Gripping the handle, I swung my arched body out of the speeding train and into the night.
I’d gotten up from the mound of luggage after two-thirds of a bottle of wine and unlatched the door.
“Wait, don’t. What are you doing?” Alicia needed to shout because the wind from outside drowned our voices. But her eyes shone.
“Getting air,” I answered. I grabbed the metal handle and kept my toes planted on the second step so that only my upper body was hanging out of the train.
I began scream-singing “she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” over and over against the wall of wind. Soon, Alicia was behind me, singing too. We hooked arms. Euphoric to be each other’s best friend, we screeched louder, knowing we couldn’t be heard over the wind, but trying anyway.
It was exhilarating. We weren’t planning to stop our “she loves you” chant, but then, a big arm reached around my waste and pulled me back inside. I saw another arm around Alicia’s middle, with the telltale blue button-down sleeve of a conductor. I turned to face my own conductor, holding me from behind and latching the door with his other hand.
Alicia and I weren’t just busted for hanging off the overnight train from Budapest to Vienna — we’d snuck on without a couchette supplement for the sleeping bunks.
At nineteen, we were technically teenagers, but our world-weary New York upbringing had us smug and thinking we’d seen it all. We’d both been frequenting exclusive nightclubs in Manhattan since we were fourteen-year-old girls, before any Giuliani-enforced carding began at the doors. As fringe members of the same Upper East Side circles, we first became chummy in the wood-paneled bathroom of Nell’s, doing lines from cocaine packets slipped to us by self-professed arms dealers.
Alicia was a wispy blonde with a gentle demeanor and sparkling eyes. With the pore-less skin of a baby and mischief in her smile, she was both sly and innocent, but it was how she looked at me — with a delighted sort of awe — that made me think I was in love with her. I was surly and not yet adept at casual talk, so alienating kids came easier to me than befriending them. But Alicia listened with interest to my non-casual discourse about the nature of the universe.
There was an otherness about me, even though years had passed since I moved to New York from Tehran with my family when I was nine. Alicia, unlike everyone else our age, was drawn to my otherness. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t surprised she looked like the angel girl in blue I used to dream up when I was little.
Within the first few months of our friendship, while smoking cigarettes in her hallway, I hemmed, hawed and didn’t meet her eyes for half an hour before blurting out:
“I think I have a crush on you.” When I glanced up, she blushed and did that thing with her eyes.
“I might feel the same for you,” she said.
Girls at the nightclub had a habit of making out with each other as a show for the guys around. Alicia and I were not interested in putting on shows; we were interested in each other. But we felt no urgency to do anything about it. Even though the Tehran I grew up in had been cosmopolitan and progressive, I possessed an innate cultural prudery. I also lived with my boyfriend, Shane, whom I loved deeply.
I didn’t hide my crush on Alicia from Shane, and believed it didn’t count since we were both girls.
Now, traveling together through Europe by rail, Alicia and I had our system down. One of us would remain next to our nine — later ten — pieces of luggage, the other would run around the platforms to scout for passengers freeing up carts. We weren’t going to pay for carts. Our money needed to stretch for the duration of the three-month trip. It was the end of the ‘80s, before the European Union, before even the demolition of the Berlin wall.
We converted traveler’s checks in each country and disdained coins because they weren’t exchangeable into other currencies. Credit card use for small transactions wasn’t prevalent. No matter how long it took to find a cart, paying for one was out of the question. We agreed on most of the logistics of our trip; it was our first year of friendship, and in a way, we were on our honeymoon.
We ended up relieved that our three-month Eurail passes had been available only in first-class. Second-class cars were overcrowded and hot with vinyl seats uncomfortable against bare summer skin. Meanwhile, in first-class, whole compartments of cloth seats were often empty. Each compartment was comprised of six seats facing each other, doors that locked and shades that pulled over the window to the corridor.
The Eurail pass gave us unlimited access to every train on mainland Europe. Some nights, we saved money on hotels by sleeping on them. Levers reclined the facing seats to connect into one big square, and on it, we laid the plush down comforters we’d stolen from a youth hostel in Switzerland. We only unlocked the doors at borders when officials boarded to check passports.
I didn’t like thinking of myself as a little criminal. But I knew I’d curtail all shady activity once I turned twenty-one. In my mind, that was when everything would start counting.
