Just A Story – Monday February 10th

When I was 21 I took a rain from Rome to Zurich with my best (still) friend.  We had tickets in a couchette and were enthusiastically naive about the realities of sleeping on a moving train.  My traveling companion needed to be hoisted up after putting on her study abroad uniform: a three and a half foot tall backpack with more straps and clips than a bondage chamber.  We hustled to the train, fending off gypsies and oglers, skidding around the tracks in inappropriate shoes.

The train cars and sleeping compartments were marked with old stickers worn into hieroglyphics- obviously an Italian original.  Italian trains haughtily rejected the standard roman alphabet.  Even the unpretentious numerical order was snubbed.  An Italian train ticket had to be read, then interpreted by someone with native experience.  We had been in the country two weeks- exactly enough time to understand we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing.

I held my ticket in front of my face and read the markings next to the yawning train doors, hoping to find a match: “B, BB, 1D1, 2A…” Our assigned car was 56 and the crowds of people boarding had started to thin.  Uniformed attendants focused staunchly on our breasts to avoid eye contact and the potential to be asked to do something other than enjoy a cigarette.  We were determined though, having already missed a train because of a military time mix up.  ”There it is!” my friend cried.  A blue, paint flaked and rusted train car nestled between cars numbered GG and ^9.  We ran the last few steps on tiptoes in our high heels and took the stairs in bounds of two.

The interior of the train was more promising- shiny, long lines invited us down the hallway to the properly ordered sleeping compartments.  We were the first to arrive and claimed the top bunks.  It was exciting: I imagined the next eight hours would be a combination of my vague memories of  Dr. Zhivago and art directed like a Wes Anderson movie.  Crisp white sheets were folded neatly at the foot of the blue vinyl bunks.  I climbed up the gleaming ladder and heaved off my back pack.  Shoes were arranged by the ladder, then I grabbed my back pack and started to push it towards the dark space beyond the bunk meant for storage.  My friend and I continued chatting so it took me a few minutes to realize my pack had met with resistance.  I pushed again, the blockage gave slightly.  I pushed harder, thinking there was a little ledge I wasn’t clearing.

Then I heard “Oof”.

I pulled my pack towards me, scooting back on my knees down the bunk to peer into the storage area.  And from the darkness shined a pair of eyes.  As my vision got used to the darkness I saw a young man, curled up and flattened against the bulkhead of my couchette.  I screamed.  I swore and screamed and swore as he scrambled out of the tiny space, down the ladder and out the door.  Eventually someone in a uniform rushed in (Italian rushing ranges from 15 to 30 minutes) and tried to act interested in what had happened.  He nodded but left the his notebook and pencil in his pocket.  Eventually we ran out of Italian words and he left.

The rest of the journey was uneventful.  We slept in 40 minute increments, awoken when the train stopped or someone pounded on the door to check our tickets for the 15th time.  I can’t remember now if other people were in our couchette, although I do remember eating Toblerone and coffee for breakfast.  We arrived without further incident but I’ve never stopped checking the smallest spaces for stowaways.

When people think I’ve overly paranoid or neurotic (as if there’s such a thing) I tell them this story, because it’s easier to swallow than some of the other grown up shit I’ve gone through.  And it’s all the same story- Girl has high expectations; is brought down by something shocking or painful; survives.

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