Rehearsing Headline
Setting the scene

Claire Gray has struck a bargain with an old friend to trade homes for a year while she returns to college as a visiting professor, intent on writing a play. She takes a preliminary trip to the school to work out logistics of the move, traveling by train from New York to the foothills of the Berkshires in Massachusetts. This scene chronicles her thoughts along the way.

Excerpt from the text of Rehearsing

    Next Monday morning, the 8:32 was almost empty. I was the only passenger in my car. A surly conductor sauntered through to take my ticket, informing me that if I wished to smoke, I would have to move to the smoker at the far end of the train. Grudgingly, I stamped out my cigarette on the linoleum floor. When he had gone, I lit another and peered through the window.
    The city crept slowly away. I watched the dreary switchyard disappear in a tunnel’s blackness, then squinted as the train emerged into the stark light and shadow of deep urban canyons. Buildings soon parted, and we clattered across long steel bridges, leaving Manhattan with the murky water behind us. Residential sprawl gave way to industrial sprawl, which in turn gave way to the first few snatches of green, open land. These bits of countryside grew and spread until at last the train was streaking through a vast panorama of endless vegetation under white summer sky.
    The noise of the train was itself a kind of silence—the droning silence of metal wheels engaging metal rails—the deafening man-made silence of great diesel engines. I slipped into its void. My eyes absorbed the sameness of the landscape, yet saw nothing. I dreamed, but never slept. I cannot say how long I drifted in this peaceful state; it seemed as though hours had been compressed into an instant. And then I thought of mother.
    I blinked.
    She had sneaked into my mind and yanked me from my reverie. I searched the landscape for familiar features, but found none, save a cluster of spires in the distant hills, a vague reminder of the town where I grew up, the town where my mother still lives. Was it the setting that turned my thoughts to her? Or was I still, perhaps, in a subliminal tiff over her phone call of the previous Monday?
    I’m not openly hostile toward mother. I treat her kindly at best, respectfully at worst. I’ve learned not to address her criticisms, argue her beliefs, or play her games. My only defense against her loving attacks is a buffer of nonchalance, so I call her “dear” and “darling” as though we were great old chums. I perform the required visits. We chatter like schoolgirls until she starts probing my past, questioning my future, harping about marriage—and I announce that the discussion is closed.
    I continued to gaze through the window, mulling over my thoughts, not reacting to the things I saw, never flinching as trees rushed toward the train and swept past me. I was lost again in the hum of the engine, in the soothing rocking of the floor beneath me. I was lulled into another waking dream.
    It began as a nagging germ of an idea that throbbed with the pulse of the rails, a sore that would grow within me and burst. But the pain began so gently, the thought nudged my brain so slowly and was born so serenely, I was taken unaware by the foretaste of my mother’s death.
    Mystics and dreamers may question death’s grip, but I do not. I’ve long known death as an intellectual reality, but it never once scratched my emotions till I pondered the surety of my own mother’s passing. I am fifty years old; my mother is nearly eighty. While healthy and alert, she is living beyond her time. Any day, I could face the task of burying her.
    The facts of life and death become apparent to any farsighted person while slipping into middle age. The inescapable is more imminent with each passing year, month, hour. My thoughts on the train were startling not because they were new, but because of their clarity. I didn’t picture my mother’s death scene in a clairvoyant sense, but I did see what it would mean to me.
    I would be free.
    It’s an uneasy admission—something of a confession—that so grievous a loss can be sweetened by the lure of freedom. I have no reason to wish her dead. She doesn’t live with me; she hasn’t turned mean or senile; I haven’t know the horrors of those who must nurse their failing parents. Yet the thought I could not suppress was this: There is a woman out there, somewhere among the billions, who claims me as hers. I may be fifty, but I am hers. No one else can cripple me with such physical ties, such emotional bonds.
    I want loose.
    I wanted loose that morning on the train. I saw with sudden insight that I would be free, I would be my self, only at the moment of my mother’s death. Burying her would be my ultimate act of maturity, my last rite of passage into adulthood.

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