Budapest had been good to us. Hungary was still semi-Communist, therefore unexpectedly cheap. After crossing the Danube, which separated Buda and Pest, we had settled into a pastry shop. Discovering an exquisite variety of cakes for about twenty-five cents a slice, we covered our marble tabletop with six or seven plates. We shimmered eyes at each other from across the table like it was layered in gold dust. Our senses danced and our bill was under ten dollars. So, once on the train to Vienna, we were in a good mood.
We knew by the accordion-folded schedules we carried that the couchette-only train required a supplement we hadn’t bought. In couchette compartments, there were four bunk beds with bedding instead of reclining seats. We intended to shuffle onto the train among the crowd of passengers, but linger in the vestibule between the cars when they retreated to their assigned couchettes. For the equivalent of fifty cents, we had purchased a bottle of white wine in Budapest and expected it to ease our discomfort while we stayed up all night on top of our luggage.
When the passengers settled into their compartments, we opened our wine in the vestibule. We figured — hoped — the conductors wouldn’t bother anyone for tickets until morning, and by then, we’d be in Austria. At that point, we would widen our eyes and hold out our Eurail passes, repeating, “But it says, first-class. It says, all trains.” What were they going to do, send us back to Hungary?
Alicia and I took turns swigging out of the bottle and ended up singing “She Loves You” until the two conductors discovered us hanging off the speeding train.
Their scolding eyes and downturned mouths might have been fearsome to us under ordinary circumstances. But we had dipped too far in the joys of intoxication and adrenaline to do anything but laugh it off — in uncontrollable, infectious howls. It infected them.
They were both Hungarian and didn’t speak much English, but got across that they had magnanimously saved us from ourselves. We thanked them. They motioned for our tickets. I pulled out my Eurail pass and found myself completely incapable of curbing my laughter.
“See? It says all trains,” I shrieked. Alicia doubled over, also laughing. The two conductors exchanged a look.
After a round of picture-snapping with our disposable camera — a shot the conductors took of us in each other’s arms; another after I snatched one of their official hats and put on my own head while the hatless conductor held and lewdly eyed me — they decided to let us into an empty couchette compartment for free.
We thanked them again, said goodnight and locked the door. We were still giddy and emboldened by the night. Within minutes, in t-shirts and underwear, we slipped into the same narrow top bunk, even though there were four bunks. Finally, our time had come.
We were fumbling and kissing when the conductors used their key to bust in on us.
Still in our t-shirts, we hadn’t gotten far, but there was no mistaking what we were up to. After we sprang to sit on the edge of the bunk, Alicia instinctively pulled the sheet up to our chins. The two conductors looked full of rage.
One of them grabbed Alicia by her covered breast and yanked her down.
We sensed rape danger. There wasn’t a need for us to meet eyes to realize we both knew it. From the top bunk, without thinking, I hurled myself violently to the ground. Right away, I began wailing and writhing as if I’d injured my ankle.
“Oh my god, oh my god, help her!” Alicia screamed as piercingly as she could. We’d each learned long ago that men who were intent on having sex with you against your will, weren’t so intent anymore if you found a reason to scream.
The two conductors strained to contain their panic. I got up and let my leg fake buckle. I fell to my knees. Alicia jumped to help me. I limped to one of the lower bunks and crawled into the fetal position with my back turned to them. As I moaned, Alicia sat on the edge and patted my shoulder. Between us, we put on a seamless performance with no plan or rehearsal.
The men were at a loss, so Alicia made some sort of wistful face to indicate they should leave. They did, and she flew to lock the door. They didn’t come back for the rest of the night, but neither did Alicia and I sleep.
We sat up all night with our backs against the wall, watching the lock on the door.
During the rest of our three-month trip, Alicia and I got up the courage to attempt to “consummate” once more. It was then that I realized I didn’t want to.
* * *
I stared in anger at the tear in my vintage filigree dress that I was wearing for the first time. It was night. I was sitting on asphalt next to the moped I had just crashed while driving Alicia and I out of the hotel parking lot.
We were on the island of Santorini in Greece. At twenty-two, I was willfully done with my fraudulent, comforter-stealing antics. Three years had passed since the Eurail trip and our honeymoon phase.
Not quickly enough, a less callous version of me thought to check on Alicia, who had landed something like half a block away.
