The train’s brakes jerked me awake. I took a second to remind myself of where I was headed. Looking out the window, I remembered. Germany. Checking the map on my phone I saw that we passed into the border half an hour ago.
“Huh. Not bad.” I muttered to myself. “Still time to sleep.” Before returning to sleep I looked at the other people around the table. The train’s plush seats were arranged in groups of four around tables, something far different from what I had seen in America.
“You sleep with your mouth open,” said a voice across from me. I looked up and saw the young woman who spoke to me.
“Ah. That sounds about right. I can’t ever remember to close it once I fall asleep,” I said, smiling slightly.
She looked at me funny, and then decided what I said was a joke, and smiled.
“So you speak English?”
“Of course. I am American, after all,” she said, raising a pierced eyebrow.
“I know plenty of Americans who don’t speak English.” I countered, but didn’t know where to go from there.
She didn’t either, as it turned out.
In hopes of keeping our conversation going, I reached out a hand and knocked over her bottle of water. “Shoot, sorry. I’m Gabriel.” I apologized and introduced myself all in one breath. Her water bottle hit the ground and the cap flew off, spilling what remained in her bottle on to the floor.
“Nice to meet you, Gabriel. I’m Arianna.” The young woman, Arianna, shook my hand. “Don’t worry about the water, I wasn’t very thirsty anyway.” She joked. At least, I hoped it was a joke.
“Would you like to come have a drink with me anyway?” I asked.
She thought for a second before smiling. “You thought that was pretty smooth, didn’t you.”
“Yeah,” I admitted without pausing. “Did it work?”
“Why not?” Arianna stood up from her seat and started to walk down the train and towards the dining car before I had even had the chance to get out of my seat.
When I caught up to her, we walked in silence. We didn’t have that much of a choice. The tight walkways between the seats are just large enough for one person to walk through. And I didn’t want to speak to the back of my new friend’s head.
When we reached the dining car, I followed her to the bar.
“What can I get for you?” I asked Arianna.
She looked at me with a smirk. “Oh, how chivalrous.”
“Well, I was the one to invite you.”
She nodded her agreement. “Alright, Mr. Moneybags. I’ll tell you what. You buy the aperitivis and I’ll buy lunch.”
“And why’s that?” I asked, refusing to let someone pay for my invitation.
“Because I’m inviting you to lunch.” She gave a genuine smile.
“Touché.” Turning to the bartender I ordered a Campari and soda.
The bartender nodded once and turned to Arianna. “Do you have any young wine?” she asked.
“Of course.” The bartender said in a gentle German accent. “If you two will sit down I shall be out shortly.”
Arianna and I sat in one of the empty booths near the window, watching the countryside pass in the early afternoon light.
“What brings you to Germany, Gabriel?” she asked without waiting for the awkward silence to grow. “Or was it an assassination mission on my water bottle?”
“Cover’s blown!” I said, holding my hand to my ear. “I need an evac, ASAP!” I continued, starting to stand up.
Arianna stared at me, waiting for my antics to be over. “Ya done now?” she asked after I got up from the able.
“You know, Arianna,” I began, sitting back down. “I don’t know if this will work between us. You don’t think I’m nearly as funny as I think I am.” I said, smiling.
“As long as you don’t give the people behind you a heart attack, I’ll consider warming up.”
“Is that before or after Hell freezes over?” I asked. Perhaps that wasn’t the smartest idea.
She looked at me for a brief pause, and then smiled. “Do you like to treat all your new friends like this, or just me?”
“Just the special ones.” I said.
The bartender came by with our drinks balanced on a tray, left them with two small dishes of snacks, and went back to the bar. Arianna pushed the chips towards me and kept the peanuts near her. Arianna and I clinked our glasses together and each took a sip. She from her yellow wine, and I from my bubbly red liquid.
“And what about you?” I asked. “What brings you to Germany?”
“We didn’t finish talking about you.”
“Not entirely necessary,” I said, munching on a chip.
“And what makes you so special that we don’t get to talk about you?” she asked.
“Wouldn’t want to rob you of your sanity with my boring life.”
“Try me,” she challenged.
“Fine. Let’s see. I’m twenty-two. Haven’t been to college. Worked after high school washing dishes and waiting tables on the other side of town from where I lived.”
