I can feel your anxiety from here.

Christmas is just over two weeks away and you’ve still got shopping to do.  You opted for the “lots of little presents” route, instead of the “one big enchilada” route, and now you find yourself a few gifts short of a stocking.  Worse, you’ve got one or more rockers on your list, and they’re such ungrateful snobs that you’re afraid to get them anything having to do with music for fear of the inevitable snarky comment ending with the word “lame.”

What’s an elf to do?

Relax- I’ve got you covered.

The story of ‘my most-memorable train ride’ is often elicited, and appropriately renamed, by many differing topics of conversation.  Sometimes it’s somebody talking about how drunk they got one night, or how paranoid.  Occasionally, it’s just a mention of hash, or how hash is more prevalent in Europe than it is in America.  On these occasions I sometimes change the tale to include words like devilish or exotic, giving it a more melodramatic air, and am sure to mention the many strange smells that passed by my nose that night.  My favorite point of entry is when somebody brings up chardonnay, or languages, or anything to do with translation, because it always gives me warrant to start the story early enough to really set up the wonder and horror of the night.

The train was the overnight from Lisbon to Madrid and I was nineteen, maybe two months in on a semester abroad program in Spain.  I was with two other students, Peter and Beth.  Peter was a bit older for college, maybe twenty-three, but it was all in good fun for him, his parents having owned this or that company that secured him a life of ease.  Beth was beautiful, and had the most charming quality in that one could never quite tell if she was utterly daft or simply demure.  I used to take her out for drinks, with the two of us talking for hours, me never taking my eyes off of her pleasant face, and I could just never tell, was she dumb, or just mysterious?  She was the sort of girl that made a man question his own judgment.

We three had spent the weekend in Lisbon collecting memories fit for any adventure in a foreign land.  There was the cab driver when we first arrived who told us to watch out for hash dealers.  (Actually, he told us to watch out for dishonest hash dealers, as they tended to show you a great piece of hash and then sell you a hash look-a-like that was really some kind of compacted chocolate.)  There was the famous pastry shop which sold little half-dozen boxes of something like custard pie and which was so busy, bustling, and baffling as to feel more like a crazy buy-run at a stock exchange than a simple bakery.  On the beach, the morning before we were set to go home, we watched fishermen pull a net onto the shore that had been dragged over a mile out by a tiny, two-man boat.  The fishermen then picked a small amount a fish from a large pile of mostly jellyfish, jellyfish that the men would pick up with their bare hands and toss aside back onto the sand, probably to die.  Later, we found an old book store which housed old, dirty comics from the fifties down in the basement.  I had picked up a little novel there, one of the few choices the shop had in English.  It was a strange, embarrassingly erotic story that a professor of ancient Persia wrote about a young man of maybe fourteen, who suddenly became the sultan, and was basically trapped and confronted by all the mystery and maliciousness of the harem.  I had sat alone by the water with that book for maybe seven hours before we all boarded the train back to Madrid and had decided, once everything was well stashed in my bunk, to join everyone in the dining car, the one place on the train where there was room enough to be sociable.

Wine was still new to me then, and Peter offered me a glass of what he was having first thing upon sitting next to him and Beth in the dining car.  There is nothing quite like the sudden shift a semester abroad in Europe brings for a youth than the ability to eat, drink, and smoke, freely, openly and, more often than not, all at once, with no thought of taboo.  Even two months into the experience, and feeling practically native, I relished it, and set a pack of cigarettes in front of me the way a guy places quarters to reserve the next big game on the pool table.

I think, between my options of a cold ham sandwich and something that might have been chicken, I must have chosen the sandwich, because whatever I ate it was salty and meager, and I recall needing a second glass of whatever this delicious vintage had been, right away.  I asked the server what it was that I had been drinking, what it was called, hoping he was one of the staff who would understand and tolerate my moderately broken Spanish.  “El Blanco,” he said, and gestured towards a series of bottles behind him.