I saw her running toward me in the dark.
I was convinced I was fine, but felt disgusted at my alarm over a second-hand dress rather than worry about my catapulting friend. Reaching me after those many yards, she gasped.
“Oh god!” She stared down my body.
My eyes followed hers to my right leg. Blood glistened under the streetlamp, syrupy and fake-looking. There was a gash on my knee with bloody trails, reminding me of party streamers, and another ribbon-strippy mess of flesh on my ankle. The wheel of the moped had ground my skin because after crashing, I hadn’t let go of the throttle.
Since Alicia had been anxious about getting on a moped for the first time, I figured it’d be funny to terrify her even more by pretending I was about to pop a wheelie. At that same instant, like a bad punch line, the front wheel had seized up. Alicia flew into the air and the bike collapsed on top of me.
Alicia was shaken but weirdly unharmed. She focused her giant blue eyes on me with an overly gentle gaze. I wished she would readjust her expression and not act like I was destined for a wheelchair.
As a little girl in Iran, I drew my angel-fairy with a high, yellow ponytail, wearing a powder-blue nightgown and holding her hands in prayer steeples. I never saw Alicia pray or wear powder blue, and the initial euphoria of discovering each other had worn off, but she still reminded me of the angel-fairy. After we crashed, her first thought had been me. Mine had been me, too. I knew worrying about the dress instead of her was near-sociopathic, but part of me was okay with it. I told myself that if it weren’t for Alicia, we wouldn’t be in Greece riding a moped in the first place.
We had purchased the Greece package on impulse while in Ireland, a country that hadn’t suited her. It was too damp for her, and too plentiful of my now ex-boyfriend, Shane, whom I was there to chase. Shane and Alicia were fond of each other — the three of us had frequented Nell’s together nearly every night of the week before Shane and I broke up and he moved back to Ireland. In fact, she liked the idea of him a lot more than the new friends I’d recently made in New York. But I still should’ve thought better than to drag her to his family’s farm, only to leave her while Shane and I took garden walks. She accused me of thoughtlessness, which left me having to make up for it. Hence, Greece.
Now, we were dressed up and dejected on the first night of our two-week vacation. My torn-up leg prevented us from hitting the town and clubs as planned. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t angry with me for getting her into an accident. Nor could I believe she didn’t have a bruise or scratch to show for her acrobatic trajectory to impact.
The next day, we rented another moped. We had no choice. The pain had set in, my knee and ankle were swollen, and I couldn’t walk. It wasn’t uncommon for silly tourists to get into moped accidents, but usually they didn’t get right back on another. Like many New Yorkers, we didn’t have drivers’ licenses, and we weren’t about to spend our threadbare budget on taxis. I remained the driver because Alicia was even more terrified of her own driving than she was of mine.
Alicia was stuck dealing singlehandedly with our usual mountain of luggage, an ordeal even for two people, let alone one. She was not happy about it. She was also not happy that though she had me to herself now, in a sense, Greece was no better than Ireland.
During our Eurail trip three years before, in the midst of our second attempt at kissing, horror overtook me as Alicia’s breathing became heavier and her passion intensified. She was beautiful and soft. Holding her delicate frame filled me with warmth. But sexual excitement? Not a trace of it existed in me toward her, or any woman, it turned out, even as she may have discovered the opposite in herself.
The Greek Isles’ impossibly white, turquoise-domed structures hung off cliffs over a shimmering Mediterranean. The vision left our self-proclaimed cultivated mouths agape as we rode by. But her habit of clutching me, yet refusing to lean into curves with me as I steered around curving mountains, exemplified her growing stiffness toward me. This compounded my own irritation with her and we went about our touring activities in relative silence.
In our hotel room, Alicia perpetually repacked her plastic pouches of clothes folded to retail-store perfection. The constant swiping and swishing left me gritting my teeth. I still slept in and was late to every occasion, but by now, she had me beat. She was exceedingly slow, be it chewing her dinner or moisturizing her body head to toe lest a single skin cell be left undrowned in self-indulgence.
Breakfast was included in our package, and I was not one to forgo my Greek yogurt and honey just because la principessa wouldn’t be done bathing and lotioning prior to eleven a.m. when breakfast was no longer served.
