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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the November 2015 issue

From “Staying Gone”



TGV 6175 from Paris Gare-de-Lyon

Now Lo sits in a Train à Grande Vitesse to the sea. Le TGV: the train of great speed. The TGV has an odd nose similar to the Concorde before it. Lo thinks it might have to do with De Gaulle, who surely had a weakness for prominent noses. Although the train’s furnishings have seen better days, she doesn’t trust herself to tuck in her knees as usual and put her feet against the back of the seat in front of her. Nor to take off her shoes.

She thinks of the conductor who almost kicked her off the train earlier because she didn’t know that composter meant “validate,” which she ought to have done before boarding the train, since that’s what it said on her ticket. He turned a blind eye, and she was so thrilled with her good luck that she bought a TGV pen. It really is a little like being in an airplane, except that there’s more space and more variation when you look out the window. And what a view. A landscape to die for she makes out on the back of a guidebook the woman across from her is reading. She considers herself enviable.

Her former colleagues will just now be calling it a day. While fields of sunflowers, hills, vineyards, viaducts, and cyclists on racing bikes rushed past her, they were staring at their screens and ruining their eyes. She, on the other hand, has vision, Lo thinks, then comes a tunnel and right after that, she sees the sea. After all these years. It hasn’t changed a bit. She should have done this immediately instead of going to Rome, she thinks. She’ll go right to the sea as soon as she arrives in Nice. The window won’t open, even when she tries to be patient and calm.

There’s still a street, a boardwalk, and a beach between them. She took three wrong turns in the old city before she heard the roaring, and then it turned out to be only cars on the Boulevard des Anglais. But now she’s found it. Only once it was right there did she realize that she had missed it.

Standing with her feet in the sand and rummaging through her backpack, she realizes she’s missing something else. She didn’t pack her swimsuit. Or maybe she’d taken it out in favor of a fleece pullover. In any case, it’s not there. She still has four hours before the night train leaves, it’s already getting cooler, should she go shopping now? Though shopping sounds far too pleasant for buying a swimsuit. She doesn’t like to remember the last time.

She sees a hotel boutique on the other side of the palm-lined street. The bikini bottoms they sell probably cost as much as a first-class TGV ticket. She stumbles as she enters. Her eyes had just gotten used to the seaside sunlight. Inside it’s all discreet half-darkness, but Lo can see neon light beaming from behind the dressing-room curtains.

Two saleswomen rush over, wanting to help her. The older one, whose glasses dangle from a gold chain around her neck, holds out a suit with a brown pattern. It reminds Lo of a Louis Vuitton bag, and worst of all she thinks it would probably fit her perfectly, with its little sewn-in cups. “Je préfère noir,” she says reaching for a suit that unfortunately—the saleswoman is very sorry—they don’t have in her size. Instead, the younger one sends her into the dressing room with three other suits. The older woman pushes the curtain aside just as she’s squeezed into the first one. And she really did have to squeeze, she feels stuck inside it. “Ca ne va pas,” the woman says firmly. She’s put her glasses on. The neon light doesn’t do her face any favors, either.

In the end Lo chooses a black bathing suit with a heart-shaped neckline and an extra low-cut leg that certainly doesn’t make her legs look longer, but that makes her curves more hyperbolic instead. “Comme Esther Williams,” the younger saleswoman says with a friendly smile, as she probably does every time this item is purchased. Everyone is very pleased with the choice, not least of all because it’s part of the store’s most expensive line. The good-cop-bad-cop routine works in retail too, Lo thinks. It took forty-five minutes. It’s over. She’ll just have to travel to more seasides to amortize the suit. When she comes out of the shop it’s still there. Big, blue, and wide. There’s a reason for everything, she thinks, and writes this in her list of words, though it’s really a sentence, and not even a good one.   

She hands her backpack to a friendly man in a tuxedo mixing colorful drinks on the beach; he’s obviously a fan of the Esther Williams neckline, which is fine with her as long as he stays behind his bar and looks after her belongings. She seems to remember that belongings was voted one of the most beautiful words in the German language. Belongings mean belonging, and greed is good. She can’t be accused of that—she’s single-handedly boosting the European economy with her travel mania. Maybe she should look into special deals, but for now she just goes in the water.

