By Russell Bittner
After a fifteen-minute, car-to-car trek through elbows, mounds of luggage, and an ocean of indifferent faces, he at last found an unoccupied seat. He immediately threw down a newspaper to claim it before squeezing his only suitcase into an overhead rack. Until then, he hadn’t bothered to look at the cabin’s occupants, though perhaps he—this Faun of Praxiteles, as he sometimes self-mockingly liked to think of himself—should have.
Instead, he picked up his paper, settled in among knees and elbows that refused to concede to his unwanted requirement of space, and pretended to read the paper and its strange print. He glanced at his watch, discovered it was already five minutes past midnight—scheduled departure time—and reflected, however briefly, that he could probably get to Perugia faster if he hitched a ride. Or walked.
The train—begrudgingly, it seemed—began to move, and the rails offered every possible resistance to grating wheels that screeched out their own resentment in return.
At last, tired of pretending to read about war, death and poverty, he put his paper down and took out a cigarette. He had too few left, as he’d forgotten, in his quick pursuit of a seat, to buy more. And yet, as it was the custom of the country to offer ‘round, he held out his pack to the other five passengers in the compartment. The offer was not entirely gratuitous. It gave him the opportunity to study the faces, three of which were male and unattached, while the fourth and fifth belonged to a couple. The first three all courteously, if suspiciously (and for him, thankfully) refused, then slipped back into the shadows—or so he thought—to sleep.
The man of the couple, he noticed, was unlike the others in the compartment. A too-clean, too-unblemished face and wardrobe suggested something other than days spent in the dirt and dust of an underground employment, or the same inside four factory walls. And the woman? He wondered whether she was anything more than a mere travelling companion.
The man promptly declined his offer. The woman also half-declined, though something in the way she lowered her eyes suggested that the rejection was not entirely of her own making.
She turned back to her partner. The two exchanged glances, brief words, the small and tight bundle of which bespoke a different kind of poverty.
He sat back and studied her profile more carefully under the stroboscopic glare of lights passing ever more swiftly as the train picked up speed out of the station and began its trip first through the city, then through the outlying districts. Her hair was black, ink-black. But then he saw, fleetingly, her eyes. The colour of bitter chocolate—deep, drinking deep, and bottomless. A pair of unfathomably dark eyes that now turned unexpectedly towards him, smiled, and accepted a cigarette.
He found that he was staring, that she was staring, that the third point in this scalene triangle was now muttering something that made her eyes suddenly return to their earlier torpor. The muttering was restrained, yet oddly stentorian to his outsider’s ear. The muttering sounded distinctly disconnected from the usual barrage of Italian vowels he’d come to expect from speakers of that most melodious language.
He quickly pulled out his newspaper and hid his own eyes behind the print. The muttering stopped.
Wheels continued to roll on southward. Meanwhile, print escaped him. He saw only eyes—and page after page of them.
It wasn’t long before the others present let him know through their grumblings that he and his meaningless outsider’s print were the only reason to keep the overhead light burning—and them from some much-needed sleep. And so, he put the paper away and turned out the light, then lowered his own lids in order to shut out the vision of dark eyes in the seat catty-cornered to the one he occupied directly next to a window looking out upon a quiet corridor.
His action dropped their compartment into near-total darkness. The outline of a hand directly across from him reached up and pulled down a vinyl jalousie, making the darkness sudden and complete.
As the train approached the environs of a somnolent Lombardian village, well-spaced lampposts began to shed quick shafts of light through the window. These glimmers could hardly be called real luminescence, as the source was weak and the train moved quickly. Yet the light was sufficient for him to locate, once again, a certain pair of eyes and to discover that they were not closed, but rather quite open and staring. Staring—it seemed—back at him. The realization resulted in a jolt to his stomach.
Not content merely to assume, he decided to hazard a signal and a gesture for confirmation. The signal was a smile; the gesture, a leg he moved across the aisle to within touching distance of another’s leg. Both signal and gesture were answered with the next shot of light: a smile returned a smile; a leg moved up and out to touch—and then almost imperceptibly to caress—his own outstretched leg.
