A girl danced past me. It was cold, but she wore shorts. Her hair twirled through the compartment, her butt swaying. Despite the silence-signs she had a loud, hoarse voice that didn’t seem to have a lot to say. She carried flyers or leaflets, it was hard to say what for exactly. Suddenly everything clicked in my head. The silver sequince on her shorts, her party voice and the time of year, she was handing out Amsterdam Dance Event flyers. But in a flash she reached the other side of the compartment, leaving behind a trail of colored paper. I saw how she, while dancing, had handed a flyer to most people, but she had skipped me. On purpose? Amused I pulled up an eyebrow. Apparently I didn’t look like I enjoyed a party.
She was ready to go, her eyes fixed on the slit between the doors. The train stopped, the doors slipped open and with a yelp she jumped out. She started to speed up, zigzagging between children and hopping over a suitcase. She prayed there was enough credit on her card. She had left her bag in the train, but she had taken her phone with her. In the distance the yellow pole loomed. How long had she been running, thirty seconds? A minute? Her path was blocked by two students, leisurely checking in. She dove between them and pressed her card to the pink logo with a desperate willpower, skidding to a halt. Tuut-tuut. Immediately she shifted her weight to the other side and focused on the white tail of the train. She started to speed up again. The conductor was all the way in the front, he probably couldn’t see her. He had started looking around, she only had a hundred meters left to go. He brought the whistle to his lips. On the whistle, she pressed the button, still blinking in bright green. The door slid open and she stumbled inside, breathing heavily. She made it.
“You are a amiable man”, she spoke to him. “How you offer a hand to any and everyone. Simply splendid. And you clearly enjoy it greatly.” He smiled involuntarily. “Call me boss an’ tell ‘im”, he answered, underscoring his accent. The ladies laughed. “I do wish you a pleasant day sir.” Smiling he moved on. Ladies like these were common on this track, going shopping for a day, or visiting family. He had to admit it was nice to hear, although he had a hard time placing their formal tone. He used to have the idea that a comment like that was meant to denigrate, he still couldn’t be sure if it was. He had decided a long time ago to interpret anything said to him in the train as positively as he could muster, that made his life significantly easier. Amiable was a new one though, he thought with a grin. May even look it up later.
“Are you sure mom”, her daughter had asked, rolling her eyes. “That dress looks a little nineties, don’t you think?” She had cast a doubtful look in the mirror, but she had had no time to change. It had hurt her confidence a little, but she was trying to focus on the pleasant contrast between the denim and her still tanned legs, and the fact that her favorite white sandals paired with it so well. Typing on her phone she wanted to increase the font size, but immediately tossed the idea. Maybe on the way back. She didn’t want to risk him looking at her phone, thinking she needed glasses. In the reflection of her screen she saw how her make-up was still flawless and how her freshly blown out hair still fell on her shoulders in the right angle. Nervously, she checked her ticket, her watch and the monitor telling her where she was. She felt the blood draw from her face. They were nearly there.
He was nodding along, just barely managing to keep a straight face. He struggled to take Stefan seriously like this. He was ranting about something or other again, what exactly wasn’t clear to him. Stefan was a smooth talker, he usually managed to make his points eloquently, but when he wanted to support his argument with visual evidence on his phone it became a lot harder to respect him. “This teacher is didactically absolutely inadequate”, he started his next argument, while he was looking for an email to back himself up. “Wait, look.” With a mocking look in his sharp brown eyes he presented the evidence on his pokémonphone, Eevee’s pointy ears sticking out above the incriminatory email.
Annoyed she turned. The girl behind her was wearing headphones but somehow still managed to have the entire compartment enjoying one Chinese ballad after the other. Was this an offence worth mentioning, she wondered. And a more pressing matter, would she have minded as much if the music was recognizable? The Oriental tones did add to her annoyance, it reminded her of the background music she was forced to listen to when she waited for her takeaway at the local Chinese restaurant. Was that racist? She wasn’t sure, all she knew was that she started to develop a serious headache. It would be too risky to say something, she decided. She didn’t want to be misunderstood, or worse, find out the girl didn’t speak English.
