A woman encounters a familiar face while on an Italian train ride to her best friend’s funeral. This story was selected as the winner of the Romance on the Road travel writing competition.
Left, right, right, slip, and—good God, a little boy. People ought to walk faster in public; they are an inconvenience to everyone but themselves. I release a quivering exhale, fog seeping through my worn-down glasses, and count every step I am closer to the 7th compartment.
The loudspeaker blares for the twelfth time, and everyone hastily scrambles onto the platform. According to social norms, showing up late to a funeral is disrespectful.
We are three hours late.
Ash-tinted smoke billows from the railings, fluttering and dispersing through the crowd. A middle-aged woman lugs her bright pink suitcase up a train doorway, blatantly ignoring any assistance she is offered (Italian, in her 40’s, left-handed, lonely widow). Two frazzled young men stumble their way out of a compartment while arguing over a crumpled map (college students, letter jackets, cast on left leg).
My mother calls my name from afar, beckoning me over. She tuts and takes my luggage, directing me to my assigned seat. Her death grip holds my arm captive. I flit my gaze over to her pinched face (forehead lines, prominent eye bags, anxious body language).
“We aren’t late,” I say, without thinking. “It’s not like they’re alive to complain.”
She pins me with a deadpan stare.
The doors whirr to life, warning passengers to stay put while they close. My mother hurries to her own seat in the back row. The lively chatter is only amplified inside the thin steel walls of the bullet train. When the announcer speaks, I grimace and duck my head.
Beside me, a child eagerly clutches at her father (on vacation, picky eater, religious). A young lady whips out her neck pillow (charcoal marks on the side of her pinkie, streaked hair, artist). The sun bleeds into the train tracks, a brilliant tangerine against stray dust and locals. I sink into my seat with a sigh.
My eyes flutter shut, and there’s a faint whoosh as the doors close. I had long been taught that making direct eye contact for more than four seconds was considered impolite. More strangers bustle about, and the speaker blares one last time.
The thirteenth time.
Funerals have no reason to be dreadfully long. My best friend, on the other hand, would have been overjoyed at the prospect of having an entire day dedicated to her. She would’ve loved the theatrics, the loud sniveling and shortage of tissue paper.
The hand on my wristwatch ticks. Three hours and forty-four minutes until Milan.
A blur of trees obscure the smaller towns and monasteries in the distance. A muted flush echoes the restroom. The door swings open, nearly slamming into a passing stranger. There is a splutter, then distant apologizing.
“Nice of you to save me a seat,” Rachel muses. The door shuts with a click.
She looks exactly as she did three months ago. There are no newfound deductions to be made from her appearance. She still donned her killer smile, freckles brighter than ever, paired with sleep lines on the side of her face.
She had always favored her right.
“It’s hours before you arrive in Milan,” says the (smart, too empathetic, too kind) girl, unhelpfully. She sits across from me, legs propped up on the empty seat beside her with very little care for the public eye. “There are plenty of people here to talk to.”
Socialize with, she means. Up ahead, a businessman types on his laptop at an achingly slow pace. This afternoon, it’s apparent that my brain has decided to run faster than my mouth.
“Habitual smoker,” I blurt, “struggling to save money, but devoted to his marriage.”
Rachel leans back to eye the man generously. “Devoted? He’s not wearing a ring.”
“Then you’re not looking, because it’s on his neck.” There are two distinct cracks of bone as the businessman yawns and stretches. “That, and the fact he’s been staring at his family wallpaper for the last twenty minutes.”
Rachel hums. She remains silent for a moment, observing. She scrutinizes my face, calculating. I find that I much prefer being the deductor rather than the deductee. “Anything else?”
The businessman comes to a halt. The train grates across the rail with a faint screech, and the compartment becomes eerily quiet. It’s as if the entire world has ceased all movement to watch my every bated breath. I swallow the lump in my throat.
“Scusi, this seat is free?”
I tear my gaze away from the window curtain, letting loose of the stray fabric I’ve been toying with. It’s the artist from earlier, clutching her neck pillow in one hand and a charging cable in the other. Dead phone. I do not move.
The charger port is right next to Rachel.
The train lights dim, making it difficult to see anything beyond the stranger’s silhouette, but I’m almost certain there is an exaggerated look of incredulity on Rachel’s face.
“Absolutely not!” She makes a point of stretching as far as she can on her seat and gives me a pointed look. “Tell her.”
“I’m thinking about it.”
“Thinking?” she hisses, and in her haste, knocks over my thermal water bottle. It falls to the floor with a loud clang and slowly rolls toward another row of seats. I purse my lips to hide a grin. The stranger emits a noise of confusion, silently asking me for permission.
I shake my head.
In my defense, that water bottle was expensive. I am certain the developers spent more time thinking about how to ensure their product guaranteed the most humiliation in public when knocked over, and I would do anything to avoid my mother forcing me to purchase another one from the nearest grocery store to improve my (perfectly adequate) social skills.
