It was Friday November 23 1973, the day after Thanksgiving in the States. Despite all my fellow backpackers traveling the Rome-Florence-Venice circuit like I was, I somehow ended up on the after lunch train from Florence to Venice by myself. The guys from Cleveland had decided to skip Venice because they had heard it was dreary and depressing and there was not much to do. They had instead headed farther northeast to Vienna, where I had originally planned to go after Venice. Jen and Sarah had left Florence for Venice earlier that morning. Trix and Evelyn and their crew were probably already in Vienna. Moana I think was headed west to Paris, continuing the Western European leg of his world tour that would take him across the States, via a two-month Greyhound bus pass, in December and January.
I was on my own again, and as such subject to that creeping melancholy and homesickness that was always lurking inside me these days when nothing else was happening to engage and distract me. But actually it wasn’t so bad on this day because I was pretty confident I would see at least Jen and Sarah at the Venice youth hostel, and get a welcome “hey Coopster” out of them plus maybe more.
When I boarded the train I found a compartment with three elderly women traveling together, two sitting on one bench by the window and the third across from them also by the window, the three laughing and chatting animatedly in what sounded like Italian, which to my ear had a more musical lilt to it than either French or Spanish along with those explosive “ch” sounds. They all said “buongiorno” brightly to me as I entered the compartment and I replied in kind. As I unshouldered my big pack and hoisted it up in the luggage rack, trying not to disturb the suitcase that was already up there, their voices quieted and I sensed them checking me out. I finally turned back toward them to seat myself on the bench with the third woman, but by the door leaving a space between me and her, her by the window. The three of them looked at me and smiled.
“Capisci l’Italiano?” the one farthest from me on the opposite bench by the window asked, her face wrinkled but brown eyes sparkling. It was funny to hear that Italian word for ‘do you understand’ spoken in normal conversation, instead of the “capisce?” grunted out by some stereotypical mobster in an American gangster movie.
I shook my head, feeling all of a sudden very young in their gaze. “Solo Inglese”, someone had taught me to say in response to a question about speaking the language. The three of them nodded, almost in unison, to my words and then launched back into their animated conversation with each other. As one spoke the other two might steal a quick side glance my way and I wondered if they might be talking about me. I wondered if they were pleased I didn’t speak Italian so they could talk about me.
Moments later the compartment door slid open and a woman entered, a bit awkwardly because she had a briefcase in one hand and a fairly sizable suitcase in the other. She was dressed in a black starched blouse, gray pencil skirt, fishnet stockings and black heels. She was tall, slim and shapely, my libido immediately noticing how her full breasts pushed out against the starched fabric of her blouse, plus the nice rounding of her hips and butt, accentuated by the tight knee-length skirt. Her hair was short, black and looked expertly coiffed in that typical European style I had seen with Laurence, fascist Jeanette, and so many other women I’d seen on the streets, particularly in the big cities. Her face in profile featured a long thin nose, high cheekbones and dark eyes. She was wearing full makeup, something I rarely saw among my female backpacker cohort. Though I was never a very good judge of age, I guessed she was somewhere in her forties. The three older women quieted and turned their heads her way.
“Scusi”, she said, then, “Buongiorno”.
The three repeated her greeting. So did I, which caused her to turn her head slowly and meet my gaze, and with just the slightest wisp of a grin, her eyes then traversed down my body to my own two-inch heels, not quite her three-inch ones. She had just the two choices for where to sit, either by the compartment door across from me or in the empty space next to me. I could see the gears spinning behind those dark eyes all precisely eye-lined and shadowed. She put down the suitcase in her right hand, and with her left by me deftly swung the briefcase up onto the luggage rack opposite me where there was lots more room. As her body turned away from me her broad shoulders flexed under the starched blouse and her butt muscles tightened, in full view just three feet from my attentive eyes.
Still facing away from me, I watched her hands adjust her skirt which had ridden up a little during the course of her last maneuver. She looked down at her suitcase, exhaled and turned her head back to look at me. Caught up in watching her I suddenly noticed the three older women looking at me as well, like I should be offering her assistance.
“Can I help you with that?” I kind of blurted it out.
“Grazie”, she said, then, “Thank you”, in my language.
Going against the meticulousness of her appearance, she let herself flop down into the seat next to me with a sigh, adjusting her skirt again, this time pulling it down toward her tightly pressed together knees over the top of her thighs. It was hard not to watch.
