Once aboard the train I settled on an aisle seat, if only to lay my impending infamy right on the line. When the conductor stepped into view, the gasp of the sliding door still registering as he strode toward me, I felt every oxygen molecule in the car dive-bomb into my lungs: he was forehead-smackingly handsome, he was Brando and Belmondo, together at last. Eyes like the promise of riches, or richness, like arable land, like devil’s food cake batter, hair like fine-grated black and white marble-tall, dashing, uniformed, dying. He stopped at my side, hand outstretched for my ticket, inches from my neck and lo but I was fluent. At once my hands were conducting full, musical sentences —“fuori servicio,” “biglietteria chiusi,” “La poverina!”—and he took the story in from several vantage points: crouching, then standing, then pacing, then sitting across from me, then standing again. Initially his velvety, leonine features did this collapse, where even collapsing was leaping, into a faux-wounded expression: how could I, when he wanted only the best for us, wanted only to clip my ticket and take me wherever my heart desired and remember our impossible moments together forever? I tried to tell him, I tried to imagine what “punishingly beautiful” would be in Italian. We stared at each other for beat upon beat, me up from my stolen perch, palms open and spent in my lap, him down from his felonious symmetry, arms crossed. Upon my blink he turned and fled the car.
A few minutes later the sliding door shushed and I turned to find the conductor snapping a five euro bill wide open under his nose, as though it was about to be stuffed in some fleshly crevice or other for safekeeping. It was the amount for the ticket; it was the price of I dared not hope what else. Instead he tucked it into his pocket with a wink as he passed. For the rest of the one-hour trip I sat posed in contrition, feeling it would be bad form to read, write, or even look out the window, lest he happen to pass and see me at home in the spoils of villainy. Instead I sat staring at my hands, searching them for some sign of where it all went wrong for me.
My penitence was rewarded with a hand delivery into Lamezia. It was the conductor’s last stop as well, and like newly minted lovers we walked down the platform stunned and shoulder-to-shoulder. I stopped at the bank machine but when I turned and raised my eyes from the euros I clutched like a faulty map he was already halfway across the piazza. His was not a beauty that had ever been laid at another’s feet—take this, I have no use for it—you could see it in his step. I was thinking perhaps you had to swindle Calabrian men in order to get their respect just as I noticed that trains from Lamezia only went to Cosenza once a day, specifically once a day two hours ago, and I would now have to take a train to Paola, which destination the train I had just left was headed toward as I stood there. I don’t think the brother meant to screw me, but screwed I was.
It was getting late, and I was going masochist about it: I briefly lost sight of the larger goal and became determined to get there just to prove I could. I had to be back in Paola by 10:22 for the overnight train to Florence, but wouldn’t even get into Cosenza until five, the way things were going, and the question of how I would get to Figline Vegliaturo from there drew my shoulderblades into a capital W. I should have planned to spend a night, I am a saboteur, this is ridiculous, I think, even as I settle into another seat, a single, with room enough to wedge my suitcase in beside me. It was a perfect little incubator for my woes until a be-beiged, fortysomething woman jimmied into the seat diagonal to mine, whereupon the suitcase begged the very integrity of the car, clotting its main artery. I removed the bag I had placed on the seat across from me but she insisted I put it back, and added her purse and some purchases to the pile, saying this way no one would sit there and bother us. A novel idea.
All of my train rides thus far had been along the western coast, but Cosenza was an hour inland, and within five minutes it was clear we were going deep. At a signal which I clearly missed, my fellow passengers rose en masse and pushed up every window in sight, and seconds later we rushed into a kind of clammy, guttural darkness which lasted for almost half an hour. When we emerged (everyone up: windows down) the country outside my window looked like no other part of Italy I had seen. Huge, operatic mountains covered in a thick down of deep, tender green; stern, diving valleys and mountains upon valleys upon mountains. About three quarters of the way up each mountain there climbed an aria of white houses always with a brief pause before the one lone house at the very top, pinned there like a perfect, impossible note. This is where I come from!
*Reading in Cosenza: Galileo’s Daughter, by Dava Sobel