by Benjamin Russack
“Just make sure she doesn’t fuck anybody.” Tai worked the teeth of a comb across his fingers. “Alright?”
I listened to the uneven tick of the plastic tines. Better than anyone else, I knew why Tai was nervous. Nineteen, fierce, brunette Joyce often took breakfast with no one but herself, at a small shop by the Ponte Vecchio. In the early morning I had stood at the window as she slid from our pension, and breezed unescorted through the narrow Florentine alleyways. The sound of her high heeled boots always clipping through the low whistles of local Italians and Haitian Merchants. I suppose I was fascinated by her, this girl that no one could have. At fourteen, Joyce ran away from her parents and across the country—from Los Angeles to New York—and found work as a hairdresser. Three days ago Joyce made the inevitable announcement that she needed some distance, a break from the half a semester-long relationship. To my roommate’s credit, he managed to broker a compromise. Joyce was leaving for Barcelona tomorrow at nine a.m., and my ticket was already in Tai’s back pocket.
His eyes waited for my answer. I finally nodded. Tai took a long breath, visibly relieved. Of course I would go with her. After our talk I went for a walk down to the piazza, past a worn statue of a Madonna and child, my hands stuffed into my pockets. Who was I to refuse a free vacation? Still, I wished that Tai didn’t trust me as much as he did. He knew how women hardly looked up when I entered a room, how I regularly stood at the end of our favorite espresso bar, waiting endlessly for my moment to speak up. On top of everything else, Joyce could take care of herself. I turned back towards home, slipping unnoticed through a thick crowd of tourists headed into the Duomo. All Tai wanted from me was my presence, a reminder that he was with her in the room.
Joyce stared out the window, the yellowing hills sweeping past. I sunk back into my seat, the train rumbling beneath me. I had tried talking about the weather, how the piercing Italian sun reminded me of California, but Joyce barely nodded, her hands laying motionless in her lap as they had for the past hour. I suppose that she resented my presence, and I couldn’t exactly blame her. Eventually my traveling companion dove into her purse and retrieved a mirror, tilting her face back and forth.
I stood, “You want anything?”
“Sure. Get me a coke,” she said, and twisted open a tube of excessively red lipstick.
I headed up the aisle and purchased a couple sodas from the dining cart. On the way back I stopped to survey a couple. A woman nestled into her lover’s shoulder and closed her eyes. I studied their interlaced hands, a finger exploring the curve of a knuckle. Growing up, I knew little of sex or dating. I never so much as saw my parents kiss. Dad would spend most of his time in his study, his head bowed, deep into a book. Mom was always out in the garden, crouched over her flowerbed and clutching a trowel. Neither of them even noticed my first, brief relationship in high school. She was a year older than me, and left for the east coast after graduation. I pictured her face, thin, pale, as though cut from fine stone. What I remembered most is that she liked my hair, the way it floated in wisps about my ears and forehead.
I approached our seats. Joyce was already causing waves; two olive-skinned men across the aisle delivered preliminary looks and whispered to each other. I wasn’t worried. I could probably turn this into a sport, walk up and down the cart taking bets on how quickly these guys would shut down. It made me wonder how a guy like Tai managed to lure a woman like Joyce. He wasn’t nearly as aggressive or classy as the typical dark Italian. Tai had been in the military, and before that worked on his father’s farm. He wasn’t even from one of the coasts. And here was Joyce, who could shout like a native for a martini, and wink at the bartender while brushing off gaunt, hungry looking men with the flick of a cigarette. Here was Joyce, who was from both coasts.
Still, there was something about Tai, a relaxed confidence in his stare, the cool way he flipped up his collar before going out. It took me a while to realize that when Tai spoke of his girlfriends back home, he wasn’t speaking of them in succession. “It was like having four apartments at once,” he winked, and stroked his thick stubble, “My dad’s farm is just where I got my mail.”
I stared at the drinks in my hand, my fingers growing numb from the icy, wet aluminum. Sometimes I wondered how my parents had managed to meet in the first place, like two blind and deaf people finding each other in a crowd. Why couldn’t I have been born into a different family, raised by people who could have at least pretended to know what they were doing? There was that documentary from school on a peculiar species of falcon. The male with the largest dot on his cheek received the most attention from the females. When the scientists painted out the dot, the male would be completely ignored.
