Chapter 6 Acela

Ren needed to take a few days to attend a conference in Washington DC. This was different from most of the conferences that he went to. Normally, after serious preparation and planning, he attacked conferences so that he could learn the maximal amount of information and news from them. But he had signed up for this conference to get away for a few days, to see old friends and colleagues, and basically to have some fun; therefore, learning something new and exciting about plants or biology was not the main reason for attending this meeting, but it would be a big plus if something new came along. This strategy fell apart early into the conference as his ability to concentrate in the various lectures and workshops deteriorated, and he decided to head back home. He was mentally tired, and attending this meeting really made him aware of it. In fact, Ren had a dizziness attack as he sat listening to one of the lectures; this was a definite first and relayed an important warning to him.

The next morning he traveled by subway from his hotel to Union Station. He found a seat in business class on the train to New York, and he settled down for the three-hour trip at a seat with a table because he hoped to do some work. Since he had grown up in Brooklyn and developed the bad habit of finishing his homework on the subway on the way to school, Ren always felt able to do his best work on a train.

The seat was comfortable, maybe too comfortable. The hum and rock of the speeding Acela was calming and he immediately felt a feeling of moderate bliss. On an early fall afternoon the train was crowded with executives and politicians returning to New York from Washington, DC. Ren was going to stop in New York City first to visit a friend before returning to Longfellow College. The seats at his table were all taken and each person faced another passenger with a narrow table between them.

The table and seats resembled a booth in a diner. The other three passengers were working intensely on laptops. Obviously they were business people, and they were thoroughly absorbed in their work. Ren was the fourth member of the group and he had placed a few science journals on the table in front of him, but he was looking through a tabloid magazine he had found on the seat. He should have been reading something technical, but after such a bizarre trip to Washington, and with the dizzy spells he experienced on and off, he decided to relax on the train back home. Also, having been a biologist for 20 years, he found it harder and harder to read scientific papers for pleasure. After a few minutes of reading the tabloid, he dozed off.

He woke up when the train suddenly jolted. For a moment he felt lost and he did not know where he was. He looked out the window to confirm he was still on the train. The train was passing aged red brick factory buildings with tons of industrial junk spewed around them. Several times the train passed a dreary oil refinery or chemical factory. Occasionally, the train would pass residential blocks of row houses. The northeast railroad corridor between D.C. and New York City was not pretty. How could people live right next to the busy railroad tracks of the northeast corridor? It just seemed environmentally impossible. A recent newspaper article stated that people who lived in New Jersey, one of the most densely populated states, lived as long as people who lived in other states of the country. The ability of humans to adapt to their environment, especially one that was abused so badly, is remarkable.

Ren, who was wearing jeans and a casual shirt, felt a little out of place among the business elite he was sitting with. Half the time he was reading the supermarket tabloid, the other half he was dozing. The others around the table continued to work intensely; they were making him a little uncomfortable. He felt their tension as he could see the wheels rapidly turning in their brains. The woman next to Ren was looking through complex tables with a well-known Bank logo on them. She was superbly dressed in a dark blue business suit. The man across from the banker stared at his computer. Occasionally he made a face at the screen, as though he didn’t believe what he was seeing. It just didn’t seem right to work that hard on a train, although Ren had been guilty of doing the same thing at times. Ren imagined the man was in public relations. Who knows? The woman across from Ren was looking back and forth between papers and her laptop. She was calmly reading and appeared to be getting it. She was together. There was no doubt about it. She wore a full-length black wool pullover dress, a sleek black jacket, and she wore elegant jewelry- everywhere- neck, wrists, and ears. The jewelry was brilliant yet petite, and it fit her perfectly. Her face was bright and elegant. It was rather square with a larger than normal nose-somewhat angular, but still very pretty. She had smooth, luscious, cream colored skin and medium length dark blond hair. Maybe she was in her late 30s. It was always hard to tell, and Ren had learned that he was very poor at determining age. He looked at her in between dozing off. When he woke up she was the first person he saw, and she was incredibly interesting to look at. Quiet frankly, he couldn’t take his eyes off of her, and he alternated among moving his eyes from his magazine to the window and then back to her face. Occasionally he closed his eyes to rest them, but when they opened again, they always came back to her warm face.

The woman mostly looked down at her computer and her papers. After a while she looked up and stared straight at him. He quickly looked away. He hadn’t been thinking about anything in particular and she caught him off guard staring at her. Being basically a loner, Ren went back to his magazine and then glanced out the window. But his eyes kept drifting back to her. This went on for another twenty minutes. He thought to himself that this must happen all the time when people sit facing each other on the Acela. The woman finally closed her laptop. She snuggled back in her seat and got comfortable. She stared with piecing eyes straight at him for what seemed like ten minutes. Then she finally asked, “Do we know each other?” Ren was startled and dropped the tabloid on the table.

He said, “No, not at all.”

“So why do you keep staring at me?”

“Because every time I wake up, I find myself looking at the most interesting woman I have ever seen in my life.”

This time she blushed. Ren usually never said anything remotely like this to a woman-at least not a stranger. It just erupted out of him in a very matter of fact way. He didn’t even think about it. Which was good. Nothing was said for a few moments, but the woman continued to look intensely at Ren. She was giving him back his attentiveness. Then she asked him what he did for a living. From his jeans and what he was reading, it was obvious that he was not a member of the corporate world.

