The man in the Hawaiian shirt had just been seated in the booth. The dining-car host directed me next to him. He and I on our side with a husband and wife already on the other. We all said hello, and she grabbed a pen from a plastic cup on the table. An artificial sunflower was masking-taped to it, and the petals wiggled as she wrote her and husband’s names on the white paper covering the tablecloth.

She asked my name and wrote it in front of me.

She asked the man his name. The petals wiggled a few letters and stopped.

“Your name!” she said. “It reminds me of a movie.” She elbowed her husband and asked if he knew the movie. He didn’t.

“Who was in it?” I asked, but she couldn’t name any actors.

The waitress appeared at the end of our table. While the man ordered, I looked past him out the window. For the two days from California to Missouri, I’d done little else. It was late December 2016, and we were just then rolling across the eastern plains of Colorado. About an hour before, the conductor had announced that if it weren’t already darkening, we’d see elk grazing on a ridge we were passing. I quickly turned off the light in my sleeping compartment, yanked shut the privacy curtain between me and the hallway, and there they were, chewing and snuffling in the snow.

As we ate, we had a slightly new version of the same conversation I’d had four times already on the train. In this one, the couple was from L.A. The man in the Hawaiian shirt actually lived in Hawaii. He was on his way to an antique clock convention. The dome of his head was bald, but a horseshoe of white hair encircled the sides. He wore glasses and a giant beard. He resembled Santa Claus on vacation.

The three of them were closer in age to each other than any of them were to me. The woman kept asking questions, mainly of him. Each more intimate than the last, such as: “Did you cry when your dog died?” She also asked if he was married.

“No,” he said.

“Have you ever been?”

“No, it never happened.”

“Why not?”

He puffed himself up, lifted his wine cup. “When I was young, I could have married anyone I pleased. It’s just that I never pleased anyone.”

It went on like that. She asked questions I would never think of asking a stranger and, for each one, he had some knee-slapper response. Several times, I rolled my mind’s eye.

“And what about you?” she asked me.

“I’m married.”

“And where’s your wife?”

“I’m married to a man,” I said. “He’s at home with our dog.”

Knowing I’d be sitting with strangers for meals, I decided before boarding that I wouldn’t lie. If someone asked a question, I would answer it. I wouldn’t misrepresent my life for someone else’s comfort as I might have even a few years before. But when the moment arrived, I hadn’t been sure I’d actually tell the truth until I did.

She said the man’s name. “I cannot believe you never got married. How come you never got married?”

The waitress delivered desserts and coffee. I got the hockey-puck cheesecake again. There was some mix-up with their order, and the waitress leaned over to address it. Her arm and tray created a screen between the sides of the table.

He scooted closer, his beard near my face.

“In my day,” he whispered, “we weren’t allowed to come out.” I couldn’t think of anything to say but I felt very lucky and very sorry all at once. If I somehow ever sit next to him again, I will say what I should have then: Tell me the story of your life.

He sat back and cut into his brownie. I tried to catch his eyes, but he wouldn’t look up, and then the waitress left, the other side of the table was connected to ours again.

We settled our tabs, put down tips, and said our good-byes. Then I walked to my car. Back in my compartment, I turned off the light and yanked shut the privacy curtain. Even in the dark, there was so much to see.

Ryan Van Meter is the author of the essay collection If You Knew Then What I Know Now. His work has also appeared in journals such as Iowa Review, The Normal School Magazine and Fourth Genre and has been selected for anthologies including The Best American Essays. He lives in California and teaches creative writing at University of San Francisco.

Photo by Amy Selwyn