I stood up, now facing away from her as she had been to me, and lifted her suitcase up onto the luggage rack across from us next to her briefcase. I felt, or maybe just imagined, her checking my backside out as I did so, me in my bellbottom jeans and paisley dress shirt.
As I sat back down next to her she said, “Thank you sweetheart”, that last word and her tone definitely calling out the age difference between us. The three older women nodded approvingly and went back to their conversation. She looked at them and I could see in her eyes some sort of decision being made and she turned back to look at me. Not just at my face, but a quick scan again down my whole body and then her eyes back to mine. Her smile and her friendly look made it feel both intimate and obtrusive, as if to say, “so what are YOU all about?”
I met her gaze and felt the awkward silence, like I should now introduce myself. But should I just say “I’m Cooper” or “My name is Cooper”? And should I just say it or should I follow with the whole shake hands “It’s a pleasure” thing? Or should I skip the handshake part since we were sitting right next to each other and she’d have to kind of twist her body to get her right arm and hand in position to shake my right coming across my body toward her? My libido was percolating and I did not want to say something suggestive and inappropriate, but how could just saying my name BE suggestive or inappropriate? And even if maybe it was a little suggestive, she was a very good looking woman all dolled up, and maybe hoping I would acknowledge that somehow. I felt uncomfortably that I might be being perceived by her as a deer in the headlights. Overthunk indeed!
She finally ended my endless milliseconds of purgatory, scoffing and waving her left hand in front of her face as if to clear some bad air.
“Forgive me”, she said, still fanning the two feet of space between our faces, shaking her own for further effect. “I’m staring! I’m so rude!” Then holding out her right hand palm up, “I’m Sophia.” followed by a big smile, all lipstick and white teeth.
For the briefest moment I wondered if that palm up hand was just a gesture. If it was an offer to shake hands it was at the wrong angle, it should be vertical rather than horizontal. If it had been Trix, she would have stuck out the vertically oriented hand for the obvious handshake before I even sat back down. A little formal yes, but a nice dignified not too much not too little protocol for meeting, acknowledging and welcoming someone.
So I finally decided to act and, damn the torpedoes, I reached across my body with my right hand and clasped hers palm to palm, but not rotating to the vertical or initiating any kind of a shake, just a clasp. “I’m Cooper”, I FINALLY managed to say, then it just rolled into, “Pleased to meet you!”
“Mmm”, she said, her lips closing over her teeth to a more neutral relaxed position, her eyes softening, then lips opening again to say, “Pleased to meet you!” just the touch of emphasis on the last word.
The whole clasped hands, facial gestures and words felt wildly intimate. Uncomfortably so for just a second as our two imaginary protective bubbles of space pressed against each other and that bit of shared membrane broke to form a single bubble engulfing both of us. Then it was suddenly awesome. Relaxed. Informal.
The train shivered, the groan and squeal of the wheels underneath us as it started moving forward. She released my hand, checked the watch on her wrist, and turned to face forward, hands clasped neatly on her skirt resting on her held together thighs. Then leaning and turning her head just slightly toward me and looking forward and down with her eyes, kind of conspiratorially, as if to separate our conversation from the three older women continuing to chat away in the opposite half of the compartment.
“I take this train often, for business”, she said in a low modulated voice, “You?” Glancing at my eyes with her question but not turning her head again.
Me mirroring her, facing forward, looking down, with the lean in toward her as I spoke. “This is my first time.” It was only after I said it that I thought about the possible connotations. I’m sure she got those connotations, but she was nice enough not to go there and say something provocative and embarrass me, just nodding instead.
“I’m backpacking through Western Europe”, I continued, “I spent the last three days in Firenze.” Once I had said the Italian name for the first city I figured I had to continue for the second or that would be weird. “And now I’m headed to Venezia.”
I could tell she was listening intently as I spoke. She craned her head to look up at the luggage rack above us where my pack was.
“That is quite a rucksack. It must weigh a great deal!”
Trying to be a suave European traveler, I quickly did the conversion in my head to the metric measurement for my 50 pound pack.
“It’s about twenty-three kilos”, I said, “But I’ve been traveling for two month and gotten used to lugging it around.” And starting now to brag, “Some days I’ve done as much as ten miles of walking with it on my back.”
I realized I should have converted that to kilometers. “Sixteen kilometers”, I added.
