Last time I’d been there, France claimed first blood, that sounds overly dramatic when in reference to a mere nosebleed, but as a know-nothing seventeen year old it was exactly the sort of story I’d hoped would result from my first trip to Europe.
“The first copy of ‘On the Road’ I ever owned was purchased in London and bled all over in France.”
“How worldly!” would be the obvious reply.
The paper airplanes thrown from the Eiffel Tower had a few words in English, nothing about the nosebleed, which had happened on the bus ride from the French coast to Paris when I fell asleep and woke to a young family gawking at the book in my lap and chest now spotted with blood, “a bit of claret” as the English would say. Except this time it wasn’t them, it was you.
The veil of sleep must have a universal translator, despite not being quite aware of the unreality, I remained confused as to how I could understand you.
“Oh dear, what happened to you?!” you said, with a coquettish hand to your mouth.
“I don’t know, what the-” sitting up now and seeing the blood caused only momentary concern, that is when I knew it truly must be a dream, as the nausea of uncertain injury, akin to orgasm, has no equivalent there.
“Oh, it’s only a nosebleed.”
The shirt I was wearing was a un-monogrammed bowling shirt, one broad stripe of white up the middle third with black surrounding. Looking down at the blood stain meandering on the central field, it blurred like a white dissolve in a movie, until I was looking downward at clouds and the Seine on approach to Charles de Gaulle. Having again, just woken up.
Looking around briefly and then down at my shirt, a clean Oxford with no tie, I realized there was blood on this shirt, as well, presumably from another (the same?) nosebleed.
“Mon dieu!” the elderly lady across the aisle from me exclaimed as she turned to see me.
“Wait, no, it’s fine. It’s only a nose bleed, I mean un saigne...sagne. Something de nez!”
It was no use, she started screaming and looking around wildly.
“Mademoiselle, quel est le probleme?” Now the issue wasn’t as clear, this was French and I could understand you...perhaps merely because of how simple the sentence was, indeed the situation itself lent little mystery to what you could possibly say.
You looked at her (I dubbed her Clotilde in my mind, a vaguely bovine name to befit her girth) her hands gesturing wildly and followed them to my poor shy nariz.
“I’m OK, it was just a bloody nose, I fell asleep and woke up to it, she must not have noticed until I sat up.”
“Let me get you some towels then, sir.” You glanced at me askance, unsure of whether I could be adequately blamed for my situation enough to loathe. After four or five seconds you started to walk away.
“Are you sure you are alright?” said from two aisles down I could barely catch it over the sound of my own heavy sigh. You looked over a uniformed shoulder towards me. In doing this you were completely aware that it was impossible to avoid, when I leaned into the aisle to reply, notice of your shapely ass, ineffectively masked by the attempts of the most repressed British Airways lawyers that could be mustered to stir no desire to waywardly grope.
“I’m fine, tissues would work better than a towel, this shirt is already done for and I need to put something in my nose to soak up the blood. Thanks, and I’m sorry…”
Now it was your turn to sigh, a nearly invisible one that served in lieu of a reply. Probably the best I could hope for. Putting my head back onto the headrest I felt the slow trickle resume and angled my nose up to avoid any further sullying of what seemed quite a nice shirt. Before you could return I had drifted off asleep again.
Thirteen years prior, my whirlwind trip of Europe had hit the highlights in London, Paris and Rome but what had stuck with me as the aforementioned know nothing teenager was the interstitial spaces, getting lost and finding ourselves in St. Peter’s Square at 3 A.M. or hiding from disposable camera flashes under a rough blanket atop the half-decrepit London hotel our tour group was staying in.
Now one of these spaces, one I’d nearly lost to the vagaries of memory, gently woke me. The first thing which I did was look down.
“Thank god, my nose finally stopped bleeding.”
The query, soft and made without opening your mouth, came from very close behind my head. I lay on my side with one of your hands draped over my arm, the intention of your reply being obviously thus,
“What are you doing? Go back to sleep.” Unspoken but conveyed nonetheless.
I was wary of falling back asleep again, as each time previously had produced sanguine nasal effluence and I saw no towels to staunch it nearby. So I tried to roll over.
Now you really did speak up, “NO, you can’t. There’s not room on this damned thing to roll over, you gotta jump down if you want to switch sides or turn over…”
Performing a brief recce of the small sleeping compartment aboard what must be a train judging by the motion and barely audible click-clack of rail ties beneath us, I adjudged the distance and landing area to be acceptable and leaped down, curiosity, rather than a real need to change position motivating me.
The room was dim, the beds all seemingly full, my leap from the third bunk up had only awoken one middle aged woman, who muttered a Romani curse, or maybe she was merely clearing her throat. Padding towards the exit in socks, I hoped against hope that the door mechanism wasn’t some arcane Byzantine lock and that I would be able to remember which compartment was ours and how to regain entry.
Once in the corridor I realized that the view on the side opposite our compartment window was beginning to lighten, an imperceptible thing only hinted at by the difference in shades between the solidly dark and quiet land and the quickening sky.
The silence drew me down through the slowly purpling train cars, few if any people awake as I alternated between squinting out the window at swiftly passing landscape and observing the sleeping compartments which must have been more expensive as I moved up the train toward the engine and they grew in size.
Of course, once this sort of thing becomes noticeable there is a gentle interruption of the train cars with a now-inoperational dining car and the blockage of passage any further forward. I acceded to this suggestion and leaned against the partition across from the long series of windows, attempting to will a revelatory quote-worthy sight into being ‘daylight hitting now on a peak far off but looking so close in the freezing mountain air’, yet truthfully merely dozing as much as standing allowed me at the moment.
After the fourth or fifth time catching myself on the way to the floor, asleep, I decided to concede that, without cigarettes or coffee, I was done for. A few seconds after I started back to our compartment the gentle lull of the train plunged quietly into darkness. Rail tunnel. I stood stock still, despite knowing there was only empty corridor ahead, the layout unchanging for at least three cars. After only a few seconds of seeming interminable black the landscape returned and I was filled with an urge to be away from the cold empty distance of the European countryside trundling past.
Only one of your eyes opened but barely when I slid open the compartment door, the slightly fetid air and warmth of the room tangible upon returning. I was too far away and the light not enough for me to ascertain its color, but you quietly sighed and moved your head slightly to beckon me to you.
Posted by Chris Castro on Oct. 8, 2020, 2:29 p.m. from Oakland, CA
Last updated on Oct. 23, 2020, 6:36 a.m.