Derailed

The first car of the N-Judah squeezes out from the tunnel on Duboce Street, wheels screeching in their groove and the cables snapping with electricity overhead. The bars of light inside bathe the riders in a yellow haze; their heads are bent, their minds in any place but the train car.

We started watching trains when she was just three months old. I strapped her to my chest, covered her head with a blanket, and walked the three blocks up to the far end of the park. In months of sleepless nights and long, stressful days at work, this was blessed time for myself, just me and her. We’d sit on a bench and watch the cars sliding into view at Church Street, behind the Safeway, and trace their movement up the hill until their tail lights faded into the tunnel, straining our ears to hear the rhythmic drone of the tracks all the way until the train emerged into Cole Valley.

When she was six she asked me to take her to Jack London Square in Oakland so we could watch the Amtraks passing through. In that moment my heart loved so exuberantly I was afraid I’d just fall over and seize up. We went one Saturday and watched ships pass by in the Bay while we waited on the trains. When one came she pulled me as close to the tracks as I’d let her and turned her brilliant smile up to the windows where passengers were surely drawn to her radiance.

During one summer in high school, her and a friend conceived of a cross-country train ride to New York City. One of my oldest and dearest friends lived in Brooklyn and eagerly offered to host them. It was a hard time for her — she’d been diagnosed with clinical depression earlier that year; no clear cause, just a severe hormonal imbalance that the doctor speculated could be genetic or could not be — and this trip was all she wanted. She called us each night from the sleeper car, bursting with stories of meeting strangers on the train and talking to the conductor about the specific make of the locomotive. In the city she got a tour of Grand Central Station from the Station Master herself (a friend of a friend of a friend, as it were). When she arrived home three weeks later she was in the brightest mood of the year.

Tonight I’m standing in the same spot I’d stand with her. I fondly remember the combination of San Francisco’s cool nights and her gentle, warm breath against my neck as she slept amidst the noise of passing trains, and a light fog cresting the hill of Buena Vista Park beyond. Each time the N-Judah passes, heading east or heading west, I wonder if that’s the car. Is it that one? Or that one? When she made the decision to end her life last January, one that nearly killed us as well, it was all too fitting that she used a train as her instrument of death. Some nights it’s too hard to stand here and watch them, wondering always if my late night walks to the tracks when she was young played any part in the eventual, devastating outcome. But on nights when I can bare it, I stand in this spot and watch her do her runs. Van Ness to Church; Church to Duboce; Duboce on to Clayton and Cole beyond.