A sudden stomach-churning sensation now caused his breathing to come in short, spasmodic bursts. The sensation lay somewhere between delicious and discomforting—and so, he stood up, quietly opened the compartment door, stepped out into the corridor, and just as quietly closed the door behind him. He pulled out one of the five cigarettes remaining in his pack, lit it, and inhaled as he stepped to the window, slid it down, and leaned out into darkness.
The Lombardian village through which they’d just passed moments earlier was now a closed chapter. In the distance, he could see little village clusters set out from the obscure, surrounding countryside by the merest twinkle of a token street lamp. He could also see where the muscular shoulders of the Alps were already beginning to taper off into manageable slopes whose decline he could barely distinguish against an only-slightly-less impenetrable winter’s night sky.
Yet everywhere—or so it seemed to him—were eyes, all staring back at him and at this onrushing train, at this compartment, all staring in disbelief at the noise of the secret to which he’d just given both wings and legs.
They must indeed be tired, he thought. Or perhaps suspicious. The city was full of them: the tired and suspicious. Their darker skins and indecipherable dialect made them ill-suited to cope with life among the paler skins and more refined dialect of the bourgeoisie of Milan. They were objects of suspicion—and consequently became, themselves, suspicious. Of everyone, but particularly of outsiders—of which, he knew, he was one.
As he neared the end of his cigarette and prepared to re-enter the compartment, he took a last drag and then formed, with thumb and forefinger, his customary trigger. As he raised his arm to flick out the remaining stub, he heard a door open—and then close—quietly behind him.
She moved to the next window, slid it down as he’d done, and leaned out. He took the gesture—as he’d taken the smile and the leg before it—to be a communication and an echo of his silent summons. The gesture also seemed to offer an invitation to inspect those parts of her that darkness, until then, had rendered inscrutable. This, in any case, was his assumption, and he acted upon it.
The rest of her was as relentlessly perfect as her eyes, her smile and the caress of one outstretched leg.
The result made him dizzy. And so, he thrust his head back out the window and into the cool night air. After only a matter of seconds, however, and as if she were exerting some extraordinary magnetic pull—quite independent of, but just as strong as, the gravity which kept his feet anchored to the floor of this train—he rotated his face to look in her direction and found her looking not out at the landscape, but directly at him.
They both pulled their heads back in through the window.
“Una sigarietta?” he asked.
She smiled. Again.
He extended his pack.
She moved closer and reached in for one of the four remaining cigarettes.
He pulled out a second for himself and lit both.
As he concentrated on lighting his own, he noted that she didn’t withdraw to her prior position. He also noted she was not looking at the tip of the cigarette he was now lighting. He wondered whether her peripheral vision had picked up the shaking of his left knee, and quickly shifted his weight to his right leg. His right knee immediately followed suit, and he abandoned any thought of trying to manage the quake in either knee.
“Come ti chiami?” he asked.
“Mi chiamo—. Mi chiamo Rafaela,” she answered with a pause he thought curious.
He smiled, stared back, didn’t hesitate. “Rafaela dei begli occhi,” he said. It was out of his mouth even before he’d had time to plan for it, to sound it out, to consider the consequences of announcing it. It was the thing that had held him captive for three hours, and his mind had seen fit to break the chains and spring free with the aid of a renegade mouth. The eyes. The beautiful eyes.
She suddenly smiled even more broadly than she had through the lamppost lights. The smile—and her eyes—seemed to acknowledge the compliment as a birthright, but also to suggest that it had been too long since anyone had cared to pay her such a compliment.
His knees, under the comforting embrace of her smile, stopped quaking.
Rafaela now took up a position directly alongside him and returned her gaze to the landscape. Their forearms rested side by side on top of the same half-masted windowpane. Occasionally, with the sway of the carriage, she would brush up against him with her entire body—and would then maintain contact in defiance of that same sway, which should otherwise have carried her back to a respectable and safe distance. For a long time, they exchanged only trivialities. His Italian was still rudimentary and had, until this moment, allowed him to manage only the most elementary of tasks. Her eyes, her smile, her laugh, however, gave wings to his language, and it soared—or so it seemed to him in his delirium—like a young swallow in the throes of a first spring out of the nest. They finished his two last cigarettes, and she withdrew into the compartment to retrieve her own pack. It, too, was half-empty, he noticed, when she returned seconds later and slipped it into his shirt pocket.