 

Arc 1101 from Port-Bou

It’s not the sea’s fault: it was gentle and warm, its waves crashed for her and it even roared. It’s still perfectly blue. Nonetheless, she leaves it on her left and looks out the window to her right, where a gigantic two-dimensional bull stands next to the street that runs parallel to the tracks. Her swimsuit stayed dry. She was in the water only up to her thighs, surrounded by jellyfish. Now she’s traveling on a different track gauge. Lo likes changes: of upholstery, seatmates, smells, conductors, the sun’s angle. And stations to stretch her legs at when she changes trains. Platforms to run up and down. Air over her head and decent coffee. The distance before the next station feels long. Lo tries to detect changes in the landscape. Variations. Just as she’s starting to take pleasure in the consistency, just as she’s thinking she could memorize this view and conjure it up later for a relaxation exercise, there’s a blackout and she’s thrown back into the illuminated interior. She knows perfectly well: no mountains without tunnels. No traveling through the mountains, in any case. Alongside them, at best. If Lo could move them she’d have them always at her side.

In tunnels window seats are actually unpleasant. In the other direction her gaze is drawn to the screen of the young man with architect glasses. He’s watching Léon: The Professional. Jean Reno is watering a potted plant. Lo would like to take an anonymous survey of assassins about whether they’re satisfied with their portrayal in films. Without sound and without the all-knowing music she can’t tell when to look away. She turns toward the tunnel wall when Gary Oldman appears, just to be on the safe side.

She considers tunnels practical, of course. As feats of technology they’re as impressive as airplanes. But as places they’re only suited for claustrophiles. Or machines. She’d been disappointed to learn that the Swiss Alps were full of tanks. The Swiss Alps, of all places.

And the fact that now a child is crying doesn’t make it easier. That she can’t talk to anyone, that she can’t even really understand anyone else’s conversations, has no music, and doesn’t know how long the tunnel is—all of this really doesn’t make it easier. She should at least choose trains where she understands what’s being said around her. She takes out her cell phone and types irrespondable into her list.

Then it gets brighter. The light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a comforting phrase, hackneyed as it is. The man watching the killer narrows the angle between screen and keyboard. There’s beeping and vibrating all around. Lo’s cell phone has reception again, too. Sandra wants to know how Paris is and what’s up with Thomas. Lo answers that she knows neither, since she’s already on the way to Madrid. Did you join a japanese tour group or something? Sandra asks. This, Lo thinks, is the great thing about texting. You instantly feel less alone but at the same time you don’t have to answer to anyone. I’m a single passenger, love. Since I don’t have a motive, I can’t be charged. I’ll come back to the starting point eventually. Kisses. She has a friend. She’s not nearly as lonely as she looks. This kind of “travel emergency” hadn’t occurred to her, but she’s glad she brought her phone after all, and that modern trains have outlets. She has to be careful not to look too triumphant when it vibrates again. I’ll be back in zürich next weekend. Will you be coming through? I’ll bring clean clothes to the train for you ;) Sandra’s right. That’s probably why no one wants to sit next to her. Which could have its advantages, but only when it doesn’t make you want to turn away from yourself as well.

Sandra’s been in a long-distance relationship with Reto for two years. And it works. She in Osnabrück, he in Zürich. When he’s done studying maybe he’ll look for something in Osnabrück. Lo thinks it’s a good sign when someone is willing to move to Osnabrück for love. Especially since Zürich’s quality of life is one of the highest of any city. Whether she should go and visit the couple remains undecided, however. She puts off answering and goes to the bathroom to rub soap in her armpits.   

 

She’d never even heard the name of the train station before the bombings. She just knew the airport. A train station like a tropical greenhouse: giant palms, and between them the same bustle as in Rome or Paris. She doesn’t see any memorial candles.

She wonders why she’s doing this to herself. Is it supposed to be some kind of test? She’s never particularly liked being alone. Most of her insights come out of conversations. Why is she sitting alone on a bench in a traumatized train station, looking for scars? If she were home she could go to the movies with someone. Talk about relationships. Speak sentences that she’s said a hundred times without finding them any less true. “I know how you feel,” she could say pseudoempathetically, and tell some story from her life without marveling at the fact that it still doesn’t bore her. That’s how it is, and in truth she did at the time find it unsettling. Nonetheless, that’s what she wants to do now: to have an undemanding conversation about something familiar.

