national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

Amtrak Viewliner Roomette

David Kunkel  • 
Boston College

Type into Google, “Can you have sex in an Amtrak Viewliner Roomette,” and Yahoo Answers will either tell you yes, just don’t forget to close the curtains, or yes, just don’t forget to leave the curtains open when you pass my apartment by the tracks. Add that it’s for your honeymoon and responders will even give friendly encouragement, applause. In online pictures the compartment looks too small for comfort. But on the train, the staff calls it a sleeper car, not a roomette, so Rachel and I decided we might as well try.

After the conductor took our tickets, we turned in the seats and looked for bed-assembly instructions. The walls were blank. “Maybe it says in one of those pamphlets on the table,” said Rachel, as I took off her shoes. The pamphlets only contained advertisements. I pulled the cushions off the seats, but everything looked bolted down. The one other time I’d taken a train, years before, I’d sat in coach, so that was no help. Our room was supposed to have two beds, the second one lowering from the ceiling. It almost completely filled the compartment, so Rachel had to step out into the hallway in her socks. Already the train had started moving. When the bed was finally all the way down, Rachel stood on the toilet to climb up.

A knock came at the door once her socks were off. “Shit,” she said. “Shit shit shit,” and scrambled to pull them back on. Hopping down off the bed, I unlocked the door. Outside, a steward smiled at me, glancing up to Rachel sitting mock-casually on the mattress.

“Would you like dinner at five, five-thirty, or eight-thirty?” he said. In a thick warm accent I couldn’t place, he said, “I’ll make a reservation for you in the dining car.”

“What time do you want dinner?” I said to Rachel.


“How about eight-thirty?” I said.

“Eight-thirty is a great choice,” he said.

“I’ll let you know if we need anything else,” I said, and when he left, she said, “You didn’t have to be so obvious about it.”

“If you just want to use this for sleeping, be my guest.”

“Come take these off again,” she said, gesturing toward her socks. “They’re stifling me.” Under her socks, she had a second pair of socks. I removed those too. Through the windows, we could see a station in New Jersey where we’d already stopped. Passengers walked past the glass, their eyes level with Rachel’s undershirt, her sweater discarded on the floor at their feet.

“Maybe we should close the curtains,” I said.

“The windows are tinted,” she said. When the train started to move again, I pulled off her jeans, but she told me not to take off her underwear or shirt. Her bra slid off under her clothes and I ended up entirely naked. By pulling her underwear to the side, we didn’t even have to remove it. Her head nearly scraped the ceiling, and every time the train shook and she jerked up or down we tried not to laugh.

Since we’d left at three, the light had started to dim already. New Jersey outside was as shitty as ever: grey, industrial, unlivable. Rachel said she liked it.


For a while, we’d thought we would miss our train. The subway had let off a longer block away than we’d expected, and from the beginning we’d missed the 6 we should’ve caught. In the station we stopped at a Dunkin Donuts for coffee. The line moved a person every five minutes, and our train was at one of the farthest tracks. Before a woman walked us to the right escalator, we’d passed the track entrance four or five times. Before Rachel and I even started dating, I knew she wanted a small wedding. But my parents weren’t ones to let us not invite the entire extended family, so there she stood, a half-smile on her face, getting rice thrown at her like they were hoping she’d eat it.

The rumbling of the train, she told me, made it hard to tell what was me and what was the tracks.

Twenty years from now, I know, she’ll look back at pictures and think how happy she’d been. At the reception, my cousins tackled me into a pool. Thirty years from now, we’ll stop thinking how expensive my tuxedo had been.

Cruises, though, were good. Cruises, though, were inexpensive honeymoon options. And trains from New York to Miami are land cruises of their own.


We lay there and watched New Jersey pass by. “I love New Jersey,” she said, “in a hate-it kind of way, you know? In a shoot-me-if-I-ever-live-there sort of way.”

“Wake me up when we get to Pennsylvania,” I said. “I’d hate to miss something worth seeing.”

“Your stubble hurts a little,” she said.

I moved my cheek to the pillow. “Should I shave now? We have a mirror.”

“Look at New Jersey,” she said. “Every telephone pole is different.”


