I am on a train that lumbers through the desolate Serbian countryside, heading north from Belgrade. A tail of thick smoke follows behind us. I imagine that the smoke is visible from very far away, a guiding beacon for anyone who might be in the game of tracking trains across Serbian fields. Looking out the window, I see few houses and even fewer people. Once in awhile the train will come to a halt and the doors will open slowly as if straining against some unseen will. I imagine hands on the other side, struggling to keep them from parting. But there’s never anyone outside. Or maybe they’re invisible.
I am invisible again. I know this because it took six ‘excuse me-s’ in four different languages (Croatian, Spanish, English, German) and me jumping up and down like a deranged sparrow for the lady behind the ticket counter in the Belgrade Train Station to sell me a ticket.
“Budapest.” she said, spitting the word out as one would a slightly sour grape.
“Yes.” I said.
She shrugged and held out her hand in my general direction. She had extremely well manicured nails, which she had just been grooming them with a huge, pink emery board. I placed a few bills in her palm. She glanced briefly at them, pushed a ticket across the counter toward me and promptly went back to filing her nails and talking loudly in Serbian to the woman a few windows away.
I tried to buy a Coca Cola in the little store but the shopkeeper, an elderly man in a berry stained tan apron, didn’t seem to see me. I was afraid of missing my train, so I gave up and headed towards the departing trains. My Cyrillic was good enough to know which platform my train was on and I quickly made my way to one of the middle cars with private compartments. I settled into a window seat just as the doors groaned sighed shut.
The train is ancient. The maroon vinyl on the seats looks as if it may have been there since Serbia was a part of Yugoslavia. Yellow foam is poking out of the edges. The seat next to me has two long knife slashes in the form of a cross. I wonder if the cross pattern was intentional. Maybe it is meant to be an X. Maybe the X is marking something.
I watch barren trees and browned fields seem to slide by the windows. I think I might be in some post apocalyptic alternate universe. I think I may have been doing a little too much reading lately.
Two women wearing puffy light blue coats and fur hats suddenly burst into my compartment. They start to arrange their many faux leather bags and white paper wrapped parcels on the seat. The cross is covered.
“Um, hello?” I say.
“Sto!” one of the says “Nisam vas vidjeti!” (I didn’t see you!”)
“Sorry,” the other says. “We’ll go to another compartment.”
They clatter out. I am still invisible.
I have yet to figure out what makes me invisible at times. Often, I enjoy it. I become a part of whatever city I am in, indiscernible, even to the locals. I watch people openly as if they were my own private movie, except I have no control over the volume. I don’t mind so much. I learn a lot this way. Maybe I’m good at it as a result of my many years of working on film sets. I am discrete but everywhere. I can be in and out of the cameras view to fix something in seconds; seamless, quiet, almost invisible.
The sun hasn’t been out at all today. Serbia will forever be etched in my mind with a cover of clouds. I listen to the wheels of the train on the track, metal against metal: comforting, steady. I like the sound of most wheels, the fast clicking free wheel sound of a bicycle when coasting downhill, the rough grind of skateboard wheels on city pavement.
The train slows and sighs to a stop. I peer out the window. I see the windowed blue booths of Border Control. We are entering Hungary. I play with a strand of hair as I watch a female guard in the booth blow pink bubble after pink bubble of gum.
“Passport.” says a deep voice behind me.
I startle, then turn to find an attractive Hungarian Border Guard looking right at me. He is dressed in a well-tailored blue and grey uniform and spit shined black shoes. His blond hair is visible under his visor-ed cap. I think I can see myself reflected in the deep blue of his eyes and in the shiny metal of the buttons on his coat. Invisible no longer, I reach into my bag for my Passport. He takes it with a grin, swiping it easily through his card reader.
“Soooo,” he says, “Where are you headed?” His English is impeccable. He is smiling. The way he is gazing into my eyes makes me think he really does want to know. “Of course he wants to know,” I say inside my head, “Its his job.”
“Budapest.” I say.
“An excellent choice. For how long?”
“Sounds as if you’re not sure. I’d suggest at least twice that.”
“Absolutely. Where are you staying?” he asks.
“Ok.” he says, writing that down.
“Why are you writing that down?” I ask.
“So I can look up the address later. I’m going to come by on, lets see..Today is Tuesday… I’ll come by on Thursday and take you around, show you Budapest.”
I stare at him. I can’t even imagine what my expression conveys. I hold my breath. Everything stands still for one instant. My mouth is open, then closed. I feel as if I am in some silly rom-com and Molly Ringwald is going to appear at any moment.
“You’re going to..?”
“Yes. Look, I’ve got to keep working here. You looked so small there by the window when I first walked in, I almost didn’t see you. Then I noticed your smile in the reflection and well, it made me see you. Ok? Don’t worry. I’ll come meet you at 11 in the morning. We’ll go walking. Please say yes. Ok?”
“Yes. Yes.” I say.
“Now, how many days are going to be in Budapest?”
“At least eight,” I say, “possibly more.”
“Excellent choice.” he says, “See you Thursday.”
He turns on his heel and exits the way he came. The train starts moving soon after and I imagine it must have been quite empty. I look into my reflection in the window. It remains steadfast as buildings, roads, and cars appear in the landscape. The train stops, people get on. Someone says hello to me. I say hello back, decidedly not invisible.