Reprinted from NWW, Summer 2012
The week following his 60th birthday, John Santo boarded a train at Stuttgart, Germany. He was traveling alone. It was evening—the cold slapped the window that pressed his cheek. The train jerked along and the side of his head lightly bobbed against the glass; the comforting rhythm made him feel childish, as if on a school bus, bound for the emptiness of school. In his head the haze of childhood, images indistinct, and then distinct—images of a time when wax on green leaves was glass: he was shooting pellets at balloons suspended between the branches of a magnolia tree, his dad sitting beside him urging him to slow down, aim; then he was shooting storage shed windows, wanting to see what would happen knowing what would happen.
A young woman sat facing him. He looked at her reflection in the glass; the large evergreen trees slid across her forehead and the high, tight mountains framed her and her black hair was coal spilling down the mountainsides. John looked at her directly now; her polished forehead had two early wrinkles.
“Traveling alone?” he said in German.
“To see my Dad in Munich. But I recognize a cousin of mine on the next car—so no. We don’t know each other but I’ve seen her in family photos.”
John put his head against the glass and looked at her likeness. She was more mythological this way, more real.
Minutes passed and they were in a field. The young woman put her feet on the seat next to him, her jeans tucked into her black suede boots.
“You have a sense of the end as a distant thing,” John said still looking in the glass. “Time stretches out and you’re thinking how you’ll occupy it. Do you know what’s real?”
“Your wife dead?”
“Yes, but that’s not why I’m talking this way.”
“You look like a guy whose wife was killed in a crash. Plane or car, take your pick.” She brought her bent knees together then let them drift apart. “You’re pissed because I’m young and my life’s clean. So clean.” She brushed imaginary sand from her palms, smirked.
“You’re very charming. She died of cancer five years ago. I’m devastated—can you tell?” He spoke in a lazy, offhand way, portrayed carelessness. He felt like Oscar Wilde sprawled across a divan.
“I should temper what I said: you look professorial.”
“Accountant, but well read.” Their reflections overlapped. Her reflected head snapped from side to side, trying to see his face, his actual face, and the world beyond their faces was distant trees, a black pool, a quiet, red house.
“I don’t buy it,” she said.
“If I was going to lie, I’d say rocket scientist, or astronaut.”
“I need you to be devastated.”
John wasn’t usually open but her boldness lowered the stakes. He leaned away from the window and rested his head on his fist. He was looking at a person now. She had great skin, very pale, creamy, and he wondered if she ate organic.
“I remember the sense of freedom. Not the freedom of a 21-year-old. But suddenly my days were empty and I could take coffee at 9 a.m., or noon. Which I could have done before, but I’d have to account for the change.”
“Twenty-six. But I get what you’re saying. Freedom is not being observed.” She rested her wrists on her kneecaps; her hands drooped forward like flowers.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” he said. “Next thing, you’ll be asking for my number. Hardest thing about this freedom is fending off the college girls.” Maybe they could be friends for the ride. John sat up straight, smiled an empty smile. His eyes felt dead.
“Twenty-six. I saw you watching me in the glass earlier. I think it’s the other way around.” She smiled and moved her purse from the seat to her lap, reached in with both hands, dug toward the bottom, like a squirrel digging in dirt. Her knees opened and closed rhythmically, back and forth, as if moved by wind.
It wouldn’t go anywhere, John thought. He slouched against the window and watched her reflection. She pulled a cell phone from the purse, held it in both hands, texted with both thumbs.
There were a million stories about older men and younger women—their weird connection couldn’t grow because there was precedent for it to grow.
“John Santo,” he said turning from the distant mountains.
“Gabriele. Gabby.” She put her feet on the floor but remained engaged with her phone.
“You were alright until you pulled that phone out. I was thinking you were different, an old soul, until you started updating your Facebook status. ‘This guy’s got mad skills,’ you’re writing.”
Her thumbs stopped moving and she looked at him as if for the first time.
“The problem with your set,” he said, “is that you can only be witty in short bursts—50 word max. Too much texting.”
“If you’re keeping score, I’d say I was up a few points. Check your log. Oops, more points for me.” She went back to texting.
“We’ll be there in an hour,” he said. “Got plans? This is your reward.” A bounce shot.
“Traveling alone?” Her sudden break from texting gave her an air of eagerness.
