I will never forget the way she looked. Slender, not too tall, with a scalp shaved to bare bristles and piercings turning her ears to bijoux-rimmed art; she had tattoos peering out from the cuffs and collar of her oversized camouflage coat and the tired slender face of a nightclub renegade. She was Trinity, butch and tough and real in a way that the Wachowski brothers completely overlooked.
I sat on a stopped train on a December track in the middle of France watching the sleeve of her fatigues and the wink of the afternoon sunlight in her piercings out of the corner of my eye; I was trying not to stare, but I wanted to take in every inch of her, sear her on my memory, this stranger on the train in the seat across the aisle. I was doing this in lieu of allowing panic to overtake me, letting that howling dog batter at the back fences of my mind. Anything was better than the reality of the situation. Watching her was better.
She must have sensed me staring at her, or perhaps the slow progress of my alarm was that palpable; she turned and glanced at me across the aisle and smiled. Quick and sweet, surprisingly. “It shouldn’t be too much longer,” she murmured. “Do you have another train to catch?”
I did: I had another train to catch which would take me up into the winter-locked French Alps, where I was going to load myself onto a bus full of students returning to their homes for the weekend and progress to a village hidden up in the valley, trapped there until Monday morning when the schoolbus came back down. If I missed my bus on the far end then I’d been told I would owe something in the order of fifty dollars in taxi fees to get to the hotel I wasn’t convinced was going to leave the light on for me.
Ski season didn’t start for another two weeks. Nobody came to the Alps just to poke around. Nobody, that is, but a poor college exchange student on a project for Cultural Studies. I’d started the day excited and nervous. It was now late afternoon, and there had been a derailment on the track ahead of me, and the train was stuck. I was going to miss my connection. Forget fifty dollars in taxi fees: I didn’t know what to do about the train.
But you don’t tell a total stranger on the train your life history; that’s something we save for awkward first-effort fiction novels. I shifted. “I think I’m going to miss it,” I managed, and the words cracked the gates of my mind open, panic thrusting its slavering maws toward my composure.
“You’re not French,” she said, which was a comment I got periodically, being of course not at all French despite having lived in a little corner of the French-German border for four months. I shook my head with the learned embarrassment of the American student trying to fit in abroad, and she reached out and clapped me on my shoulder. “Stay with me, when we get to the station. I’ll take care of you.”
I didn’t know what to do except to nod mutely and thank her, which I did, and then when we finally did pull into the station an hour after my connection was due to leave, I stuck to her like glue. She didn’t offer a name; I didn’t ask one. I just picked up my backpack and swung it over my shoulders and followed where she led. By this point I was practically mute with terror, as we stepped into the busy train station in a busy French city and I realized I didn’t know the first thing about rebooking tickets.
She shouldered her way through the crowd, stopped at a pay phone, pointed. “Stay here.” She set her bag down. I stood over it while she made her phone calls, gesticulated at someone on the other end of the phone, spoke rapid-fire French lost in the rumble of the station. She picked her bag up, led me onward.
“I’m hungry,” she commented, bearing the brunt of the conversational burden as she stopped at a sandwich stand. I stood back, too sick with panic to feel anything but a strange desperate hope that this bijou of a woman in combat fatigues was going to somehow get me where I was going. She returned with two sandwiches — bread and butter and cheese, a staple of French sandwich stands, with the butter so thick it was practically another layer of cheese. “Eat.”
I ate. We walked. She led me to the ticket counter, which was surrounded by a disorderly mob of travelers looking to have their trains rebooked or tickets refunded, and looked to be at least twenty people deep. “Where are you going?” I told her. She looked curious for a moment, but said only “Give me your ticket.”
Unquestioning, I reached into my travel wallet and handed her the now-obsolete ticket. She set down her duffel bag — camouflage, in grey and green, like everything else she wore — and took it. “Stay here.” And then she was gone, elbowing and thrusting her way through the crowd, and I was standing guard over a bag that could have contained anything at all.
Time dilates in situations of stress, and so I can’t tell you how long I stood there after the crowd had closed around her, her obedient guard dog, wondering if she was ever actually going to come back. I don’t know how long I was prepared to wait.
It was somewhere between “no time at all” and “forever”, and then she was shoving back out toward me, that lean nightclub face grinning, holding two envelopes. “I have your tickets,” she said unnecessarily, handing me the envelope. “Your train leaves in forty five minutes. Mine’s in twenty. Come on.”
She picked up her bag, tucked it over her shoulder, led me through the crowd to the train platforms. “This is my train — yours is two platforms over. Will you be okay?” She had dark eyes; the lashes surrounding them suggested that her hair, if it grew, would be lush and loam-brown. I couldn’t do anything but nod. There was nothing to be but okay.
She leaned in, brushed her lips over the air next to my cheek: un bisou. And then she was gone, boarding the train, disappearing, and I was standing on a platform clutching my train tickets and wondering what had happened to me.