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Hell is Absence
The first thing I notice about you is your perfume. The walls in my third-class compartment are scratched metal, their monotony only broken by the burgundy vinyl berths that fold down from the wall just on level with my ears. One of the upper ones is folded down, occupied by a mustachioed man in his sixties who groans slightly in his sleep. He is wrapped in a polyester-blend blanket embossed with a traditional Mongol design: an interlocked circle reminiscent of a Celtic knot. In the corner of the blanket is a tag, sewn on, I imagine, by the hand of a solicitous train attendant, which reads, “Property of the Trans-Siberian Railway.” Unwilling to disturb him, I am sitting on one of the lower berths with my eyes closed, listening to the sounds of passengers making their way through the corridor. After two hours, I have heard the young pregnant woman in the next compartment waddle stiffly to the boiler four times, returning with cups of steaming instant milk tea, which sends the fingers of its salty scent under my door. The window on the opposite wall is sealed shut with a thick line of clear glue, so the only airflow comes from under the door. This is why, at half past eight in the evening, your jasmine perfume meanders into the compartment and reaches my nose.
Beneath my closed lids, my eyes fill with tears. The scent of jasmine reminds me powerfully of a fling I had with a French girl several years ago. I met her in a tiny shop in Sainshand, and she took me back to her hotel. We spent a week lying in her bed, talking. She was a student at the Sorbonne, taking a holiday to visit the Khongoriin sand dunes. I was a herder’s son, in the village staying with a cousin while my parents visited my oldest brother and his wife in the north. She taught me French phrases and I told her about camel herding, the livelihood that looms in my future. I remember that by the end of the week, the scent of the jasmine tea she drank incessantly had steeped into my clothes and hair. Until this minute I had not smelled it since. My nostrils flare; I can feel a bead of sweat forming behind my left knee. I listen to your footfalls as you walk towards the boiler at the end of the carriage. You stop for a moment at the window across from my door and draw back the curtains.
I open my eyes and shift aside the shimmery striped curtains that cover my window. It is the height of summer, and still almost light at this late hour. We are passing through a ghostly stretch of desert, broken only by the occasional camel herder caring for his herd. As we whip by I catch a glimpse of a stocky, muscular young man crouched on the ground, pinning a baby camel with one knee. For an instant, he touches his wind-burned lips to its face, and then drives a short wooden stake through the soft wall of its nostril. The camel shrieks for an eerie second, then quiets, the injury to its nose already forgotten. A second later I see another herder mounted on an adult camel, steering it away from the train with a rope that leads to the stake in its own nose. The camel jogs across the sand, serenely unbothered by the buffeting slipstream of the train, even as the rider’s hat is blown off into the desert. I wonder if you can see a similar sight from your window.
I turn back to the door, and shut my eyes again. You slide the curtains closed; the plastic rings attaching them to the curtain rod click softly together. Your pattering footfalls move slowly away, down towards the boiler. If I listen carefully, I can usually hear the boiler spitting a thick stream of hot water into people’s cups. But we are rounding a curve just now, and the train’s brakes are screeching and spitting sparks into the night. I don’t hear you walk back towards your own compartment, but another whisper of jasmine steals under the door. I have a sudden wild urge to fling it open and embrace you. Instead I sigh, and lean down onto the bottom berth. Opposite me the old man coughs gently, and turns over. I open my eyes and stare at the ceiling, which is spotted with the oily handprints of someone who must have reached up to get their balance. The train jostles and shakes as it begins to slow down in the approach to the next station.
I’ve ridden this route many times: from Sainshand the sleeper train winds through the Gobi for miles, passing empty stretches of sand dunes and the squat felt shapes of the occasional herder’s ger. About three hours in it stops at Har-Ayrag, a smallish town in the middle of nowhere, then retreats into the desert, crossing a range of mountainous hills. In the middle of the night the train stops at Dalanjargalan, but there is never anyone waiting on the tiny concrete platform. After this unnecessary stop, there is nothing but desert for hours on end, until Chojr, where a few tourists get off to snap pictures of the giant statue of a cosmonaut that stands in the main square. I can’t understand what attracts them to this statue in such a tiny backwater of Mongolia, but they always clamber sleepily off the train and wave their cameras through the dawn light, seeking the perfect angle. From Chojr the train trundles through a progressively greener and greener landscape, crossing streams and curling into s-curves around tiny lakes, until it reaches the suburbs of Ulaanbaatar, the capital city. By now it will be mid-morning, and as the train begins to decelerate one can catch glimpses of people going about their mornings inside their board-fenced yards. Finally the train reaches the Ulaanbaatar station, and the doors open onto the swarming platform, full of tourists and Mongolians alike. Right across the street is my college.