To propose, I’d taken her to sand dunes in North Carolina. We’d been on a trip to the beach. I said, “Let’s go see these sand dunes,” and she said, “Do we have to? I’m so sick of going places.” For once, I forced her. It took longer than we expected to climb to the top of the highest one, and from it, we could only see the sound, not the ocean. Hang-gliders crowded the peak, along with hang-glider-cheerers-on, and we slid down one side after taking a step too many. As she told me about a kid she knew who was swallowed by a sinkhole when he was walking up a dune, I lifted my finger to her lips, reaching into my pocket before she could bat my hand away.


Like cruises, in Viewliner Roomettes the meals are paid for, the staff is attentive, and you have a private bathroom. Even short of excursions and towel animals, you might be able to say the entire experience is more enjoyable. Short of a casino and sunbathing.

“Do you think we’ll meet any ambassadors in the dining car?” Rachel said.

“I think that’s reserved for five-thirty,” I said.

“Doesn’t it seem like we should meet ambassadors? And then one of them should get murdered when the power goes out, and one of us will be the detective and we’ll start questioning each other.”

“Will you start questioning me?” I said.

“You’ll definitely start questioning me. You’ll say, ‘I don’t even know who you are anymore.’” She laughed.

“Would you have done it?”

“If we met an ambassador, probably.”

“Where to?”


“An ambassador where to?” I said.

“You’re ridiculous,” she said.

We watched as the sun went down and the factories turned to trees. We talked about the weather in Miami, how even though it was November the cruise would be warm enough to go swimming. We could visit South Beach and look for cross-dressers during our night there. In New York, she said, she’d started to recognize one of them, who always kept it tasteful and was always at midtown around lunchtime, Union Square at dinner. When I asked her to describe him, we realized it was already eight.

Standing on the toilet I pulled on my underwear and she sat up, but I reached over and pushed her back down. My boxers came off again at a touch. On the only other cruise I’d ever taken, my parents and I had watched an adult game show featuring three couples, newlywed, middle-aged, and old. They had to answer questions and hope their answers lined up with their spouses’, and on “How often do you have sex?” the young couple matched at every other day. My parents told me they wouldn’t last.

After a few minutes, the train shook violently and jolted to a stop. The inertia clacked our heads together, then against the wall, then back to the pillow, and we lay together, panting, sweat coating my back. Hers, too, I could feel under her shirt.

“That wasn’t you,” she said, and laughed. When I resumed, she pushed me off. “Shouldn’t we see what that was?” she said.

“Baby, there’s plenty to see right here.”

“What did I tell you about calling me that?”

“I thought it was okay if it’s a joke,” I said, leaning down to kiss her.

“Maybe it’s terrorists,” she said. “Can you hijack a train?”

“Baby,” I said.

“Go check.”

“You’re the one wearing clothes.”

“We have to go to dinner anyway,” she said.

In the motionless car it was harder to keep my balance. Our clothes were scattered on the bed and the floor below, and I fell into the door trying to pull my jeans on.

“Can I just wear my undershirt?” I said. She shook her head. “Do I need shoes?” She nodded.

“I don’t think we’re at a station,” she said. Of course, we’d heard all the cruise horror stories. About having to eat spam airlifted in by the navy, air conditioning kaput, hot water cold. If ours sank, we agreed we’d be like the old people in Titanic and cling to each other in a warm bed instead of running outside, where we’d only get frostbite along with drowning. Once, my uncle told me that if a cruise gets stranded, they make the bar free. Anarchy, he said. The one thing we had to pay for with a meal on a train was liquor.

The hallway was empty when I opened the door. I spotted one other man sticking his head out of his compartment. He met my eyes and shrugged. Now that I thought about it, the other train I’d taken had stopped early, too. For different reasons, I was sure. I tried to remember which end of the car the attendant said he’d be at, and eventually decided on left. When no one was there, I turned around instead of continuing into the next car. A woman was standing at the other end talking to the steward, who was smiling and speaking in his friendly accent.

“They’re still checking now,” he told her. “It’s very bad.”

“What’s—” I said, and the woman said, “We hit a car.”

“What kind of car?” I said.

“Do you think anyone survived?” she asked the attendant.

“I’ve seen this happen only once before,” he said. “Very unlikely.”

“When do we start moving again?” I said, and the woman looked at me as if I’d been the one who parked my car on the tracks.

