Passenger Trains and Other Forbidden Loves by Jonathan Odell

Featured Image: “Running Toward the Light” by Emanuela Iorga

People are quick to ask me when I discovered I was gay, like one day I got a registered letter in the mail. Or maybe they are fishing for a steamy sex story explosive enough to set your compass.

Well, it doesn’t happen like that, all at once. You get clues along the way, hinting that you are different, and perhaps those differences begin to pile up and lean in a certain direction, but this goes on long before you have a name for it. Long, long before sexual desire enters the picture.

I remember my first clue.

It was in 1956, and I was standing on Welber Neil’s front porch. He was a year older and in the first grade, already wise in the ways of the world. Welber had definite opinions about things. One was the topic of Real Boys.

Welber said real boys didn’t cry. Real boys didn’t kiss their daddies or sit in their mother’s lap.

“Real Boys” was beginning to sound weighty and grim, like something my father already knew about. Perhaps he was waiting for me to be a real boy, too. Perhaps that was why he was moving away from me, pushing me more toward my mother.

“What else?” I asked.

Welber shoved me. Not hard, but I was so surprised I fell back, almost toppling off the porch.

“Real boy’s like to fight,” Welber explained..

I looked at Welber. He was holding both his fists up in front of his face, trying to look like those men who knocked each other upside the head and in the belly on TV every Friday night.

I laughed. He looked plain silly. The notion of fighting just for the heck of it made no sense at all.

Before I could ask any more questions, off in the distance, a whistle sounded. We both took off running to be the first to see what kind of train was passing.

This had been another bone of contention between Welber and me. Whenever we heard the whistle from across the field, I always hoped it would be a passenger train. I loved to watch people’s faces in the windows as they flew by going to someplace so wondrous I couldn’t even imagine it.

But no matter how I tried to convince Welber about the superiority of passenger trains, he stayed faithful to the rusty, rattling freight trains. The best you might do was catch sight of a few dazed-looking cows, but mostly it was one boring boxcar after the other.

We made it to the tracks at about the same time, just as the monstrous black engine emerged from behind the screen of pines.

“It’s a people train!” I yelled, delighted.

It was almost upon us now, building up speed as it charged down the track on its way to who knows where. The roar was deafening.

So, I wasn’t sure I heard Welber right when he cupped his hand to my ear and yelled, “Real boys don’t look at passenger trains.”

I turned to him in disbelief. He wasn’t smiling.

“Only girls do that,” he shouted. “Boys look at boxcars.” Then he dropped his eyes to the ground, showing me how real boys avoided such temptation.

I reluctantly did as he demonstrated, trying to rein in my gaze. But the urge to look was too strong. Just a peek, I bargained with myself.

But I was at once mesmerized by the wondrous sight. The cars, graceful and sleek, donned in their silver jackets, were passing with a silken speed. Windows framed the faces of well-dressed strangers, all going to some place better than they had left.

After the last car had streamed off into the distance, drawing the magic with it, a hard shove brought me to my senses.

“You looked!” Welber yelled. “You ain’t no real boy. Prob’ly never will be.”

I glanced at Weber’s disgusted expression and then gazed off in the direction of the disappearing train.

Welber was right. I had failed his stupid test. But in that moment, it didn’t matter. I knew in my heart I would never be able to give up on passenger trains for good. Not if I lived forever.

Later, I would discover being a real boy required doing many things that didn’t come naturally, like carrying my books by my side instead of hugging them to my chest, walking stiffly, and not giggling too loudly nor crying at all. I was good at pretending. I did what I had to do.

But other other things, the important ones, the ones that come barreling down the tracks on fiery wheels and can sweep you up with trembling delight; the ones that made you hold your breath and cause your heart to leap like Christmas-those forbidden loves I would not give up so easily. I would hold them close. I would hide them in a secret place the Welbers of the world couldn’t find.

I would keep them safe—tucked away in the deepest pockets of my soul.


Jonathan Odell is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, speaker, and memoirist. His work appears in anthologies, national periodicals, newspapers, and a soon-to-be-published volume of essays about growing up in Mississippi. He has also done extensive work in organizations in the area of racial inclusion. You can view other publications by the author here.
Jonathan now makes his home in Minnesota but stays long enough each year with his Mississippi family to keep his citizenship papers up to date. Find him at:

Emanuela Iorga is a filmmaker, artist, and screenwriter, who lives in Chisinau, Moldova. Art represents for her a recently rediscovered passion, following a series of world and inner changes. She was previously published in Jet Fuel Review, Beyond Words, and Please See Me. Her work can also be found at

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