Surfing on my puffery, she turned her head and looked me up and down once again. “You must be in very good shape!”, she said, her eyes catching mine and her cracking a smile, enjoying my cheeks flushing and showing a little embarrassment.
“I work out as well”, she noted, wagging a finger at me. “Every day!”
“But two months? Living out of a rucksack? Dio mio!” She looked off out the window of our compartment at the buildings going by.
“Two months”. She looked up at the ceiling of the compartment and repeated the words several times, like it was something amazing and difficult to comprehend, but enjoyable to try. Finally she noted, “You must have had some very interesting experiences.”
Before I could respond she scoffed. “My life is such a routine right now. Work, work, work.” She waved her hand in front of her face again. “I am successful and I thank god for that, but I work all the time. Look at me. It is the weekend but where am I going? To a work conference! Dio mio!” She put her hands over her mouth and looked up at the ceiling of the compartment again.
Then she placed her hand on top of mine, leaned toward me and looked into my eyes kind of theatrically. “So I would love to hear all about your journey,” she said, “Every detail. It is a long train ride”. She chuckled. I looked at her and she rolled her eyes disarmingly.
The top three buttons of her blouse were undone giving one in my position next to her a pretty good view of her breasts and the black lace bra that cradled and barely cloistered them. Sophia had a sweet earthy scent, like the smell of a vegetable garden on a wet summer day.
Perhaps noticing me looking down her shirt she said, “You must have seen so much!” and I quickly looked up from her chest to her face, now her words suggestive either inadvertently or by design.
I nodded and she quieted. So I started to share with her my European travels story, with Angie and I flying to London together, but after a few days she decided to bail and go back to the States. Sophia was intrigued.
“So was it a breakup?”, she asked, assuming Angie and I were a couple.
“No. We were just good friends. She just got cold feet.”
Sophia laughed. “I am quite surprised a young woman would travel with a young man so far from home that she was not involved with romantically.” She looked out the window at the hilly countryside now going by, the train having left the urban area, like she was pondering it all. Then leaning in toward me, conspiratorially, she finished her thought. “Unless she was looking to start something romantically with a shy partner?”
That felt close to home and a little uncomfortable for me. But hey, I craved intimacy with people and part of that was letting your partner get into your head.
“Yeah, well, that may be”, I said, blowing air through my barely parted lips, then confessing, “I might have been hoping that our trip together would turn into something more…”
“More romantic? More sexual?”
I was embarrassed to answer an honest yes to either of those questions. The best I could respond was, “Maybe something like that.” Now I looked out the window, pondering.
Feeling the need to explain more of the context of my relationship with Angie, I shared the story that I had known best friends Angie and Lane for several years, as we had all been involved in a theater group together. The two of them had had the original plan to travel through Europe together, and I had convinced the two of them to let me come along. Then Lane had to drop out because of some family issues. Sophia laughed at that.
“Threesomes never work darling. Only in men’s fantasies!”
I told her that when Angie decided to return to the States I had considered abandoning the trip myself but decided to continue on my own. She put on a big showy smile with her red lips and big white teeth and said, “Mio amico, you are an adventurer!” She wagged her finger in the air for good measure.
Though I mostly maintained eye contact with her or looked out the train window as I talked, when I paused to think of what to say next I would look down and my eyes would be drawn to her thighs in the fishnet stockings, held closely together and disappearing under her tight skirt, and drawn to her left breast, mostly unconcealed by her partially unbuttoned blouse and lacy bra that barely covered her nipple. Having been staying at youth hostels with no private moments to relieve my burgeoning libido, it was certainly percolating at this point and she seemed to sense that, but did not display any perturbation that my eyes were scanning her body when not engaging her big painted gaze or the view out the window. Her eyes were certainly scanning mine. Meanwhile the three elderly women continued to chat and laugh, mostly oblivious to the two of us doing whatever it was we were doing, since we were speaking in English which I presumed they did not ‘capisce’.
I told Sophia the story of the madhouse at the Munich train station when I arrived unknowingly during Oktoberfest. My fortuitous encounter with fellow backpacker Jack at the overcrowded station who had found a place to stay with the American “army brats” at the American Air Force base in town. I had to explain to Sophia that American colloquialism, it did not mean they were ill behaved. In fact, they were quite hospitable, letting me stay with them as well when Jack and I appeared at their door, me really having nowhere else to go. I thought to skip the part about the hash smoking.