“I bet you had to walk uphill both ways,” she joked.
“In the famous Savannah snowstorms.”
“I didn’t realize there were any.”
“Exactly. That’s what made it so difficult.” I smiled. “Anyway. I saved up a few thousand dollars and figured I would rather spend it in Europe rather than a week at college, or whatever four thousand dollars can get you these days.”
“About three days,” she said.
“Yeah. I’m in college now. But summer break in Europe and all.”
“Ah, of course. So is that what you do? You’re a college kid on vacation?”
“Oooh! You sound so scandalized!” She laughed. “It’s all scholarships for me. No rich parents or stripping on Friday nights.”
“I wouldn’t have held it against you, anyway,” I said, sipping from drink.
“To mimic someone I know, ‘Oh really?’” She asked.
“Ever heard the phrase, ‘it’s not you, it’s me.’?” I asked. “Well, it’s a lot like that with me. In Savannah there’s this rather well known art college. And to everyone outside Savannah that’s exactly what it is. But to the people who live in Savannah, it’s a place where a talentless fuck can pay fifty-thousand a year a get a piece of paper that says, ‘Congratulations. You’re an artist.’ I’ll even bet you that it’s written in Crayon with gold leaf around the edges. So it’s not that I dislike people who get their college paid for them by dutiful parents. I just don’t think money should equal a scholarship.”
“Yeah. No bitterness at all,” she said with a surprising gentleness. “Did you apply and get denied?”
“Nah. I just don’t like to see someone buying success.”
“God, who does?” She asked, and I think it was rhetorical so I didn’t answer.
We both paused while we had another sip. I can’t speak for her, but my drink wasn’t very strong. Unfortunately, it also wasn’t very big. I took smaller and smaller sips, stretching it out.
“How about this,” she began. “We have lunch and pretend we are on a train going through the picturesque countryside of Europe. And look at that!” She pointed out the window. “My imagination is so strong that it actually looks like we’re on a train through the countryside of Europe.”
“You know, it’s not attractive to think you’re funnier than you are.” I joked.
“Oh, then you should definitely talk to a friend of mine.”
“Are we friends now?” I asked.
“I should hope so. I’m buying you lunch, you know.”
“Speaking of, shall we order?” I asked, hailing the bartender.
I asked him for a couple of menus. He left and returned a moment later with two menus printed on card stock.
“The roast looks good,” she said.
“I make it a rule to never eat meat on a mode of transportation.”
“Ever seen Airplane? But it’s not just fish. I can’t stand the thought of any type of meat.”
“Scaredy-cat. I’m getting the roast.”
“Fine. Meat all around.”
The bartender returned a moment later and Arianna ordered the roast. I ordered the grilled chicken. It also happened to be the cheapest.
“Did you order that since it was the cheapest?” she asked, blowing my weak cover.
“Did you see those prices? Are they out of their minds charging sixteen euros for a plate of pasta?”
“You don’t really have that decorum that some people have, do you? The one where you don’t talk about the prices, especially when someone else is buying.”
“Can I ask you something?” I asked. “I promise, it’ll tie in.”
“Sure. Wait, let me guess. How much do I charge per night? Will I send you nudes? What’s my sign?” she guessed.
“Uh, no. Nope. If you want to tell me?” I answered all three.
“Go figure. But that’s not my question,” I said. “What do you think is the most important thing a parent can give a child?” I asked.
“Yeah. No bullshit, no jokes.”
“Tangible or intangible?” she clarified.
“Love,” she said. I paused, letting her take the option to change her answer if necessary. “Wait, no. Hope. If parents can give their kids hope, that is the greatest gift. Why?”
“Funny enough, my parents gave me both of your answers, despite being poor. Well, not poor exactly. Just artistic. Either way, my answer would be more tangible.”
“Would be? Don’t be passive with me.”
“Because I’ve been broke. And homeless twice, not including right now. Which, by the by, traveling is just a fancy word for ‘homeless is many countries.’”
“So you would prefer money? Or a house?” she asked in a simple way. It was not unkind, or blunt. It was just an honest question.
“Do you know what hope and love tastes like?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“It tastes like fuck all. Because you can’t eat it. Or drink it. It doesn’t fit over your head in the rain, and you can’t put it below you to sleep on.”
