By Kevin H. Siepel
When I first saw her in the station at St. Margrethen she was boarding the railroad car in which I sat, shoving an enormous brown leather suitcase up the high step with her knee.
Earth colors she was wearing: pants of brown corduroy, knitted vest patterned in orange and brown, Kelly green shirt with uprolled sleeves. Dark eyes, dark hair, dark complexion, young, mysterious. After heaving her burden onto the overhead rack, she collapsed into a seat across the aisle from me, perspiring sedately. Then the silver, air-conditioned train quietly sealed itself to continue its five-hour run westward across Switzerland.
Alpine streams boiled with icy meltwater, and the fields were ablaze with poppies, for the month was May. I attempted first to doze, then to strike up a conversation with the person next to me. No success there. I tried to doze a second time and couldn’t, and then I noticed her again. She had produced a posy of wilted wildflowers from somewhere, and was now holding it on her lap, her thoughts apparently upon whomever had given it to her. She had a strong but tranquil face. She was looking at the flowers and lightly smiling. I moved across the aisle and sat down facing her.
“Wie heissen die Blumen?” I asked. I knew that the salad bowl of German words at my disposal would not get me far. Perhaps speaking to her at all was a mistake. At any rate her only answer to my question about the flowers was a smile. Ah, I though, not German. Italian, of course. She’s dark.
I leaned forward to craft a more careful question about i fiori, knowing that if the conversational terrain should dip in that direction I’d have to beat an even quicker retreat. She still didn’t answer me. The thought that she was mute crossed my mind, but I dismissed it. Since this was Switzerland, I had a final choice: French. The reply, however, was as before: a Mona Lisa smile. I began to wonder. I’d seen a stationful of Yugoslavs in Buchs that morning, back toward the Austrian border. Could she be one of them? The prospect of hearing her speak at last in Serbo-Croatian was discouraging. Better to go slowly now.
I leaned back, relaxed, and returned the smile as enigmatically as I could. I tried to look mysterious—a foredoomed task, considering my garb of crushable fisherman’s hat, red long-john shirt, pin-striped mustard slacks, and leather running shoes. It didn’t work. Just as I was about to pack it in, Mona Lisa spoke. “Habla español?” she asked. Why hadn’t I thought of it? She’s Spanish! A tourist, maybe, but more likely a Gastarbeiter. There were loads of Spaniards working in Switzerland.
With all circuits snapping to life, I strove to call up my meager store of Spanish while rummaging frantically through my bag for the right Grosset’s phrase book. I commenced to address this person whose national origins were beginning to take form. She turned out indeed to be a Spaniard, on her way home to see her family. She was single, employed in a home for the aged in Altstätten, and incredibly, her suitcase was stuffed with Swiss chocolate.
Our conversation, unfortunately, was hampered by more than language difficulties, since I had been ill for 24 hours and was still required to take periodic and sudden absences. She proved to be understanding. She turned out, however, to be a poor judge of national costume or accents, taking me first for an Englishman, and later for a German. I was apparently the first specimen she’d encountered from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
What we spoke of, exactly, I can’t remember, but the day flew past, and I do recall we were in marvelous accord on a number of important issues. I dreaded our arrival in Geneva, where we would part, but by day’s end we were there. We strolled for a while through the city’s pretty streets, dallied over cappuccino in a sidewalk café, inspected shop windows in the day’s failing light, laughed together, and filled conversational voids with banalities until my train came. Hers was due later, at midnight. I said goodbye with great reluctance. She appeared to share my feeling, but her people were beckoning from across the Pyrénées, and my schedule called me to Italy before returning home. We exchanged addresses. I then boarded the train and left.
Today my life doesn’t have the broad margin it had then. Like many other people I raise children, commute, remodel, and mow the lawn. But I sometimes think of those days, when life could become so quickly and intensely bittersweet, when great possibilities could yawn in an instant.
In fact one way I’m able to retain perspective on the here and now is by recalling the details of that particular spring day, with its chance meeting and sad goodbye. Occasionally I’ve recounted the event to others, too, but there I enjoy taking some liberties with the facts, making the girl somewhat more desperate and myself a bit more dashing or distant. In one of my versions the girl unabashedly pursues me. My wife especially enjoys hearing me carry on in this vein.
Even though she likes the story, my wife does find its variations astonishing. She insists that on the train she was not desperate, that I was not distant or dashing, and that she left Switzerland the following year to marry me despite the way I was dressed that day.