Chapter 7 – Friendly Goodbyes
Steven finished packing sooner than anticipated. He would be travelling light as he had planned. Besides clothing, he brought his hacker’s survival kit and his laptop, a brand-new Pentium 133 and its leather case containing CDs of every software he had ever had since he needed to switch from Commodore Amiga to IBM PC a decade before. The rest were small items one would usually bring on a long journey.
At noon, he went to Toronto's Union Station to buy a ticket for a shared cabin on the next day's Silver Blue train. He purposely bought an open-ended ticket in order to be able to stop along the way. As he got out of the train station, an idea just crossed his mind and he called one of his friends: Another act of generosity that would get rid of the car which he called his Hyundai ‘Shit box’. His friend was glad to receive that freely given gift. He gave Steven a ride to the hotel and dropped him on the street, his friend probably too ashamed to enter the hotel valet area. Steven took one last time to look at his very first car with mixed feelings and a little bitter thought, imagining that a week from now, the guy would have likely wrecked it in the sandpits north of town as his friends liked to do with the joyride cars they stole from time to time. About that, Steven knew only the stories he was told.
Steven turned to face the two towers of the hotel and rejoiced at the thought of not spending his last night in Toronto in the smoke-infested family apartment. Knowing this would also be his last evening with Stephanie, he reserved a suite with harbour view. She had never accepted to sleep-over on a school night, but one could always hope. He also retained one of the hotel cars for the
rest of the evening. He would have preferred driving, but as he often noticed, it required to be older than twenty-one years old to do anything fun in this world and he didn't feel like using a fake identity to rent a car just for one night out with a friend, even one with benefits.
Steven had always been disciplined when it came to crimes. Although he sometimes hanged out with friends while they were stealing cars, he always refused to go with them once the car was started. He was there to learn how to open locks and start engines without keys, not to have fun with a bunch of drug addicted morons and getting arrested by the police in the process. No amount of “You’re just a goddamn chicken!” would change that.
At 15:45 sharp, a Lincoln Town Car stopped in front of the side door of the building where Stephanie attended private school. Steven rolled down the window and smiled at one of his old classmates obviously failing to light a cigarette against the wind.
“Steven, buddy! What the hell are you doing in a limo?” he exclaimed.
“Dude, leaving high school has its advantages. Besides, if you want to be technical, that’s not a limousine or a stretched, it’s just a stock Lincoln,” Steven replied, looking in the direction of the driver hoping not to have insulted him with his remark. “Man, as I always said ‘those who can't make it on their own go to school to be told what to do with their lives,” finished Steven, looking past his former schoolmate as Stephanie appeared and the school door closed behind. She had already removed her school uniform to slip on a very tight pair of jeans and a loose short black spring coat. Steven knew she had chosen it because of the dark colour and the looseness hid her small breast.
Steven waved at her and opened the door before sliding on the black leather seat to the other side. “Hi, thanks for seeing me on a school night,” Steven said sincerely before giving her a short French kiss. He paused, looking at her for a moment, placed his hand on her leg and winked. “You are really sexy in those jeans, but unfortunately for tonight, it won't do.”
“If you want we can pass by my place and I can change.” Stephanie offered, looking around in amazement at the car and a little stunned at the statement. He had never criticized her clothes before or anything else for that matter. “I wasn't exactly expecting you to pick me up in a limousine you know.”
Steven said nothing at that statement. He knew too well never to start a romantic evening by correcting his girlfriend on a mere technicality. “It’s not you, it’s the place we are going, but don’t worry about it. This is something we can easily remedy,” he said. “Muhammad, can you take us to the Eaton Centre please?”
“Of course, Sir,” replied the driver with a nosy Arabic accent. “And may I say Sir, that I am impressed that you have pronounced my name so flawlessly,” he added, partially because it was true and also because he wanted to boost his client’s image in front of the lovely lady. Although for himself, truth be told, he preferred them chubbier and with less self-confidence.
After buying a classy black dress for Stephanie which accentuated her I’m happy light green eyes—at least they are green now and would hopefully change to I want you so much blue as the evening progressed—a phenomenon that had attracted Steven the first time they met.