Three degrees Celcius, said her phone. She shivered involuntarily, a blissful smile on her face. It was of course only seven in the morning, but still. To keep up appearances she would complain with her friends, but secretly she loved the early changing of the seasons. Over the weekend she had put her cosy sweaters back in her closet. She snugly dug down in the collar of her coat, she lay both her hands around her coffee mug and enjoyed the nippy feeling in her nose. She loved cold early mornings. She felt a little giddy, the prospect of pumpkin spiced lattes, buying presents when dusk starts setting in already during the day and the general feeling of excitement of the month December. Sure, it was still only September, but suddenly December seemed substantially closer than two weeks ago, when it was still twenty five degrees Celcius. Feeling mutinous she opened her browser. “Christmas decorations”, she typed. Blissfully she started scrolling.
“We have left Schiphol Airport with a delay of four minutes, because some asshole decided to throw his bag between the doors.” He let go of the intercom and immediatelly regretted his bitter tone. “But I wish you all a pleasant trip”, he added sheepishly. Jesus Christ, always the same story. He really didn’t feel like dealing with the bullshit from management, this route was just sensitive to delays, nothing he could do about it. He told himself he wouldn’t let these things get to him anymore, that definitely failed today. He had a hard time getting rid of the jittery feeling, he realised all too well that this small delay could lead to delays up to thirty minutes for some of his passengers. Those students really only thought about themselves, one of those weirdo’s just throwing a bag between the doors to make sure he could still get on. He felt irritation bubble up inside. Most travelers only thought of themselves, same story for management. Delay percentages, who cares. Here he was, trying to care for all his passengers, who was caring for him? With a cross move he pressed the button. “Ladies and Gents, Leiden Central Station is next, we will arrive four minutes late due to one asshole who felt it was necessary to throw his bag between the doors.” He breathed out. “Don’t forget your belongings and have a safe trip home.”
“Dude, where were you last night.” He turned, his lightblue eyes looking calmly from under his cap. “I just had to work this morning, you know”, he answered. He didn’t assume the boys would understand, they had no problem going to work with a hangover. These were the moments he felt so much more mature than his friends. If he wanted to he could join in the conversation but he thought it was a bit wearisome, usually he would hop in and out of the student modus. Around him they continued to boast, the boys with rolling r’s, Giselle with her Belgian accent and a hoarse voice from partying. She clearly enjoyed hearing her own voice, he thought amused. He was an observer and had accepted his role as being a-little-different long ago. It usually brought him opportunities, people thought he was interesting, mysterious. He felt he was a little boring sometimes, but well, he had always been more mature than his peers. He was used to his role, he had grown into it. Amused he looked around, they were so easy to read.
“I’m breaking up with you.” Expectantly she looked up at her. “Or, you start trying really hard right now. If you blow me off once more, don’t trust me or treat me as a vagina we are done for good,” Jacqui dictated. Ella typed along, giggling, looking pleased.
“Sounds clear to me. I’m not even sure why I’m still doing this, the second I meet someone else I am out,” she said with more bravado than she felt. It felt nice to have so much power, it made her feel like she mattered. Jaqcui giggled corroboratory.
“Send it, I can’t wait.” When Jaqcui got off a station earlier she felt her energylevels drop. That happened frequently. With her friends she felt great, but as soon as she was alone not much remained. Suddenly her skirt felt too short, her heels too high and her phone stayed painstakingly quiet. That horrible moment where you waited for someone to reply, avoiding this was reason enough to keep having a boyfriend. She felt the feeling of power melt away. Two ticks. He read it.
“…CHOO”. Annoyed he looked up from his book. Was it socially acceptable to tell someone off for repeated sneezing in the silent compartment? He tried to refocus his attention to the abortion debate going on in the United States. Promptly he was distracted by the views outside his window. A dense morning fog drifted across the water, above which the deep orange of an early morning appeared. His attention had now disappeared completely, he felt his mind wander to his exchange year in Japan, years ago. This happened every time he was confronted with fog. The Japanese had such an interesting relationship with fog. His eyes no longer looked annoyed, dreamy instead, his book was still on the right level but at an angle he wouldn’t be able to read. Somewhere, someone sneezed, he seemed to barely even hear it. It was just another undiscernable sound on the background of his Japanese mountain.
Eindhoven – Tilburg
He felt the eyes of the older couple upon him, their gaze was amused and loving, a little like his grandparents looked at him. Or at least, the eyes of the man. The woman had a stern look, she was obviously annoyed by the sound. That reminded him of his grandma even more. He felt his behavior change under their gaze. He was more aware of himself and a little louder. He felt the urge to impress the man and annoy the woman a little more. With his deep voice, which occasionally shot up, he joined his classmates’ conversation.
