I have my earbuds in, so I don’t hear what the woman next to me on the train says the first time. Since she’s in the seat to my right, I tug on the cord connected to the headphone in the corresponding ear.
When she sees it pop out, she repeats herself. “Which Hitchcock movie is it where he cuts from the shot of the couple in a sleeper car to the shot of the train going through a tunnel?”
“North by Northwest,” I answer. “We all laughed when we watched it in my film studies class back in college. Why?”
“While you were lost in thought, the conductor announced the train was about to go through a tunnel,” she reported.
With her dry delivery, the meaning of her remark isn’t obvious—on either a metaphorical or a literal level.
But then she slips her left hand onto my right thigh. “What are you thinking about, baby?”
“Oh,” I stall, turning toward the window. I pretend to stare at the Cascade Mountains. “Just the scenery,” I lie.
Because the truth is, I am thinking about another girl, on another train.
On that train, I pretended to stare at the Alps. When our train pulled into Interlaken, the Let’s Go guide open on my lap informed me, the view would be dominated by a mountain named the Jungfrau. At that moment, though, I was trying to avoid the sight of a different young girl.
With little more than Eurail Passes to get us onto trains and International Student Identity Cards to get us into hostels, she and I had been backpacking across Europe for a few weeks. If we had been telling the truth to each other just then, which we weren’t, we would have had to admit that we were a little tired of each other. Some of our romantic notions had been strained, especially the ones about romance. Staying at those hostels had had a lot to do with that, as we’d rush into our room with, say, the warmth of the bottle of burgundy we’d drank under the Eiffel Tower coursing through all the appropriate parts of our bodies—to find about a dozen other travellers strewn on the bunk beds, sharing a bottle of absinthe one of them had smuggled out of Prague. Then they’d take turns staggering to the communal restroom to throw up in the toilet, if we were lucky. Or in the shower, if we weren’t.
Ah, Paris: The City of Love.
So often deprived of the privacy she and I needed to make love, this woman—who would later become my wife, then become my ex-wife—was starting to suggest other ways I could make my ardor apparent in public.
“What are you writing about?” she had asked as I had scribbled on the lined pages of my Moleskine notebook.
“Just the scenery,” I had replied. That time, I had been telling the truth. “I’m trying to learn the exact terms to describe the mountains from the guidebook—”
“You should be writing about me,” she interrupted, “about how the beauty of the Alps pales compared to mine.”
For a moment, I had just stared at her. Then I had ripped out the page of the notebook on which I had been attempting to describe the beauty of the Alps. Robotically, I had read aloud the words I wrote on the next: “The beauty of the Alps pales compared to—”
“Oh, forget it,” she had snapped.
That’s when I had turned to pretend to stare at the Alps. But, if I had been telling the truth to myself just then, which I wasn’t, I would have had to admit that I was feeling some of the same frustration as she was. So, when I noticed that our train was about to penetrate a tunnel, it just slipped out.
“There’s this Hitchcock movie—North by Northwest—where he cuts from a shot of a couple in a sleeper car to a shot of a train going through a tunnel.”
“Ah, Charlie,” she sighed, “my master of useless trivia.”
“It’s,” I stammered, “it’s just that I was thinking … it’s too bad we couldn’t … afford a sleeper car.”
“Hmm. Maybe that trivia isn’t so useless.” She stared at me, expectantly.
When I didn’t respond, she leaned close. “This is the moment,” she whispered, “you’re supposed to suggest that, when we enter the darkness of the tunnel, we could sneak into the restroom together and … make your train go through my tunnel.”
I blushed, shook my head. I could imagine the rest of the passengers staring at us as we emerged from that restroom, smirking at an imperfect performance as inauthentic as my earlier reading. Because with that woman, on that train, I felt uncomfortable.
I turn away from the window on this train, with its view of the Cascades. I swallow, then lean close to this woman’s ear.
“So,” I whisper, “is this the moment I’m supposed to suggest that, when we enter the darkness of the tunnel, we could sneak into the restroom together and … make my train go through your tunnel?”
“We could, if we were the type of fiancées who sneak into restrooms together.” She chuckles, then points to my iPod. “Or we could just listen to Train, going through a tunnel.”
I smile, trying not to sigh with the relief I feel. “We could, if I was the type of fiancée who owns Train songs.”
It’s suddenly dark. We’re entering the tunnel.
“Well, let’s sing one, instead,” she suggests. “What are the words to ‘Drops of Jupiter’?”
“Um, ‘With drops of Jupiter—’?”
Maybe I’d feel differently, if it wasn’t dark, if I could see the rest of the passengers stare at us, smirk at our imperfect performance. But this is authentic. Because with this woman, on this train, I feel comfortable.
“Train, Going Through a Tunnel” was originally published by Flash Fiction Magazine in 2016.