She thought about it for a second, and then responded. “I think you’re wrong. How come you’re here instead of still back home?” she asked. “What drove you to come to Europe instead of having a steady job with a few thousand dollars in savings? That’s not normal. In fact, out of every person I went to high school with, most of them wealthy, I’m the only one who went traveling. Not because I got lucky. But because I knew there was something more than college. It may not look like it, Gabriel, but everyone has their prison.”
“Oh, don’t worry. Mine fits right here.” I said, tapping between my chest. “But you might be right. So what do you think the purpose of me coming here was?”
“What do I look like, the Three Fates?” she asked.
“Wow. You made that reference?”
“Sorry. Just got done reading the fable of Icarus.”
“Parable,” I corrected. “I mean, I think it’s a parable. Not that you’re wrong. Maybe we’re both right?” I asked, digging myself out of that hole.
“Uh-huh.” she said, looking behind me. “Here we go!”
The bartender came to our booth, gave her the roast, then gave me the chicken.
“Can we have a bottle of your house red?” Arianna asked the bartender.
“Certainly. The bartender took our dishes and glasses from the aperitivi and left.
“Who’s Mr. Moneybags now?” I asked.
“You’re in a strange position to be snarky,” she observed.
“Touché. Thank you for lunch.” I said more honestly. And in fact, the grilled chicken looked wonderful. It was grilled with sliced almonds and raisins, covered in a sauce that was spicy and North African tasting. The vegetables on the side were tossed in oil and roasted.
I ate a mouthful of chicken and let out a deep sigh.
“That was bordering on a moan.”
“You don’t let me have any awkward moments to myself, do you?”
“Course not. I’m breaking down barriers.”
“I think you’re supposed to at least wait a week.”
“Says who?” she asked.
“Beats me. How’s the food?”
“Ohmigod so good. Literally falling apart in my mouth.”
“Literally literally? Or figuratively literally.”
“Would you like to see?” she offered, beginning to open her mouth.
“I’ll take your word for it,” I smiled, laughing a bit. “Does this mean we’re going to start using the bathroom with the door open?” I asked.
“I think that can at least wait a week.”
“Ah! So she has boundaries after all.”
She nodded, her mouth full. The bartender returned with a decanter of red wine and two glasses. He set one glass in front of her, and one in front of me.
“Who would care to taste it?” he asked, looking at me. I nodded towards her. “She’s the professional,” I smiled. The bartender smiled politely and poured just over two thimblefuls of wine into her glass. She picked the wine up, swirling it around in a circle, then held it up to the window, letting the light show through. With a smooth, yet quick, motion, she tossed back the sip.
I could see her mouth move, tasting the wine and swishing it through her teeth.
The bartender filled her glass a third of the way up, and mine the same amount. He left after placing the decanter on the middle of the table. We both held up our glasses and clinked them together again. The wine smelled faintly of strawberries. I love that smell.
“What was all that?” I asked.
“What was what?”
I mimicked picking up a glass, swirling it, holding it up to the light and throwing it back into my throat. My swishing motions were admittedly far more exaggerated than hers.
“I was tasting it. For a waiter, you don’t know a lot about wine.”
“I was more curious in the ‘why’.”
“Me or the bartender?”
“The bartender’s gay.”
I looked back over to the bartender. “What? No he isn’t.”
She shrugged, taking another bite of food.
I took another bit of my chicken and turned back towards the bartender. I still couldn’t see it.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“He uses maximum hold hair product instead of strong hold. His sleeves are half an inch too short and he uses cufflinks instead of buttons. His pants are a normal length but he pulls them up his natural waist instead of his hips, showing his socks.”
“No,” she said, reaching over to me. I thought she was going to grab me, but instead she just pushed my plate. “He left his number under your plate.”
“Want me to call him back over so you two can talk?”
“No, I’m okay. I don’t really know how to turn him down.”
“Same way you would turn anyone else down.”
“I don’t turn people down,” I said.
“So you just climb into every old bed thrown your way?”
“Actually, this would be a first.” I admitted.
“Huh. Maybe you have some roguish American charm that works for him.”
“Or he thinks some of the sexuality you’re giving off is actually coming from me?”
“Is that why you asked me to drinks?”
“Nah, I just knew I would get a lunch out of it,” I deadpanned.
“Thank God, I always wanted someone who was as honest as he was shallow.”