They drove to the foot of the CN Tower, skipping the long line of visitors and headed for the private elevator to the 360 Restaurant located at the top of the tower. As the rapid alternating beat of concrete-and-glass window flew and they rocketed along the 1800-foot tower to the highest restaurant in the world, they looked around and admired the view of downtown Toronto and Lake Ontario. Steven had reserved a table by the window. He regretted a little that it was now spring time and the sun had set too early for them to enjoy the daytime view. Steven chose this rotating restaurant which took over an hour to complete its rotation because he felt it was the perfect way to see the city one last time before his departure. Also, the five-course meal would give him plenty of time to explain to Stephanie most of what happened. They both ordered the restaurant’s signature dish of fine ostrich meat and emptied a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a sure way to get Stephanie to forget school for an evening and likely for the night as her eyes had turned from periwinkle to sky blue between the sorbet and the last of her asparagus.
A little before the waiter rolled down a cart with a selection of desserts, Steven had finished explaining why he decided to leave Toronto and go explore the world for a few months. He had planned to travel for a lot longer than that, staying in Asia where he hoped to live like a king, but he didn’t want to hurt her anymore than he had to and didn’t mention his entire plan. They chose to finish dinner with the chocolate mousse which they both shared.
“I know that we have never said to each other I love you, but I always felt it and now, knowing you’re leaving, I regret not telling you sooner,” said Stephanie as she grabbed his hand over the table, looking at his eyes, but Steven did not look back.
“Actually, I am glad that you have not,” replied Steven, his chest slowly squeezing as he remembered the exact moment, the cold and humid garage and the smell of fresh paint.
“Why?” she asked in dismay.
He sighed and continued, the pain not relinquishing in his chest. “Do you remember three weeks ago, when I passed by your house to return a book you had lent me?” asked Steven, looking anywhere but directly in her eyes. “I must confess that before ringing the doorbell, I heard voices in the garage, you were there with your boyfriend, helping him fix something for your parents. I stood there for a few long minutes listening to your conversation before knocking and entering the garage. You guys were in deep discussion, planning for the summer after he completes his tour of duty on the East Coast.”
“Yes, I remember. He had taken two days of shore leave to return home to his family and of course he came to see me...” to take his pleasure, but that she didn’t add as a teardrop rolled down her cheek, recalling the event and how she felt on that cold Saturday morning. “When I saw you enter the garage, I felt so ashamed of myself. With him gone and only calling me from time to time, everything seemed perfect to me. But seeing both of you together at my house made me feel cheap.”
“It was not so much as seeing the two of you with him that caused me to think that what we had could not last much longer. It was everything that was said before I entered the garage,” explained Steven, raising his eyebrows and now looking at her. “When he told you that upon his return he was planning on taking you for a few weeks to his family’s country home, and that you guys would have the place all for yourself, you told him excitingly that spending time with him by the lake, boating and skinny dipping in their pool would be like a dream come true for you and that you loved him so much.”
At that moment, he noticed that the tear drop that had slowly coasted along her cheek had turned into a rushing torrent.
“I know that soon enough he will return and you guys will resume your relationship, and hopefully he will never know about us,” explained Steven, shedding a few tears himself. He had never really felt anything like that for her before, but now he knew he was leaving, he found himself overwhelmed with emotions.
“He almost found out that very day,” Stephanie said, wiping her tears with the towel on her lap. “I feel very uncomfortable talking about it with you because I'm afraid to hurt you, but I think that you have the right to know, so I'll skip the details. Essentially that night he noticed that I was completely shaved down there and since he had always refused to-” Steven did not want to add salt to his wound and stopped her.
“All I care really is to end it peacefully and make sure we remain friends as we always have been in the past,” continued Steven, thinking the ignorance in this case was truly bliss. “Later, we can go downstairs to the observation deck and watch the city at night, chat a little and then I’ll drive you back home.”
There was a long pause. She was still grabbing his hand so tightly that he felt his fingers go a little cold as the blood was prevented to reach the tips. Stephanie had managed to control her tears somewhat and Steven was now feeling relieved that he had told her how he felt for the past few weeks. With his departure the next day, he knew the pain would go away and be replaced by the excitement of an adventure he had long hoped for.
“One more thing I would like to do before we part ways tonight, since it is likely the last time we will see each other this way, could you please, I mean would you like...” trailed Stephanie, her now radiant I want you blue eyes trained on him trying to find the right words. “What I'm trying to say is that I would like to spend the night with you and make love to you one last time. Call it, friendly goodbye sex if you will,” she said, immediately feeling that these last few words should have been left in the novel she was reading.