“Homework? Please, I go to a Waldorf school.” From the corner of his eye he saw how Anne was eating a salad, sitting between those haughty posers Samantha and Nadine. He nodded at her.
“Good?” She nodded back. He had the feeling that the two of them were the only normal people from their age group. She was the only one not putting up a show. He felt the looks of the couple in front of him and unconsciously spread his legs a little wider, looking at the woman provocatively. She quickly looked away. While he felt a warm triomph bubble up inside, he saw Anne throw a apologetic look at the woman.
Eindhoven – Rotterdam
They sat quietly side by side. They didn’t move in sync but in harmony. They positioned themselves around eachother rhythmically, as a live peace of art. On first glance independent, but subtly reactive. They complemented each other, she was disapproving, he cheerful. He looked at the rowdy schoolboys in front of them with a sympathetic look on his face, she pursed her lips. He sought eyecontact, she looked outside. Their legs didn’t touch, but they were clearly parts of a whole. Together they were balanced, moving unanimously. Now and then they looked like they wanted to say something, but they did so in silence. When the schoolboys left the train she was relieved, although one of the girls had send her a kind smile. He found it regrettable, he had enjoyed listening to them. She looked fearful in her motions, he comforting. Today would be a tensive day.
“I’m hoping for a lively trip”, she heard him say. She looked up, he looked good. Clearly very young, maybe nineteen. His dark eyes were open and mischievous. He looked at the world like a grown man, but from a boys body. She could see what he would grow into, he still had adolescent skin but in eight years or so he would be a handsome guy. Especially if he managed to hold on to his naughtiness, she thought with a smile. He reminded her of Alex, they had the same beautiful smile and dark wavy hair.
“That shouldn’t be a problem”, she replied to him, her eyes gleaming as well. “Where are you guys from?” He looked taken aback, but answered right away. Good fun, such a cheeky one. It wasn’t long before they had discussed the art exhibition she had visited in detail, they even studied the leaflet. He took the conversation lightly, she could tell, but he seemed like a good guy. Nearing Zwolle, she started to get up.
“Oh no, we were just starting to get along,” he said, a mildly mocking twinkle in his eye. She winked at him and shuffled out.
“I’m hoping for a lively trip,” he said out loud, looking around expectantly. They had roamed through Friesland the whole day and it would take them over two hours to get home. He was feeling restless. He was hoping for a good conversation with some cute Frisian girls. The lady sitting across him in the four-seater looked up the way older women can.
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” she said. “Where are you boys from?” The women were obviously interested in them, he couldn’t help but smile. Not entirely what he expected, he thought with amusement, but well, a little flirt couldn’t hurt. When he looked up from his phone he saw a bag open. The lady opposite him pulled out a box of hard candies and offered it to him. He worked hard to keep a straight face. He was being shamelessly seduced, he thought, fifties-style. With pleasure he fished out a sticky candy. Hmm. Strawberry.
He balanced on the edge. His feet in front of each other, the ridge of his shoe exactly on the yellow line. Relishingly he blew the smoke right out of the square. Ridiculous, he thought. A sidewalk chalked cage in which all smokers were to assemble, a bizarre arbitrary rule. He felt rebellious, albeit quietly, but still. A smoking lounge with glass sides and a roof he could appreciate, a hotbox where smoke was supposed to stay inside. This felt to him as a game of bully the smoker. A pillory, a scaffold meant to embarrass him into quitting. With a vicious click he lit his next. He looked around mutinously, as he moved to the long end of the rectangle. Ostentatiously he tapped his cigaret not in the ashtray, but on the corner of the smoking area, only just crossing the line.
He was surrounded by luggage. Clearly embarrassed he pushed the slightly feminine Louis Vuitton purse a little to the side. Letitia had gone to the bathroom, giving him time to think over this predicament. Seven months ago it had seemed practically impossible to say goodbye, but things were different now. On the way to the airport he had still looked forward to seeing her, but now that she was here.. All of a sudden he noticed how her breath smelled a little funny. And she talked so much, in an accent that was suddenly repugnant to him. It seemd that she packed everything she owned, how long did she expect to stay? “Did you cook?” She was back. He shook his head. ”I have sandwiches.” She started talking about food, or cooking, he couldn’t be sure. She tended to swerve off topic. His thoughts were somewhere else entirely anyway. How was he going to handle this? He didn’t know what to do with these feelings of disappointment and nostalgia. She flew halfway across the world, for hím. And he practically shuddered at the idea of sharing a bed with her tonight. He wished he could go back in time. A few days or weeks, maybe even a few years. He got up, gesturing to the bathroom. Maybe he just needed some time to readjust, get used to her again, he thought to himself. But deep down he knew better.
