Apr/May 2022  •   Fiction

The Train to Rome

by Andrew Bertaina

Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane

Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane

The car carried the couple through the countryside, mountains wreathed in clouds, bales of hay lolling in sun-scorched fields, a woman tending laundry in the distance, patting at her hair, uncoiling in the invisible wind. A long row of cypress stood as sentinels along the old road leading towards the mountains. The train slowed as it passed by small cities, a collection of soot-blackened squat houses.

The woman observed the man as he gazed out the window: the sharp angle of cheekbone, the short scruff of beard she'd once loved to feel against her thighs when they were making love. He looked back at her momentarily, smiling idly, the gesture not reaching his eyes. He was thinking then, as he often was, and it terrified her, his mad, manic thinking, which had once drawn her to him as moth to light. Once, as in all first loves, she'd found him brilliant, interesting.

But now, because he had hidden the affair from her, she could no longer trust those prolonged stares or the melancholic smiles that didn't reach his eyes. Sometimes, when asked, he'd say he was just gazing, not thinking anything at all. Other times, he'd say he was musing about an essay or book he'd read, something by Ferrante or Knausgaard, a lengthy passage about a woman slowly losing her mind. He said he wondered if the story was true and whether other critics noticed Ferrante's characters didn't fully inhabit Marxism, but rather, merely gestured towards it. Although perhaps that was the point. At other times, he'd say he didn't know what he was thinking about, which usually meant he was thinking about them.

Sometimes she didn't want to hear his explanations, and other times she'd press him, ask after his day in minute detail, trying to root out any inconsistencies in the story he gave her. She wasn't watching him for another woman, but rather, she watched him for signs of a lie, warily, as a child watches a dog who has bitten her. Sometimes, in interrogating him about Knausgaard's presentation of his wife's depression, she'd be trying to ferret out what he thought of her. Whether he, too, thought she was crazy, or if it was a fair characterization, the writer, representing someone else. She didn't know if she'd ever be able to stop this maddening dance, this press to find him false yet again.

There were sunflowers in the distance, maddeningly waving against the icy blue backdrop of the sky. She was jealous of the goddamn sunflowers who could float in the breeze and not worry about anyone lying to them. As, it seemed, could he. He was reading an intellectual magazine just now, staring intently down.

He was attractive and intelligent, and she often found herself hating him. These qualities—his humor, quick mind, and intelligence—were useless now, like a box of Christmas ornaments without a tree. He had no center to hold up these qualities, which had revealed themselves to be empty, representational as opposed to actual. She leaned against the window, the cool glass against her cheek soothing for a moment. She looked at the clouds, tried to figure out what shape they were, wished she were once again a child and not a woman traveling with someone she loved and hated all at once.


He wasn't thinking about her. At least not directly. He was engrossed in the article, trying to make sense of the author's argument, which was tying Plato to Descartes and then on to a contemporary philosopher of animal rights. His mind, as it always did, seemed to slide over the essential parts of the argument. He often couldn't put together constellations of others' thinking. He suspected himself of being one of the least intelligent people who spent their time attempting to become intelligent. He wasn't stupid exactly, perhaps just undisciplined, in too much of a hurry to pause, slow down, make sure he understood what was being said, what connections between the thinkers were essential to understanding them in relation to one another. He knew nothing about post-structuralism, an oversight during his undergraduate years that had continued when he'd gone to graduate school for writing. His untrained mind couldn't put things into useful academic frameworks. Instead, if he was asked to say why he liked Jane Eyre, his honest response would probably be he liked Jane's voice and he had been happy she'd ended up with Rochester at the end, contemporary feminist and post-colonial critiques aside. He liked Jane. This was an unsound response for liking a book as a contemporary academic, and he knew it.

But also, he was avoiding her eyes because she often asked him what he was thinking as though he was constantly keeping a veil between them she needed to pierce. She watched him with the intensity of a baby, trying to track and understand his every gesture, movement, potential vagary in his language. Often when she asked, the question itself sent his mind into revolutions of thought, dormant neuronal nets firing wildly as a gunman into the darkness. Was he thinking something? I mean, human life is concomitant with thought. So every time she asked, the answer spilled out of him. But sometimes he rehearsed what he said, like a post-structuralist; he tried to imagine how it might be interpreted through her lens, all possible interpretations. He stumbled, sounded guilty when he wasn't. He was unsure of everything—life, her, the affair. This unsettled him and her for obvious reasons.

He hated himself, too, which was why he was always reading, always watching well-reviewed television shows, trying to distance himself from whatever was happening in the deep recesses of the self, the gnawing voice reminding him time and again all was not well, that you don't have an affair or stare out the window and think unhappy, self-critical thoughts if things are well.

He looked up from the second article he'd started, something by a writer engaged with a social theory about the possibility for solidarity across class and racial lines in the face of gentrification. She was looking out the window, and he didn't even need to ask what she was thinking. She was crying, quite softly. She was thinking about them.

The train was speeding up, cutting through the countryside as a stagecoach would have years ago, pulled by heaving horses. But now time moved more swiftly. He thought of the Updike story, Twin Beds in Rome, wondered whether he should share it with her or if it would be considered one more act of aggression. He loved to share sad things. He suspected she disliked this about him, too. Months ago, when they'd been planning to end the trip in Rome, she'd been so excited to explore the possibilities for various accommodations, excited to look at small staircases, floor to ceiling windows overlooking fountains. Now she was quietly crying and watching the passing landscape.

But she was going to turn back to him soon. She always did. He was holding his breath, waiting for her to ask, yet again, what he was thinking. And maybe he'd tell her this time. Maybe he'd let the dam burst. He'd tell her what he'd been thinking since she'd said, in Amalfi, she recognized a dead relationship being held on to. He didn't know how she could say things like that and then tell him she loved him. He felt her words were incompatible, but he understood she, and for a better reason, thought the same of him. They were now two strangers adrift in the night sea, clinging as fools do to the memory of something passed: their great love.

After Rome, he wanted to say, we'll leave each other, and it won't be terrible. We'll take pictures by the Tiber, gather our last moments by Trevi, marvel at the Pantheon. We'll make quiet love in the hotel room, and we'll say goodbye. Then we'll fly back to our apartment, and you'll gather your things and move them into your new place with a sunny kitchen window, with your bright and beautiful garden. And I'll keep reading these confusing magazines and thinking about all the things I've done wrong and will keep doing wrong until they are saying my eulogy and the only thing remaining are the tattered remnants of friends I hadn't hurt enough through the years.

She started to turn back to him, the light caught in her brown-gold hair. She was so lovely, it almost unmade him. He wondered what kind of man he was, wondered whether he'd be able to hold her hand and look into her deep brown eyes and tell her the whole truth, just this once.