“Of course, I have a suite at the Westin like last weekend and if you want we can spend my last night in Toronto together; there is no one else I would rather be with right now. My train is leaving at ten tomorrow morning, so we can wake up together, have breakfast in the room and then you can take a taxi,” Steven offered softly.
They finished the tour by going down to the round observation deck to see the newly installed transparent floor which gave the tourists the impression of being suspended almost half a kilometre in the air. After laughing with a couple of tourists too afraid to step on the glass floor, they worked slowly around the parameter, bathing in the city lights below, the tall buildings standing like a forest of decorated Christmas trees. He had always loved being downtown and watching it from high above gave him a feeling for grandeur as if he was for an instant the Mayor of that utopia. The rest of the evening progressed exactly as he had hoped. They returned early enough to enjoy a long chat in the living room of the suite before closing the bedroom’s sliding French doors.
Steven awoke first and got up carefully without waking her, took a shower and ordered breakfast. Stephanie woke up as he gently touched her face and brought her a bathrobe. She went to the bathroom, brushed her teeth and freshened up before having breakfast which had arrived just in time.
As Steven was waiting for her to finish, he was holding a glass of orange juice and reflected on their last night. Sex had been quite different this time, more passionate, more interlaced in each other's arms. She seldom allowed him to play with her hair while she was going down on him, but this time, to his great pleasure, she did not mind. Because they didn’t want to use condoms, the endings were always the same, to the detriment of her hair and the hotel towels.
After breakfast, he took her down to the lobby and gave her a long hug, and put his nose in her long and beautiful brown hair. They embraced and promised to keep in touch. Steven saw her off and kept his eyes on her taxi until it turned from the hotel circle and vanished into the sea of yellow and orange cabs.
It took only a minute for him to checkout, thanks to the Preferred Customer Lane which made him feel elite somehow. With his invoice in hand, he exited the hotel and walked to the train station a few blocks away.
The Union Station was a majestic building in the heart of the city. Its twenty-two stone columns always reminded him of the beautiful Parthenon in Athens as he saw it in various travel books. Of course, he had never been to Greece or anywhere else for that matter. His parents’ idea of international travel was just limited to the occasional hour trips across the US border to go and buy cheap stuff and the high point of these trips had always been trying to hide the goods, mainly the free-tax cigarettes and telling the customs officer that they had nothing to declare.
More than a quarter million people used the station each day and this morning, it really showed. Steven made his way to the VIA Rail Lounge for first class passengers. As the glass door closed behind him, the cacophony produced by all the commuters ceased at once. The two agents at the welcoming desk looked at him from head to toe, probably wondering if he was lost or had made a wrong turn somewhere. Steven recognized the look and paid it no heed. Going on a casual trip, he just wore a clean pair of jeans, a sweater, and his new white running shoes. It was a comfortable outfit, not elegant like the hundreds of businessmen and women crossing these doors every day, but today he couldn’t care less.
“Sorry, this lounge is only for the first class passengers,” snorted the older of the two.
“I know that ma’am, I have a first class ticket as well,” replied Steven, handing the ticket to the younger girl and ignoring the other.
The girl didn’t seem too sure of herself and the old woman was showing her what to do with the patience of a nurse in an overcrowded emergency room. After verifying his identity and seeing the reservation in their antiquated system, their attitude changed at once as if they had been hit by a spell. They were now smiling and didn’t seem to see the young man in front of them anymore.
“Here you are Mr. Mitchell, you have a flexible double-cabin top-bunk. The train is non-smoking and that includes your cabin as well. All your meals are included and you can disembark the train at any stop along the way and board again at your convenience,” explained the older ticketing agent with the robotic voice of someone that must have repeated that same sentence a thousand times a day. “Sir, it takes eighty-seven hours to traverse the 4400 kilometres and the train leaves at ten on platform six; there will be an announcement made in the lounge when it is time to board. So please, feel free to enjoy the lounge amenities before departure. Have a pleasant day and thank you for using VIA Rail for your travels.”