They would take the same train every tuesdaymorning. One day they had had a pleasant conversation on the perron and from that day forward they waited for eachother by the stairs. They both brought their own little thermos, Nel drank coffee, she drank tea. She wasn’t actually sure whether Nel took this same train the rest of the week. Now that she gave it some thought, she wasn’t even sure what Nel did at all. For some reason they always ended up talking about something they saw on the news or some meaningless anecdote from breakfast. Still, she felt she knew Nel pretty well. Lately she had wondered whether Nel enjoyed the company as much as she did, as Nel had taken up the habit of leaving in one side of her earphones, just like her oldest son did. Last night she watched a detective about a lady who secretly worked for the CIA, she felt her mind drift to Nel from the get-go. Maybe this trip was actually her cover? She had considered following Nel one day, but in end decided against it. In the improbably case that her theory was right she wouldn’t want to jeopardise Nels cover, or worse, disrupt their weekly rendez-vous.
With a determined face she was meditating. The sun was half-shining in her eyes, just so that one of her eyelids lit up in red and the other felt cold and dark. She couldn’t determine which felt better. But that wasn’t what she was doing anyway, she was letting the thoughts pass her by. A little to the left maybe, so they would at least feel the same. Better. The sun seemed to tickle her nose, she could feel her nostrils twitch. Would scratching be the bigger disturbance, or the tickle itself? That sounded like a life question, she giggled internally. See, this meditating was already paying off, deep thoughts were flooding in. “The next stop is Almere Centrum”. Her eyes flew open. Fuck. Despairingly she looked at her screen. Eight minutes today. Well, better than nothing, she thought as she hoisted her bag over her shoulder. She let out a breath, her face relaxing. Another to-do done.
Content. That was how he felt. He sat peacefully in his seat, his body swaying back and forth happily on the movement of the train. The evening sun warmed the bald stop on top of his head and he felt Karin’s warm thigh next to his. She was peering outside, periodically yanking her glasses off her head and stuffing them on her nose to write something down. He had a pretty good idea of what everyday business was like inside her head, always working on a hundred and one “arrangements”, as she would call them. “Oh just, you know, arrangements”, she would sigh, he could almost hear her eyes roll through her voice. He got the impression that from time to time she even tired herself with this control center in her head. His own head was blissfully empty. He never had to worry about anything, anytime he did think of something Karin already had it on a list somewhere. So over time he stopped worrying alltogether. Karin made sure there was food in the house, that the bills were paid and that all family members received cards at the appropriate times. He slumped down some more and closed his eyes. Time for a nap.
Her head felt full. Unfortunately with slime, not facts. She had heaved herself from her bed this morning, but it hadn’t been easy. She told herself she would feel better once she dragged herself into the uniform of a regular tuesday, but reality proved otherwise. She unrelentlessly held her book up in front of her. She wouldn’t let anything get between her passing this exam. But she was so tired, the idea of napping for a few minutes was unusually tempting. The rocking of the train made her underlining be less neat than usual, but even that couldn’t bother her. Today was a day of internal conflict, clearly visible in her light eyes. They showed both desperation and determination. Eventually she closed her book and let herself be taken away by the cityscape passing her by. With a bitter around her mouth she pulled out her phone. She started typing furiously, ostensibly a verbal middle finger to her inner perfectionist.
He squinted his eyes as he looked from his own cell to his workcell, which lay on his leg. His head was buzzing. Not from exhaustion, it was a buzzing of thoughts. Only a little while longer. Then, his phone vibrated. He felt himself smile. Olivia had sent a funny GIF, she probably just woke up. Last night they ate together, dinner for him, breakfast for her. She had laughed at his habit of making a smiley face out of ketchup on his burger. When he smiled down at his phone his grey temples seemed darker, the stubble on his chin suddenly made him look boyish instead of shabby. His skin tone appeared to change very slightly, as if a filter was lifted. He hadn’t had the opportunity to draw a ketchup smiley on her food, they had never ate in the same room. Lately he hadn’t minded working late, the leftover bit of evening was his favorite time of day anyway. His thumbs hovered over his cell, hesitating, before he typed a message back, the same smile on his lips. Between nine and midnight was his window of communication with Olivia, these were the moments he lived for.
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