I continued with the hitchhiking with Jack south to Switzerland, meeting the other backpackers at the youth hostel, including the anxious breathalyzer test incident in Chur after going the wrong way up an ‘ein ban strasse’. She laughed at that.
“It is always important to know what direction you should be going”, she pronounced, again with a finger wag.
She was intrigued when I told her about meeting Miranda and hearing her story, crossing Asia and the Soviet Union on her own, invoking several “dio mio”s from Sophia as I spun the story as sensationally as I could to meet my conversational partner’s expectations for an interesting tale to pass the time. She asked if Miranda and I had “gotten together”, to which I paused, apparently showing some subtle signs of embarrassment, and shook my head. Sophia pressed for details, and under her comfortable charm spell, I even shared the story of Miranda hitting on me, rubbing her knee against mine under the table when we ate together in the restaurant in Cochem. She was intrigued why I had not accepted her advance and asked if Miranda was pretty. I paused again, not wanting to say that Miranda was not particularly pretty, but Sophia got the implication. She scowled, mocking contempt.
“You men! You want us all to be gorgeous.”
That was a little embarrassing, but for the most part I was enjoying Sophia’s attention within the rules of engagement of our conversation, where I would describe a situation in some neutral way and she would then probe for the potentially spicier details. So I shared that I had visited my mom’s friend Giselle and her family in Paris. Sophia queried about the other family members, and when I shared that Giselle had a daughter, Laurence, my age, she honed in on that, pulling out of me details on what Laurence looked like and how I felt about her.
“So you say she has hair like mine, and earlier you said she was ‘stunning’… Well!” Sophia made a show of pretending to primp and then laughed, loud enough that the three older women quieted momentarily and looked her way.
Sophia waved her hand at them and said “scusi” followed by words in Italian I did not understand as she pointed a lavender painted fingernail in my direction. The three nodded and returned to their own conversation.
It was more of the same when I described traveling with Steve and being picked up by the two Canadians, Randall and Zo, in their VW van for the long ride across Southern France to Spain. When her questioning revealed that Zo was a young woman, she asked again for a physical description, and I went on that Zo was short, kind of stocky and had wild curly red hair, always contained above a red Canadian flag bandana. I couldn’t find the words to describe Zo’s vivacious personality. Perhaps I should have just described her to Sophia as “vivacious”, but instead I just said she was “really cool”, but Sophia picked up that I was taken with her. Sophia did not miss anything, even the subtlest cue. She asked if Zo and Randall were a couple, and she was intrigued, actually more like shocked, when I said that they probably were but I wasn’t sure. It was the sort of detail Sophia would never leave to uncertainty.
“Relationships are always important to understand!”
As our train continued to make its way across the mountainous spine of Italy and on toward Venice, and the three elderly women continued their animated chat in Italian on the other side of the compartment, I spun the tale of taking my turn, after midnight, driving the van through the hilly terrain of Southern France. I described the winding road and the old stone farms and little villages we drove by. Sophia’s questions revealed that Zo shared the front seat with me during my stint to help me stay awake, and how I had enjoyed that degree of intimacy with her, while the others slept in the back. And finally the van low on gas, stopping at the petrol station that was closed until the morning, uncertain we could find another open station on our remaining fuel, so deciding to stop there until morning. Zo and I squeezing between Steve on one side of the narrow mattress and Randall on the other, sleeping next to each other.
“There is nothing like sleeping next to someone you are attracted to!”
Perhaps intoxicated in her own way by my tales, or just feeling the urge to amp up the flirtation, she shared with me her own story of losing her virginity in the backseat of a car at age 17 on a long road trip with her boyfriend at the time and his best friend, who was asleep in the front. They had similarly pulled off the road in the middle of the night to get some sleep before resuming in the morning. The two had snuggled together in the rather spacious back seat. She told me how sweet he was and how nice he smelled and how she had let him touch her all over her body.
“And in a moment, he was inside me!” She put both hands over her mouth and looked up at the ceiling, slowly shaking her head.
Whether that last statement just slipped out or she had delivered it with premeditation, she quickly straightened herself up, adjusted her shirt collar and skirt, waved her hand in front of her face and apologized for being so explicit. I was quick to respond that it was okay, I didn’t mind, though I glanced at the three elderly women to confirm that they were still oblivious. I was actually thrilled at her being so verbally intimate, and I’m sure she sensed that. Though I would never have shared a story so explicitly sexual, I was pleased that she had.
