Night Train to Bucharest

It’s been twenty-two years so I suppose I can tell the story.

“We are living an important and fruitful moment now,” I said.

“What?” she asked.

I repeated the comment.

“We are living an important and fruitful moment now.”

“Is that a line from some play?” she asked me.

“No,” I said. “I just made it up.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I just did. Can you think of any better way to pass the time?”

She looked at me whimsically. She had a little way of arching one eyebrow and screwing her mouth a bit to one side that made her look wicked. On her wicked looked good.

“Pass the lighter,” she said. She lit a cigarette. The train we rode had no prohibition against smoking. In those days you could do anything you wanted on a train or anywhere else. People always do.

The movement of the train made the flame jostle once she flicked open the disposable lighter she bought at the station and thumbed the serrated wheel that cast sparks from the flint. The butane filled lighter emanated a sweet aromatic tang of burning volatility. You never got to smell the essence of lighter fluid or tobacco in the old movies she loved to watch, but you got to watch the smoke as it curled upward from her face and lips as it did now. She snapped the lighter off and the moment ended. The cigarette burned languidly between her fingers. She inhaled as she lit it and exhaled now to emit a column of nicotine blue grey laden smoke toward the ceiling of the compartment from which the smoke curled away and rolled to flatten and subsequently seduce the glass against the window as these two passengers looked blindly out from opposite seats into the night of the Romanian countryside.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

She hated the question. She refused to answer it. What business could it be of his what she thought? If she wanted him to know what she thought she would tell him, and she did not want to know his thoughts, but he often told her nevertheless.

“Nothing,” she said.

“Liar,” he intoned. He took a great liberty and a greater risk in calling her a liar. He said it in jest, but that didn’t diminish the truth and they both knew it. They ignored the implications. At this point it paid to ignore a lot of implications. They were riding on a train in the night to a distant and foregone but foreign destination, away from anything they might otherwise know or might know them, an intentional and consensual act of sabotage against everything they had planned or had been planned for them. They had made this decision as adults, but it suddenly had made adulthood much more serious and that seriousness required solitary thought, despite their being together alone in the compartment. They had no right to be alone or anywhere in any compartment on any train in the middle of the night going anywhere. They were not married and although that did not morally negate or romantically affirm the appropriateness of being together, what did negate this, their being alone together, was their respective marriages to other people. Of this their intimacy there could be no further affirmation. This their intimacy marked by any standard the definition of wrong. Being honest with one another, they would be identified as cheating everyone else. They had to make up their own righteousness as they went along.

“You,” she said. “I was thinking about you.”

He didn’t mind the smoke as it encircled and wafted beyond his face on its way to the window. He didn’t smoke. The smoke she exhaled enchanted him. He could learn to love it. He’d better and he began now as the twilight disappeared altogether and made way for darkness on the night train to Bucharest. Her cigarette tip rose and fell with her fingers to her mouth and back down repeatedly in the flaring blackness as inky shadow penetrated the compartment otherwise invaded by searing street and platform lights that sped past the window with increasing rapidity. The train caught the rhythm as if it were a lover upon the rails.

“What about me?” he asked.

“What about you?” she countered.

“Don’t I get a taste?”

He meant the tobacco and not her.

She realized he meant the tobacco and not her.

“You don’t smoke,” she said.

He shrugged.

She took his antipathy and handed him the cigarette.

“Here,” she said.

He took a drag and coughed.

He took another drag and coughed. The coughing continued. He took another. The cough slowed down, but did not stop. He loved her and really didn’t care any more than he wanted any other aspect of their love to slow down or stop no matter how detrimental it might be to his health.

She took the cigarette back.

“Brave boy,” she remarked.

“I love you,” he said.

“Brave boy,” she repeated.

They met on the mission trail, the evangelical mission trail, the evangelical Christian mission trail intent on winning souls for Christ and advancing the cause of the Gospel, but they found each other instead and that now constituted the Good News, the love they waited for and with love or even infatuation the long awaited salvation from doubt and fear, deliverance from living death which is hell.

“What is the definition of hell?” someone asked in Bible study.

“Eternal separation from God,” came the answer. He didn’t give it. The answer came from her, the tall winsome blonde on the edge of the folding chair in the last row near the corner with her legs crossed and when she did give the answer he realized the definition of hell for him would be eternal separation from her and he let her know one night after curfew had been sounded and they were returning to their cabins. Men slept in one area of the campus and women slept in another. There never had been any doubt about that system. It seemed to work so well at least in theory over the centuries. No one made any fuss about it or caused any trouble in its application as it had been employed to negate the influence of animal magnetism.

“I love you,” he said to her.

“Well,” she said rather bluntly, “it’s about time. I wondered when you were going to get around to saying something like that.”

