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“So, are you getting back on this train or not?” I asked, once we got off the train. The engine was loud and running: Prague to Vienna, middle of the night. A male German tourist had invaded our sleeper car, the man thin with disheveled hair and nerdy, slightly menacing glasses. Unabomber style. Watching us, stinking. Oh he was terrible, sleazy, gaseous. We’d run off the train when there was a delay. “Oxygen,” I’d begged, pushing her out.
Now the train doors stood open, waiting at Vinohrady, and on the dark platform, my girlfriend and I stood without touching, my Marina pretending she could walk away from me, for good, while I stood there panting.
“You won’t come out,” she said. “No matter what I do. How long I wait. You won’t come out to your parents,” and the conductor, fat-faced, red and coarse, the kind of man who believed he was kind, stared at me shivering there, in my black Goth worn-out T shirt, no jacket, no man’s arms around me, a fragile punk sprite cold outside the train. Marina rolled her eyes when he spoke up, instead of me, telling us, “It’s OK, you coming out. Ten more minutes.”
We ignored him, which couldn’t be borne by his peculiar kind of self-regard. “Romani,” the conductor said in a different voice, bitter, before spitting a brown wad from his ugly, small mouth, then walking away. By then racial slurs couldn’t make me flinch. This was Prague in the mid-1990s. Prague as a place where white boys went after college to live cheap. Prague as an artistic playground, even in winter. How often those white boys shared stories with strangers on trains, posing with stocky European instant friends, scoring free croissants, shared vodka, brandishing of a deck of cards, never pitchforks. Marina and I were just out of college too. But for us, glances weren’t welcoming.
I’d promised to call my parents before we got on the train. But I didn’t. At least I had admitted that to Marina, with a quick wink, then asked how much she might mind pretending. Like she’d done for the whole year up to now. Smilingly accepting the assumption that she was a roommate and friend. That we were “besties.”
“You promised me you’d give them time, so we wouldn’t be walking into rejection. You said you’d prepare them. Before they pick us up at JFK. I mean, even if I don’t say anything.” Marina took a long drag of her cigarette as if it were a sip of a sweet drink. I was the one who went for hot chocolate, had always worn girly shoes. In college she was the one in Goth make-up, those dusty combat boots she’d tried to put on me. That now I was wearing, by choice.
“Even if don’t say anything, they’ll know we f—-d,” she said. “I might as well leave here. Take a plane myself back to New York. Meet you later.”
“You’re going to leave me alone in the train compartment, at the mercy of that guy?” I asked, instead of answering the plea she wasn’t making, but I heard.
My baby wasn’t a pleader. Marina cut her kohl-rimmed eyes at me, throwing down the cigarette butt, turning around as if to really go.
Marina didn’t just want my words, she wanted touch. In public. Kissing, Embracing. Airports. Library PDA. And not just anywhere but here – where people assumed I was a gypsy and hated me for it. They didn’t think as far as Asia and the Indian Ocean. The conductor, hissing the name “Romani” and meaning an insult, couldn’t have known how he honored me. My cheekbones Marina traced with reverence, in lucky moonlight. I was related to the people racists called “gypsies.” with such contempt. Dalits, Untouchables, migrated from Rajasthan to become the Romani’s of Eastern Europe. That story my grandfather told and retold, of how he was descended from a Brahmin woman who conceived a child with an Untouchable man, born into a family that hadn’t hated. Forbidden cells made up my blood. My face was a secret history. My parents should have been progressive, knowing all this. Instead they wanted history, including mine, to be straight lines.
“You’re not going to get me to pretend anymore,” Marina said. “I don’t want to feel dirty and wrong. I’m sick of it.” Her voice broke a little.
“F–k it,” I said, knowing I couldn’t hide now. We kissed, kept on kissing, till the whole line of people passed us, boarded the train. Nothing to shield us from the contempt of strangers.
A loud, inept whistle. The laugh of a creepy man who was used to watching women.
It wasn’t the conductor – by then he’d walked too far away. It was the German tourist leaning out of his window to catch us, anticipating, perhaps, one hell of a night. The car with four beds, his officially down, away from ours, where we might embrace on the top, inside our sleeping bag. The stream of crooning, mocking kissing noises, music he would provide, the minute we had come inside.
At the sound of the whistle, Marina, breaking free, shouted up at the train from our platform, up at the train, “Wir ficken, halt die Klappe!” making insults rain right out on us. Not only from our one blond, shiftless, pimply bunkmate, but from multiple windows. Only their voices reached – the pale, excited faces cowardly behind their bars.
Eventually, I would be the one to leave, not just a train but our relationship. But not for years, nearly a whole decade later, once Marina, post her restless tough girl growing up, would yearn to settle down. Have kids. Before she begged me, though, she’d disappear, into affairs, sometimes, including when I needed her. When my parents claimed to “understand” about the two of us, but never answered calls. When all my life, they’d said they “didn’t believe” in caste, but called Marina cheenee and chapta, because she was Korean-American. “Flatface”, my parents even said in the open, assuming Marina couldn’t tell that these were slurs.
But on that train, my girlfriend and I were so in step. For one chic assassin moment, we could move in sync.
How vivid and fearless we were then, kissing right there so deeply, so open, defiant. Then deciding, through Marina’s curse and talisman, to board the train together, reborn, visible.
What happened next, that night back then, when we were twenty-one and twenty-two, our unwanted bunkmate certainly could not have expected. Once Marina and I had closed the sliding doors of the compartment behind us, and then we fended the smelly, sleazy, grabby stranger off with vicious blows, at one point kicking him so hard his fingers and face bled and he cried, begging us to stop. But then he cursed us before gathering up his bag and departing quickly, quiet, maybe not wanting other men to know he badly he had failed at mastering us.
Marina and I slept on the fold-out train bed then, waking up once to make love. Never again, as it happened, did my Marina talk about leaving. And once the train reached Vienna, I’d take all the luggage and unburdened, she would walk with me on light feet to the unknowns of our future, after she had put fresh lipstick on me, smoothed my hair back and stroked the earrings she had given me that somehow remained secure through fights and love-making, the hammered silver shaped like teardrops, glittering in the treacherous dark.