by Rashid Moore
The date was fixed and the train ticket to Paris was purchased. I never thought this day would come. Her year in France was over and she was going home to her high class family, to marry some impossibly handsome and wealthy man. A man I despised without ever having met him.
Cristina was raven-haired, with mischievous dark eyes and an intoxicating natural aroma that surrounded her like an invisible cloud. Older than most students like myself, Cristina was sophisticated and multilingual. She could speak of history, politics, and music effortlessly. What I found most appealing of all was when she unleashed her razor-sharp wit, leaving her unsuspecting prey dazed and confused. This I found out on more than one thrilling occasion as I engaged her in verbal combat. I would later cancel dates in order to go on adventures with her.
She was from one of those warm, “hugging” cultures, the type in which women throw their arms around friends and kiss each other on the cheeks for no reason at all. And my culture? A cold and sterile North American one, whose greeting and farewell is a quick nod of the head or a handshake. I was awkward (and am still awkward) in deciding how and when to hug and kiss someone from that type of culture. Is it one kiss on one cheek or two cheeks? Do you start on the right or the left first? Do you hug or not? One arm or two? Is it only once a day or more than once? Do you start toward them first or do they initiate? After so many times in which I started and stopped, or bumped heads, or put my arm stiffly around someone, I ended up just offering my cheek with my arms at my sides, looking like a muñeco de trapo, a ragdoll.…
So, why such a woman became my friend I will never know. I was a scruffy young American of 19, barely surviving on baguettes, cheese, and espressos from the little money I had from a small student bank loan I used to pay for my studies there.
I certainly did not fit into her social circle or economic class. But I knew I had two skills that some find appealing – an ability to make people laugh and an ability to engage people in verbal combat. I lived for laughter and word play and we just connected on this plane of existence. Many men were unwilling or unable to keep up with her. Nearly all were intimidated by her. Not me. Although I had no hope of winning her away from her wealthy fiancé, I could at least spend some time verbally sparring with her when others were afraid to get into the arena with her.
As a result, Cristina took me under her wing, introducing me to her friends, to raging political debates over coffee, to parties of international flavors, even to skiing in the French Alps. With her group of friends we would ski half-way down the mountain, take off our skis, stick them upright in the snow, and lean back on our “snow chairs” and look back up at the mountain peaks and “trash talk” at one another.
As a group we even hitchhiked across part of France, having one adventure after another. We were even given a ride by a French farmer driving a tractor and wagon of hay. (Yes….an ACTUAL tractor… sitting in the back of the wagon with hay all around…we could have walked faster than the tractor, but it was one of the best rides we ever had). During our trips, she sometimes slept against my shoulder, with her fragrant black hair cascading down my arm. It was Heaven and Hell at the same time.
Most times I was her faithful little puppy, tripping over my own paws to keep up with her. At other times I was her guard dog, protecting her from men who sometimes aggressively pursued her at parties or while we hitchhiked across France. She knew she could count on me to go through the gates of Hell for her, and given our reckless hitchhiking with strangers, Hell was often just around the corner…
Within only a few hours of her departure for Paris, she came to my dormitory room to talk. She had never come into my room before, preferring instead to poke her head though the open door just to say “Party?”, “Skiing?”, “Hitchhiking?” which was enough for me to cancel my plans and go on an adventure with her. That night was different – she was leaving for good. She came in and took over the room, as if she owned it, owned all that it contained. She lay on her side on my little dorm bed, propping herself up with one arm, her hair flowing over my pillow. I pulled my wooden chair from my study table and sat opposite her. Her natural aroma was powerful, even illegal, filling the room and washing over my senses like relentless waves on a beach. It was unbearable to have her all to myself and yet know she was leaving for good. I wanted to tell her that I was going to miss her, but I didn’t.
After all, of what interest would an immature 19 year old boy be to a sophisticated woman destined to be reunited with her fiancé within 24 hours? I avoided her dark eyes because I feared I would be destroyed by what I found in them. Maybe I would see melancholy, and this was just another stop in the obligatory round of goodbyes to friends that night. Maybe I would see desire, a glimpse of something I could never have, something that would only lead to her regret and negative memories of me. Or even more devastating, maybe I would see nothing at all, her thoughts already of home and of her fiancé.
I spoke vacantly about her train departure time and her plans for the summer. Clumsily, I tried to lie that it would be nice to visit her in her home country at the end of school year with her friends. But Cristina cut me off, saying “You aren’t coming.” I hated how she knew me, how she owned me…but she was right. She suddenly got up, startling me in the process, and instinctively I stood up as well. She threw her arms around me, pressed her cheek onto my chest and hugged me. But I did not hug her back. No… not me. I decided she needed protection one last time – this time from me.