I approached our seats and waited. I tried not to stare as my companion flattened a dark corkscrew of her thick hair, fanning it out across the back of her hand. She often played with her curls like that, especially when she was feeling sadistic. If Joyce had been a Falcon, her entire head would have been a dot.
Joyce finally looked up, and I handed over her coke. She smiled a little bit. Her lips glistened with fresh color, “Here’s for the drink,” she said.
An electric ping shot up my arm as she placed the small stack of coins into my palm. I paused, struck silent, frozen, as I often found myself, in one of those moments when I was allotted exactly one intervening comment, on the condition that I say precisely the correct thing.
Joyce dug through her purse and closed it. She stared into her lap and sighed, palpably bored. She left and returned shortly with two frosted glasses, each wobbling with alcohol. She set them squarely on the tray before her. I laced my fingers into a tight cage. Besides promising that she wouldn’t fuck anyone, I had also assured Tai that his girlfriend would refrain from drinking. The woman in my charge sat back and tipped the entire contents of the first glass into her mouth.
Joyce was definitely drinking.
She settled back into her seat, and rolled her head towards me, her face coming to full view. “You know, I realize I’ve been a stone cold bitch for the past hour and a
“No you haven’t—” I tried cutting in.
“—sure I have,” she sat up in her seat, leaning in as spoke, “but listen, I’ve actually been thinking about you.”
“No, really. And, well first of all,” she gulped the second martini, “You’re a terrible chaperone. Secondly…” She slid her finger around the rim of the glass, “Secondly…you seem really…single,” she turned in her seat and squared off with me, her breath smelling faintly of alcohol. “Have you ever not been single?”
“Um…I had…one girlfriend.”
“For how long?”
“Couple months. In high school. She left the state after graduation.”
“Not even a Dear John Card?”
I was quiet. I hated talking about it.
Joyce sat back pondering the ceiling. She pulled on a curl and let it bounce back.
“What a slut.”
“She said my hair reminded her of feathers.”
“Feathers?” Joyce leveled her gaze at my hairline, “You have got to be kidding,”
“I’m not kidding.”
“Well, I guess she had to attribute your sex appeal to something.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Hey, I’m joking,” she poked me in the arm. “Hey, Pooh Bear!”
I smiled. Suddenly, I was actually enjoying the conversation. Is this how men and women like Tai did it? It came so easily, like talking to an old friend. Joyce paused and peered into her empty martini.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I think I miss Tai,” she wiped a finger around the inside of the glass, as though cleaning it. “I honestly didn’t think it was possible. I dunno. Maybe I don’t. Should I miss him?”
“I’m not sure ‘should’ is the right word.”
“I suppose not.” Joyce’s nails clicked across her armrest. “You know what we fight about? I mean, like all the time?”
“Sex,” she began gathering up her hair, curls spilling all over her hands. “I refuse to sleep with him. We get in all these arguments about it, but I’m like you know, Tai, I don’t even know who you are yet.” She secured the bun with a pencil, leaving the perfect number of thin strands to frame her large eyes. “I mean, what if he turns out to be some abusive asshole?”
“He seems nice enough.”
“So did my last boyfriend,” she crossed her arms. I said nothing. Joyce could summon or dismiss anything on legs; how could she possibly run into problems finding the man she wanted? I felt her shoulder press into mine as the train shifted directions. Another curve in our path and the sun flashed through the window. Joyce must have noticed me squint; she pulled down the slatted shade.
“So explain this haven’t-had-a-girlfriend-since-high-school-thing to me.”
I shrugged, “Maybe it’s my sex appeal.”
“Oh get off that. Besides, you’re a really good listener. Women love that shit. Especially foreign women.”
“Sure,” I stared into my empty coke, “and I know just enough Spanish to make myself completely misunderstood in Italian.”
Joyce laughed and pulled the pencil from her bun, shaking it out, her hair tumbling down her shoulders.
“You’re a pretty lonely guy aren’t you?”