This willingness to share—“bestow” was the word that immediately occurred to him—the last of her precious cargo of nicotine suddenly struck him as a gift: a gift of trust and recognition of him as a comrade. Comrade for a night? For a train? For a night train? he wondered.
It didn’t matter. She’d given them to him—or at least given possession of them to him. And possession was a primary force—one he wished not only to exert, but also one he desired to be tamed by.
In short, he felt subsumed by the twin forces of lust and desire—his own lust for her, and her apparent desire for him. Una compartecipazione ideale.
Four o’clock was approaching when he first spotted the red-tiled roofs and checkered bell-tower of Florence. She, in the meantime, had put one arm through his, and her body no longer only occasionally brushed up against his body. It now clung. He asked whether she’d ever been to Florence. She hadn’t, but her eyes invited him—this stranger—to give back to her the beauty of one of her own cities as he’d seen it through his stranger’s eyes. As he commenced, she laid her head upon his shoulder. He kissed it gently and then told her his version of the story of Florence. He ended his narrative with the only other object of consummate beauty with which he felt he could draw an apt comparison: he told her that Florence was like her eyes.
This time, she didn’t smile. She looked up at him and her eyes were moist. Then she closed them and moved her mouth up to his.
When they separated a few seconds later, even rudimentary words had been rendered obsolete. The train had already begun to move out of the station after a negligible exchange of passengers, and it was now once again under a dark sky, headed towards Naples—her destination. For the time being, however, they first had to traverse Tuscany and continue along the Po River on into Umbria and Perugia—his destination, where he was a student of Italian—of both the language and the literature, but only now, finally, of the love. Yes, New York, the city that never sleeps, was his hometown. But Perugia, or perhaps Rome or Venice—he didn’t know, he didn’t care—was what he imagined to be the city that always loved! He just didn’t know whether that love—and to what degree—would be requited. She remained close to him. From time to time, he kissed her forehead or eyelids. Although there was no space to speak of between them, she somehow managed to move closer with each kiss.
At one point, she looked long and hard into his eyes—a look he appreciated for its intensity, even if he could only guess at its meaning. She appeared to be struggling with a decision, but he couldn’t read the message or make out the object of her struggle.
“Bisogna che guardi,” she said as she stepped back into the compartment. The message, now, was clear. She needed to check on her travelling companion.
He waited a moment longer at the window, then closed it and walked slowly to the end of the car. His heart was pounding—but the impetus behind that pounding was rather more than a simple primal drive. He had, in fact, imagined several times as they’d stood together in the corridor that a pair of eyes might be surveying them from behind. He realized it had been reckless—stupidly reckless—to stand together as they’d been doing just outside the same compartment in which her companion (husband? fiancé? lover? brother?—he still didn’t know and hadn’t bothered to ask) was ostensibly fast asleep.
He now stood in a kind of no man’s land, not knowing whether his instinct had been correct and whether his reckless behaviour might have set the two of them on a crash course with no possible exit. He could easily imagine the repercussions for her; for himself, the repercussions didn’t bear any such imagining.
While time might seem to have stopped for him, barely a minute had passed before their compartment door opened once again. He first saw her reflection in the window out of which they’d both been gazing. She then stepped out into the corridor, looked first at the far end and then at the end where he now stood, closed the door quietly behind her, and ran to him. Their embrace betrayed the hours of expectation they’d spent together while each pretended to admire landscape and architecture. The kiss they now shared out of direct view of their compartment knew nothing of reservation, still less of any awareness of—or homage to—consequences.
When they finally separated a hand’s length from each other, he took the initiative of pointing out the potential danger.
“È troppo peligrosso. Non debiamo—. Almeno no qua.”
He’d now clearly stated the situation, taken charge, issued an injunction against its continuation, then defeated all of his good intentions with three qualifying words: “At least not here.” She didn’t hesitate to jump through the loophole and nodded in the direction of the lavatory.
