I had been invited to a prestigious psychiatric conference in Budapest. While planning the trip, after a day of insulting routine, it occurred to me not to return immediately after the three days of work. Still, to take a luxury train that would take me to Paris, and from there, after a weekend of relaxation, I would leave for Italy.
The days of lectures passed very slowly, and it was more the time I felt bored than when I intervened in discussions and found the discussion helpful. The colleagues were often brilliant, but their facilitation and the way they felt they were part of that assembly caused me more disdain than admiration. I did my longest speech during group work. After talking for about half an hour, I felt excited and read approval in the eyes of others. Back in my seat, with a notepad full of scribbles and a small bottle of water in front of me. However, the effect wore off, and I returned to boredom again.
On the morning of departure, I woke up early. I took a very long, hot shower and went downstairs for breakfast. The train was leaving in the early afternoon, so I had time to stroll through the increasingly glitzy streets of that aristocratic-communist potpourri.
I passed by an old spa facility, an imposing but elegant building in every detail. The facade, the colors of the decorations, the lettering: everything seemed to want to show a splendor perhaps now extinct though admirably preserved. The hallway was immense, paved with marble, and with majestic crystal chandeliers. The patients, mostly elderly, moved slowly, more as if they wanted not to waste that place than because of their health problems. A woman, perhaps a customer receptionist, stepped toward me, greeted me with a smile, and asked me something in Hungarian. I nodded my head and answered in English that I did not understand. She did not attempt further. He smiled again and left.
I had lunch at a restaurant near the spa. I had no difficulty ordering some Goulash(which I particularly loved), half a liter of wine, and a slice of Dobos cake.
I walked out of the club weighed down. I lit a cigar and returned to the hotel to quickly dispose of that meal.
I took the luggage I had left in the checkroom, settled the bill, had a cab hailed, and set off for the station. I found the train without even needing to consult the board: it was so elegant already on the outside that there was no suspicion. I approached my carriage, and a messenger in a gray livery asked me(first in Hungarian and then in English), “Can I help you, sir?”
I showed him the note, and he, nodding without even answering me, took my luggage and smiled at me, implicitly inviting me to follow him.
“This is your cabin, please!” he exclaimed. “If you need anything before the train leaves, contact me. However, before long, the conductor will pass. I wish you a pleasant stay!“
I thanked him and gave him all the change I had left. The boy once again smiled and walked away in silence.
The cabin was more luxurious than my hotel room. There was a very comfortable leather sofa, a small table with several drawers, an open bed, and a space designated for a private bathroom.
I took off my coat, stowed it in the hat box, lit a cigar, and sat staring at the hubbub of the station, waiting for the conductor.
The clerk arrived after about 20 minutes. He knocked despite the open door and introduced himself, telling me his name, which I forgot soon after hearing. I showed him the travel documents, and he nodded.
“She will stay with us for two days,” he said. “To Paris. I hope he can always be comfortable.”
“Certainly,” I replied.
“When you wish to dine, the restaurant is two carriages away from this one,” he added, “If you wish, I can reserve a table for you as of now; otherwise, just come to the site, and the maître d’ will advise you.”
I replied that I preferred to remain accessible for now and would ask for a table that evening. The conductor nodded and wished me a safe journey. I closed the door and returned to my cigar just as the train slowly began to leave the Budapest station.
Although I did not wake up early, after a few kilometers, I began to feel numb and stretched out on the bunk, which was comfortable and spacious, almost like a real bed.
It was cold outside. From my horizontal position, I noticed occasional drops mottling the window pane. Everything suggested that the temperature outside was very low, and I, in that strange position, was watching her, observing the cold. Not the real one: the frost is experienced, felt as one with those who think they are just getting acquainted with it. I used to watch a play about the cold. From the warmth of my compartment, from the safety of my position, I enjoyed the modesty of the cold in manifesting itself in such a harmless, inoffensive way.
I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of metal wheels on the tracks. That cadenced rhythm did not fascinate me: after a few moments, it was already known for eternity. I soon realized that I was bored and let myself fall asleep.
I woke up when it was almost dinner time. My clothes were wrinkled, and that sudden deep sleep still marked my face. I washed, changed my shirt, and reached the dining car.
The maître immediately met me and asked, “Would you like a table, sir?“
“Yes, thank you,” I replied.
The man looked around: all the tables were currently occupied, primarily by single people dining in silence.