Instead of embracing her, my arms hung lifelessly at my sides. I made some excuse that I had to help someone write a letter in English (I didn’t) and asked her to wait in her friend’s room until she was ready to go to the train station. She stepped back and said “But I want to stay here”. Her tone was almost like a hurt child, a tone I had never heard from her before. I said she couldn’t stay and she asked “Why not?” I heartlessly repeated that she had to go, but that I would help her take her luggage to the train station two hours later when her friends gathered to take her there. “You are so cold” were her last words to me as she stormed out of the room.
A few hours later we all met up at her room to go off to the train station. Although she made the obvious point of asking someone else to take her two suitcases, I managed to get them by the time we left the building. As we walked along the way to the station, the crowd of friends excitedly chatted around her, talking about their plans to see her in the summer in her home country. I lagged behind, hampered by the weight of the suitcases. “There will be time to talk at the train station”, I said to myself, and I would make things right there.
At the station on the platform of her train, I followed her into the train car, dragging her heavy suitcases up the two metal stairs built into the side of the train car. She led the way silently to her compartment. After I placed her bags in the overhead compartment, I turned to finally say... but she was already out the door. When I emerged from the train, there was a considerable crowd around her on the platform, so I went to the end of the line, or what I thought was a line. After all, isn’t there always time to say goodbye at a train station?
As I was nearing my turn to say goodbye, her smiling dark eyes turned narrow and hard when she looked at me from time to time, signaling that she was not interested in talking to me. So, I let some other people behind me go in front of me. In truth, it gave me more time to rehearse in my mind what I wanted to say. “I will miss you… I did not trust myself around you in my room tonight… I do not want you to go”. As my turn neared again, the French platform conductor approached and said in a loud and harsh voice “All aboard!” Time was up…
Cristina was the last passenger to get on the train. I saw her take hold of the handrail on the side of the train car and then take the two metal steps on the side of the train and disappear inside. I thought that was it…my last chance to say anything meaningful to her was gone. Suddenly, she reappeared at the entrance to wave to all of her friends. As she waved, it appeared almost as if she were searching the crowd, as if she were looking for someone. It could not be me, I thought, she is really angry with me... Although I was a few rows back in the crowd, I felt her eyes stop and rest on me. Her hard dark eyes softened and she managed a faint smile. I heard the train wheels start to creak noisily, as the train slowly lurched forward. I felt a panic in my heart, knowing that this was the last time that I was going to see her. I could see that she was still looking at me from time to time as she waved to her crowd of friends…
But it was too late now to say anything….or was it? I worked my way to the right through the crowd on the quay, following along as the train slowly creaked forward. I made my way forward to the front of the crowd and I felt her eyes on me all the while. The train wheels were squealing and the train bell was clanging incessantly. And yet... despite all the noise, my heart was sinking beneath the waves of silence. I saw the train was slowly starting to pick up speed… It was a “now or never” moment. Without thinking, I made my declaration to her - I jumped on to the moving train. I held on to the two metal hand rails, with one foot on the lower step and one foot on the middle step. Cristina was startled at first, but her dark eyes smiled as I pulled myself up until I was nearly face to face with her. I was finally ready to embrace her, to hug her goodbye, but I could not use my arms as I had to hold on to the metal railing to keep from falling off of the moving train. She could not embrace me either as she had to hold on to the frame of the doorway to steady herself. And I had only 10 seconds or so until I reached the end of the platform and would have to jump off. The only other option was a kiss, but I did not want just a kiss on the cheek, and her dark eyes told me that she didn’t want just that either. I leaned forward and she rewarded my reckless declaration to her with a kiss, un beso rico…
Without warning, I was rudely pulled away from her lips by that gruff French conductor, who yanked me off of the moving train and threw me on the platform like a sack of potatoes. The conductor shouted at me, but, being French, he no doubt understood my temporary insanity over a woman and quickly moved along down the platform. I slowly picked myself up, bruised but smiling, exulting in my recklessness as her friends came rushing toward me at the end of the platform…
I heard later that many of her friends took her up on her offer to visit her in her home country; some no doubt even attended her wedding. After all, their families were wealthy and their vacation budgets unlimited. My little student loan was running out and I was headed back to the United States shortly on my own late night train to Paris. I never saw her again. I have even forgotten her last name, which is just as well as she soon took another man’s name, maybe even more than one man’s name over the decades, knowing her. That matters little to me. I had made my declaration and for a brief moment in time she was mine, without any regrets. And Cristina? I knew she would always have a small place in her heart for a man, perhaps the only man, who would dare to jump onto a moving train for her.