He’d already considered the mail-car. Or there might be an empty first-class carriage—a train full of passengers with only the barest of means to get to their final destinations must have one or more. The frankness and immediacy of her suggestion caught him entirely off guard, however, and any remnant of his former restraint or caution sloughed off like an old skin. Instead, he now looked at her with deadly serious eyes as they stood with their arms about one another, but already inclining—like a certain well-known Italian tower that loomed just behind and slightly to the right on the horizon—towards the lavatory door.
In another few seconds, they would’ve acted, would’ve opened the door and locked it behind them, would’ve closed the toilet lid and consummated their affair of eyes and smiles with a blunt carnal finality. However, the same door by which she’d just exited moments earlier flew open. The male companion whose identity had remained a mystery until that very instant was about to identify himself.
“Eleonora, torna all’istante allo scompartimento!” Having issued his order without the opportunity for a rebuttal, her companion then disappeared back inside the compartment.
Up against the wall trembling and no longer naturally pale, but preternaturally blanched, Rafaela of the beautiful eyes—now Eleonora of the sunken eyes—gazed at her would-be lover in terror. She didn’t move. She didn’t know how to move—or in which direction. He caressed her in a way that compensated for the words he couldn’t muster. The pain and commiseration in his eyes, because genuine, slowly restored the former beauty and lustre in hers—until resentment replaced terror. Resentment of this intrusion and of its perpetrator, of the interruption and usurpation of something she’d claimed for herself just moments earlier and to which she’d demanded exclusive, non-negotiable rights.
She refused to go back.
Another brusque push at the door—followed by a sound somewhere between a hiss and a bark.
This time, her companion didn’t return to his seat. Instead, he moved only slightly out of the stranger’s line of sight and held the door ajar. Eleonora—she was decidedly Eleonora now, and no longer Rafaela even in her own imagination—looked at the stranger with pleading eyes. He looked back with eyes that told her she had no choice, that she must go back—and face her companion, his wrath, her fellow travellers, and their inevitable resentment.
They touched each other one last time, and she went.
He wondered once again about her travelling companion’s identity—but wondered, too, whether Rafaela’s/Eleonora’s eyes had stared at many such strangers as he. Furthermore, whether her simple commerce with a half-empty pack of cigarettes was a common occurrence. Italy’s major ports—Venice, Genoa, and Naples—he knew, had a long tradition of “trade.” And dark eyes like Rafaela’s/Eleonora’s were not an uncommon part of the bargain.
The year was 1977. The times were no longer medieval; he should stop imagining himself a knight in shining armour—and her, a damsel in distress.
He stood alone and waited. He wanted to be near enough to the exit to jump, if necessary, rather than be pushed. The last thing we wanted was to be caught in the corridor with knives and hot hands to either side of him and no other exit but eight inches of open window through which he’d have to crawl—slowly, blindly, with everything but his head and shoulders exposed. He could imagine which parts they would take first as a trophy, and he had no desire to feed them those parts.
He waited for several minutes, but no one came out. He knew that dawn was almost upon them. He suspected—at least hoped—that so long as all of this could be kept under the wrap of night, it would be, if not forgiven or forgotten, at least discarded. That so long as no daylight shone upon it to cast shadows, it would remain a thing of night and nighttime irrationality. Dawn, meantime, was about to break. Dawn would cast shadows, however faint. The last thing he or she needed, however faint, was shadows.
He made a snap decision, of necessity, to return in order to retrieve his single suitcase and face the consequences.
He walked back along the corridor and opened the door to the compartment that, just six hours earlier, he’d settled into for a comfortable if somewhat cramped ride down the peninsula. It was still dark—and so, he could see almost nothing. He could feel, however. And what he felt was the glare of three pairs of eyes at his back. Those of Eleonora, the still beautiful ones—however dim, downcast, or tear-damp they might now be—would at this moment not, he was certain, be either glaring or staring.
In order to collect his property, he knew he’d have to turn his back to the other pairs of eyes, and so he turned, reached up, and waited.
He took his suitcase down, backed out the door, shut it quietly. As he turned towards the end of the corridor, towards the vestibule between this car and the next, towards the exit door, he heard two distinct sounds. But his mind merely registered their occurrence and failed to translate their meaning.