“Should only take half an hour. Dinner is still at the same time.”

For some reason, I pictured the car as a pickup truck. On the way back, I tried to open the door to the wrong compartment, but it was locked, so I moved to the next one and saw Rachel fully clothed through the now-uncurtained indoor window. She lay on her elbow staring at the trees. “It’s so much more boring here than in Jersey,” she said.

“The car hit a train,” I said.


“Sorry.” I laughed. “The train hit a car.”

“Is everyone alright?”

“It doesn’t sound like it.”

“Oh,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You weren’t the one driving.”

“The train or the car?” I said, and she coughed.

“Were they committing suicide?” she said.

“They probably just tried to run the light.”

“Don’t the crossing guards come down way before the train gets there?”

“Is that what they’re called? Crossing guards?”

“I don’t know.”

I laughed.

“It’s clearly not very effective,” she said, but she didn’t crack a smile. Then we sat quietly for a while. The trees seemed black in the night, firs with all their foliage still on hand. On the ground we could see frost. In Miami the light would be bright yellow like in the movies, and in South Beach everyone would wear Speedos straight out of the eighties. In our room it was still dark, even with the light coming in from the hallway. I flicked on the switch.

“Maybe they were texting while driving,” she said in a very serious voice, and I laughed again. She didn’t. Their deaths were, I knew, probably not voluntary. Still, it seemed inconsiderate. Still it seemed like, looking back, we’d remember our honeymoon as a pickup truck crumpling, maybe tearing apart, the bed splitting from the cab, spilling its contents—logs, horseback-riding equipment—onto the ground.

“Should we still go to dinner?” Rachel said. I shook myself and we stood.


The dining car was whiter than the rest of the train because of the tablecloths, and I tried to be cheerful standing there, hoping someone might ask us how we’d been spending the ride so far. All of the tables had occupants, so they sat us with an older couple who was almost finished.

I nudged Rachel. “Ambassadors,” I said. Her wedding smile.

We lowered into our seats and the other couple finished their food in silence. They’d both ordered the steak along with red wine. Their eyes met from time to time, usually when they both reached for their drinks, always synchronized, and Rachel and I waited for the power to go out. Now that we’d hit something, it seemed more likely than ever. The murderer would have planted the car, jumped out, would be searching for the most ambassadorial person. At these seats, we’d hardly be safe from the kickback. If they did it with a small bomb, even a strong gun, Rachel’s arm might’ve gone with them. Not knowing whether she felt me or the train was, of course, a joke.

“So,” said the man finally, turning to us, “married?”

“Just,” I said.


“Have you heard?” said the woman. “That the train hit a car?”

“We were talking about it,” I said. “You’d think the crossing guards would’ve closed way before the train got there.”

“Oh, honey,” said the woman. “You don’t have to be so innocent.” She smiled and shook her head. They both waited for my response.

“Excuse us for optimism,” said Rachel. They raised their eyebrows at each other, and the woman said, “We just think it must be so disastrous for the conductor. I mean, think—it’s a standard job, and now he’s killed four people. Did you hear that? There were four?”

“They probably prepare conductors for that,” I said.

“It would be worse for a subway driver,” said Rachel. “At least the conductor didn’t hit a body directly.”

“Maybe he could’ve stopped on time if he hadn’t been live-tweeting the trip,” I said, and Rachel laughed.

“Baby,” she said.

When I’d taken a train before, a man in our compartment—a regular compartment, not a Viewliner Roomette—had tried to light himself on fire. He had patches on his clothes that he took a lighter to, yelling gibberish the whole time. One by one he sent them up, but every time a new patch started the old one would go out, as if he were deliberately wearing flame-retardant fabric. The conductor stopped the train. A worker restrained the man until the police came, and then the fire department, since the police, they told us, weren’t supposed to deal with flames. All that time, the most he got was a patch or two. Now, I know that even after he exited the train, went home alone to sit among his matches and gasoline, he’d never managed to light the whole thing.

The couple stared at us for a couple minutes, until the woman drank the rest of her wine and said, “Are you finished?” Her husband nodded and they left.

Rachel ordered the vegetarian pasta when the waiter showed up, so I did too, because that’s what real married couples did. That way we could answer the same thing in a game on the cruise.