I looked away. I didn’t say anything.
“Hey,” she punched me in the arm. “Hey Bear!” Joyce smiled again, “I’d flirt with you,” she said it softly, and gave my knee a slight squeeze.
With a lurch the train began to slow. We stood. I followed Joyce down the aisle, lugging our bags. We had arrived in Milan, where we would make the connection to Barcelona. The door slid open. Joyce turned, pausing before the mass of cool air and rushing bodies. Her perfect, round face wiped everything else out: the scattered noise, the bustle of suitcases and footsteps, Tai’s image now a small circle on the back of my mind. Joyce reached out and lifted a strand of my hair with a finger. I remained still, and her smile filled me with a wonderful light.
We set our bags down in front of our cabin. It was a sleeper. No wonder Tai had fought for the presence of an escort. Any man in his position would have had nightmares about a woman like Joyce, loose on a train with a bed and a room to herself. I opened the door. It abruptly closed. I pushed again, but the entrance slammed back shut. Joyce stepped up and administered a solid crack with the toe of her boot. It finally swung in. What I could only describe as a fashionably ragged couple stood inside, smoking thin cigarettes, and regarding us calmly. Joyce crossed her arms as the man smiled through perfect, white teeth. His name was Manuel.
“We have no a money, no a passaport,” He explained with open hands, “We just want to get to Espania, es okay?”
They wanted a ride. I crammed a fingernail into my palm and shouted at my brain to just puff up my chest and ring for the stout, cheerful conductor to kick them out. I opened my mouth, I closed my mouth. The prospect of spending ten hours in a room with Joyce had excited me. But before I could say anything, Joyce shrugged and gave them a ‘Why not?’ smirk.
Manuel was good looking, with a triangular torso, rippled arms, and torn jeans. He introduced us to Rosa, his unsteady companion, whose eyes flitted about the room, to myself, to Manuel, to the half open door. Rosa’s tangled, blond hair framed Vogue cheekbones. Her shirt appeared torn in a perfect arc from her rib to her hip, exposing a set of tan abs and a silver belly button ring.
The train began to move. Were we going to get in trouble? I looked for another reaction from Joyce, but she was busy hoisting her things onto the top bunk. Manuel asked each of us where we were from, and if we would like a smoke. His hands were rough and oily, a thick scar crossed his right wrist. Rosa said nothing, and stood behind her companion, lank arms crossed. I heard footsteps. Manuel winked at me, and crouched behind the door. As though on cue, Rosa climbed up into the luggage compartment and gracefully curled into a ball, her yellow hair fanning across her knees.
The conductor didn’t appear to suspect anything, as I cracked the door and slid him our papers. After he was gone I sunk to the floor, in a corner really, and quietly told myself that I wasn’t angry or worried about how the situation had turned out. Manuel’s face poked out from behind the door, his eyes wide. He smiled.
“It is okay for us? We can come out?”
“Sure, come on out.” Joyce said.
Rosa’s feet appeared and she hopped to the floor. Manuel stood, and began to fish through his dusty leather jacket. He began to roll a cigarette and explained that he was headed to Barcelona to look for work, and to party.
He grinned. “So, are you serious boyfriend, girlfriend?” Manuel lit a match. We all sat around the bunk.
“No. I’m…Joyce is just…” I searched for it, the right words, “…giving me dating lessons.” I glanced at Joyce, but her eyes were fixed on Manuel, as though holding a question.
“Dating lesson? For tu? I am surprise,” he ashed over his knee. “You are very polite, good looking man. Maybe something you don’t have. If I think what, I give you.”
“He just needs to get laid a couple times.” Joyce remarked. I felt myself wince.
“Yes, your teacher are very smart.” Manuel smiled through ivory teeth. “You need the sex to get the sex.”
Rosa stood and slipped into the hall. We all waited, watching after her, until the door had shut.
“I find her Easter morning. She pass out on gutter. Sick, shaking, twenty pounds less than now. Very thin like all sticks. I rescue, bring her back to health,” he said, and drew on his cigarette.