She said she wanted to hear more about my journey, perhaps hoping now that I would share an equally steamy and sexual encounter that I had had. Whether I would have shared it if I had had such a tale, I had none to tell, and I could feel that she was now sensing that I was a virgin, though she never was so rude to ask. I was caught up in this intoxication of our shared intimacy, strangers on a train, and fantasized what might be happening if it was just Sophia and I alone in the compartment.
I got the urge to share with Sophia the story of Steve asking to sleep with me. The opportunity passed and I did not, for fear that due to the fact that I had even discussed it with him and entertained the possibility, she would judge me as some sort of deviant, and not the thoroughly heterosexual young man I imagined she imagined she was flirting with.
Sensing the pause, she was bold or maybe incorrigible enough to put her right hand on my left knee to focus my attention to what she was about to ask. She theatrically leaned toward me and looked into my eyes like one plotter to another, more like peers, and spoke.
“Are you hungry?”
It was not lost on me that the question could be answered on several levels, including hungry for companionship, romance, sex. Letting me twist in the metaphorical wind for a moment perhaps, she finally clarified.
“May I buy you a meal in the dining car?”
The question sounded so formal for our now buddies sort of relationship, but I figured that she might not know all the colloquialisms that made our American English so informal. I managed to hold back a chuckle that assuming my limited funds perhaps, she felt it appropriate to compensate me for the engaging conversation on what would otherwise have been a boring business trip. Enjoying the thought of being a bit like a ‘gigolo’ of sorts, at least for the moment, I accepted.
She led the way down the train corridor to the dining car. It felt strange in that whole gigolo sort of context. When we got there the waiter in his uniform looked like he recognized Sophia, maybe from a past trip on the train. I hung back a little, a bit unsure how to present myself relative to her.
“Signorina”, he called out, noting me behind her and putting up two fingers, “Due?”
“Si due, mi amico, grazie”, she responded.
He led us, more her really with me following, to an open table by one of the windows. Actually all the tables were by windows, it was a narrow train car. With a hand gesture she pointed at the seat opposite her for me to sit. She took her seat and I mine. There was a tablecloth with ceramic plates and silverware, cloth napkins, and both wine and water glasses, plus menus. She ordered a cucumber sandwich, and I a chicken salad sandwich. She asked for a good bottle of “vino bianco”.
The wine was dry and delicious. I was bold enough to suggest that we toast “to the adventures of life”. The waiter all but smirked at the two of us.
I wove the rest of my tale to bring her up to the present. Hitchhiking from Spain back to Paris, and the long ride, dinner and shared hotel room with Walter, with his stunning rant and endorsement of Hitler the next morning over breakfast. Spending that last night with Steve sleeping outside in the rain. The almost catastrophe of having my rail pass and passport slip out of my jacket pocket as I boarded the train to Basel, and my great fortune to manage to recover those essential documents so I could continue my journey.
“I can only imagine!” she noted with a sigh.
The hills and valley outside the windows beginning their surrender to the oncoming darkness, now feeling the buzz of the wine, I wove the story of my time at the youth hostels in Rome and Florence and all the interesting backpacking peers I had encountered there and on the train between them. Meeting big “force of nature” Jen and “suave” Sarah in the common room of the hostel in Rome, and coaxed on by the wine, as Sophia had probably hoped and planned, how I was taken by both of the young women. She quizzed me on the particulars of both and of course shared her take.
“Your attraction to Sarah I understand, but this Jen character, six foot two, big and so bossy. Not very…”, I could tell she was searching for the right English word, then settling on one, “Feminine!”
“No, Sophia”, I countered, fortified by the wine, “Jen was great. Self assured. Full of hell, but caring too.”
Sophia was now tipsy too, since we were working on a second bottle she had ordered.
“So you like your women to order you around?” It was the first time I had noticed her giving me some sass. “Does that ‘turn you on’?” Deftly throwing out THAT English language colloquialism. She didn’t even follow with an apology and her now signature hand wave, a situation that I loved because it meant that she was really getting comfortable and letting her guard down.
For the first time in my now several hours in conversation with Sophia, I laughed, finishing even with a bit of a scoff. She looked surprised, amused even, but put on a stern face and demanded, “What?”