Though, I have no clue how Rachel’s nagging to find the aforementioned water bottle led to partaking in a conversation I wanted no part in. The middle-aged man clearly had other plans as he set down his coffee cup, eyes twinkling. “Pardon, what were you trying to find?”
I fidget anxiously. “Er. You have—” I hesitate before pointing at my own upper lip. The man makes a noise of understanding, letting out a short laugh before reaching for the tissue box. The hair at the base of my nape is tugged, albeit lightly.
“What was that?” Rachel whispers conspiratorially into my ear.
“I—you told me to be honest!”
“Not that honest!”
I swat her hand away. The old man wipes the residue coffee from his mouth and pins his gaze expectantly toward me. The floor sways underneath my feet, and the guilt of throwing up and possibly ruining the unfortunate stranger’s train ride for the next three hours is too overbearing.
“Peanuts,” I croak. “You—would you like chocolate-covered peanuts?”
It’s not very often that I lose track of time, with my mind operating on autopilot—but I’ve never really had a knack for multitasking, either. There are no observations to be made, not when the man delightedly talks like it’ll be his last. It was rather entertaining and, dare I say, pleasant.
“And you?” The man snaps me out of my reverie, tossing a plastic bottle in the nearest bin. “Are you on vacation, with your famille?”
“I’m seeing someone.” A dead someone, I want to clarify. The train rattles, a minute quiver, barely seen or felt.
The old man beams, taking the white lie to heart. “I saw it on your face, earlier.”
I blink. “I’m sorry?”
A gentle tut, accompanied by an all-too-knowing look in his eyes. It reminds me of my mother. “I will never be old enough to forget what love looks like on someone’s face.”
A startled laugh escapes me. I make my leave minutes after and return to a coy Rachel.
Afterward, we both pretend like it wasn’t the first time I successfully managed a real conversation with a stranger, one that I didn’t pretend to enjoy in hopes of leaving as quickly as I could.
“Chocolate-covered peanuts?” asks Rachel half-heartedly, slipping past to pop down on her seat. It’s a mercy that no one deemed my backpack worthy of stealing.
Warmth floods toward my ears, and the compartment suddenly feels all too hot. “They had been meant for you.”
I do not tell her that there is an extra packet in my coat, either. I do not care for such a sugary snack, but if it helps make her day a little brighter every now and then, I would take my chances.
Eventide approaches. The gaping skies remind me of a night I had erased from memory; an argument that has long bled for closure. But my voice cannot be trusted, not when it had failed me three months ago. A sage green scarf would do much better.
Rachel takes it. It had always been hers to begin with.
“I miss you,” she murmurs, almost wistfully, and I look away. I cannot bear the heat of her gaze, because I know she means me, from three months ago.
The train is swallowed up by moonlight, save for the unblinking glisten in her eyes. Her fingers are a paler blue than they should be. Our heartbeats coincide with the steady beat of the railroads.
“I am sorry that everything changed.” A beat.
And if I feel a hand wafting through my hair, squeezing my hand in reassurance; if I happen to give my heart a voice, and we exchange sweet nothings overnight, then that is a secret we will both keep until death pries us part.
My calculations are hardly inaccurate. Which is why, much unlike the entire train’s bemoaning and exhausted sighing, I am not surprised when the speaker announces our departure and apologizes for the delay. I have a powerful urge to sprawl my body across three seats at once, social anxiety be damned, but my mother is three steps ahead of me—as she always has been.
Rachel only laughs at my disgruntled state. “I should be offended. Even in death, you are still late?”
Among the noise of luggage being hauled around and the peaceful ambience of conversation, an incredible contrast to the racket when we first departed, my mother calls for me. I nearly drop Rachel’s scarf when she tosses it in my direction.
“You can have it.” I don’t quite hear her, not with the ghost of her hands still trailing on my arm, my face, my forehead. She smiles, a gut-wrenching sight. “See you.”
The second I step off the platform, the guilt that’s been eating me alive dies. Along with my heart, buried in a train that fades with the passage of time. The fog is meant to be suffocating, but I feel safe in its embrace.
My mother kisses the crown of my head in greeting and returns my thermal water bottle.
Sarcoma, pronounced sar-KOH-muh, is a rare type of cancer that begins in bone or soft tissue. There are 7.1 cases per 100,000 individuals nationwide. Once sarcoma progresses to stage IV, it is rarely ever curable.
I kneel by the grave.
The lingering ravens are lulled to sleep by the wintry air. The funeral had long been over; for once, I am glad to arrive late. I clutch the green scarf wrapped snugly around my neck a little tighter. I breathe in its Patchouli scent, afraid it will fade.
According to social norms, it is disrespectful to leave items at a cemetery that deteriorate after a short period of time.
With (trembling, cold, scarred) hands, I gently place the last packet of chocolate-covered peanuts beside the tombstone. Someone laughs, loud and delighted, and I do not have the heart to discern whether it is real or not. Nonetheless, it would not hurt to leave a peace offering.
I stand, exhaling. The soft laughter fades into an empty, ringing silence.