“Ah…si.”  I tried to scrunch up my face and raised my eyebrows thoughtfully, hoping it would look impressed by the details he had provided.  “Yes, the white.  Yes, well…that was very good, thank you.  I think I’ll have another.”  Two glasses, as they tend to do, turned to three.  I had never been much of a drinker, having something of a hereditary curse as a hybrid between my father and mother’s constitutions.  My father’s side of the family could drink, and did.  My mother’s couldn’t.  The result was the ability to drink whatever I wanted quickly and impressively, often finishing my first three before anyone else had done with their one.  This would be followed by a wink, smile, and subsequent vomiting, which in turn would be followed by hallucinations of a mother who, I am sure, had told me so.  But Europe had tempered my own constitution, developed it to enjoy the finer things, and I had been encouraged by a number of fantastic nights with few regrets.  The four of us sat there, laughing over our weekend and over our drinks, trying each to recall which moments had been more amazing.

While Peter was telling a pot story (Peter was nearly always telling a pot story because Peter was a California pothead and had, for the entirety of the two months abroad, being trying to find marijuana in an area of the continent which was essentially without), I absently reached for my pack of cigarettes and leaned in to ask the server for an ashtray.  He handed me one from behind the counter while pointing out towards the end of the table and said something too quickly for me to understand.  I looked where he had pointed and saw an old Portuguese gentleman sitting there, leaning hard against the bar, with the same bottle of the wine I was drinking in front of him.  “Oh, yes, si.  El vino es muy bueno.”  I told the server how much I liked it and thought, since he’d asked, that I had better have another.  I asked him for one and lit my cigarette.

“No, no, no!” The server started yelling, waving his hands back and forth.  He pointed out towards the bottle again.  He said ‘fuera,’ outside. 

Peter noticed and said, “yeah, guy did the same thing to me earlier.  You have to smoke out there, in between the cars.  I guess it’s a non-smoking dining cart.”  I winced, feeling a bit let down by my first real prohibition from the relishing free-for-all, and gestured to the group that we ought to step out for some fresh air.

The smoking area, as it were, was nothing more than a pathetically enclosed section between two cars.  The way a convertible feels when its roof hasn’t quite sealed to the frame, the area was shockingly windy and open feeling and we took our places besides eight smoking men, all of us grappling for something solid to hold on to.  I had brought the ashtray that the server had given me, assuming I was meant to use it out there, and felt damned silly, watching my ashes fly around everywhere but the ashtray, until I noticed that each of the men was holding an ashtray as well.  I smiled at them, lifting up my useless ashtray, and they, in turn, lifted theirs, nodding back as we shared our little inside joke.

The smoking area turned out to be the true social arena of the train.  There was the three of us, the Americans, and then a coupling of four other nationalities: two Spaniards, two Portuguese, two Italian and two, well, we never did figure out where the last two were from.  And with this mix, we shared stories.  The details of the stories, like some great game of telephone where you start with, ‘the boy sat on the chair,’ and end up with some warning about a purple monkey, are all impossible to remember.  In one story, the last two gentlemen, the two from lands unknown, were laughing feverishly.  They agreed on key details and passed them on to the Italians.  The Italians, in turn, would recount most of what they had heard to the Portuguese, who then explained things to the Spanish.  After laughing for some while, the Spanish then told me, and I pieced together enough of what I’d understood, along with whatever extra details were needed to make sense of things, to let my friends in on the joke.  Meanwhile, the other passengers were standing there, waiting expectantly, timing my explanation of the story with how they knew it.   “…and so he tells her, he already had his shots,” I finished,  and the smoking area erupts.  Everyone laughs.

The night goes on like this for an hour or so, with pauses for heated discussions on what word, exactly, one was trying to say.  Peter and I get into an argument with the Italians over who’s the better actor, DeNiro or Pacino.  There’s lots of hand gestures.  Our friend, Beth, the attractive, blonde one who speaks the least Spanish, gets the most attention, and the men gesture extra hard in jumbled conversation with her.  I dropped in and out of the smoking area, sometimes leaving for the bathroom, sometimes for another glass of the white, and would always return to massive confusion, where Peter is pretty sure that someone mentioned hash to him and Beth isn’t sure who touched her ass.

As things went on, Peter seemed to befriend one of the Portuguese fellows.  He was tall and swarthy and looked just the way a seasoned traveler ought to, with long, dark hair, and a satchel at his side.  It might have been the language barrier, and I’m sure part of it was, but he had a way of trying very desperately to explain everything he wanted explained to us.  I watched as he spoke with Peter and Beth, his body language intent, his eyes almost too sincere, and he gave me the sort of wary feeling one has when confronted by a street poet, or homeless man.