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to wait a few minutes. Two tables should become free quickly. However, if you can come back, I strongly recommend making reservations in advance“.
I replied that the conductor had offered to register my reservation, but I had preferred to wait out of uncertainty. “I am not very hungry,” I concluded, “I will stay in the hallway as long as a seat is available.”
As I was talking to the maître d’, I noticed a lone woman sitting in the second row on my right had been listening to the entire conversation. As soon as I turned my gaze back to her, she smiled at me with understated sobriety and waved to invite me to join her.
“Why wait up?” he asked in that amorphous English of the non-native speaker. “If you like, you can have dinner with me. I have recently started“.
“That’s very kind of you!” I replied, “I very gladly accept your invitation… Also, because, between you and me, I lied and said I wasn’t starving!“
She made a compassionate resolution and introduced herself: “Valentina Volkova, Russian, traveling around Europe on business. What about you?“
I told her my name and that I was Italian, adding that I had chosen to make that journey by train to avoid a tedious airplane ride that would immediately put me back into my former life.
“I have a terrible fear of flying,” said the woman. “And I always travel by train. Fortunately, my company doesn’t care much about costs so that I can afford the first-class single cabins“.
Meanwhile, the maître d’, seeing me seated, had approached with the order pad. I told him I would have dinner with the lady and ordered a sole and a slice of Sacher cake. He gave an expressionless nod of assent and took the request to the kitchen.
“What is it about the plane that scares you?” I asked her as I filled my wine glasses.
She hesitated.”Perhaps the not being able to escape. Being forced to the very last…” he replied, swallowing a mouthful as if trying to digest what he had just externalized.
“Even in this train, you are forced,” I said, waiting for his objection.
She looked at me without letting out any emotion, “Yes, of course, even on this train…” she paused and then added, “But it’s not the same…”
“Yeah…” I replied, thinking back to the feeling I had experienced while lying down to observe the pantomime of the cold beyond the window.
“And what are you afraid of?” asked Valentina suddenly.
I thought about it for a few seconds. I could have answered the most trivial obvious, but that would have made even the adverb “most” ridiculous, which incorrectly assumed that a normal human being is attended by fears like a leftover cake by flies and ants.
I told her that my worst nightmare was not to be in an airplane but rather to think that I could be sick in a protected place. She looked at me as if she did not understand: I had failed to express something more like a picture than a speech in English. I decided to report my impressions to her: “Sometimes I think of finding happiness in a mountain house, especially while it is cold outside and maybe a fireplace is burning. Then I drink one beer, two, three … and finally I feel the nausea come over, and I get scared because the harmony has cracked …“.
“I should think so!” she exclaimed.
Unfortunately, I was sure that even that description had been in vain and had perhaps only served to distort further the image the woman was making of me. I didn’t care.
“I am afraid to find the place where I am well,” I continued, “Because I know that sooner or later, a monster will pop up hidden in an old chest — and I am trapped!“
Valentina nodded her head to indicate that I had made myself clear. Although I had several doubts about this, I preferred to avoid other comparisons and moved the discussion to more mundane topics.
We finished dinner and took our leave. I got up before her, even risking appearing rude, but I told her I urgently needed to communicate some information about the congress to a colleague. She did not object and remained at the table, alone, just as she had been before my arrival.
In the cabin, I undressed and threw my clothes on the settee. I pulled down the window shade and lay down on the bunk. I remained reflecting on what I had said for about ten minutes. Then, I began to feel the weight of disinterest invade my every purpose. I thought about trying to fall asleep, but I didn’t feel tired, and I feared that I would be tossing and turning sleeplessly in that cramped space for quite some time. I got up, opened the window, and smoked a cigar.
The cold swirled into the cabin like an inappropriate guest. After each puff, icy gusts of wind would cut my face in two until the act of smoking was so obnoxious that I was forced to throw the butt away and close it all up.
I did not have congressional papers, and even if I did, I certainly would not have thought to read them. The one paper that impressed me was about a new interpretation of schizophrenia, but, unfortunately, Professor Reich, who had entertained us for a couple of hours, had not brought all the papers with him and promised to send them to me later. I then opted for the only available choice: I turned off the light and lay down on the bunk again.
After about ten minutes of total silence spent in slumber, I heard a knock at the door. At first, it sounded like heels in the hallway, but after a few moments, I heard a voice accompanying that rhythm. I turned the light back on, got to my feet, and opened the door, crinkling my eyes. It was Valentina.
