Looking at her watch, Julia realized there’d be a twenty-five-minute wait for the train. She didn’t plan on being this early. She took a deep breath of the cool crisp autumn air. It felt good in her lungs. The air at home was stale. Paint fumes were still mingling with it. At the hospital the air was suspect. She never liked that air. Who knew what might be lurking in it.
She sat down. Placed her sensible handbag on her lap. Her walking shoes were reunited as she crossed her ankles. The metal bench was hard. It told her to keep her back up straight and her mind alert. The city was just a short train ride away. She would get lost in the crowds. Be unseen by everyone who passed. Enjoy the pleasure of being no one to anyone. No decisions to make. No one giving her updates on test results. Nothing.
Julia sat taking in the silvery rails, the stones, the brown wooden ties stained with drips of oil. There was a curve in the tracks. You couldn’t see where they went, but they offered the promise of a new destination. Here there was only death. Today death could wait. The city was calling.
As the time passed, bodies began littering the station. They were sitting, standing, leaning. It was 10:15 am. A much nicer time to travel than it was at rush hour when there were so many cogs pushing each other to get a seat before they arrived in New York and entered their machines.
She thought about the trip. It always annoyed her that there were two Penn Stations, the one she had to change trains at in Newark, and the one where she wanted to arrive, in the city. The Newark station was like purgatory or the Bardo. The place before the place. It made no sense. The name of the Newark station should be changed.
She sighed. Death had a long to-do list. The doctors had their to-do list for her. They repeated it to her over and over. Each one she saw said the same thing. Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation. Which translated to hair loss, nausea, wasting away, death. They said they could give her a prescription for marijuana. She couldn’t imagine wanting to feel disoriented and paranoid. That was a malignant reward she didn’t need.
She wrote her own to-do list. First, she had her house cleaned out. She called an estate sales company, and they carted away most of her things. Everything but a few essentials. The auction of her worldly possessions was next week, then she’d get a check she’d add to the bank account that didn’t have a living beneficiary. After the old things were removed, she had the carpets taken out and the interior of the house painted white. A clean slate for the next owner. Whoever that would be. Certainly not Jean, her son’s widow. No. She was happily remarried, and they hadn’t been in touch for years now. She had outlived everyone. Some charity could have it all. She had a list. She’d narrow it down and pick one or two soon.
The final thing on her list was to decide how to make her exit. She weighed the Plath, and the Woolf, two of her favorite writers, but their choices didn’t interest her. There were the artists, Van Gogh, Rothko. Messy, unpredictable. It would be a hassle to get a gun. Julia spent some time researching but hadn’t found the perfect method. But she was sure she wasn’t going to let some mutating cells in her body dictate when and how her life would end. Having been an artist when she was younger, she wanted her suicide to be beautiful. She didn’t want to make it beautiful for anyone else. She wanted her death to feel beautiful to her. At least more beautiful than cancer wanted to make it.
The ticket machine stood nearby, a stainless steel sentry. Julia watched as a young woman walked up and pressed some buttons. Offered it some green paper and then took the white ticket that spit out the slot. She had long unruly brown hair, a backpack, and a rolling suitcase.
When she sat down next to her, Julia had to adjust her body and her thoughts. She immediately resented the woman for sitting down next to her until she realized how foolish she was being. It wasn’t her bench and there were no signs that she wasn’t a nice person. She was young, she’d be respectful.
She watched out of the side of her eye as the woman pulled a book out of her bag. Curious, she glanced over. It was “House of Mirth.” That was a book she hadn’t thought of in years. She read the book in college. That was many decades ago. Then it clicked. That last scene in the book. She would die the way Lily Bart did. She’d settle all of her affairs just like Lily and then fall into a dream and die unaware of anything but bliss.
She remembered that in English class, there was a debate about whether Lily intended to kill herself. Julia was certain that her death was intentional. She couldn’t be herself in society. She was unable to sell herself. Unable to be wife or mistress. It was difficult for her to support herself when she hadn’t been brought up to work for a living. Her death couldn’t have been accidental.
Her more sentimental friends in school assured her, it was not suicide. Everyone would sigh, if only she had lived one more day. If she had, she would have had happily ever after. She would have married Selden. But Lily was always careless. That was what she remembered, and it surprised her she remembered so much. It had been over five decades since college. Edith Wharton’s books had a way of staying with you. Oh, and then there was the movie which wasn’t bad. She had seen the movie a few years ago when it was on TV.
She looked at her watch and saw the train was five minutes late. Then she looked up at the electronic sign. It flashed with the news that the train would be delayed. There was nothing but delays with New Jersey Transit these days. It was all over the news. The young woman saw it too and seemed upset.
“When will the trains ever run on time again?” She said looking at the young woman who turned with a smile.
“Is it always like this?”
“Lately it is.”
“Oh, I’m on my way to Boston, I have a connection to make in the city.”
“Well, hopefully, you’ll still make it, or there will be an alternative. Do you live in Boston or are you visiting there?”
“I’m visiting. Actually, tomorrow I’m heading up to Lenox with a friend. I’m going to work up there for a few months.”
“Oh, do you plan on visiting Edith while you’re there? I noticed your book.” The young woman smiled again. Julia tried to force one onto her stiff, out of practice face in return but wasn’t certain she had managed it.
“Actually, yes. That’s why I’m going. I am going to work nearby and do some research at Wharton’s home there. It’s so amazing that she designed it herself.”
“So, you’re a fan. How wonderful. I hope she will always have fans. I suppose this isn’t the first time you’re reading House of Mirth.”
“Oh, no. It’s probably my tenth reading.” She said beaming with delight and yet another smile.
“What do you think, did Lily plan her death or was it her carelessness?”
“Suicide seems to have been Edith’s plan for her.”
“Really? How do you know?”
“A letter was found about ten years ago. She wrote a physician friend for information about a character who wanted to commit suicide. She wanted to know the least painful, most pleasant way for her character to go. The letter had been tucked in a book in the doctor’s library for years before it was rediscovered.”
“Interesting. In college, we all fought about Lily’s motivation. I was sure it was intentional.” Julia laughed and thought again, yes, she would go like Lily. “What was it she took?”
The woman thought for a second, “It was chloral hydrate. But you know, she sent the letter to her doctor friend before she finished writing the book. Lily took more of the medication than usual, but she changed her mind. Do you remember?”
“I remember the book generally, not the details.”
“So, Lily was thinking about speaking to Selden the next day as she drifted off. He was the love interest. So whatever she intended, it seems Lily she changed her mind. She was thinking about tomorrow. She hadn’t given up on tomorrow.”
“I had forgotten that.” Julia tried to smile again but found her eyes had gotten a little watery, so she turned her head. “Here’s the train.” The rattling of the approaching train excited her companion.
“It looks like I’ll make it to Boston on schedule. I hope you have a nice trip.” She gave her a smile from her endless supply. Julia nodded. The woman gathered her things and walked away. She watched her enter the train to begin her journey.
Those words, “she changed her mind” and “she hadn’t given up on tomorrow” echoed in her head. She had uncrossed her feet. Planted them firmly on the ground, but she couldn’t rise or walk over to the train. Her body was immobile. Her energy had disappeared. The conductor called “all aboard” and motioned to her. She waved him off. She didn’t want to leave. The air was starting to give her a chill. She gave up on the city. No city today. The city would still be there tomorrow.
If you haven’t read House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, or if you wish to read it again, it’s available for free here:
Book from Project Gutenberg: House of Mirth Library of Congress Classification: PSarchive.org
© 2017, A. Breslin. All Rights Reserved