By Yolanda Arenales
Translation from the Spanish by John W. Warren
I arrived at the station in the nick of time, as usual, relying on my watch running fast and on the train granting me the favor of arriving five minutes late. Thanks to both, my watch ahead and the train delayed, I had enough time for a cup of coffee in the station’s café. It was empty. The man behind the counter wiped the stainless steel surface with a rag. He worked slowly, gazing attentively at his image reflected in the metal, as if his life depended on it. I’ve been catching the train every Friday for nearly two years in this very station, drinking a last-minute coffee in this very bar, with the same man wiping the counter for lack of anything better to do. By now we could be friends, of a sort, but we aren’t, and both of us are content with the mutual dislike that unites us. He’s a man from the North, used to dealing with cows and not with people. And I appreciate that. That he doesn’t ask about my family or mention the weekend’s game. That he gives me my coffee like he feeds the livestock. I couldn’t abide by anything else after a tough week on the job, one I do for the money and nothing else, just as he’s a waiter without its being his calling.
The bar is a dive. Shiny white tiles on the floor, faux-leather chairs, plastic tables, and the unavoidable stainless steel gleaming from every corner. Fluorescent tubes, naturally, emit the only light. Completely depressing. But the station, on the other side of the window, is another story, because it looks as though it’s from another time or another place. Across the tracks rise green and misty mountains, complete with fantastic cows like refugees from a story by Borges. Their aimless roaming reminds me that you won’t be in Madrid, waiting for me in that other station that has nothing in common with this one, much as they are linked by a ribbon of iron.
I’ve probably told you all this before. Maybe all my letters are the same, but you tell me that you like them and I need to believe you. Anyway, today I’m going to tell you something special and rare, because on that trip I peered through a time tunnel, the one through which every train travels.
My grandfather told me that sugar is always scarce during wartime and that it’s good to get used to living without it, because then one is prepared for the worst. So I drink my coffee bitter, and yes, it tastes horrible, but I’m solaced knowing that no war can do me in. That, and not the caffeine, is what addicts me to coffee, including that from this remodeled train station bar. The cup I was drinking I swallowed in a gulp because the train was arriving. I ran out without waiting for my change. The bartender doesn’t like tips, but he tolerates them in emergencies. As I left I heard a grunt, a noise escaping from the sides of his throat, and I knew it was his way of wishing me a good journey.
I boarded the train with a leap, and once inside everything was fine. While trains are running time stands still, though clocks know this because someone stole their awareness in order to make them more accurate. My cheeks were still nipped with cold but it was warm inside the coach. Since the train was half empty, I didn’t bother to find my seat. I collapsed on the first seat I found, letting myself rock to the clickety-clack of the train, wrapped in the warm laziness of doing nothing that is traveling.
I would’ve loved to doze off but I wasn’t sleepy, just exhausted and filled with the longing to arrive that always packs our suitcases. I had a book, of course, and some incredibly boring statistics from the office that I would have to study at some point over the weekend. But at that moment I only wanted to look around.
The windows were veiled by steam through which the landscape was blurred, uncertain, seemingly snatched from the dreams of the sleeping passengers. A little girl drew flowers and hearts with her finger, and pressed her nose against the glass as if seeking a passageway.
Near me sat an old couple. What first caught my attention was that they both had the same white hair, seen from behind it looked like their heads were interchangeable. Their hair, though real, looked like wigs, and they like characters from a play. They talked loudly, either because they were wearing headphones for the movie or they were hard of hearing, I’m not certain, but I found it easy to follow their conversation, which was more engaging than any of the dialogue on the screen. Two old people shouting sweet nothings and calling each other “Corazón,” or sometimes just “Cora” when they want to skip an extra syllable. They laughed frequently and that’s what I loved most listening. Few things are more moving than the laughter of our elders. Their bodies were beautiful, elegant bones discernable beneath tired flesh, and yes, their faces were wrinkled, but there was nothing unattractive about them. Skin proud of its creases. Lively and knowing eyes, with a playful spark their bodies had lost. Eyes that besides looking, still see, even if through thick lenses.