“It’s better this way—nobody to negotiate with, don’t have to do touristy stuff. But I can make an exception now my trip’s half over. We’ll have to discuss the texting of course.” She was annoying, but attractive and witty—and John was lonely. It would be nice to make a friend in this unexpected way. Plus, he could look at photos of the two of them, tell others. Sure, the possibility of sex hung in the air, but he really just wanted something to think about in the third person.
“No to all. But enjoy your vacation.” She smiled a fake, toothy smile.
“I’m usually more cautious than this. All your fault,” he said, looking down.
An hour later the train arrived in Munich. Gabby jumped up and pulled a duffle bag from under her seat. She carefully put the shoulder strap over her right shoulder so as not to wrinkle her jacket, smoothing with her hand the area around it.
“My car’s at the station,” she said. “Need a ride?”
“If you could take me to the heart of things, where the shops, cafes, and quaint hotels are. I just need to get where I can access everything on foot.”
“It’s only a few blocks away. Come on.”
John gripped his carry-on by the handle, not using the shoulder strap. He didn’t want to be twins.
He followed Gabby to the parking lot. She walked fast as if she wanted to get this over with.
“Look, you offered,” he said and stutter-stepped to close the gap. The cold air was painful, his speech shook.
She turned around abruptly and he almost walked into her. “I don’t want the guilt. I’d spend the next few days worrying about the old guy from the train, how you maybe got mugged or twisted an ankle and had to support yourself against an alley wall, wincing in pain, your shriveled head shriveled and small in your trench coat.”
“Am I such a sad case?”
“You were totally macking on me on the train.”
“That was before I knew you were a jerk.”
She continued to her car and he followed her because it seemed the natural thing to do. Theirs was a weird dynamic, but it was a dynamic.
She opened the passenger’s side door, motioned him in with a quick jerk of her hand. “Watch your trench coat.” He got in and she slammed the door. He felt like a kid punished for throwing a scene in the mall: Mom’s taking me home, he thought.
“I don’t wanna take a tubby,” he said when she got in.
She didn’t start the car right away like he thought she would. Instead, she just sat there with her hands hanging from the lower part of the steering wheel. He sat with his bag on his lap, his hands under his thighs for warmth.
“It’s quicker with the engine running,” he said. “Just aim the car where you want to go.” With his hand karate-chop style, John did a fishtail gesture in front of his nose.
Gabby leaned forward and ran a finger across the windshield. She’d formed a few letters before he realized she was writing in the condensation. JERK, the glass said.
WEIRD, he wrote on his side.
“I really think we’re building something here,” he said in a flat tone. “I’m prepared for amazing things to happen. Want to talk about it?”
She leaned forward and put her head in her hands. He couldn’t see her face. Was she crying?
“Lifetime Network, a moment of truth movie,” he said in a voice-over voice.
Her back hunched and she looked like a wounded animal. He felt bad, like he’d slugged the weakest kid at school. So he tried humor, recited a line from a cheesy romantic comedy: “ ‘You make me feel good about myself.’ ” His voice was hopeful, expectant.
“Being sad is a good thing,” she said. She put her hands in her lap and turned her body toward him, her right leg bent across the seat, foot suspended above the floor. “It would be sad to have nobody to be sad about. Being sad is a privilege.”
“You’ll lose somebody eventually.” He smiled and tapped her knee. “Don’t worry.”
“How much longer’s your trip?” she said officiously, eyebrows raised.
The ride to the-center-of-things was awkward, silent.
A half hour later they turned down a busy street. Cars were moving slow, stalking empty spaces.
“There’s a café ahead,” she said. “You’ll feel at the center of things there. Amazing things will happen, and there’ll be pungent smells, charming wood floors, city people in slick clothes. And I’ll go home and fight with dad, then to my room to watch music videos on YouTube: ‘Life in a Northern Town’ by Dream Academy, over and over again.”
He smiled, not knowing if this was the right way to read her revelation.
Ahead, a car pulled away from the curb and Gabby took the empty space.
“I’m going to tell you something,” she said. “It’s low stakes, right? I’ll never see you again; I’ll only think of you many years from now when I’m on a plane and the person next to me tries to make conversation. That’s not what I have to tell you; it’s this: I have HIV and my dad’s pissed. Can you believe? Pissed. Too much information? I thought so.” She let her hands drop into her lap; they lay palms up, fingertips touching. She looked like a bird with broken legs.