I felt like an actor about to deliver my character’s big line. I shook my head and used Sophia’s finger wag on her. “Perhaps I am failing to convey to you Jen’s charisma and gravitas. If a man was physically imposing, very assertive, charismatic and well spoken, would you call him ‘bossy’?”
I couldn’t take credit for that question really, I’d noted my mom using it with some haughty male professor type at one of her parties, and had filed it away in the memory banks for some future occasion, and here it was.
Sophia was no dummy. I could see in her eyes that she reluctantly had to concede my point. And I could see her also realizing that her conversational partner, though perhaps timid sexually, was not all in all a timid person. But I could also see behind those expertly emblazoned eyes that she was not one to back down from, what my mom would call a “good fight”, that is a verbal disagreement between two thoughtful, well spoken people.
“Why should women try to be like men?” she scowled, “There are too many men ‘being like men’ already!”
Lubricated by the alcohol, I couldn’t hold back a laugh at her last line.
She straightened herself up and theatrically put a fist against each hip with her elbows out and glaring at me in a standing her ground pose.
“Are you laughing at me young man?”
“No”, I replied shaking my head repeatedly, loving our little ‘fight’ though not wanting it to get in the way of our ‘flirt’. “I just found your last line both true and funny!”
“So I am, what you say, a ‘comedian’ now?” Delivering her line with all the flair and pluck and sass and sauce in her prodigious arsenal.
My head shake changed its axis into a nod and my biggest shiteatingest grin. “You totally are, lady!” I flared my eyebrows for good measure. I couldn’t believe I had actually said that, but felt so good once it had slid from my lips.
She laughed, and did her hand wave thing in front of her face, this time with more of a “stop, I can’t take it anymore” feel to it. I loved it when female types just let loose and laughed. At least for that moment of laughter it felt like all the issues and complications between the sexes were gone, or at least surmountable.
Having exhausted my story, and fired my feminist guns across Sophia’s prolific prow, I now tried my best to ask her about her life, not wanting to come off as some sort of stereotypical self-obsessed male type who thought that life was all about them and women were there to look sexy and be good listeners.
“So what about you?” I asked, “How did you come to be here after losing your virginity in the backseat of that car when you were seventeen?” I was surfing the buzz of the alcohol to even ask such a question.
“Me, yes”, she scoffed, “I was a stupid girl obsessed with young men. There were other backseats. Though I defied the Church and protected myself. My parents let me run wild, until one day protection did not protect me and I was pregnant.”
She looked at me with sobering eyes. “I married that man. We were both young and stupid. I suppose you would say he was a ‘sexist pig’, but I was a stupid girl who thought that love was measured by how much he wanted you in bed.”
She continued her story. They had their child and two more soon after that. They raised their children and sent them off to boarding school in their teens. He was obsessed with his work, but when the kids were out of the house he refused to let her go back to work.
“I was a good mother. I raised my children. I loved them. I still love them. His family never approved of me. I was not a housewife. So we separated.” She wagged her finger at me, “No divorce!”
I shared with her that my parents divorced when I was ten.
“In America, yes”, “But in Italy, how do you say in English, ‘annullamento’, or separation. No divorce!” She wagged her nail polished finger again for emphasis. Then her eyes softened. “Did your mother remarry?”
“No”, I shook my head, “Boyfriends, but never remarried. It’s been eight years!”
“I applaud your mother. I like her already. You are a good son, yes?”
“You remind me now of my own Antonio. He started at university this fall.” She reached out her left hand and her fingertips touched my cheek. Then wagging a finger at me again said, “Be sure to tell your mother I apologize for flirting with her son. I think she will understand.”
I laughed self consciously, but managed to state, “I enjoyed our conversation!”
“Yes. And how do you say in America, my ‘nice tits’?”
My cheeks flushed. I was devastated. My budding feminism put to shame. I tried to recover. “Sorry about that.”
“You men!” she said once again, but more parodying herself this time. Then in a more serious tone, “It is all some women have to make you men take notice without giving you everything.”
I quieted, pondering her last statement. Certainly my eyes were always drawn to a woman with nice breasts, but I did not want the world to work that way.
She noted my thoughtfulness. “But you will learn for yourself how things work and break your share of hearts I am sure. Maybe already, no?”
I wrinkled my nose and rolled my eyes but did not respond to her statement and query. I instead pushed the conversation back to her life’s narrative. “And since your separation?”
