With a final check to make sure his passport is not laid forgotten back on a wobbly nightstand at his hotel, Derek heaves a sigh and takes one of the two seats near to the window. 15:33 —the train to Lublin is leaving in seventeen minutes. It is not so much punctuality as nerves that has got him at the station this early. Although in general not a nervous traveller, it is a whole other thing to find yourself in a capital city where you do not speak the language, apart from, “nie”, “tak”, and “dziękuję”. The occasion: a missed wedding, and a promise to his sister to make it up by visiting her. His sister, who, the year before, had moved to Poland with her boyfriend –husband, now.
Currently he is still the only passenger in the compartment, a cube with eight dark blue seats decorated by an ugly yellow motif. His relatively empty suitcase is placed on the metal railings above him. The floor is a little sticky, and the sliding door to enter squeaks. A young girl comes in, peeks at him quickly and takes a seat across him after hauling her large backpack on the luggage railing. She smells of sweat and her hair is greasy. After a minute of dead silence save for the people Derek can hear chattering outside on the busy platform, she puts in her earphones and slumps in her seat, closing her eyes.
Derek follows suit and lets his eyelids droop shut.
Whoa, is basically the only intelligible thing Stiles’ brain offers once he sits down –falls down, is more accurate, he hears Lidia’s voice mock in his mind. Excellent carriage picking skills. It is already too warm inside. Of course, he had been late, and had had to run to catch the train –of course, not without knocking a few people over and himself in the process. Missing his train is a regular occurrence for him. Each time he visits his grandmother in Lublin her responding text to his lateness is a standard, No trouble, kochanie. But still. He tries to be on time.
He pulls out his notebook and pen, intending to start assembling notes for an essay he still has to hand in –late, again, who is surprised?
Except … That guy. He's sleeping, and surely that excuses staring, right? He rationalizes it; he won’t know, anyways.
So he stares. A lot.
Laura –his sister– often whines at how unfair it is that he has the ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime, and he has to agree: it is a very fortunate talent, although it also entails losing snippets of time and waking up slightly disoriented, like now. The train carriage is full, five new people who somewhere between Warsaw station and –he checks– twenty minutes post departure have ascended the train. He rubs his eyes and adjusts himself in his seat.
The girl across him is still sleeping, but how she manages with rap blaring in her ears is a mystery to him. That he cannot do. Next to her there is a pregnant lady who takes up a seat and a half. She looks terribly sad and keeps her left hand on her full belly. Probably last term, he thinks. In the opposite corner there is a young man with bright eyes who quickly averts his stare when Derek looks at him, with the subtlety of a cannon going off right next to his ear.
A woman in a uniform, black with blue stripes near the waist, comes in and says something in Polish. Bewildered, though he knows he looks calm and collected, he tries to understand but soon realizes she is simply asking for their tickets. Derek pats his breast pocket and takes out a piece of paper, Warszawa to Lublin, 15:50 – 18:05, 37 zloty.
Once she leaves, Derek shifts his body so he can take a look at the remaining three passengers. Near the door, there is an impeccably dressed old Asian man. His white hair is combed back, and the faintly brown and grey checkered suit he wears doesn’t have a single crease in it. From the distance Derek isn’t sure, but the man is reading what seems to be a small book of Greek poetry. It is an interesting mix.
Next to the old man there’s a girl with bright short red hair who keeps eyeing the pregnant lady’s belly. During the time he’s been awake the train has made two stops, and each time she’s dashed outside to come back two minutes later smelling heavily of cigarettes. Whenever people ascend and descend the vehicle, a trail of them passes the compartment, each of them experiencing a similar disappointment: no, this compartment, too, is full, sorry, move along, and yes, the pregnant lady can take up two spaces if she likes.
And then last, seated next to himself, there’s an older woman wearing a baby blue cardigan and expensive looking glasses. She is working on … something. Chemistry, judging from her mostly illegible notes. When she notices him staring, her mousy features turn irritated –frigid– , and he mumbles, “Sorry.”
So, he’s not from here, Stiles thinks. He doesn’t look very Polish and the accent sounds off.