He stood there amazed, as though an angel had spoken to him. They planned their escape over the next few weeks. It wouldn’t be easy. What was easy they discovered, what they did with great ease and great relief, was confess to one another their mutual need. She did so with a cold, almost clinical precision, as though she had practiced many times over a rather long period of time. He blurted out the truth, his truth, the only one of which he could be sure, although he punctuated what he thought he knew with statements such as, “I just don’t know,” “I’ve never believed,” “when I really think about it” and “what I can’t understand,” until she admonished him with the question, “What do you feel?” and he replied, “Nothing. I don’t believe anything.”

“I didn’t ask you what you believe. I asked what you feel?”

“I don’t know,” he repeated. “I don’t know what I feel.”

“You said you love me.”

“Yes.”

“Do you feel this?” she asked.

He felt it.

“Oh God,” he said.

“Now what about God?” she asked.

“What about Him?” he replied.

She really had him going.

“Do you believe in Him?”

“Yes.” He thought that’s what she wanted him to say. He would have said anything.

“Who do you believe He is?”

“Love,” he said. “God is love.”

That’s when she arched one eyebrow and screwed her mouth that wicked little way she did the first time as she did so many times since and he first and finally realized he worshiped her. She became his goddess, although he never used the term. He didn’t realize what had happened, but she did of course and used her power as any goddess would. She had a husband. He had a wife. They both had lives outside and beyond the one they now discovered outside the cabins where men went one way and women went another.

“Say it again,” she said. “I like the sound of it.”

“I love you.”

“Again.”

“I love you.”

They kissed. She actually kissed him, but it didn’t matter. She had him firmly hooked and began laying plans that involved both of them at once. He didn’t sleep that night for thinking of her. She slept quite soundly thinking not of him, but her life free of the one she had led now for the last ten years, escaping yet another life she didn’t care about on the cuff of a man who loved God and wanted to serve Him, but bored her to tears and now at last she had a way out with this man who fell for her the same way the first man had fallen.

They were all men.

Any man would do.

It would work like this.

There would be a train from the village, the last train of the same evening they held the silent prayer vigil and she would leave early. She would make some sort of excuse. He could make an excuse to arrive late and those two excuses would place them both at the same time in the same place away from the others. A few items packed discreetly in satchels earlier would suffice for their immediate personal needs. The rest easy to purchase as necessity demanded with tickets purchased on line and boarding passes printed beforehand, passports secured in wallet holsters beneath their clothes and money enough in zippered inside pockets, all would be as common as two tourists traveling where they pleased until they reached whatever destination.

She explained it to him.

He agreed to everything and did his part as a man of little imagination, but great adherence to duty which is often the case with men of little imagination.

The train howled through the wilderness of the Romanian country which had seen violence and bloodshed of every description over the millennia, a desperate land of poverty and exploitation, savage justice and merciless revenge. They hurtled through a land of firing squads and point blank executions, fleeing from it as much as any other aspect of their lives, fleeing the futility of trying to change it, saving their own lives rather than risk their lives for a cause already steeped in the blood of failure.

Even the savior had died terribly and bleeding.

The night deepened.

Invisible history of an invisible country written in murder through the epochs to accommodate an insatiable lust transfigured by violence into legend screamed with every prolonged cry of the train whistle. Tribes fought first to destroy one another for hunting and mating privileges. Tribes became large, then came the people of Rome with organization and law and disciplined soldiers and weapons forged of steel who slaughtered and enslaved, until they too fell subjugated by armies of numerical superiority who prided themselves on one better god and fell in turn to a ruler made hero who elevated savagery to a level of collective pain unparalleled by impaling tens of thousands of prisoners upon sharpened poles to which history added myths and legends of werewolves, vampires, two world wars, innumerable pogroms and purges until the entire sub-continent reeked of coagulation. There could be no chance in this charnel world. These two erstwhile missionaries fled a losing battle in which all personal strengths or weaknesses were irrelevant and nothing whatsoever to do with irreverence. They had no prospect whatsoever of success or survival, except whatever miniscule love they bore for themselves and one another, the mustard seed with which they might hope by faith to move mountains.

The serpentine locomotive clattered involuntarily toward the capital city. Once set in motion, it would reach its destination without a hand on the controls. They had no idea of mechanical apparatus, but their faith included the God who made them and they obeyed Him now without really acknowledging the theology of any denomination. They had become integral to the created universe which protected them to some extent, the same way natural camouflage disguises the newborn of various species.

They kissed repeatedly that night incessantly as the train continued in whatever direction they did not care, so long as it took them away together, away from all the rest, the doxologies, the liturgies, the creeds, the humdrum intonation of memorized formulas of faith or words without music and music without words meant to mean something in a world where it didn’t mean anything at all.

They reached under each others clothes and into each others lives and surrendered privacy by yielding themselves to whatever urgency they felt, because they wanted and needed to feel, not underpin or endorse any economic or social structure or system of belief, certainly no systematic theology, simply feel what it felt like to be alive in their own bodies with all the weaknesses and limitations extant. That made them divine and that rendered the night train to Bucharest the Eden from which they could never be expelled, because even after they arrived at the station named Gara de Nord in the city and proceeded by bus to the airport, the memory of making love in the night through enemy territory would forever confirm their humanity.

 

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