“You hit the jackpot, babe,” I said in my best fifties accent, which was sort of a garbled English accent coming from me.
“Was that your Sean Connery impression? Because it was awful.”
“My fifties accent, actually.”
“Well, it’s awful either way,” she said, finishing off the food on her plate.
“Thank God,” I said, copying her. “I always wanted someone who was honest as she was brutal.”
“You hit the jackpot, babe.” She winked, and her fifties accent was far better than my own.
I laughed loudly, trying not to choke on the last of my own dish.
“Where did you come from, Arianna?” I asked, pushing aside my empty plate. “And if you say, ‘my parents’, I’ll accidentally pour this wine on you.”
“Damn. Fine. I came from here and there with a dash of something strange and a quick jig of something badass.”
“Well, it’s a good thing you don’t think too highly of yourself.”
The bartender came by, and took the two empty plates. I tried to avoid eye contact, despite wanting to look. Calling him easy on the eyes was an understatement.
“So, where do we go from here?” I asked.
“Depends. Where are you taking this train?”
“Berlin, maybe. Maybe I’ll buy a ticket to somewhere further south. I have hope after all. What about you?”
“Wiesbaden,” she said.
“What’s there?” I asked. I had never heard of Wiesbaden.
“Wanna find out?” she invited me.
“Shouldn’t you buy me dinner before we go gallivanting around Europe?” I tossed out a gentle joke.
“Was lunch not enough? Jesus Christ, you poor people are all me, me, me.”
“Not all of us. Just the ones who think they’re way funnier than they are.”
Arianna waved the bartender back over, and asked for the check. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll pay for the drinks and you buy me dinner.”
“Deal. I’m feeling Thai. Do they have Asian Thai in Wiesbaden?”
“Nice to meet you ‘feeling Thai’. I’m Arianna.” She smiled, and I felt a small flutter in my stomach. It could have been all of the wine that smelled like strawberries. Or it could have been her.
I looked her in the eyes. Well, eye, really. Her mass of curly hair had fallen over her right eye so I looked into her left. “Dad jokes? Oh boy, we’re gonna get along great.”
“One of my favorite. Both funny and PG rated,” she said, putting her card on the bill.
“Because you’re so PG rated,” I said somewhere between a question a statement.
“Of course not. That’s what makes me so fun.”
It was still some time before we got up and went back to our seats across from each other near our bags. When the train pulled into Berlin, I followed her out and through the station. We each had one large backpack with us, but she managed to move more deftly through the crowd than I could manage.
After a few apologies to the fellow travelers I knocked with my bag, we found a ticket kiosk.
“Wiesbaden?” I confirmed with Arianna.
“Wiesbaden,” she confirmed.
We found two seats on the train next to each other.
Conversation can seem like a currency at times. You spend too much, you won’t have any left. Or, if you talk too much, there won’t be anything left to talk about. I may have been poor in life, but in conversation I was as wealthy as they came. My mother would always talk about the motor that ran my mouth. Somewhere between waiting for the train, and heading south on that train, I realized Arianna was built the same way. I can’t remember the exact second. It’s impossible, like remember the second you fell in love, or the day you fell out of love.
“Hey.” Arianna tapped my forehead. “Anyone home?”
“Yup,” I said, sitting up straighter. “I just zoned out for a second.”
“Are you one of those people who zone out every ten seconds?”
“Gods above, no.” I reassured her.
“Good. Can’t stand having talking to myself whenever you decide to zone out.”
“I think it’s more like every seven seconds.” I finished honestly.
“You have green eyes.”
“I dunno. I thought we were just saying what we found attractive about the other person.”
Arianna laughed, which is really what I was after the whole time. We might kid ourselves, but in the end I think we all just want the other person to laugh at our jokes.
“And you find my green eyes attractive?”
“Well, it’s not blue, but I can work with it,” I joked.
The shadows were beginning to lengthen as we reached Frankfurt.
“One last train,” she said, running ahead through the afternoon commuters heading to the outskirts of the large German city.
I followed her closely behind, careful to keep my bag closer this time. We found yet another ticket kiosk, perfectly located nowhere near the train we needed to take. For the sake of time, she bought both of our tickets.
“So does that mean I owe you two dinners?” I huffed, walking quickly behind her.