“Your food can’t smell shampooed hair,” I’d try to sound calm. “Shower later so we don’t miss breakfast.” But delaying Alicia from her shower was akin to abuse. At the same time, she considered it a betrayal if I left the room to start the day without her.
I betrayed her every single day while we were in Greece.
* * *
“What the fuck are you doing, you goddamn oaf, we’re gonna die!” Alicia screamed.
Our driver had drifted off to sleep as we headed toward a collision with a massive petrol truck coming from the other direction.
Now fully awake, my ex’s buddy swerved the car.
It was a couple of years after Greece. Alicia and I were on our last travel hurrah after I had suggested a road trip from Paris to Portofino with Shane, still my ex-boyfriend. He would meet us in France. I was secretly intent on getting him back. I envisioned a Riviera romance with him, and maybe Alicia envisioned one with me. Why else would she agree to come after her Ireland and Greece letdowns?
At the airport in Paris, when Shane landed, the shock of him bringing along an unexpected friend hit Alicia harder than it did me. The buddy, Colm, was a pleasant sort of guy whom she hated on sight. He was tall and good-looking in an American jock way, even though he spoke with an Irish villager’s accent. Alicia knew she’d be stuck with him by default. Meanwhile, Shane had probably brought him as a sort of protection against me — I liked to think Shane was weak for me but wanted to stay strong. We had broken up because he found me too domineering.
“I’m not that domineering,” I used to say. “You’re just a tad passive.”
Shane, no longer junkie-rocker thin, had kept his great jaw. It was as defined as during the Nell’s days. Ever-smiling and diplomatic, he and Alicia shared a warm hug.
Alicia wanted me to feel for her the way I felt for Shane or any number of guys I would dissect and prattle on about through the years. But I mostly thought about how palpably she clung to me. Anything that feels trapped seeks only to escape.
As the four of us set out for the car rental, it dawned on me our road trip was to become a version of Sartre’s “No Exit” — on wheels — where I wanted my ex-boyfriend, Alicia wanted me, and no one got what they wanted. Hell was other people and we were stuck with them in a car.
It was night while we drove between Avignon and Nice. Shane and I were sleeping in the back, Colm was driving and Alicia was begrudgingly dozing in the passenger seat.
I jolted awake to her violent hollering, and then, I saw the truck.
Colm woke up too, in time to avoid collision. Alicia’s grudging unease had made her sleepless, thus saving all of our lives.
Later on the trip, she had a mini-breakdown.
We stayed overnight near St. Tropez. The bougainvillea-covered, sea breezy inn I found only had one available room. She expected to stay in it with me, and truly, she should have, but I was the asshole on a mission who insisted my ex stay with me instead.
“She’s driving me crazy,” I pleaded. And she was. So she and Colm stayed in separate rooms at a drab pension farther inland.
The next day, it was Shane’s turn to drive. Alicia figured I would take the opportunity to catch up with her in the back. But I took the front, and Alicia’s emotional threshold gave out.
Shane began to drive through the small village and before we picked up much speed, Alicia opened the door and stepped out of the moving car.
We screeched to a stop. Old village men up the hill continued to play bocce ball in the scorching sun. I was livid at Alicia’s behavior and refused to get out of the car. She sat in the street, huddled against the remainder of a medieval wall, hyperventilating as Shane stroked her arm.
He managed to calm her by whispering something in her ear. Later, when I tearfully apologized to her, she told me that Shane had said, “I get it, Alicia, I get it. She brings out the crazy in me too.”
The roads of southern France constituted a sort of divorce from the past for all of us. Alicia gave up on the idea of “us” as more than friends, and I gave up on getting back together with Shane.
Later in New York, Alicia and I would each find new long-term loves, and the “angel-fairy” of my childhood would transfer all her devotion to her husband-to-be. I had been recipient to her radiating adoration for years; its withdrawal felt like the sun stopped shining on my skin.
Whenever I think about first meeting Alicia, it’s with surprise I remember that for a while, I believed I was in love with her. But I’ve never stopped wishing for the opportunity to whisk her away on a trip and undo all those occasions my best friend felt neglected when we traveled together.
* * *
Hedia Anvar lives in Los Angeles where she’s finishing a novel. She suffers from chronic dichotomy and writes about it at gunmetalgeisha.com. Like her on Facebook, and see what she’s up to on Twitter @ravnah