Morning still hadn’t wiped the fog from its eyes and neither had I.
Standing there on the train station platform under the yellow lights shining from the ceiling, everything around me looked like I was seeing it through a bottle of corn syrup. Welcome to sunny Italy in January, I thought. Next time come in the spring, Gary.
The train horn blew and I heard the man chant the names of Italian towns in a litany that reminded me of serving Mass as a kid. I felt like I should rap my fist against my chest like I’d do when Father Tremblay would recite, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”
When the train clanked, rumbled and rolled to a stop, I climbed aboard the old-style passenger car and found my compartment. Opening the door, I saw a young woman already seated inside.
“Buon giorno,” I said, smiling, as I tossed my bag into a shelf above the seat on the right.
“Buon giorno,” she mumbled, looking up from a book and not being too impressed by the gray-haired guy with the horrific American accent disturbing her morning.
I knew very little Italian, which made this Grand Tour of mine a little dicey. I knew good morning, buon giorno, good evening, buono sera, and prego, grazie, ciao, and perhaps most importantly, Dove si trova il più vicino Starbucks? That means something like “Where is the nearest Starbucks?” I learned that in three languages for three major reasons–getting some coffee that tasted of home, free wifi, and always knowing where to find a bathroom without asking for, you know, a bathroom. The travel agents lie when they tell you everyone in Europe speaks English.
“Are you headed to Trieste, too?” I asked my young traveling companion, trying be a friendly American and once again prove my theory.
She raised her brown eyes from her reading, frowned and shook her head no.
“No engleski,” she said in some language that definitely wasn’t Italian.
“Well,” I laughed, shaking my head yes and raising my palm in surrender, “that’s okay, dear. I’ll be able to fritter away the couple of hours to Trieste. You go back to your reading.”
She smiled and returned to her book. She was a pretty girl, mid-20s, dark hair, huge brown eyes behind her cool Euro glasses. She dressed like so many girls I’d seen on this trip, from London to Brussels to Paris, Provence, Tuscany and now headed to Trieste. Bulky sweater, long scarf looped around her neck, black leggings, and Uggs or some other winter footwear. Her boots rested beneath her seat and she had drawn her legs up under bottom her in that way girls do. My wife Gina sat that way on the sofa.
“God, I could use some coffee,” I thought aloud. I found I did that a lot these days and the habit had followed me to Europe. “Can I get you a coffee, a cafe, young lady?” I asked, tipping my cupped hand to my lips in pantomime. She smiled and shook her head no again.
Nevertheless, I returned from the coffee bar with a pair of medium coffees, some sugar and those little tubs of creamer. If she still didn’t want it, I’d drink it. I saw she had put away her book and was looking out at the snowy mountains in the distance now that we had escaped the fog.
I placed the coffee in a cup rest and nodded to it. Again, she demurred. So much for absorbing more local amity and culture, dammit.
“Looks like I’ll be wired for sound and looking for the bathroom in the station when we get to Trieste,” I said, grinning. I held out my hand, “I’m Gary,” I said, pointing to my chest with my left index finger.
She took my hand in one of those fingers-only girl shakes and said, “Regina.”
I nearly wet myself right there.
“That’s my wife’s name. Regina.”
She gave me with a quizzical look. I reached into my jacket and pulled out my wallet and opened it to a picture of I’d taken of Gina on a visit to New York City. I remember her face beaming, standing there on Broadway, pointing to the marquee above, which shouted “Cats.” I also remember my frowning and stewing that I didn’t want to sit for two hours in a theater watching a bunch of prancing gypsies in various feline-themed Union suits. And I hate cats. I’m a dog kind of guy.
“My wife,” I said much too loudly in the way Americans think people who don’t speak English are deaf. “Mi, ummm, mi mo…mo…mi moglie. I think that’s Italian for ‘wife’.”
“Ahhh… supruga,” she said.
Young Regina held her palms up and made like she was looking right and left for something.
“Huh? Oh, where is she?” I pointed to Gina’s picture, frowned and shook my head no.
“Well, it looks like neither of us understands a damn word the other says,” I said. I could feel the difference in our momentum and realized we were slowing as we were rolling into our next stop. Out on the platform, folks were climbing off of and onto trains and in about five minutes we were cracking along again at top speed.
“American,” I said, pointing to myself and then to her, putting on what I hoped was a questioning expression.
“Hrvatski,” she said, which really drove home our language barrier. What the hell is a Hervatski, I wondered.
“Ohhhh-kay,” I said. “Well, Regina, we’ve got another couple hours to go, but this trip is going to be a bitch, communication-wise, so, uhh…” I smiled and pulled out my Kindle and she smiled and pulled out her music player with a set of those big noise-canceling headphones and sat back, her eyes closed. This girl had ridden the trains before, I thought. Within fifteen minutes, the train had rocked her to sleep.