“Just work.” She waved her hand in front of her face. “Work, work, work.” She told me of working in her parents pharmacy and later as a sales rep for a drug company, recently landing a position with a large European pharmaceutical company. She paused, and looked out the window at now buildings going past, like we were entering another urban area. I thought it was ironic that the two native Italians I had met, Marcello waiting for the train from Basel to Rome, and now Sophia here on the train to Venice, had both sold drugs, though the ones Marcello pedaled were illegal.
As is answering the question I hadn’t asked she said, “I do like it, to be honest, and I am good at what I do.” She looked at me and grinned, the look in her eyes along with the slump of her shoulder as she leaned against the table top making her seem for the moment more like she was my age.
“And like your mother, I have boyfriends, but not in the backseats of cars anymore.” She laughed.
“I am happy to live on my own now. And of course I spend time with my children when I can.” She went on about her son Antonio, now eighteen like me, and his younger sisters Mia and Isabella, still off in boarding school.
The conductor came through the dining car announcing that the train would soon be arriving in Venezia. Sophia’s demeanor began to transform. She straightened up, checked her watch, and looked again more like someone of my parents’ generation. She looked out the window at the now darkened cityscape going by and noted that we had about five minutes until we were in the station, but it was a long stop so there was no need to rush. She gave me a more neutral look like I was a business associate.
I nodded. I probably would have acceded to any request from her at this point.
She flagged the waiter and ordered “due caffè”. Instead of the larger coffee and tea cups I was used to, he brought us those small ones with the tiny handles that I had seen so many Europeans drink from in cafes and restaurants with just thumb and forefinger. They would sip or gulp it down like they were drinking a shot of hard liquor.
The waiter put the little cups in front of each of us, each resting in its little circular depression in the cute little saucers. It looked like brown liquid mud in the cups, not the clearer, less viscous dark liquid I was used to seeing. Sofia raised the cup to her red lips, tipped it slightly, and sucked on it ever so slightly, continuing to hold it in a raised position just below her mouth and nose, her nostrils flaring to take in the smell. Then with a second quick motion put the cup back against her lips and swallowed the rest of its small contents, carefully putting the cup back down in its saucer with a clink.
While she settled up with the waiter I did the same. Again, I had never become much of a coffee drinker, but it was warm and thick and bitter but delicious, but not so hot that it burned my lips or tongue. The smell of it was intoxicating. Finally, completing the sequence of steps as she had, I drained the thing into my mouth. It was warm and earthy and sensual.
I watched her pull out a small case from her purse, flip it open to reveal a mirror, and check the makeup on her face, with the awareness that I was watching her. She took a gold cylinder out of the little case, unscrewed the top and repainted the contours of her lips in deep red. Like I had seen my mom do, she put the corner of her napkin between her lips and pressed them together as she studied her work in the tiny mirror. She then pulled a short wide brush out of the case and gently swept it high on each cheek, checking the mirror once more for confirmation before clapping it shut and stowing it back in her bag.
“Shall we?” she said after a beat.
By the time we got back to our compartment the train had already stopped at the Venice station and the three older women were gone.
“Shall I get your bags?” I asked as I entered behind her.
“Thank you sweetheart”, she said, laying a gentle hand on my shoulder.
Once i had completed that task I started to reach for my own pack, thinking we might exit the train together, so I could perhaps carry her big suitcase out to the platform.
Interrupting my effort, she stood and addressed me by name to garner my attention.
“Cooper. It has been my pleasure to meet such an interesting young man as yourself so we could share this journey together. I see my colleagues out on the platform and I should not keep them waiting.”
“Can I help you out with your suitcase?”
“No, I can manage it”, she said, forcefully even.
She gave me one of her big smiles, eyes twinkling as they caught mine, and said very formally, “Goodbye”, with a slight tip of her head. Then still looking at me and her face softening to more of a shameless grin, said in a lower and more intimate modulation, “grazie bambino”, kissing me on each cheek, then wiping the lipstick marks off my face with her thumb. She then turned, grabbed her briefcase and her big suitcase and awkwardly exited the compartment and headed down the hallway. I figured that she did not want me to follow. When I finally did exit the train I saw her walking away in the distance among three older men in black suits, carrying their own briefcases and one also carrying her big suitcase. The three men were gesticulating, and by their body language at least, appeared to be in an animated conversation in orbit around the strutting Sophia.