They were silent a few minutes. She lowered the window; the car cooled, as if someone had flicked a switch.
“Did you just find this out?” He squinted at her. He suddenly cared about this cold, desperate girl, this loose cannon. Hers was a pristinely beautiful fragility–he wanted to feel her life throb under his fingertips. And he could tell people about this, about his “broken bird.”
“Two weeks ago. That Dream Academy song’s really sad when he says, ‘…and the train rolled out of sight.’ ”
“I’m a great cook,” John offered. “I could cook for the two of you. It would help the dust settle to have a third party there.”
“I don’t want you cooking—it gives up too much control. I want to select from a menu.”
“Pungent smells and city people, right here,” he said and tapped the window.
“I look at YouTube, too,” he said, the coffee steam between them.
“You’ll have to do better than that—everybody uses YouTube.” She took a bite of her lemon pound cake. He was disappointed she’d ordered pound cake–that’s what he got at Starbuck’s back home.
“I can do that: I look at trailers of a French film: La Grande Bouffe. I’ve seen the film–several years ago. It was a happy time. I’d just gotten word from the dermatologist the mole they’d biopsied was benign. I’d been really worried, calling their office daily asking if the results were in. At one point the dermatologist got on the phone and said, ‘I really wouldn’t worry about this. I probably shouldn’t have removed it.’ It’s a long, boring movie, but watching it reminds me of the good news.”
“This is the part where I tell you my situation is worse. There is no good news. Dad thinks I’m a whore.”
“And he will, for quite awhile. But parents always forgive their kids. Did you ever see that interview with Jeffrey Dahmer’s parents?”
“You’re not helping,” she laughed. A small piece of cake fell from her mouth. She didn’t notice.
“It’s on YouTube!” he shouted.
“Down, Mr. Santa!” she shouted and, with the palm of her hand, made a pumping motion toward the floor.
She inclined her head toward him, suddenly serious. “You probably think I’m desperate, that my options are limited now. I bet lots of guys would tap my ass.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it. There’s competition for everything these days. I actually won’t get tested for HIV, and I’ve had two partners within the last few years. I’m afraid of doing what I did to the dermatologist.”
“That’s exactly how I was. I was planning to wait until an old boyfriend called me to tell me he had the disease. Then I’d get checked. That way, I wouldn’t have to sit around wringing my hands.”
“I did get tested in the 80s, after an affair. Marcy wanted me to do it. I wasn’t really worried, but after they drew the blood, I thought, ‘I could have it. They could call me and say it’s positive. Suddenly, the impossible seemed possible.’ ”
She looked down, seemed to nod her head, only slightly, almost imperceptibly. He wanted to touch her nose, quickly, lightly.
John looked to his left, out the window. The room was in the glass, very clearly: the waiters, customers, thin, black tables, canvas coffee bags against a wall.
“Why’d you decide to get tested?” he said, turning back to her. She was looking at him.
“I finally went to the OBGYN for the first time. It’s included in a variety of blood work. I tried to convince them not to run the test, but they talked me into it. I could feel my heart sink with fear and suddenly I heard myself say, ‘Yes.’ I knew I’d made a mistake.”
“Look at the bright side: It could always be worse.”
She looked down at the table, rubbed her chin, then looked up. “That’s the most pessimistic thing I’ve ever heard.” She was half-smiling, a smirk.
He looked to his right, scanned the small, wood-paneled room, careful to avoid her eyes. She was a blur in his peripheral vision.
“People are hard to figure,” she said, sighed. “I always answer the phone with a slight question in my voice, even when I know who it is.”
His face felt flushed, the skin dry and cracked. He was slightly sad, a cool gray sadness. A sense of something at bay, but coming closer.
John looked at his hands folded on the table, then at her left hand, tightly clutching her mug handle, knuckles white, almost jaundiced. Without looking up he tapped one of her knuckles, quickly, and let his hand fall next to hers, let it rest on the table. He didn’t look up, just kept looking at the small shaft of wood between their hands. He was embarrassed but felt he’d had to touch her in some way, that the touching was an answer to a question she hadn’t asked.
Very slowly he raised his finger, and let it rest on her knuckle.
Bob Bartholomew lives in Las Vegas where he works as a photographer. Before beginning a career in photography, he worked as an academician, radio disc jockey, news writer, newspaper correspondent, high school English teacher and purchasing agent.