated freight train, too weak to resist the momentum of familiarity. And this is becoming familiar. This is becoming comfortably mind-numbing; the weekends are starting to taste like confetti because *thank God it’s Friday*—and I mean it more now than I ever did before.
It’s not as tragic as I’m making it out to be, of course, but it’s been so long since I’ve written something not dripping in sticky persuasion and false cheer that I really can’t help myself. I’m tempted to write about some corporate zombie who stares out at the world with glassy eyes, existing suspended between paychecks but, again, that’s not exactly right. There are days where the sun seems brighter or the sky bluer and I can’t help but smile at the glittering skyscrapers around me. Days when I write and think this is great, I never knew this, never would’ve known this. Days where I remember it’s just a few months. It’s not a big deal. I’m making good money and I’m proud of my work.
Then there are days where constructing a positive narrative feels practically impossible. Where I sit on the five o’clock train and wonder why it’s all so petty, why the tantalizing lives I read about are so many leagues beyond what I’m living right now, what the people around me are living. Meaningless conversation, shallow personalities, work and home and kids and pets.
Cyclical summer living, but living nonetheless.
Summers used to taste like chlorine, sweat, and candy. Now it’s city smog. Now there’s this feeling like floating, but not like it used to be, on crystal-clear waters. It’s an uncertain kind of feeling, like I’ve been caught and I have nothing to do but to hang here and wonder how I even got here in the first place. Solid ground beneath my feet doesn’t come again until September, and then I’ll finally be moving again, starting new classes, forgetting all this sprawl in my head. I don’t need and don’t want these extra minutes on the train or at my desk because they’re filled with thoughts about how it is, how it used to be, how I’d imagined it—and about how all three have spectacularly failed to match up.
I thought I’d write a book someday. Or live somewhere sunny. Or have my own garden, even though I’ve never grown so much as a weed. And someday is getting closer, but I’m having trouble seeing the connection between right now and right there. I used to be so sure, used to say these things with absolute certainty. Now I say them out loud and they taste desperate because I want them so, so much, and everything I’ve ever wanted has always ended up being nothing like I thought.
In fact, the best things in my life now are the surprises, the people and places and experiences I never imagined I’d fall in love with but did. Being sure about something isn’t everything, and these days, the things I’m not sure about bring the most happiness. The surprises make me smile. They make me laugh. They make me want to stop thinking about the future because, hey, the present is kind of great when you’re around. Let’s just stay here for a little while longer. Just a moment more.
Then sometimes it’s on the train, on my way to my cubicle, that the murkiness of the future doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. That this second is just as precious as all the thousands coming after it—more precious even, since it’s the only one I’ll ever truly, fully be able to experience.
The freight makes good on its promise this time around and I miss my train, but the sun is out and it’s Friday and my boss didn’t seem to care that I’d be an hour late when I called. The grass is soft beneath my back, the pastel sky is dotted here and there with fluffy clouds and gentle breezes, and I feel like I’m in a Studio Ghibli movie—*Kiki’s Delivery Service*, maybe. A story about a witch leaving home to make a life for herself in a seaside town and, wow, talk about nostalgia. I’m half expecting her to fly out from behind one of those cookie-cutter clouds and wave at me.
But that’s crazy. And I’m not quite there yet (give it another two months).
When’s the last time I just laid down in the grass like this? The last time I had nowhere to be and nothing to do but enjoy the sun and the sky, the last time I could just disappear into a moment and live there for a while? I can’t remember, but it’s happening right now and I can’t stop smiling. Such a simple thing, but such a lovely thing nonetheless.
Yes it’s been cyclical, this summer living; a thousand times yes it has. But it’s living and I’m alive and I’m falling in love with another surprise—so really, how can I help but be glad?
Cortney McInerney is a second-year in the College majoring in English.