The train was slowing down—possibly for a mail-drop, as such had occurred at any number of small villages and hamlets along the way. He recalled having watched on their trek down from Milan—with Rafaela then, Eleonora now—as the train had slowed, how two shadowy forms—one train-bound and the other earth-bound—had exchanged bags, following which the train had quickly accelerated.
He opened the exit door and waited until a single station lamp came into view, stepped down onto the foot-ramp, then looked up and down the train in order to locate the mail-car. The dark silhouette of an extended arm holding a bag against gray pearl of dawn told him as much as he needed to know. He waited. At the moment he saw one hand reach up and another reach down to accomplish a quick exchange, he threw out his suitcase and jumped.
He hit the ground with both feet, but inertia carried him forward and he went face first into the gravel of the rail bed. When he came to a stop among weeds and dry brush at the base of the siding seconds later, he realized he’d survived. No stab wounds, no broken bones, no lost eyes or punctured eardrums. He’d gotten off easy.
He visually located the station and headed off in its direction. No one expected his arrival; no one would be there to question his peculiar method of disembarking; no one would shake him down for a few hundred lire to carry his single suitcase out to a taxi. No one, in fact, would be there for him at all.
As he entered the station, he was comforted by the sight of a cigarette machine next to the ticket window. He put a hand into his pocket and discovered he hadn’t even lost any of his spare change, sorted out and deposited the required number of coins, looked for his brand—then saw hers and pulled the lever for it instead. It came readily down the chute and into his hand.
His fingertips caressed the packet for a moment. He tore off the plastic seal, withdrew the tin wrapper, and dropped both to the ground. He then took out a single cigarette, lit it, inhaled, and let the smoke back out as he walked over to a single bench alongside the railing.
As he sat inhaling and exhaling, the resignation of the moment was punctuated by a first glimmer of dawn. At a vanishing point directly over the rails down which the train had long since disappeared, rays broke the horizon and announced the start of a new day. All but the North Star and Venus had disappeared from the early morning sky. It was the station attendant, he assumed, who now flushed the commode, but some higher authority who concurrently lorded over the ringing of distant church bells. A stray dog, gray as the still young dawn and as speckled as the granite railroad siding, jogged along the trestles, stopped and stooped occasionally to sniff at things that would be of interest only to dogs.
He then abruptly recalled the two distinct sounds he’d heard just after shutting the compartment door. The first had been the sound of hands tearing newspaper to angry shreds. It wasn’t difficult for him to imagine what might’ve become of him had he remained behind with it. The second was the sound of a man’s reproach, of a reprimand, announced in a two-word staccato:
The additional sound of muffled sobs he thought he’d heard upon entering the compartment to retrieve his suitcase had ceased in that same instant.
He took a last pull on his cigarette and flicked it onto the rails. The ashes, still glowing, scattered and were quickly extinguished. The butt continued to send up little whiffs of smoke for a moment longer, then went out. He picked up his single suitcase and walked back to the ticket counter in order to inquire when the next southbound train might be passing through.
Perugia was now his only destination; a safe return to his home away from home his only desire. Love might’ve winked at him her particular Cupid’s wink, and Eros might’ve thrown an arm around his shoulder, and Voluptas might’ve tickled his groin. But working-class Napolitani—and one lone Napolitana of beautiful black eyes—all now headed home to a true home—had shown him that a stranger is still a stranger and that that stranger would do better to keep his strange ways at a safe distance.
About the Author
Russell Bittner is very happy father of two: one boy (age 26) and one girl (age 24). A sometimes poet, a sometimes fiction writer, a sometimes gardener, Russell is a full-time resident of Red Hook (Brooklyn), New York, just beneath the steely glance of Lady Liberty. Visit his author pages on Goodreads, Amazon, and Smashwords, or find him on Twitter @Russell538.
What Our Readers Are Saying
"Russell Bittner's 'Night Train' takes me back to the many train trips I took while living in Italy. I loved the random association of passengers in the compartments, and the stories that each person encapsulated or, as this story explores, the exciting possibility of spontaneous connection. Noir love." - Mary S.
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