“Try not to keep count. You might go silly,” she said, with no hint of being out of breath.
We got on the local train seconds before the door closed. I followed her through the train, and when we didn’t find free seats we surrendered ourselves to leaning on the wall.
The sun was a deep orange and shadows draped themselves across slate rooftops as our train pulled into the station at Wiesbaden. I didn’t follow her this time, as we walked through the old part of town. We walked side by side on the cobblestones as we wound our way between the buildings. She stopped in front of a pensione.
“We’re here,” she said, going inside.
We rented one room for a week. The innkeeper smiled as he handed us the key and wished us well, saying the city does wonders for a ‘young couple.’
“One room?” I asked Arianna.
“Would you like your own?” she asked.
“Not particularly,” I admitted.
“Good,” she smiled, and we walked into our room. As it turns out, our painfully small room.
“Huh. A twin bed,” I said, meaning nothing by the comment.
“Too good for you? Prefer to be an honest backpacker and sleep on the floor, or outside on one of the benches.”
“It’s appealing. Especially that bench offer, but I think I’ll stick to the warm bed.”
“Smart,” she smiled again and shut the door.
We spent a handful of minutes in the room. Getting acquainted with it only took one of those minutes. Most of the time was spent in the bathroom, with me relieving myself. The wine earlier did me no favors.
“Dammit, Gabriel.” Arianna knocked on the door. “How are you not done pissing?”
“Wine,” I answered. “Copious amount of wine. In a short window of time. Earlier, did you say that we do have an open-door bathroom policy?” I asked, fastening my pants around my waist and flushing the toilet. “I can’t remember.” I smiled, cracking the door.
“We can have whatever policy that doesn’t make us late to leaving.” She looked less than amused, which is to say, entirely and completely unamused. I still thought it was funny.
We left the pensione and walked without our bags for the first time that day.
The shopkeepers were out in front of their shops sweeping, or dropping the rolling grates with swift and practiced movements.
Orange lights, softer and shallower than the sun was earlier, emanated from the lampposts, guiding our way to the Holy Place. A Thai restaurant.
“You come all the way to Europe to eat at a Thai resturant?” Arianna asked me, after we were seated at a small two-top near a tropical fish tank.
“Yup. I think it’s like leaving America and suddenly craving a hamburger. Or even better? Have you ever been to China? And when you get there, you start craving American Chinese food. God, that’s the worst.”
“You’ve been to China?” Arianna asked, sounding surprised since the first time I met her.
“Yup. Once. For a few months. Did you think I came to Europe first?”
“Why did you go to China first?”
Normally I would have given a blasé, one-off answer. Normally. But sitting with Arianna in a Thai restaurant in a small German town did not fall under the category of ‘Normal’ for a twenty-two year old with little outside experience.
“I was looking for something,” I answered. I wanted to sound cryptic and invite her further in to ask more questions.
She obliged. “Looking for what?”
“The same thing I am going to look for in the Black Forest.” I paused, waiting for the build-up. “Magic.”
“What?” She was nonplussed. “Magic?”
“You want to be Harry Potter, don’t you?”
“You want to be like an elf from Lord of the Rings.” She stated, a smile starting to form.
“If that’s on the table, sure.”
“Like fairytales? You want to have fairytale magic?”
“Depends on the magic. Depends on the fairytale.”
“Huh.” She smiled. “Gabriel the Wizard.”
“I prefer Magician, if it makes a difference,” I said, waiting for the laugh to come. There was some form of ridicule that usually followed ‘I want to learn magic.’ From my experience, the emotional ridicule was often far worse.
“Can I be honest?” she asked.
“It’s not the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. You know what I wanted to be growing up?” she asked me.
This time I responded. “A princess? A fairy-princess-pirate-mermaid?”
“Close! Actually, yeah, for a while when I was five. But later when I got older I wanted to be an astronaut.”
“So why aren’t you?” I asked.
“Seriously? Have you seen these hips?” she asked. It was true. If Arianna stood with her legs together, they looked like an upside down pear. Starting narrow at her ankles and getting wider at the hips.
I explained to her my analogy.
“Do yourself a favor, Gabriel.”
“Don’t ever call a woman pear-shaped.”
I didn’t tell her what I thought about the rest of her. Best left unsaid, I guessed.