Peter was in especially high spirits while talking with the traveler, because he had managed to meet up with a friend in that weekend Lisbon who had just come from California, a friend who had pot, and the traveler was suggesting we roll a joint of his hash mixed in with Peter’s pot.  This seemed like a very agreeable proposition to all of us.

I should pause here to catch up with the shabby job of counting my drinks.  With good conversation, I’m afraid, I’ve always had a weakness for the drink, and given the mighty bout of international conversation, coupled with the sheer strain of desperate translation, I had been thirsty, by this point, for about seven drinks.  I mention this because, as most will attest, it is precisely at seven drinks that many of us start making our best and worst decisions, where judgment seems to flip entirely on its own head, so that good ideas are bad and bad ideas are just the thing.

As drugs go, and without words, the four of us moved in unison out of the smoking area, through the dining car, and into the aisle of one of the quiet, mostly dark sleeper cars.  The traveler had papers, and we watched as he went through the careful motions of rolling a joint, pressing here and there with this thumbs, tamping down the mix of pot and hash with his forefingers, making careful work of the ritual.  Peter, the main supplier, got the first hit, with the traveler going next.  When it came to me I enjoyed it, slowly, free to breathe in deeply with my lungs, already hardened by cigarettes.  As I smoked, the traveler spoke.  Most of it was in Portuguese, as his English was quite bad, and I tried, as I had before, to pick out certain words, anything that sounded like something in Spanish.  He spoke of light, of a road or roads, and often of a girl or girls whom he seemed to know intimately.  I passed the joint on, noting the dry, pasty texture in my mouth, breathing in the air of the sleeper car as if to ready my body for a ride.

As we stood there, the four of us puffing and passing, my joy, my being in the moment, turned to criticism. The traveler, as a person, seemed wholly impractical.  I’ve never been a fan of people who lean on the new age side, and I became very paranoid that this man, that all of his words, his pleadings for something to do with the light, his love of the road or roads, girl or girls, were all just, well, there was no intelligible word for it except ‘nonsense,’ really.  It’s bullshit I thought, all bullshit.  And I resented his suave and his sexy.  He was exactly what you’d expect in that kind of moment, hair masking just one of his eyes, his mouth never quite smiling but always seeming positive or intense.  There were moments in his stories that he’d pull his eyes back from some distant thought and look right at Beth, with Peter and I left out as clearly as if he’d grabbed her by the arm and pulled her aside.  It was jealousy, plain and simple.  I still didn’t have a fix on whether Beth liked me or not.  She never seemed quite eager for me to make a move, but then again, she’d always say yes to going out for a drink, and in the same way, she didn’t seem to reject the attention of this traveler or ask for it either.  I was leaning against the wall of the sleeper car now, my back curled and rolling against the metal surface as I rocked to and fro with the rhythm of the train.

In retrospect, there are many points in any long night when one has the opportunity to call it quits and go to bed.  It must have been the jealousy, because I didn’t take one of them.  Past two or three in the morning, I sat there with Beth and the Traveler, playing some kind of physical defense between the two.  Peter had long since gone to our bunks to pass out, and by this time I was sitting on the floor myself, afraid to leave, but too tired to make any real show of things.  I figured that without me, with so much language barrier, there wasn’t much for them to say.  I figured maybe I could just leave, and they’d be too confused to go on.  But he was a man, and she was a woman, and I also figured that such obstacles had been overcome before, as nature designed them to.  So there I sat, patiently, annoyingly, sipping on my final glass of wine, listening to the traveler, interjecting half-hearted critiques of his tales, and giving up just as quickly as the translation became too difficult.  Finally, the night was called.  Beth and the traveler hugged farewell, and he and I shook hands, giving a measure of due respect for our roles well played.  I had won.  That is, until I stood up.

The rest of my night was a blur in the worst of all ways.  Mostly, people refer to the end of their nights as a ‘blur’ because they only remember bits of them.  For me, I remember everything, but it was as though the recording of the memory was flawed, like watching a home movie a kid might have shot, the lens never quite settling on one image or another.  I remember everything, and all of it is blurry.