Before, she’d always wanted to go to the desert. She still does, actually. She’d just forgotten. She could easily take a trip to the Sahara now, with all the money. That would have been a much better way of retreating into herself. She’d always imagined spending forty days in the desert, resisting all temptation. And then coming back purified. Instead she’s been traveling in overcrowded trains toward overcrowded train stations, wandering through Europe, kissing strange men. What kind of catharsis is she expecting, she asks herself, and then on top of that it occurs to her that this place wouldn’t even exist anymore if the fourth bomb had gone off.

She doesn’t want to be in Madrid. Madrid me mata she’d read on a wall as the train moved through the suburbs toward the city. Suburbs all look so similar.

At the same time, she has nice memories of this city. She came here once with Markus; they’d rowed a boat in the Retiro while a saxophonist played Take Five on the bank. They almost capsized. She can still remember very precisely what she’d thought then: I hope it stays like this. I hope we stay this in love with each other. She can’t remember the feeling itself, though.

She should go someplace she’s never been. Not to yet another capital.

She didn’t make it out of Atocha. As if afraid she might trample her memories of the city, she didn’t set foot outside the station. She thinks of the memorial that she almost couldn’t find. Of the video wall. That she could have had her hand scanned, there at the Espacio de Palabras. But she hadn’t trusted herself, nor could she find the words. Thousands of people had left handprints on the screen and written their names, like in a guestbook. Is it just part of being human, to be touched like this, or is it fear, the proximity to danger. Now, for example, traveling precisely this route, in defiance of all probability, she’s afraid.

Conservadores y socialdemócratras, muy igualados a dos días de las elecciones alemanas, she reads in the 20minutos the woman across the aisle is holding, and that twenty-five percent of Germans are still undecided as to how they should vote. The woman gets off and Lo has nothing to read. The car had already been quite empty for a Friday evening.

Two young men are sitting diagonally across from her. The one near the window, who has a mustache, hasn’t taken his eyes off her the whole time. Out of the corner of her eye she can see him staring at her breasts. She’s always hated being so fixed in someone’s gaze that half her field of vision is cut off. It’s so constricting that she can’t even tell whether he’s finally stopped staring. He couldn’t be more present for her, this man.

She wishes for protection. She, of all people, who’s always wanted to be noticed, wishes for an invisibility cape, or for something to distract the man, at least. Let his friend talk to him. Make his phone ring. She takes out her phone and dials her own number, so that the man can under no circumstances think of talking to her. Busy. She talks anyway, until they arrive in Chamartin.

The men are behind her as she gets off and one of them says something about her butt. That much at least she can get with her lousy foreign-language skills. She walks to the escalator without quickening her pace. 

 

D 205 from Madrid Chamartin

She doesn’t want to repeat herself. Never the same train station twice. You never get on the same train twice, anyhow, even if it has the same name: the cars aren’t the same, aren’t in the same order, there’s a different dining car. Trains are like construction sets, she thinks, and also that it won’t be easy to change trains at different stations every time. That if she imposes such a rule, she won’t be able to go back to the Gare de Lyon, to the nice restaurant with the fancy restroom and port wine à discrétion.  

On the other hand, she had enough rituals at home. Müsli rolls from the health-food store near the train station, latte macchiato at the café near the entrance to the pedestrian zone, potato-spinach soup at the bar in the art house cinema. Buying milk at the train station every Sunday, and eating a tomato-mozzarella sandwich from the cafeteria at her computer every other lunch break. She’s in withdrawal. Sixty-plus hours without Internet already, without a computer; it feels unnatural. She really ought to look at the job offers in the email newsletter. To think of all the things that might have happened in the meantime. All the opportunities that could have opened up without her knowing it.

She still has this feeling, after so many years of opening windows, limited views, falling characters, input- and output lines. Searching and forgetting. And despite it all, the same feeling as ever that there in the land of incoming messages, of forwarding, bccs and links the possibilities are much better and more widely distributed than in real life. Than, for example, on this train from Madrid to Hendaye named Star. Here in a place that moves, that travels through the night, offering a community of people with the same origen and destino a place to sleep. A new frame of reference. One that’s easy to understand, unlike the Internet.

When she gets back from the dining car, the other beds in her compartment are still free. She lies down under the sheet, thankful for the solitude, and thinks of Charleroi, of her bus ride through France, and of the fact that the man she met there might be thinking of her too.

The even rattling calms her. She looks through the curtains into the night; just past Avila she thinks of the word abode and wonders whether it can be applied to a train.    

From fern bleiben © 2010 by Ulrike Ulrich. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Anne Posten. All rights reserved.

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