I stared out the window as they spoke, wishing the miles would go by faster. Joyce appeared completely engrossed, nodding, smiling, making deft motions with her hands. Why had Manuel asked me about us? Wasn’t he with Rosa? Manuel directed his eyes up to our luggage compartment. Our thick bags clogged the space.
“Why do you Americans carry so much suitcases? Living with just your body to keep you safe makes you smarter, stronger!” Manuel clapped a hand to his shoulder.
“What do you carry?” Joyce asked him.
“Eight ounces of Cognac, wherever I go,” he smiled and produced a small, silver flask. “Keeps warm at night, and not hungry.” Joyce giggled. Giggled. I had never seen her do that. I bet Tai had never seen her do that.
The door cracked open. Rosa drifted in and crouched next to Manuel, whispering. She was slimmer than Joyce, with long, pale hands. Rosa’s severe look seemed perfected by the ragged clothes and blond tangles. I touched my hair, the useless thin ends that hung around my eyes and ears.
Rosa raised her voice slightly. Manuel shook his head.
“PaJALSTA….” Rosa’s eyes widened. Manuel sighed, reached into his coat and lay something small and white into her hand. She promptly left. I ran my fingers down my face, squeezed, and let out a breath. So now we were drug traffickers. In one swoop I had managed to betray Tai’s confidence, and possibly get everyone arrested. I watched the diplomatic proceedings, heard the crack of the judge’s hammer. Would I receive a lesser jail sentence if I turned us all in? Maybe Joyce would notice me again once we swapped out crowded suite for a quiet cell.
“Pajalsta?” I asked him.
“Means, ‘Please’,” Manuel seemed a little irritated, as though I had interrupted him. He buttoned his jacket pocket. “Ruski, yes? Russian. I know only a few words. Rosa teach me.”
I nodded towards the hall. “If she gets caught, will Joyce and I get in trouble?”
Manuel waved me away. “The worst they do is kick her from the train. Don’t be a frightened cat,” he winked. I felt vaguely diminished, just another luggage-carrying American, unable to dig myself out of desperate situations, or wander through strange cities with only my bare wits for survival. Manuel smiled at Joyce again, and I wanted to smash those perfect teeth.
For the next hour my back remained slunk against the wall, arms folded across my stomach, chin collapsed against my chest. My knees had become stiff from sitting. I had the worst of two worlds, the joints of an old man and the heart of a boy. How could I transform myself into a man like Manuel, who leaned back against the bunk, laughing and tapping his cigarette into a cup? I saw myself stealing off the train with Joyce, to some nearby town. We would peruse bazaars for food, slide fruit and other goods into secret pockets. For lunch we would spread out a tablecloth in a secluded alley, and lay bare the spoils: a bottle of wine, a thick wedge of cheese, dates, and a loaf of fresh bread. Is that what she wanted in a man? For now I could only listen to them talk, and there was no way in.
She climbed up to find her cigarettes. Without a word Manuel hooked a foot onto a rung of the ladder, and swung himself up onto Joyce’s bunk. They conversed in low voices. The cabin dimmed with the sinking sky. Manuel sat very close to her, his dark, oily hands turning over as he spoke, touching her arm, her knee, her waist. I couldn’t hear their words, I didn’t want to. I did want to. I thought of Tai, pictured his face watching at the window, his mouth losing shape. But that wasn’t why I wanted them to stop. In the half light their faces came together. I did nothing as the two forms sank into the sheets.
How long did I sit, curled, useless, listening to the slide of hands over skin, the soft pop of a kiss? Afterward came the sound of steady breathing, like someone asleep. The silence was soon cut by the hallow thump of steps in the hall. Come in. Bust us. So what if we got caught. The door inched open and Rosa’s thin figure cut through the gloom. She didn’t appear to notice me as she crouched over Manuel’s jacket, turning out one pocket after another. Didn’t she care what he did? What kind of girlfriend was she? Maybe they both did this, commandeering rooms as they preyed on the hearts and bodies of young tourists. I studied the bunk, the comfortable lump of two enmeshed bodies. My mind retraced the steps that had led me into this situation: the contract with Tai, the train ride, the golden smile from Joyce. Someday, maybe, situations like this would come easily to me. But now I only knew to sit and wait, surrounded by events beyond my understanding. I imagined the Falcon, just a baby, still curled in its egg womb, the dot on its cheek forming between translucent feathers.