The spins had set in first, a deep, internal, swinging of the senses, like a carnival ride you can’t get off.  I had given a polite but urgent goodnight to Beth and made what felt like a quick and nearly dignified run down the corridor of the sleeper car, my hands planting themselves against the walls to steady myself, my footsteps a slow, purposeful count in my head.  Bed.  Bed was the only answer.  And then, swinging myself up to my top bunk, bed was the worst thing ever.  In bed it was dark, dark enough for the spinning to really grab me, to suck me down like a drain.  I got out of bed and headed for the bathroom, certain I was falling off the end of my own mind.

Our train had two unfortunate qualities of design.  First, there was only a bathroom on every third sleeper car, and second, every sleeper car was an exact mirror of the one before it, so that traveling from one car to the next one had the utterly discouraging feeling that you had just come from exactly where you ended up, a kind of twilight zone effect in real life.  I was dashing between the cars now, debilitatingly sick and yet still paranoid and self-conscious enough that I didn’t want to make a mess in the bathroom nearest my bunk.  Somehow, I had decided that this would lead back to me, and the shame of it, of everything that I thought was coming, was enough to keep me moving.  From one car to the next I ran, each car looking just as the one I had left, only reversed, the path now on the right, the rooms now on the left.  It was completely dark outside, so despite there being windows all along the aisle, the lights inside the cars made them all reflect, and the feeling, along with the rumbling below my feet, and the seemingly never-ending maze of cars compounded my nausea and paranoia to an extent usually reserved for villains at the end of their run.

Finally reaching the bathroom, I locked the door, inhaled deeply and threw-up in the sink, not even able to make it to the toilet.  The sink was tiny, built for compact and bare use like a sink in an airplane.  I collapse on the floor and huddled myself against a low towel rack with no towels to comfort me.  The next three hours were utter misery.  I had managed to take my contacts out and put my glasses on in the bunk before trying to get to bed, and squatting there I took them off and put them back on again, over and over, neither my stomach nor senses at ease with a clear world or a blurry one.  The sink, too small for more than the rinsing of hands, was filled over with my vomit, and as the train rocked and rolled along, so did the vomit.  Occasionally, it splashed out, the way water might out of a bathtub in a happier moment.  Except for the sick, shame was the only feeling I had, sitting there in a wrecked bathroom, with bits of my vomit splashing against me along with the motions of the train.  ‘Wretched’ is the word.  I was, and was feeling, wretched.  After those hours in the bathroom, I tried to get up again, tried to make it to my bunk, and did so, thankfully, without waking up Peter or the other passengers in our room.

Morning had come, and as the train began to slow for the station I awoke, and ran off, still sick, but nearly sober, down the corridor with all of my luggage, locking myself in a new bathroom.  I was too embarrassed to go back to the first bathroom, and tried my best to clean myself up, rinsing my mouth, changing my sweater, wiping little dried, pink specs from my glasses.

When the train finally pulled in, I left quickly, and hurried along the platform towards the exit, hoping my friends might find me eventually, but too scared to wait around in case anyone called after me, half expecting some train authority to seal off the station.  I looked back at the car that I had exited from, and counted back two, three, four cars, to the car with the bathroom that I had destroyed.  It was a disgrace.  It was disgraceful.  I pictured some poor bastard who worked there, checking all the rooms after the passengers had left, finding the state of that bathroom.  I pictured some other, poorer bastard, who didn’t even find it, but who was called in to clean it. 

The night had been amazing.  I had learned about, and communicated with people from all over Europe.  We had connected, in some way, and really fought for that communication.  And the night had gone on, and so had the drinks.  I had been a free agent, a man on my own, living my own life, living the memories I had set out to find.  A joint had led to conversation, and conversation led to jealousy over a school-boy crush.  All of it had led to the bathroom, like some great, tragic catharsis of all my travels.

I stood there, at the end of the platform, looking back at that haunting sleeper car.  Some messes don’t deserve to be cleaned up, not by anyone.  Better that they just detach the car, haul it to some great train graveyard, some place where I could go, years later, to laugh about the experience, and lower my voice, and tell my children, “be careful, because amazing nights can lead to disgrace, and no beautiful memory should end with ‘I told you so.’”