“I heard your cabin number as you were communicating it to the maîtred’,” he said without any embarrassment.
I smiled at her instinctively, and as I did so, I observed her entirely differently.
At the table, she had seemed to me an ordinary woman, like many; one of those who are acceptable as diners, perhaps more talkative than usual, but just and only a pastime so as not to make the meal a mere meal. Instead, at that moment, standing in front of me(half-naked), with his poorly concealed smirk and his blond hair fluttering like ears of corn, I felt a new desire grow in me.
“Come on in,”I told her, “I had recently finished with those cards…”
He did not let himself be begged. He took a seat on the settee, making room for himself among my clothes thrown about as best he could, and as soon as I had closed the cabin door, he said to me all too casually, “I won’t embarrass you, do I?“
“Why should you?” replied I with equal(artificial) bravado.
She grimaced as if she did not feel delighted with the answer.
“Are you married?“
“No,” I exclaimed, “But I already told you that I don’t feel embarrassed at all!“
“Good,” Valentina replied, taking off her suit jacket and approaching me.
A few minutes seemed to dissolve like the pollen that comes off the corolla of a flower to give itself to the wind. As I watched her in silence, she undressed completely, turned off the lights, and climbed on top of me. Without any plans to hint at ulterior motives, we began to make love.
I could feel the life pulsing inside her, much more than the accelerated beating of her heart. Every time he stopped or approached me, he whispered something in Russian. I told her to continue: those moans opened the door to a devilishly attractive unknown.
We reached orgasm together, and she fell back on top of me, exhausted, panting inches from my mouth. His warm breath tasted like dessert, and I felt as if someone wanted to force-feed me, albeit tenderly, like a mother with her infants.
“It was good!” he said.
“Yes, “I replied under my breath.
We remained almost motionless for a few minutes, then she stood up, turned the light back on, showed her tiny pubic triangle, put her clothes on, and told me only that she would wash in her cabin. I nodded without adding anything. He left along with the hissing of the train, and I fell back into the bunk, sinking immediately into sleep.
The next day, I woke up early. Sleeping in that bed was far less poetic than the original idea. I was constantly turning around in that confined space, and with every face, I threw down the blanket embroidered with the company’s initials.
The excitement I had experienced the previous evening had not left me for a moment: I felt a thrust in my lower abdomen, like a volcano that wanted to erupt uninterruptedly. Valentina had managed to create and consume the externality of a desire: she had forced that fragment of my existence, just like a gust of icy wind on the window frame, and, once inside, she had let my body get used to that strange sense.
I looked outside. The landscapes followed one another relentlessly, with no restraint for their insulting nature. Now I no longer felt warm, safe, like a schoolboy watching a shark inside an aquarium tank. I felt immersed in that recondite place that fascinated me in its unbridgeable remoteness. I was that cold, and Valentina’s body was in the old house with the burning stone fireplace, where I felt myself in a continuous relationship with the elements.
I went to have breakfast.
The hall was half full, and she was not there. I ordered a brioche and a long coffee. Expected. Several times, the waiter asked me if I would like anything else, and each time, I answered no, understanding that I would soon have to leave the table for the next customers.
I did not know the number of the woman’s cabin. She had heard mine, but I, by getting up earlier, had precluded myself from that possibility. I felt inferior and took almost masochistic pleasure in having to wait for her in indefinite limbo.
I returned to the compartment but decided to leave the door open. I took some papers and started pretending to read them. Every time I heard footsteps, I looked up and was systematically disappointed.
“Maybe he doesn’t eat breakfast,” I thought consolingly. “Perhaps he prefers to rest and sleep late. Or is he already working…“
I went back to look outside. That trip was promoted in tourist catalogs with high-sounding descriptions of the beauty of the landscapes it allowed to be observed.
I stopped and followed the silhouettes of mountains, meadows, trees, hovels, streams, and paths for over an hour. Then, I felt the monotony was far more potent than that millennial but vacuous beauty. Advertising was not a bacteria that could ever infect me.
I closed the door, lit a cigar, and stared at the cabin’s ceiling. I could hear talking around me: couples or small groups could enjoy their chatter. On the other hand, I observed the swirls of smoke surrounded by my silence.
After a few dozen minutes of standing still in that position, I heard the conductor knocking on the door. He asked me with affected politeness if I needed anything.
“A bottle of sparkling water,” I replied.