Rosa rose from her dark project. Then she remained still, as though surveying the room, perhaps taking in what had happened. As she passed me she stopped, crouching, one hand holding the door ajar. Rosa looked directly at me, as though studying my face. I hadn’t noticed it before; pock marks lined Rosa’s mouth, thin scars crossed her cheeks. A strong, warm hand found my arm, her voice and breath almost touching my ear.
“Tui Xorosho. Goot.”
“Good?” I whispered back.
“Yes. You. No worry all the day. You are very goot. No listen them. Any girl you want, want you.” Rosa’s hand left my arm as she stood and slipped again into the hall. I stared into the dark until the band of warmth had left my skin.
I walked without direction through the aisles, past doors locked shut for the night. Maybe pull the emergency alarm, the shiny blue lever at the end of each carriage. Then alert the conductor that a rapist had broken into my cabin. Everyone would wake, the train would buzz with light and activity. I moved up the train, towards the dining cart, avoiding the overtly friendly attendant who swooped past me with a tray of wine glasses. Wandering past the tables, I dumped myself into an open window seat.
“Prefiere el Pollo?”
A compact Italian stood above me with a pad and pencil. His grin seemed too wide, too friendly, as though he knew all about the situation back in the cabin.
“Perhaps you would prefer the chicken?” The waiter leaned forward, speaking in soft, slow English. Apparently he thought I hadn’t understood. Sure, pollo, whatever. You can even say it in Russian if you like. I nodded and leaned against the window, my nose and eyebrow pressed against the flat, cold glass. The waiter tucked his pencil away and smartly left. Soon the drumstick arrived, still red at the bone. I was too upset to eat. Rosa’s words remained distant, unintelligible. Any girl I want? Why not. Who knew why people wanted things. I poked at the undercooked meat with a fork.
After dinner I made my way back through the hall, holding the rail as the floor shifted easily from side to side. Now what? What had happened since I left? I stood before my cabin, the door had been left open just a crack. I hesitated before walking in, I had no idea what to do next.
“Perche? Perche?” Manuel’s muffled voice begged in Italian. His plea was answered by Joyce’s harsh whisper.
“No, I told you. Just no,” Joyce hissed.
Well there was some surprising news; they hadn’t slept together after all. Was this the same speech she had given to Tai about sex? I took a light step forward, right onto a loose floor board. The creak quieted the voices inside. A moment later the door widened, and a naked arm snaked around the frame. Manuel stepped into the hall, sliding a shirt over his bare torso.
“What huh? What you gotta say?” Manuel whispered, moving towards me. He smelled of cigarettes and sour wine. “You don’t like the way I talk to her?” He drew up his hand. I felt a hard poke below my belly, a cold energy that knocked against my spine. “Maybe I bring the vino and then I go fuck your girlfriend.”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
“Maybe you want.” He grinned. A black sliver appeared at the edge of his gums, followed by a light click as he sucked his teeth back into place. “We both want. We both have.”
“You know nada,” he sneered.
“You don’t know what I know.” I whispered.
Manuel said nothing, his breathing quickened. Neither of us moved. Finally he snorted and walked around me, heading off towards the dining cart. I stood there, breathing the stale air that had contained him. At least a minute passed before I stepped through. Inside, the cabin smelled thick and warm. Then from an adjacent wall, the rustle of movement. Joyce sat up in bed, a sheet wrapped across her bare chest, curls framing her arms. In the dismal light, through the shadows, we watched each other.
She whispered, “I am so sorry about all this.”
I said nothing. There was no other movement. No other sound. My whole body felt awake, my skin surging with a strange heat. Any girl I want. Would I ever sleep again? The smooth curve of her hip emerged as my eyes adjusted to the light. I locked the door behind me.
Benjamin Russack’s work appears in various print and online publications. We are pleased to publish this piece, which we hope will be the first of many for us. For more of Ben’s work visit his website at: http://benjaminrussack.com
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