Stiles is oblivious to the rest of the people in the carriage. He brings the pen to his mouth and starts chewing. Damn it, he sighs, write something, dumbass. A blank notebook lies in front of him, and it will remain blank if you don’t stop looking at him, stop it! Not for the first time, his body doesn’t actually listen nor seem to care about what his brain has to say, and his eyes wander back to the corner, to where the stranger is now staring in front of him. Suddenly, his head snaps up, and Stiles rips his head sideways, and when he’s calmed down he somehow ends up catapulting his pen against the girl sitting on the other side. Jesus!
He apologizes with his hands raised, and feels his face heating up. Oh my god, smooth.
He tries, he really does. In his head, he has lists he needs to go through, subjects and texts he needs to work with, but one way or the other he circles back to the stranger. His jaw, his lips, and Stiles wonders how he would look—
Derek is glad he made the trip. It’s the end of July, pleasantly warm around 21°C, or 70 F as his phone informs him, with big white puffs hanging in the sky. Derek likes observing people –each is drowned in their own little bubble, eyes distant, lost in thought, or focused on what they have sitting in front of them. He looks up from where he’d been staring at the formica table top, and catches the guy in the corner once again averting his gaze. For all his own observing, it unnerves him being the receiving end of it. The guy scratches the side of his face, twirls the pen around in his hands, lets it fly into the air, and profusely apologizes -“Przepraszam, przepraszam, przepraszam!”- to the cig girl who hands him back the pen with a frown on her face. It had hit her on her collarbone. Then he returns to his notebook, looking embarrassed, pen hovering in the air but not actually writing anything down. He can’t sit still, Derek notices fairly quickly. Always moving something; pulling at the spiral of his notebook, tapping his foot against the floor, biting on his nails or the pen, coughing, touching his face, cracking his knuckles, anything.
Derek looks outside. It is beautiful, so much green. The scenic landscape is flat and if he has done his research right, they will eventually enter a region where hills greet strangers like himself. He thinks back to the morning, when he’d gone walking around in Warsaw: eating lody while walking amidst streets of colorful row-houses and enormous graffitied facades. Very memorable was the rooftop of the city’s university –an assembly of glass, steel, plants and flowers that overlooked the Vistula river. Too much crammed into the six hours he had to spare before catching the train, but worth it. In truth, it had been daunting to wander –and, yes, get lost– in a strange city, but it was a nice change of pace from the hectic life back home. One night in Warsaw, one week in Lublin, and that is all the vacation he will be able to enjoy this summer.
How stupid! Of course! That’s the problem –it’s too hot. Stiles is sweating and is willing to bet his entire savings account –a miserly pathetic content, but still– that he looks like a bloated tomato. Hoping it will cool him down, he almost rips off his flannel, and gulps down half a bottle of water.
Water. Cascading down his tors— jesus, stop. You are a walking cliché. The pregnant lady glances over to him and he gives her a tight-lipped smile, making an odd noise as he slumps a bit in his seat. Why was that necessary? She doesn’t know what’s going on in your mind. Thank god. Oh, god, that would be ... . What would she say about how I want to lick an entire strip up—
He cough again, rubs his face roughly, and repeats, don’t get a boner in public, don’t get a boner in public, do not get a boner in public.
It has been getting stuffy inside, and soon enough, the guy in the opposite corner asks something to the others. Already he had taken off a flannel shirt revealing sweat patches, and his face is pink from the heat. Derek can understand their response, “Nie”, but nothing else. The guy gets up, sways a little as the train hits a bump, and worms his way to the window, everyone pulling in their feet to let him through. Obviously confused by the frown on Derek’s face, he suddenly stops and gestures to the window, “okay?” Oh. “Sure, go ahead,” he says, and the guy nods, turns and opens the window, his shirt riding up and wholly too close to Derek, who leans back. He receives a smile –or something akin to a smile, more like a strange grimace.
Shove him up against a wall, grab his behind and—
The cool air does him good. A few more times he catches the guy staring at him, then not so subtly turn his head sideways to the glass separating them from the hallway. He chews on his pen methodically, gruesomely deforming it in the process. Derek wonders if the guy would speak to him if they were alone. However, that is not the case.