The man gave a very formal nod of assent and disappeared. Upon his return, after signing the receipt, I decided, “Do you happen to know the cabin number of the lady I had dinner with last night?“
He stared at me, puzzled: “I don’t remember who you had dinner with last night, sir. At that time, I was busy elsewhere”.
“If memory serves, I believe her name is Valentina Volkova,” I exclaimed, suddenly pretending to remember the name.
His face opened: “Ah yes! Ms. Volkova occupies cabin number 4 in the carriage preceding this one“.
I thanked him and added, “You know… I promised you this brochure, and I didn’t meet you for breakfast this morning,” with my eyes, I pointed to the crumpled papers I was pretending to read earlier.
“Of course, sir,” replied the man, closing the door behind him as he left.
I combed my hair, adjusted the collar of my jacket, and decided to go to her.
I knocked gently, as I didn’t want to wake her up. There was no response. I waited for a few seconds and then repeated with more vigor. Nothing. I stood before the door for a few minutes but heard no sound inside.
“That she had felt sick during the night?” I thought. “The conductor could open the door with his pass-par-tout, but before alerting him, it’s better to wait a little longer.”
I went to the bar and ordered a vodka. I downed it all in one gulp and stood motionless, contemplating the inner landscape that was being painted in me. Outside, cold mountains jagged with forests. In my depths, the warmth of lightness and the memory of those incomprehensible words Valentina had whispered to me accompanied her moans.
I had never been with such an assertive woman. I had generally always courted the ladies I liked, and sometimes, I needed to find valid reasons not to give up and fulfill my desires elsewhere.
After all–I have been convinced of this for some time now–desire is always formless, indistinct, while it is in the prime of its youth, instead it becomes precise, logical, calculated, when it is nearing its extinction. For me, a woman must always hold something incognito, and should I be unfortunate enough to find out sooner than expected, I would undoubtedly find myself forced to play a bluff with myself.
With Valentina, however, it had been different. At the table, I did not desire it at all. He was handsome, and his outwardly icy manner gave me a sense of fulfillment without the thought of any velleity. But when she had shown up at my cabin door, like a blizzard also begging to enjoy my fireplace, she had created the chasm of desire, defined its contours, and placed herself as the only stone capable of completing that void. Making love to her had thus been more of a sacred act than a trivial sexual outburst: I had given the coldness of the landscape the dignity of the possible and had thus destroyed my well-warmed fortress to find myself without the need for the confrontation between inside and outside, between the fire crackling and the rain pounding on the pavement.
I waited until dinner skipped lunch, preferred just a sandwich, and reserved a table to avoid waiting.
When I reached the restaurant booth, she was not there. The maître d’ pointed me to my seat and brought me the menu. I chose an appetizer and sea bass, with a white wine at the sommelier‘s discretion. The man thanked me and walked toward the kitchen.
As I was about to finish the second one, Valentina entered the small room in the company of a man in his sixties, grizzled and with a somewhat neglected physique. They sat at the first table, smiling at each other like two lovers on their honeymoon.
Unable to accept what was in front of my eyes, I filled my glass and turned in their direction as if to observe the breadth of that carriage: she saw me, lowered her head slightly, and returned to look at her interlocutor.
I was bitterly disappointed: you may have expected a more provocative, promising look, but I realized I had been just one among many. I finished my dinner and walked briskly to my cabin.
“What a slut!” I thought, “She’s looking for a different man every day so she doesn’t get bored!“
In my heart, however, I felt that I was deeply hurt. Not in pride, as it would be all too easy to think, but in the deprivation of an object that had carved out its place in my soul.
I ordered another vodka from the conductor and indulged in the ecstasy of that moment, no longer subjected to the interference of the downpours that sometimes lashed the wagon.
I was trapped in my thoughts for quite some time. I could feel the exchanges beneath me like oxen prods waking from the slumber of starvation and bringing me back to reality. Eventually, I resigned myself. Valentina had another companion for that night, and after all, she would have found him anyway in Paris or wherever she was headed: ours had only been a temporary fling, a ploy to avoid the boredom of a night on the train.
I removed my clothes, rolled down the window, and lit a cigar. The cold restored my tenuous vigor. I smoked for a few minutes, but again, the frigid air made even that pleasure unbearable. I threw the butt away, closed everything, lowered the dark, and lay down in bed. I was sad. Not as one who experiences real pain, but rather as a soldier who returns home unharmed, though without honors pinned to his chest and confident that there will be no more war in which he can stand out.
