The train stopped in Termini, Roma. Through the window, I could see many passengers gathering closer to the end of the platform, eagerly waiting for the train to stop. It is Friday and everyone was travelling out of the city to the coastal areas; to visit their family, friends, maybe to retreat to their vacation homes for the weekend. Every passenger that boarded carried luggage, a sure sign of week-end getaway.
The seats directly across from me were empty until now, they quickly began to fill. American youths, chattering excitedly as if planning prom night, college students looking bleary-eyed and haggard, an occasional family with younger children, excited toddlers with a fussy mother and a complacent father. Everyone had settled into their chosen spot and the train whistle blew. Just then, a woman gingerly stepped through the door of the carriage, struggling to gain her footing as she wrestled with cumbersome luggage and a matching hand-bag.
Once in the train she seemed to sigh with the relief of making the passenger list. Her seating choice was pre-determined; there was only one seat available in the row to my right. She stored her luggage on the rack overhead, and began arranging herself as she slowly descended into the seat. With the anxiety of getting on board now behind her, she suddenly became aware of her self vis-a-vis public scrutiny; she very consciously and fastidiously, fixes herself. I couldn’ t help but think that her life depended heavily upon maintaining facades, her actions seemed conditioned, rote, she moved involuntarily and impulsively in her need to attend to public images and identities.
Sitting at a diagonal, yet still having her in my line of vision, I was able to observe her without appearing rude, inquisitive, or interested. I played a game of trying to guess her destination and the reason for her travel. My guess was that she was heading to Venice for the weekend, and judging from the amount of perfume which was enough to mask the toxicity of Chernobyl, I surmised that she was on a consort mission.
She was a plain woman, made up to look pretty. A hircine face that was balanced by a ridiculously exaggerated Zsa-Zsa Gabor’s hairdo, the attire also looked like an attempt to emulate the whilom galmour of Gabor’s fashion, but with some cheap modifications. A short skirt, a tight blouse, but the signature Gabor scarf; a décolletage primped, peaked, and presented despite its aged and speckled appearance. Hardened, almost masculine legs, and a protruding calf muscle that spoke of time on the cobbled streets of Roma, extended from a skirt inappropriately short for her age.
I was really trying to place this into a nice box, but the incongruity of all the elements frustrated the effort. At the prima facie, this woman seemed incongruent in coach class, upon careful scrutiny, she is a step above a Barbie doll, except Ken was no-where around. The height of the heels she wore was not afforded any forethought for the variables of the journey ahead, yet the matching bags spoke of planning. I assumed that somewhere at the end of this sojourn, there was a man sitting comfortably in a chaise, sipping meloncello, and languidly awaiting the arrival of his primped and perfumed consort.
Meanwhile, just a few hours earlier, back in Roma, I visualised her as she readied herself for the images she was creating in her head as she prepared. She busied herself with the details of assembling every item of the ensemble in which she presented herself. She meticulously arranged every errant strand of her auburn hair, securing it with scented aerosol, selected just the right perfume to bathe her neck, the right negligee to take, and distractedly packed an over-priced suitcase while glancing nervously at the clock every two minutes.
She then anxiously darted out of the house, probably summoned a taxi to get to the train station, being afraid of missing the last train out. At the train station, seeing the puff of dark smoke as the whistle blew urgently, piercing the evening’s calm, she raced along an empty platform in ugly stiletto heels and two bags in tow, and hopped ungraciously on board a train bound for Venice; a journey that will last some 5 hours, all things going well.
As the train hurdled through the dimness of a gathering sunset, shaking, rattling and rolling in its excitement to be on its way, I couldn’t help but compare my own dress and mission to that of my carriage companion. I was comfortably dressed, and heading for a weekend alone, away from the din and clatter of the city, and the noise of sociality. I felt little desire for companionship, of any gender.
As I settled into the gentle sway of the rhythm that the train’s speed had established, I lazily deliberated the notion of social identities and their subjective realities. I carelessly considered how interesting it is that even at an early age, I was perceptive enough to understand the disparity that is obvious at the male/ female interface, and yet, I never cease to encounter other women much older than I am, who continue to exhaust endless hours transforming themselves into a package that is as transitory and amorphous as the twilight, and as vacuous as the flattery that greets the effort. The train hummed a flat tonal agreement.