About an hour into the trip, the teacher leaves. Derek sends out a text to his sister –be there in one fifteen. The cig girl comes back from her nicotine escape and resumes stealing glances at the pregnant lady, who is now carding one hand through her unruly hair. The train starts again, and it is blissfully quiet, a deep silence that all seven passengers seem to respect, as if they know that the first person to speak will break some sort of silent agreement.
Opposite him, the music has stopped and the girl is still sleeping. Derek is starting to doze off himself when a loud beep jolts him awake –all right! will be waiting outside, Henryk coming along. He looks up again, and no surprise, two bright brown eyes on him. Derek cocks one eyebrow and the other guy coughs again, grabbing his pen forcefully, but still not writing anything down.
Derek is lost in thought for the next hour. The pregnant lady smiles at him when she hears his stomach growl, and gives a tentative smile back. He eats a banana, hoping Laura brought something to eat with her. She makes these salt cookies that are—
Dear god… Christ. Anything else, please… Though. It would be pretty good with some whipped cream. Isn’t that called banana split or— oh, my god, his tongue, as the guy licks his lips once he is done. Stiles takes a shaky breath –if I asked, would he– and resolutely continues staring at the older man’s bowtie in front of him. Do not get a boner in public, damn it. Not the time, nor the place.
Sure enough, there they are: the hills. Like a little kid in a candy store –though his face betrays no such thing– he follows the landscape with awe. He doesn’t notice the girl in front of him leave, nor the intercom announcing they are thirty minutes away from Lublin. After a while, he heaves a heavy sigh and closes his eyes.
Thank god, Stiles thinks. Finally he’s sleeping again. Now I can stare like a professional voyeur.
A few minutes later, bite at his neck, feel stubble scratching, then lean back and look at the sight of the guy sprawled out underneath me –in this one, they are on a bed, though the one in the cramped bathroom of the train was fun, too–, completely undone. He gives me a smirk, we tumble around, a battle of who will pin the other down. No questions asked, I win. Stiles recognizes his surroundings, and figures it’s only five minutes until they get there. Wrap my hands around him and give—
"Mógłby mi pan pomóc z torbami?” the lady asks. Could you help me with the bags?
Stiles might as well have been electrocuted, and feels his heart hammering in his chest. “Oh, tak, tak, nie ma problemu!” She leaves soon after and the man opposite him closes his little book, calmly waiting for the train to arrive. God, their two minds must be on completely different wavelengths.
Kiss him hard, mouth, ear, neck, lower, lower, lower, lover, feel him grab anywhere he can…
When Derek reopens his eyes, they have arrived at Lublin, the noise from outside and the people shuffling inside have stirred him awake. Again –again!– the guy is glancing his way, still somewhat pink-cheeked. Everyone leaves, and Derek stands up to get his suitcase. They are the only two left, and the other guy gestures at him to go outside first. Derek throws him a calculated look, steps out of the compartment and smiles to himself where no one can see.
Stiles feels extremely giddy, and is working up the courage to ask the stranger something. His English isn’t all that good, but good enough. He tries to work out what exactly to say, is it where do you come from? or where are you from?, when he’s taken by surprise as a tall young woman wraps her arms around the guy, yelling something that is probably his name, and Stiles sees her smile, and then effectively loses his nerve to move forward. For a few seconds he is rooted to the spot, unsure of what to do. Eventually, he skids sideways towards the side exit where he knows his grandmother is waiting for him. Coward. Mięczak. Damn it.
He stands still for a second, and looks back, but they are nowhere in sight.
Once off the train, he feels eyes on him, staring at his back and he feels self-conscious, that is until Laura bursts into his side, enwrapping him in a very tight hug making him forget he's being watched. He peels her hair out of his mouth and says, “Hi” to Henryk, shyly standing a few feet behind them.
When he looks behind him, the guy is gone. Laura takes his suitcase, pulls him forward while smiling at Henryk, and exclaims, “Ah! Summer!”