I looked up over the pages of my book at a frail looking man with an English accent standing in front of me.
“I wondered if you wouldn’t mind switching seats so that I could sit next to my wife.”
I looked over at the woman sprawled out on the seat next to me. Her face was pressed against the window as she slept, a thin line of drool running from her parted lips down the glass.
He gestured enthusiastically at the empty seat two rows down from mine, like a ringmaster trying to convince a participant to confront whatever lay inside.
I looked again at the drooling woman, placed the bookmark between the pages, and stood in the narrow aisle between the rows of seats. He nodded his thanks and quickly took the seat, as if concerned I might have second thoughts. I moved to the empty seat, which was an aisle seat much like mine with a female occupant, the difference being that this one was awake and staring out the window at the vineyards running past.
I took a seat, reopening my book. I had been reading for a few minutes when a voice squeaked.
“What did he say?”
I looked up again from the book at the girl sitting next to me, no longer looking out the window but staring at me with a concerned expression.
“What did who say?”
“The conductor. Over the intercom just now.”
“Oh,” I looked out at the station slowly pulling into view. “Probably just announcing the station. Foggia.”
“The station. We’re in Foggia.”
I gave a slight smile before turning back to the book.
“So this isn’t Rome?”
“Yes, I need to get off the train in Rome. It’s very important.”
This was starting to get amusing.
“We won’t be in Rome for another five hours, so don’t worry.”
I thought this would be enough, but as if I hadn’t understood she went on.
“I just can’t miss that stop. I have to get off in Rome.”
I looked at her, this pathetic and perhaps slightly mixed up 20-something in the seat next to me. Her eyes once again were wide, though this time she looked to the front of the train, as if awaiting someone to shout “fire!”
“Rome’s the last stop. You can’t miss it.”
“Oh, that’s good then.”
I nodded, my eyes already back on the page.
I waited a minute just to be sure there was nothing else before resuming reading.
“Where are you from?”
My heart sank, but refusing to be deterred I kept my eyes on the page.
She said it with a mix of disappointment and regret, as if she had just realized she had invited the guy who had stolen her sister’s virginity to said sister’s wedding. Curious, I nevertheless said nothing and resumed reading.
“It’s just that… well, can I be honest?”
I looked up from the book again and let out a sigh.
“By all means.”
It was as if I had just given her permission to open up about her alcoholic father. Her brow furrowed, eyes narrowed, and mouth twisted into a smirk.
“Americans are such jerks. I hate the fact that they think they know everything. I know this and I know that, oh and my dad runs an art gallery and my best friend lives in a penthouse in Paris, I just met Johnny Depp at a party. That and they’re always so loud and drunk!”
I forced a smile, alcoholic father indeed. I looked over at the guy sitting in my seat. His legs were stretched out and his mouth open as he slept. Bastard.
“There are certainly some Americans like that, more than some even. The truth is we’re a country half full of idiots.” I laughed, hoping that my concession would silence her before adding; “but as for being loud and drunk, we’re really only second to the British.”
At these words, the train rolled to a stop, passengers shuffled out and in, pulling heavy plastic cases down an aisle much too small for them, knocking against the splayed limbs protruding into the aisle. We had barely begun pulling away from the station before a high-pitched female voice called out from the end of the train car, in an American accent to boot,
“Oh my god Shawn, I think I passed out in a fisherman’s bathtub last night. I woke up on a pile of fishing nets.”
“No shit Stacey! You smell like a drunk tuna!”
“He was hot though. And the things he could do with his tongue… Jesus Christ!”
“Hey, so who’s this friend of yours in Rome?”
“He’s a model-slash-actor. He’s shooting a movie with Johnny Depp right now in Paris, but he’s coming down to Rome. He wants to meet me. This time, you’ll be the one sleeping in the bathroom!”
“Whatever. Where did you meet him anyway?”
“He messaged me on Facebook. He’s Stephanie’s cousin’s friend.”
“Some girl I met while I was working at my dad’s art gallery last year. I can’t really remember.”
Men have been called Prophets for less than this. I looked at her, but she was staring out the window again, apparently having tuned the obnoxious Americans out. I feigned a need for the bathroom. It was a while before I came back.
“So you’re an American?” I hadn’t even taken my seat yet and already she was talking.
“Yes,” and before she could interject, “where did you say you’re from again?”
“Germany?” I repeated, thinking she was about the most talkative German I’d ever met.
“Yes, if you go north from Italy you’ll come to Austria, Germany’s right above that.”
She said this not condescendingly, but like a teacher trying to educate a special needs student.
“Right,” I said, ignoring the remark and keeping my tone level. “Germany’s cool.”
Ignoring my attempt at a peace offering in exchange for her silence, she rebuffed,
“I hate it.”
I didn’t pry and merely nodded before turning back to the book. I didn’t read this time.
“What do you think about what’s happening in Syria?”
“I don’t think we should get involved.”
“Do you think Obama has the right to spy on Germans?”
“I don’t think he even has the right to spy on Americans.”
“Do you hate Muslims?”
“I don’t hate anybody.”
“Do you support the Israeli occupation of Palestine?”
“Do you support the Bush Doctrine?”
“Listen, I’m probably more liberal than you are.” This was my first attempt at openly challenging her, but to hold it in anymore would have required a muzzle. Truth be told, if I were a Republican I would have pulled out my concealed weapon and shot her already.
I looked at the time on my phone. Three more hours to Rome- this ride was going to be a passage through a hell of Dantesque proportions.
“Biglietti per favore.”
The porter beside us looked like he’d been having a similarly hellish day. His eyes were hard and his white hair was gathered around the ends of his head ready to make the leap overboard. A bead of sweat split his frown.
He punched my ticket and held a hand out for hers. He looked it over, before gesturing to something written on it.
“This ticket is for the regional train. You’re on the intercity train.”
“That can’t be right… I bought it from the ticket machine at the station.”
“You bought the wrong ticket.”
She squirmed in her seat, pretending to shuffle through her purse as if she had another ticket stuffed in there.
“You must pay the fine or get off.” The porter didn’t sound willing to negotiate.
“A fine? But, how much??”
“But I don’t have-”
“Then you must get off.”
“Get off, but…” She looked pleadingly at me, I could feel her eyes try and find their way to my wallet but I shook my head sadly.
On cue a desolate little station rolled up outside, the first one we’d arrived at in nearly an hour, but which was essentially nothing more than a wall with peeling yellow paint and a handful of train times scrawled on the daily departures sheet.
The porter reached over me to take her arm.
“Wait, but where are we?”
“You’ll soon find out.”
She stood, protesting the whole time, as he ushered her down the aisle. Less than a minute later the train started moving again. I looked out the window as the isolated little station faded into an endless wheat field. She stood there at the end of the platform, and though a tiny figure now I could still make out the expression of disbelief on her face.
Thank god for the porter, I thought, and turned back to my book.