I tried to sleep but was not sleepy, and I turned over in the small bunk several times. I began to get nervous: there was no time for sleep. I was experiencing an adulteration of my reality, and that annoyed me terribly.
I got up, turned the light back on, and wore jeans and a sweater. I got out and headed for Valentina’s cabin.
“It’s certainly going to be in the grizzled one, “I thought disappointedly.
Arriving behind his door, however, I heard hushed laughter and indistinct chattering. I stayed and listened. They spoke in a language I did not understand; sometimes, it sounded like a Slavic idiom, but for me, it remained only guttural sounds interspersed with giggles.
I spent a quarter of an hour moving here and there so as not to give the impression of being a nuisance bothering passengers. Nothing more was heard at some point: they had certainly started making love.
“I wonder if she will have thrown herself on the bed,” I thought, “Or if she will have waited for him first, as she did for me.”
I felt like a child eavesdropping in his parent’s room, but the difference was stark in that case. Valentina would have done the same with that gentleman as with me. There was no mystery, yet the fact that I was excluded, that I had to listen like a beggar to the crumbs of their intercourse, made me nervous.
I imposed self-control on myself. The logical thing was to return to my cabin and try to sleep: after all, I had owned it myself: what could I, therefore, complain about?
I was almost about to turn back when I heard the exact words that Valentina had said to me in Russian. I felt excitement and, soon after, an irrepressible anger. The desire she had ripped into my chest to place her whole body there was now reproduced like a Picasso print in that man’s life!
I looked out the window. It was raining. I realized again that it was icy beyond the sheet metal of the train, and I felt the warmth of my body as if I were in front of a stove. I silently cursed and returned to my bunk. Sleep got the better of him.
I woke up late the following day and realized that in a few hours, we would arrive in Paris. I washed up, dressed nicely, and went to the café to ask for coffee. The air was calm, both in the carriage and outside. The rains had passed, and the sun shone slightly, paled by a few clouds.
I lit a cigar in the public smoking area and watched people conversing over breakfast.
Late in the morning, the train entered the arrival station. Just before the suburban buildings appeared, the conductor had asked all the passengers if they needed help. I stupidly laughed, thinking that there were still porters at the stations. I refused, saying I could do it myself, and started toward the exit.
The air in Paris was crisp but not as cold as in Budapest. I unbuttoned my jacket and headed for the station exit.
After extricating myself from a family group busy sorting through her luggage, I saw Valentina again among a couple of gentlemen in dark suits and Borsalinos. He had on a pretty gray and green suit and wore a cap with a decoration that was perhaps a little too demodé.
He turned and saw me approaching. Contrary to what I expected, he smiled at me without hesitation and greeted me, “See you again! Eventually, but see you again…“
“Yeah,” I replied evasively as I continued walking.
After a few meters, I noticed that the grizzled man with whom she had spent the previous night had also dismounted and was approaching her. I felt even more anger, feeling excluded even in the act of farewell.
“Hey!” she exclaimed when I moved on, determined not to look back, “Where are you going?“
I replied coldly that I would get a cab to avoid being late for a business appointment. Meanwhile, the man approached us, “What could he want?” I thought, feeling in my gut how insolent that gesture could be.
“Gavril,” the woman said instead, turning to him, “Will you allow me to introduce you to the diner I told you about?” and then, smiling toward me, “Gavril is my husband. We traveled together to spend a few days in Paris.“.
I was stunned and stretched my hand to the man, unable to believe what I had just heard. In the same instant, as if with déjà-vu, I remembered that Russian wives acquired their husband’s surname declined in the feminine form. So, despite myself, I was facing Gavril Volkov!
“Pleased to meet you!” he exclaimed vigorously. “I had a severe migraine the evening during which I left Valentina alone… You can understand me, such a woman… I wonder what she must have been up to…” and burst into a booming laugh as if he were utterly drunk.
Like dominoes, we all began to laugh. Valentina blushed slightly but immediately turned her gaze to a Coca-Cola billboard. I again felt the chasm make its way into my bowels.
“Take care of it here in Paris! It is a place of womanizers…” I exclaimed while continuing to smile.
“I will be a bloodhound! Valentina won’t get away from me!” he replied in buffoonish tones as he encircled his wife with his wispy but tenacious arms.
We shook hands again like old friends and went our separate ways toward the beating heart of evergreen Paris.
Filed for legal guardianship with Patamu: certificate
Photos by Chris Yang and Alejandra Quiroz
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