The woman wanted coffee so he set off for the dining car to get her a cup. As he strolled away with that sweet, inebriated amble you get only on a train, she and I looked at each other without hiding it, almost speaking, except the narrow corridor separated us, and after all, we were two strangers. We could have talked about the weather, about where we were going and where we’ve been, but we weren’t interested in any of that. We were fine that way, quiet, mutual understanding through expressions. The man returned at once with a cup of coffee in his hand. It seemed as though he’d only been gone an instant. As I said, inside a train time changes.
The coffee had half a spoonful of sugar, a splash of milk, as always. She brought it to her mouth without stopping to ask, knowing it would be just right. In every little act and gesture you could see decades of living together, they seemed to know each other so well that perhaps sometimes they forget who’s who. Is this my hand or yours? Your foot itches me.
The woman took a sip of her coffee, closing her eyes as if to savor it more, and in that instant he reached into his pocket. “Surprise!” he said, although obviously it was an oft-repeated trick, no longer a prelude for anything unexpected. But it helped me realize that words are born anew every time they are uttered. In any case, he withdrew the chocolate bar he’d bought and hidden in his jacket, and the woman’s eyes gleamed with that faint happiness that comes from the smallest things. As she began eating the chocolate the years were erased in bliss. I was still watching them, but I didn’t have to pretend not to, since by then, they’d given their permission and even enjoyed the attention.
It wouldn’t take much longer to arrive. I opened the window and poked my head outside. In the distance, as if on another planet, you could see the lights of the great city. Some days ago I’d arrived by plane, also at night, and the first thing I saw from the heavens were those lights, the same ones I suppose, but now they seemed like others. That’s when I discovered that Madrid is different depending on whether you arrive from the sky or on the ground. Two separate cities with the same name and in the same place. A mystery impossible to fathom by a humble observer.
The mother of the girl who drew flowers complained that it was cold. So I apologized and returned to my old folks. The girl gave me a conspiratorial glance; she too would’ve liked to stick her head out the window, to see the station before the station saw her.
Before I expected the train stopped and I realized we’d arrived. Outside was hustle and bustle: Chamartín is a train station with pretensions of an airport.
I wished I could borrow one of the relatives waiting on the platform. Father, sister, brother-in-law, husband that had come looking for their travelers. More than anything, I would’ve loved to have some slight chance of finding you among the crowd, though I knew that wasn’t possible. Then I remembered—sometimes I forget—that I’m a solitary traveler. My trains and I, and the baggage I carry. It’s fine, I travel with myself and through myself.
The old man reached up for their bags, putting them on the floor as though in slow motion. I noticed how he gave her his hand to climb down off the train, how she paused for a moment to straighten his shirt collar. They were very gentle with one another, as if they were each afraid the other might break between their hands. I trembled once again from the tenderness of their touch. One day long ago they fell in love for the first time, with a love that seeped into their bones and stood up to life’s irritations, which corrode so many things.
They began walking down the platform. She held his arm, her shoulder fitting perfectly under his. Matching bodies that in the distance looked like one. My gaze followed until they dissolved into the station’s anxious crowd. The vision filled me with peace; for a moment I felt as if I were both within and outside the scene, that the couple strolling away were you and I. Yes, as they faded from view I was almost sure I recognized you, and her gait seemed like mine, the way I see myself reflected in shop windows out of the corner of my eye. The feeling was very pleasant, I know that the couple was real, but I know also that, at the same time, some angel, some fairy, a wizard, or one of those devils that I can’t live without was offering me a glimpse into the future.
During my journey I hadn’t eaten a thing, but in my mouth, unmistakably, I tasted the chocolate bar I’ll eat in forty years. As sweet as the sugar that I never put in my coffee.