Steven excitedly entered the lounge through the automatic glass doors and made his way through all the professionals dressed up for their upcoming meetings and business trips. Most were reading newspapers or talking shop with colleagues. Steven listened to some of those conversations as he grabbed a croissant and hot chocolate milk. He also picked up a copy of the Toronto Sun that seemed to have been read to exhaustion since the lounge had opened hours earlier, and threw himself on a comfortable couch in the lounge’s corner. As he opened the pages, the first headline that jumped off the paper was titled “Calgary resident arrested for credit card fraud and sentenced to fifty-four months in prison.” The article said the prosecutor had concluded that it was a good judgement, and that the man would be released at one sixth of his sentence, or in less than nine months for good behaviour. Steven felt lucky to be free still; he had never considered himself a lifelong criminal, short life though it was. Criminals did time in prison because of what? Because enough was never enough for most, but not for him, he thought. He was not addicted to anything, not to smoke, alcohol or drugs, two of which he had always refused to even try. Crime was a job, not a passion and now it was over. Now that he had a lot of money in his various bank accounts, in his security deposit box, and an old triplex under the name of a friend with a notary back letter saying it was his, he decided to give it up for good. Travelling would be his new thing.
The announcement informed the passengers that the train would depart in ten minutes. Steven got up at once and he was the first to go down the private escalator to the platform. He set his backpack and luggage down and waited for the train doors to open. The Great Canadian Silver and Blue train was already there. It was a modern train painted with the usual two colours of the famous Canadian train company; a large yellow and blue stripe spanned the entire bottom of the train. Under the black windows and the typical silver colour on the upper half of the train was the yellow logo of VIA Rail in italic clearly visible. He climbed aboard and felt a wave of national pride.
As he entered the cabin, he found that the room was so big that he couldn’t touch both walls between the two bunk beds and the toilet. The walls were made of a decently convincing wood imitation and the floor was carpeted. The bathroom, however, was small, which reminded him of the camping trailer toilet of his uncle by the lake and the shower was no bigger; thankfully, he was rather small and slim. One thing that was big, however, was the tainted window and as he looked outside, he felt an overwhelming exhilaration—not as strong as his walk in the rain that memorable night last week, but close enough.
He started making use of the storage space when someone knocked at the door. “This is compartment 28 in train number 6, right?” asked a black woman well in her thirties as she stood in the doorway of Steven’s cabin. She was rather tall, thin, and impeccably dressed. Her hair was weaved together like an expensive Bokhara rug and her skin was of a light chocolate colour. She spoke with an accent clearly African American, reminding him of gospel singers and the girls in the hood as they referred to them in Law and Order.
“Hello, yes, it is room 28,” answered Steven with the residual smile, still floating on the same wave of excitement he had ridden since he entered the station an hour before. He paused to wait if she would return the courtesy.
“Ah, yes, hello,” she blurted. “There must be a problem with your ticket. I had specially requested a shared room with a female traveler,” she informed him.
“As far as I can tell, there is nothing wrong with my ticket. I didn’t request either a male or female; actually, I didn’t think about it at booking time, all I care was a non-smo-” but he was interrupted.
“Can I see your ticket?” she demanded.
“Ma’am, if they have another compartment, I would be glad to accommodate you and move or you can move in another compartment yourself. It is fine by me either way,” Steven offered, still smiling, but clearly annoyed by her aggressive attitude. He didn’t remember where he had put his ticket just now but wouldn’t spend a minute to search for it, at least not with the way she had asked.
“I’ll go and find the staff now and fix that,” she shot back, clearly frustrated at the situation and the fact that Steven was taking way too long to hand out his ticket.
“Might I suggest you wait a little? These people are always busy before departure.” he said.
“They are paid to do a job, if they can't do it they should quit! It's nothing against you really, it's just, it's just that, I need to change and that's all,” she finished and without looking at him, she dashed out.
After she left, Steven sat down on the lower bed which he found rather soft and comfortable. He looked out the window and watched the employees getting ready for departure, taking the little step ladders inside the train. As he sat there daydreaming, he saw the image of Stephanie running after the train as it departed, yelling his name, then saw himself getting off and running toward her, kissing her on the platform as all the passengers looked at them and applauded. Finally the train would leave with all his belongings, but he wouldn’t care, because he was in the arms of his love. Bullshit, these things only happen in books and movies, he thought and smiled.