Ren asked, “For work or play?” This came out rather cheeky. Historically, he was terrible with small talk and avoided it at all costs. He would have preferred to get into a bar brawl than to try and make conversation, but here he was stuck in his seat, face to face with a beautiful woman, and he had no place to run. He was forced to interact with this beautiful woman.

The woman said, “One or the other.”

“For a living, I am an investigator of sorts. I am a biologist. I study plants. Six months out of the year I travel around the world to collect botanicals and isolate medicines from them. The bioactive compounds are sometimes in very small amounts. The hard part is measuring them-sometimes there are only a few picograms of material in each plant. Sometimes we need to distinguish between compounds that are different by one atom.” Ren took a breath and hoped that was a sufficient explanation.

“And for play?”

“My work is my play. I have to travel a significant part of the year, often by myself or with a couple of graduate students, mostly by plane or railroad, sometimes by car, sometimes by canoe. I learned a long time ago I don’t mind sleeping on a hillside in the rain, if in the morning there are beautiful mountains to look at. It is hard for me to stay in one place. I don’t have the sitting around gene.”

She didn’t even flinch. She took it all in. Her chin moved up and down as she listened. She continued to stare at Ren with piecing eyes. But it was hard to read her thoughts. After a few minutes she asked him, “I never met anyone who travels to such exotic places to collect plants. It must be difficult but rewarding work. Why do you do it?”

Ren thought, “She asked a good, basic question.” He never really thought about it like that. He finally answered, ”Ever since I was a little boy growing up in Brooklyn, I dreamed about being a scientist. I also wanted to hike around the world. I just put the two together. But I did it totally subconsciously. It just sort of happened and it wasn’t planned. For millennia, plants have been the source of some of the most important pharmaceuticals, like aspirin. It turns out that a surprising percentage of plants are located in exotic tropical rain forests, although some are in inhospitable places like Siberia, too.”

After a moment Ren asked the woman what she did for a living.
She smiled whimsically and replied, “What do you think I do?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea. But whatever you do, it is obvious that you do it well.”

She laughed. “I spend other people’s money. And you’re right, I do that very well!”

Ren didn’t say anything to that. So far his side of the conversation sounded reasonable-an upgrade for him! But he felt basically uncomfortable and way out of his league, and anything else he would probably say was bound to sound unusual to a businessperson. So he kept his lips tightly closed and they both sat in silence. The easy part was done. They had exchanged the basics. The next part was going to be tough. They were obviously not from the same world. The woman was probably just tired from her trip and wanted a break from her work. Maybe she saw Ren staring at her and she wanted him to stop. Or maybe she was thinking about something totally different, whatever. One thing was for sure- it was difficult to read her expressions.

After a few minutes the woman said, “I never met anyone who measured atoms. Are you also a criminologist?”

This time it was Ren’s turn to laugh. At first he thought she asked whether he was a criminal. His nerves were getting the best of him. He finally figured out what she had said.

“Not exactly. But close. I have been involved in that kind of work, though.” At this point Ren tried to say as little as possible because he didn’t want to give himself away.

Then the woman asked, “Can any of the botanicals you discovered be used to influence romance?”

At hearing this Ren sat up in his seat, “You know, I never thought about that. I have discovered and characterized fifteen different botanicals, and we never considered that as a possibility. One of them is effective in lowering blood cholesterol. And there are a couple of others that have medical uses. What a great idea! We should test them to see if they affect love! But how to do it? I don’t have a clue how to go about doing that.”

After a few more moments, she said, “I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me. How come you didn’t say I was beautiful?”

This was getting into uncharted territory. It was very surprising for Ren, since his divorce from Joyce, to strike up a conversation with any woman, never mind such a beautiful woman. He was fairly content with slithering through some jungle somewhere. And now this together women was engaging him. He was definitely on shaky ground here. But he was tired of folding and running. Joyce was four years in the past. It was time to hold pat and stand his ground. Ren swallowed hard.

He said, “There are many beautiful women on this train. Most are well dressed. You are one of them. But you are more than that. I was reading some very intense technical journals for about an hour. And every time I looked up I saw a woman who looked more interesting than any woman I had ever seen before. To be honest, I was overwhelmed. I was moved to say what I did. Believe me, I usually mind my own business. I am sorry, but it wasn’t my fault. It just happened.”

She laughed again, nervously this time. “There have been men who have told me that I am beautiful, but I never believed them. But I always thought I look fairly interesting. Now you have told me that I am both. I am relieved to hear that and also highly flattered, too. And also overwhelmed. Thank you for being so nice and considerate.”

Ren didn’t answer but shook his head up and down in an understanding way. They sat in silence the rest of the trip – mostly looking out the window. Ren occasionally glanced at one of his journals but he couldn’t concentrate on the words. Occasionally the woman stared at him again. He could sense her eyes. There was a sense of contemplation in her face. He was surprised by her look. As the train pulled into Pennsylvania station in New York City, and they started to organize their belongings, the woman turned to Ren and said, “I need to meet someone right now, but I hope to see you again. Here is my card. Give me a call. I hope we can have lunch or dinner sometime.”

Ren said, “It would be a pleasure.” He thought his reply didn’t sound great, but it didn’t sound too nerdy either. They walked next to each other down the platform. She gave Ren a little wave, and then she disappeared down a side corridor. Ren had hoped to get some work done on the train. He looked down at her card. It read, “Deborah Grant, Merger and Acquisitions,” and below was the name of a bank he did not recognize. Ren decided he didn’t care about not getting any work done on the Acela. But it was the reason why he did not that surprised him. A trip that started out grim and confusing had become a memorable one.

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