Home > Field Notes on Love

Field Notes on Love
Jennifer E. Smith

Mae wakes, as she does each morning, to the sound of a train.

Even before she opens her eyes, she can feel the low rumble of it straight through to her toes, but it’s the whistle that finally tears at the thin gauze of sleep. She turns over to peer through the blinds. Just beyond their backyard, a long chain of silver cars is streaking past.

Two weeks from now, she’ll be standing in the middle of Penn Station, waiting for a train not so different from this one. The minute she steps on board, she’ll no longer be a fixed point on the map, the way she’s been her whole life.

On the other side of the ocean, a boy named Hugo is holding the tickets that will carry them both across the country. He’s thinking of that old math problem, the one where two different trains leave from two different stations traveling at two different speeds.

The point was always to figure out where they’d meet.

But nobody ever explained what would happen once they did.

They both sit very still, three thousand miles between them. Hugo is staring at the word printed neatly across the bottom of the tickets: California. Mae is watching out her window as the train disappears. If you saw them, you might think they were waiting for something. But what they actually are—what they’ve each always been—is ready.

The shock of it takes a few minutes to absorb. During that time, Hugo sits with his head bent, his fingers laced behind his neck, trying to process the fact that Margaret Campbell—his girlfriend of nearly three years—is breaking up with him.

“You know I’ll always love you,” she says, then adds, “in a way.”

Hugo winces at this. But Margaret seems determined to forge ahead.

“The thing is,” she says, and he lifts his head, interested to find out what—precisely—it is, this thing that’s apparently happening. She gazes back at him with something like sympathy. “You can’t stay with someone only out of inertia, right?”

It’s clear the correct answer here is “Right.” But Hugo can’t bring himself to say it. He just continues to stare at her, wishing his brain weren’t quite so muddled.

“I know you must feel the same way,” she continues. “Things have been off between us for ages now. It’s obvious that it’s not working—”

“Is it?” Hugo asks, and Margaret gives him a weary look. But he’s not trying to be cheeky. It’s just that none of this seems particularly obvious to him, and his face prickles with warmth as he wonders how he managed to get it all so wrong.

“Hugo. Come on. It’s been hard enough when we’re right across the road from each other. We must be barking mad to think we can do this when I’m all the way in California and you’re—”

She stops abruptly, and they both blink at each other.

“Here,” he says eventually, his voice flat.

Margaret sighs. “See, that’s just it. Maybe if you’d stop acting like getting a scholarship to a perfectly good uni is the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone in the history of—”

“I’m not.”

“You are.”

“I’m—”

“Hugo,” she says, interrupting him. “You’ve been in terrible form all summer. I’m not the only one who’s noticed. I realize this isn’t what you wanted, but at some point you just have to…well, get on with it, I suppose.”

He scratches at his knee, unable to look at her. She’s right, and they both know it, but the fact of this makes him want to crawl under the bed to avoid the rest of the conversation.

“Listen, I get it,” she says, playing with the end of her blond ponytail. “If things were different, this wouldn’t have been your first choice.”

This is only half-true. Hugo certainly wouldn’t have minded trying for Oxford or Cambridge or St. Andrews, all of which would’ve been options had his A levels been the only consideration. But the University of Surrey is highly regarded too. It’s more that he never had a choice in the matter, that his path was set out for him long ago, and something about that has always made him feel like an animal at the zoo, penned in and pacing and a bit claustrophobic.

“But if things were different,” Margaret continues, “you wouldn’t have been offered the scholarship at all.”

She says this as if it were nothing, an incidental detail, and not the very thing Hugo has been torturing himself over for years now. Because he didn’t get a scholarship to the University of Surrey for being a brilliant essayist (which he is) or a maths genius (which he’s not). He didn’t get it for his skills as a pianist (though he’s decent) or his ability on the football pitch (he’s completely rubbish). It’s not the result of any particular skill or talent or accomplishment.

No, Hugo got the scholarship—as did his five siblings—simply for being born.

The minute they arrived in the world—one after another, Hugo bringing up the rear—they were showered with gifts. The local market gave them a year’s supply of formula. The pharmacy sent a truckload of free nappies. The mayor came to visit with keys to the city: six of them, one for each of England’s fifth-ever set of sextuplets, affectionately dubbed “the Surrey Six.” And a wealthy donor presented their exhausted and deeply overwhelmed parents with scholarships to the local university for each of their half-dozen newborns.

The man—an eccentric billionaire who made his fortune through a chain of upscale coffee shops—had gotten his start at the University of Surrey, and was elated at the thought of the publicity that would one day be generated by having the sextuplets there. When he died a few years ago, he left the scholarship in the hands of the university council, and they’ve been equally enthusiastic, making all sorts of plans for their arrival.

It’s only Hugo who isn’t thrilled. He knows he’s a complete monster for being anything less than grateful. It’s just that he hates the thought of accepting something so big simply because of the unlikely circumstances of his birth. Especially when his whole life has been about that.

“Look, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea,” Margaret is saying. “About us. About why we’re—”

“Not an us anymore?”

She flinches. “I know I’ve been hard on you, but I don’t want you to think this is happening just because you’ve been moping all summer. Or because of the distance. It’s more that—well, I suppose it feels like it’s time, doesn’t it?”

Hugo scrubs at his eyes, still trying to absorb all this, and when he looks up again, Margaret’s face has softened. She moves over to sit beside him on the bed, and he automatically leans into her, their shoulders pressed together. They’re both quiet for a moment, and he tries to focus his thoughts, which are zipping around in his head. Somewhere inside him, buried so deep he’s never thought to examine it, is the knowledge that she’s right about them, and his heart sinks because he’s somehow the last to know everything, even his own feelings.

“What about the trip?” he asks, and she looks almost relieved, as though she’s been given permission to move on to the business end of things. Three years, Hugo thinks. Three whole years, and here they are, working out their future like a long-married couple debating the fine points of a divorce. Margaret picks at a loose thread on her jumper, which is gray with little foxes on it. Hugo realizes it’s the same one she wore on their third date, when they’d gone to the cinema and kissed for the first time during a fight scene.

It’s only now occurring to him that maybe that was a sign.

“I think you should still go,” she says, and he looks up in surprise. The whole thing had been her idea. Margaret thought a train trip would be a romantic way to see America, where she’d be spending the next four years. She was the one who found the promotion online and booked the tickets, surprising Hugo for his birthday a few months back. They were meant to go from New York to California, with a few stops in between. And then Hugo would drop her off at Stanford before returning to Surrey, the place where he’d lived his whole life and was apparently never leaving.

“Why me?” he asks, staring at her. “Why not you?”

“Well, you’re the one staying behind. So I figured it might be nice for you to…” She pauses when she notices his expression, and her pale skin flushes a deep pink. “Sorry. I’m mucking this up, aren’t I?”

“No,” he says, thinking of the plans they’d been making all summer, the photos of the train, sleek and silver, moving west across America. “It’s just—how could I go without you?”

“You’re a bit hopeless sometimes, it’s true,” she says with a smile, “but I think you could probably manage to get there in one piece.”

She reaches for her bag, which is slumped on the floor near his desk, and hands him a blue folder with the name of a travel company embossed across the front. When he takes it, their fingers brush, and suddenly his head is swimming with doubts. But then she leans forward to kiss him on the cheek before standing up, and something about the gesture—the sheer friendliness of it—reminds him of why this is happening and steadies him again.

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