The Beatles’ song, “Sexy Sadie”, started playing in my mind’s jukebox…
Sexy Sadie you broke the rules
You laid it down for all to see
You laid it down for all to see
Sexy Sadie oooh you broke the rules
The Beatles were always in the Pantheon of my external (playing on car radios and as background music at restaurants), and in this case, my internal Greek chorus. Whenever I heard one of their songs from whatever source I listened to the lyrics for perhaps their sage advice for whatever situation those words found me in. But their judgement in this case I thought flawed. What ‘rules’ had Sophia broken in her interaction with me? She was up front that she had been looking for conversation to pass the time. I had agreed to participate, enjoying her sexy stories as well, and those breasts. She was more my mom’s age than my own, but what of that really. Of course there was her “grazie bambino” at the end.
But the song continued to play in my mind’s ear with my phonographic memory of its tinny honky tonk piano accompaniment…
One sunny day the world was waiting for a lover
She came along to turn on everyone
Sexy Sadie she’s the latest and the greatest of them all
I was suddenly flooded with emotion, overwhelmed, unmoored. Flesh on both arms raised with goosebumps and energy shivered up my spine and vibrated up through my head and above. What had just happened to me? What button had Sofia pushed in my psyche that now suddenly, watching her walk off with those older male businessman types into the wilds of Venezia, I was washed out to sea? I felt like she had extracted something out of me. But had she pocketed whatever it was for herself, or brought it to for me to maybe finally understand, rather than continue ruminating deep in my subconscious?
Sexy Sadie how did you know
The world was waiting just for you
The world was waiting just for you
Sexy Sadie oooh how did you know
Sexy Sadie you’ll get yours yet
However big you think you are
However big you think you are
Sexy Sadie oooh you’ll get yours yet
Even though the Beatles were in that pantheon of of my Greek Chorus, up there at the top of my list of musical gurus, their little ditty had what my mom’s radical feminist friend Mary Jane would have called a ‘misogynist’ thread to it.
We gave her everything we owned just to sit at her table
Just a smile would lighten everything
Sexy Sadie she’s the latest and the greatest of them all
I knew guys who would say that Sophia used her ‘feminine wiles’ to manipulate men for her own purposes, maybe business maybe personal. That she was just teasing and toying with me to pass the time and relieve her boredom. Though if they’d been in my shoes I think they would have been thrilled by the encounter, such as it was, as much as I had been. The psychic sum I had paid “to sit at her table” was a pittance really in the scheme of things. Hell… she had bought ME lunch, with wine even!
And what might she have extracted from me. Was it all those repressed romantic and sexual feelings I had inside me with no outlet except in my fantasies acted upon alone in my bed or bathroom? From Sophia’s story of losing her virginity, did I imagine being that guy who was suddenly inside her? Being wildly, passionately, physically intimate with someone I admired. Like Jen, or Sarah, or Trix, or Laurence, Zo, Ashild, Bublil, or even Angie, and so many other vibrant young women I had encountered in life to date. Or even some male type like Morgan or Steve. Could I somehow be passionately and profoundly physically intimate with another human being without that lust, that eros, cheapening my larger admiration and regard?
That all having run through my head, as Sophia and her new comrades disappeared in the crowd, I continued to feel unmoored and adrift, enveloped by that profound aloneness, way too far from home. I could see through the train station windows that it was already dark outside, and I knew I needed to push forward with finding and getting to my youth hostel and book my bed for the night. Hopefully I would encounter at least Jen and Sarah at the hostel to maybe reground my ‘Coopster’.
But first, before pushing on with the stressful task of the moment, I checked on the trains to Switzerland. There was one that left Venice every evening, arriving in Interlaken Switzerland the next afternoon. From there I had been told I could catch another train up into the mountains to Grindelwald. That was the one place left in Europe that was really calling to me. I had been tempted to head there directly from Florence, but felt I should stick with my original plan and at least check out Venice for a couple days.
Little did I know at the time that John Lennon’s original title for the song was ‘Maharishi’, written by him as a critique of their Indian guru. But George Harrison, perhaps more enamoured with the guru than Lennon, convinced him to change the song title to ‘Sexy Sadie’, which had the same cadence of syllables and ‘e’ sound at the end. If you swap in ‘Maharishi’ for ‘Sexy Sadie’ in the lyrics the song takes on a whole different feel!