“You’d fascinate Gina,” I whispered. “She always was up for adventure and meeting new people, trying new things.” I remembered the first time she tried to foist Filipino cuisine on me. Crazy half-gestated duck eggs and other things that didn’t look the least bit palatable. I ate roast pork and a flan-like thing. But, in England, I’d eaten frigging kidneys. Yesterday, I’d choked down some piece of a goat I did not want identified. Neither the goat nor its part.
I closed my eyes and felt the train rock its smooth rock, but the damn coffee wouldn’t let me sleep. Out the window I saw trees blur by and I jumped when another train blew by ours. You think you can reach right out there and touch the other one, they pass so close.
I lived like that for a long time, full-bore and balls to the wall, not recognizing what was going on around me, just in front. Today I realized those are windows across from me, but there’s no way you can recognize anyone sitting there, maybe sucking on a coffee or a Red Bull, wishing he or she was still in bed bumped up against–or bumping up against–that warm form in the port-side sheets.
You just see a whoosh of silver-gray flashing its own sheets of strobe-light what-ifs and maybes. And you try not to look too hard at it because it just ends up hurting your eyes or something.
I had enjoyed my stay with my sister-in-law.
“Is she still your sister-in-law even after your wife dies?” Funny the things that go on in your head when you’re really alone. I even said them out loud now.
I had determined to take the trip I had promised Gina all those years I had been too busy or too something to actually do it.
“She passed away, you know. Died,” I whispered to my sleeping traveling companion. “Uhh, morto.” I was pretty sure that would sound like something people in this part of the world would recognize for death, and, if she was awake, this Regina would have looked at me like she didn’t understand. My Regina looked at me that way sometimes, too.
“Gary, when are you going to slow down?” she’d say. “You’re going to work yourself to an early grave, and I can’t imagine what would happen to me if I lost you to that stupid job.”
“That job put us in this house and keeps you in it and in some beautiful clothes and a fine car, Gina. I’m only doing this for you, babe, so you can live the way you should live. Comfortable, not wanting for anything, happy,” I said.
“Sometimes comfortable isn’t enough, Gary. Maybe I want you! That would make me happy.”
“You’ve got me, Gina. Soon as I retire we’ll take the trip, sweets, I promise,” I said. I’d always say, putting her off for another year. And then, six months before I was scheduled to retire, there was to be no other year.
Dope that I was, I never understood what she meant. Now I knew too well. Even I felt guilty about that.
Across the compartment, Regina stirred, and the mouth of her bag gaped open. Even though she was a kid, young enough to be the daughter we never had, other than her phone and tablet, she looked to be a words on paper girl. She was reading a real live book. And there in her bag I could see what looked like a small journal, like Gina kept. I never read Gina’s, of course. not until after she died. Took me three months to even lift it off the nightstand.
Now I keep a journal. Not like those profit and loss things I kept as a young accountant. This was a different kind of accounting, keeping records of what turned out to be real loss. I wished I could share some of it with young Regina over there. But kids like her wouldn’t relate to it. She’d think I was some crazy old coot writing in a book in which I kept my thoughts and conversations with Gina. I had a lot of catching up to do, hon. I pulled out the journal, the new one Gina had started before she died, and opened it in my lap.
Looking up at sleeping Regina, I whispered, “I hope you never have to write such a story, kid.”
She stirred a little and I thought she was waking.
“Sometimes, Regina, the book ends much too quickly. It’s climax gets ripped from its back pages before you get to The End. It sucks when you’re left to guess at the ending. You wonder all the what-ifs. I never was good at imagination and, what did Gina call it? Spontaneity.”
I closed our little book—Gina’s and mine—and looked out the window again. I had no idea what the hell I was looking at. I grabbed that other coffee cup from its holder and took a sip. The Euro brew was cold as I imagined those mountain streams in the distance were. But at least now I tasted it, instead of gulping it down. Like I used to gulp every bit of life.
Another train sped by and the flash of the sun on its windows burst across our faces, I’m sure waking Regina. That’s how you’ll look at your life will look someday, young Regina, I thought. I closed my eyes and kept them closed until we rolled into Trieste.
Story #8 of my Story-A-Day quest. Today’s prompt was for a Cinderella story structure. Something with a try, fail, try, fail, try, fail, and final change to the protagonist. I tried, I really did. But this is what happened. I can’t complain. Knew it would happen eventually. What was it old Lodge Skins says at the end of Little Big Man? “I was afraid of that. Well, sometimes the magic works. Sometimes, it doesn’t.” Today, a different magic happened. I think that happened for Gary, too.