I was 20 maybe. Second year of college. Home for the summer. I had a half-assed summer job and lots of free time. I was with a girl who I liked. I no longer remember her name.
We were in Valley Forge Park. It was bright summer. We parked down by the old unused train station. There was a platform on either side of the train tracks. One the far side, across the tracks, the platform was fifteen or so feet wide and maybe 50 yards long. There was an iron railing at the back of the platform that prevented anyone from falling off. If you fell you would fall a long way down the sloping, heavily overgrown bank to the Schuylkill River 75 feet below.
At various spots on the platform you could find a break in the trees and you could look across the river to more overgrown land on the far bank.
At 20, if you were standing on the platform in the bright sun with your girl next to you, there was little doubt what you did. First, you went to the tracks and found rocks – grey, slightly chalky – about the size of a golf ball but flatter and thinner. Then you faced the river and took the measure of the bank on the other side. You skipped rapidly across the platform toward the iron railing and, just as you got there, you launched your rock in a high parabola across the river.
The river was wide at that spot but you had the advantage of height and that beautifully flat and wide platform to throw from. You had a supply of reasonably good – if somewhat chunky – throwing rocks. It was the perfect place to test the power of your throwing arm. The perfect place to let out your coiled whip. To throw a rock across the river. To launch it into the baked blue sky and then watch and listen and never hear the splash of rock splashing down. Just the nothing of the launched rock and then, sometimes, using all the imaginative powers of wishful listening, you could hear a small but infinitely satisfying whoomp on the other side where rock accelerated down into a mud bank.
But now I was there on a bright summer park morning with a girl who I liked. She had cut-off blue jean shorts and a small top. She was deep brown. Nut brown. We walked up onto the platform and I told her about the contests my brother and I had as boys to throw rocks across the river and how we’d throw so hard that we’d throw our arms out and walk around for the next day holding our shoulders.
I threw a few stones and they either made it across or got sufficiently close to getting across that I stopped before throwing my arm out and then we walked off the platform down the train tracks a few hundred yards to a place where the train tracks went over a creek – Valley Forge Creek – that fed the Schuylkill. You couldn’t even tell it was a bridge. From on top. It was just a spot where the tracks crossed over the creek below. There wasn’t any fence or railing on the sides. Just a flat concrete strip maybe three feet wide made of the same concrete as the platform we had just come from. The strip was parallel to the tracks just a couple of feet up. It was just wide enough for the two of us to lay down on it, side by side, on our backs.
The concrete was hot from the summer heat and it burned our skin as we lay down. We lay on our backs looking into the sky, our hips touching. It was a precarious little spot. On one side of the platform – the side that she lay on – were the train tracks. On the other side there was a 50 or 75 foot drop down to the place where the creek ran into the river. Together she and I were just as wide as the concrete. Her right arm was just on the track-side edge of the little platform. My left arm actually was slightly over the edge of the drop-off to the creek below.
We lay there with the late morning sun on our faces. We were side to side, close together. Squeezed together. My right arm was under her neck as a pillow. My left hand was under my head for the same purpose. We were lolling in the sun. The sky was a blue into which you could dive. We were basking. We were baking. We were lizards on a rock. We fell asleep.
And then the train was there. There was the force you feel from the rushing air of an explosion, and then the train was there. A silver commuter train. It was traveling past us on the tracks immediately to her right, close enough to touch, rocketing, racing, racketting, so fast that it was not there and then suddenly it was there and it was right on top of us, rushingly, blindingly, deafeningly loud. We woke into the noise and the stunning power of the train right there. We were dumbstruck, pole-axed, blown away by the sight.
She screamed completely soundlessly, and in a movement that was like a shudder, a convulsion, she rolled away from the train and into my neck and shoulder, pinning me even more firmly on my back, looking up helplessly at the silver superstructure of the train moving so quickly past us that it appeared still. There was just the solid silver enormous powerful rushing astonishment of it over us and around us, so loud that there was nothing in that moment but the noise and the silver immenseness of the train next to us.
And then it was gone. I had never moved. There was the bright sun and the girl rolled onto me, tucked into me, her face burrowed into the crook of my neck. And no train, just the sound of the train already sucking away from us down the track.
And to my left, the long drop.
And then it hit me. The precariousness. The dangerousness. The train inches on one side. The drop to the either side. A way to be killed in either direction. What were we doing there? We were sleeping in the sun. We were fucking asleep. We had let our wits and our caution fall away from us. We had let down our guard. As bad as napping in the middle of a road. We felt safe in the hot sun on the concrete but only because we knew nothing. We didn’t know that there were trains on these tracks. We didn’t know that a train would come by, so close, so big, so fast and loud.
We lay there for a long time in the just afterwards. It was a much more powerful just afterwards than if we had just had sex. We hadn’t. We may never have had. I don’t even remember. But we had something more powerful. We had train. We had train.
– Jay Duret