When I got on the train bound for New York City yesterday, I didn’t think I was boarding a time machine. I thought I was embarking on a conventional landbound vehicle for a city long hated, long tolerated, long rearing moments of significance in the annals of my life. But I was wrong and HG Wells was right. This train carried no gamblers, only ghosts.

I stepped off the Princeton Junction platform and the seats of brown leather affronted my eyes and I was whisked backward more than a decade, suddenly remembering the first time I’d been on a New Jersey Transit train of any variety. The year was 1999 and I was accompanied by my recent debate partner, Dalia, and a few top debaters from New York schools who were heading back to said city. Dalia was showing me the ropes of the train system between New York and Princeton after I’d spent two weekends trying to show her the ropes of debate. She was the sophomore, but I was the one with an upside on my career, to the pointed reality of a fifth round judgment that would forever poison me to the idea of our further partnership.

After breaking at Swarthmore with a 3-1 record, she and I had gone to Princeton and were sitting on a 3-1 record again, facing a Williams team while we were on Opp. We were hopeful going in and euphoric going out, for we’d clearly crushed their case. The other team had name recognition and debaters with lofty successes, but we’d pluckily been upsetting teams with more age and experience the whole time we’d partnered. Indeed, had she not insisted we flip Gov in octos at Swarthmore, a top-level senior team from UVa might have been added to our list of the upset. But we were confident Williams would be joining our list of notches and our 4-1 record would put us on the verge of the break.

Come break announcements, of course, Williams was in and we were out. Appalled, I sought out our judge, one D. Silverman. He spent many minutes outside the building which had hosted our round, on a quad I now know well from traversing it to get to the Chancellor Green library. I never can walk that path without thinking of that conversation with this cocky and later evidently contemptible man. We went around and around about the finer points of the round for a good long time before he finally leveled with me, recognizing my tenacity was not easily sated and I was not buying his flimsy excuses. He told me frankly that my partner was a liability, that there was no way a school like Princeton could risk having a person like her in or near the break. He raised his eyebrows and asked if I understood. It was crystal to me. I had learned what kind of people could populate this debate circuit, what kind of hubris the Ivies could produce, and what I had to do to ensure future success. I never debated with Dalia again.

What I didn’t know then was that Dalia had dated our judge that round for a while. I heard graphic details about their entanglement the next year. What I did find out later that tournament, however, was who said judge had moved on to. One E. Garin. The same Garin I’d developed a scorching crush on after hitting her in novice semifinals at the Brown tournament earlier that semester. Sitting in McCosh 50, the grand lecture hall hung high with ornate beams and raftered lighting, watching the time pass between quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals in which we were not invited to partake, I sat hunched over the curved wood seat in front of me and wondered how this could be. My teammates cracked brief jokes about their height differential and her being from California, but all I could wonder was how someone so Machiavellian could land someone so seemingly bright and charming.

I would be wondering that for a number of years.

We all know the history, the rest of the story, the way it relates to New York. And sadly, we all know this story doesn’t have a happy ending any more. It’s not a story of redemption and triumph and vindication. If anything, it’s a story of unheeded warnings, of making one’s bed and lying in it, of judging people on their judgment and sticking to it. Years later, before 9/11 but also in New York (Fordham, precisely), I would resolve myself to give up on this years’ worth of pining for this girl because her judgment must be simply too flawed if she could stay with someone who disrespected her so much. And yet. And yet. I’d joked that if I’d known at that diner conversation that she was still with him, we never would have ultimately gotten together. That joke was never funny, I now realize. It’s tragic and scary.

But I have gotten ahead of myself, jumped off the tracks. The ghosts were not in a diner or at Fordham or haunting the vaunted streets of the Big Apple. They were on brown leather seats, backpacks and luggage and sleeping bags strewn, debaters dog-tired but generally satisfied. Despite herself, Dalia was happy with our performance and unperturbed by our fifth round miscarriage of justice. Another debater, Jess from Columbia, was glowing with the success of her final-round appearance not more than an hour prior. They were chatty and punchy as the train rolled down the tracks. Confronted with twin affronts from a particular person, I was inconsolable. Trying to look forward to the rest of the week at NYU with Gris, but utterly despondent about the man who could end my hopes for success in debate and love at almost the same time.

My companions, to their credit, made every effort to engage me and cheer me up. Dalia, perhaps knowing that she had dated our fifth round judge, was more circumspect about putting our loss in perspective. She kept trying to buoy me with discussions about our future partnership, comments that only drove me further inward as I writhed with the knowledge that she was a declared liability who I would have to find a way to ditch. Jess told me to put my freshman year (now almost finished) in perspective, noting that I’d collected more success than almost all my classmates and that she was one of the few prior winners of the Columbia Novice Tournament who’d stuck around. She cited her success that weekend, showing it was worth it. She described the alleged curse of CNT winners quitting the event, encouraged me to stick with it.

The next weekend, she and her partner would unseat me in semifinals at the CCNY Pro-Am tournament, also in New York. Our fifth and quarterfinal rounds would both be wins, though. Against the Princeton team of Silverman/Garin.

In the meantime, Gris and I had a good time in New York during Brandeis’ second spring break. We joked and laughed and took my mind off my debate reputation and the latest girl I’d liked and lost. As I reported about that week in the Waltham Weekly on the verge of a third consecutive trip to the New York area, this time for Nationals at Fordham:

We also failed to do most of the touristy things in the appley metropolis, to which Greg (one of my hallmates & friends here), who grew up on Manhattan, said “good”. The World Trade Center looked like a really good idea till we saw a longer line than the towers are tall, with a $12.50 fee waiting at the end of it. But mostly we went to delis & coffee shops in SoHo & that area, & I rode the subway a lot, esp. to get to my debate tourney the second weekend, which was in the middle of Harlem & revealed a completely different side of the island than where I’d been staying. In the end, I’ve concurred with the analysis of millions who’ve gone before me…. NY is a great place to visit, but I really couldn’t imagine living there. But I’m sure glad Gris does so I can visit so easily!

This time around, fully ensconced in my memories of April 1999, my stay was only a few hours. I had time to print resumes at a print shop and get an egg sandwich at one of the trucks near the employment agency conducting my “interview”. I had time afterward to stroll the streets and dump quarters into payphones that all seem to conspire against the idea of enabling long-distance calls. I had time to contemplate what it would mean to spend the year of my attempted recovery from the decade since 9/11 and everything that followed riding brown leather seats into New York City two, three, four days a week.

You can’t make this stuff up. I write fiction so I have something believable in my life.