My parents never understood why I wanted to go to college. Neither they nor my brothers ever cared much for their education. My mother went to the high school in Sainshand, but my brothers and father went straight from primary school to herding. Everyone in my family, into the distant past, has been a herder. Most of them stay in the Gobi and herd camels, but some, like my oldest brother Naraanbaatar, moved north into the steppe to herd goats and sheep. My uncle, the most exotic in the family, traveled almost to Russia and lives in Khovsgal aimag herding yaks. It has always been expected that I would settle somewhere in the country, marry a nice fat girl who knows how to cook, and embrace the nomadic lifestyle that my family has maintained for so long. They would only agree for me to attend the Agricultural College in Ulaanbaatar, so I study agricultural economics in an attempt to avoid telling them that I don’t want to be a herder.
As the train pulls into Har-Ayrag, I pull a book from the tattered yellow shopping bag I bring on train trips, fold my legs up onto the berth, and lean back against the wall of the compartment. The book is a tattered volume of poems by Paul Verlaine that the French girl, Céline, gave to me. I have read it more times than I care to count, first translating laboriously with a dictionary I bought on a street corner in Ulaanbaatar, and now drinking in the words that I have long since memorized. I press my nose into the pages; if I concentrate I can still smell the jasmine tea. It is growing darker by the second as the sun sinks below the horizon like a whale diving. The old man is still sleeping, so I forgo the overhead fluorescent bulb and switch on the penlight I carry with me on the trains for just such a purpose. I open the book to my favorite poem, Amoureuse du diable. My eyes drift over the lines until I reach the last one at the bottom of the page: “She did not know that Hell is absence.”
Engrossed in my Verlaine, I do not notice that the train has begun to move again, picking up speed towards Dalanjargalan, until the vibration of the wheels begins to slam my vertebrae repetitively into the metal wall. With a sigh I close my book and place it, and my penlight, back into the shopping bag. I swing my legs down to the floor and try to stand up, but I misjudge the jostle of the train and hit my head on the bottom of the elderly man’s bunk. I curse softly, and whisper a hurried apology as he stirs and grumbles unintelligibly. I grab the handle of the sliding door and jerk it down, but it sticks and I have to wrestle it open. I turn away, then back to catch the door just before it slams, then I head for the toilet at the end of the car. Feeling drowsy, I splash some water on my face and neck and look up to examine myself in the mirror. I am twenty-three, but my face looks gaunt and wasted. Spending hours in class throughout the year, and avoiding spending time outdoors with my family when I’m at home has left my skin pale and dull. Every minute I have to spend at home I pretend to be studying, which precludes them from asking me questions about my plans after I finish school this winter.
As I study my face in the mirror, a breeze blows under the door, bringing with it a trace of jasmine. I stiffen. Hurriedly I dry my hands on my trousers and listen with rapt attention, my ear pressed to the door. I hear your subdued footsteps coming closer, and a deluge of jasmine overwhelms me. It is all I can do to keep from throwing open the door, but instead I breathe in the sweet floral scent and wait for you to pass. When your footsteps have progressed a few meters down the corridor, I take a deep breath, open the door, and follow.
My first glimpse of you is nothing spectacular. I confess: judging by your perfume I expected your looks to be more exotic, more unconventional. You are just a girl, in your late twenties maybe, short and slight but with the air of confidence that age gives a woman. Your hair is long, sleek, and dark brown, and swings to the bottom of your shoulder blades. I see from your reflection in a window that you are Mongolian, like me. This is another shock; my perceptions of you were entirely off base. You are completely unlike the Mongolian girls I know – daughters of herders who spend the day making yogurt and washing clothes, or bookish and aloof college students too busy with their studies to be interesting. You walk tall and with care, as though every footstep is a gift you are giving to the carpeted floor of the corridor, and with a pensive expression on your face. And always, always, there is the aroma of jasmine trailing you like the train of a wedding dress.
As I pass my compartment, you make as if to glace back at me, and I dart inside quickly. The dozing man has evidently gotten up, taken another blanket from under the bottom berth, and gone back to sleep. I shiver in the cold night breeze that rushes in under the door and pull a black sweater from my shopping bag. As an afterthought I pull several thousand tugriks from my wallet – enough for a plate of goulash in the dining car if I need an excuse to be wandering. Again I tussle with the door for a moment before emerging into the corridor. At the end of the car I see you reaching for the handle that opens the door to the next carriage. After you have gone through and closed it, I stride after you, watching your hips sway against the rhythm of the train.
I keep almost a full car’s length between us, so that I can safely observe you without notice. I can see from the back that you are wearing Levi’s in a cut that suits you but seems out of place in this country. As a child I wanted a pair of Levi’s, because one of my classmates was the only person I knew who had them. He had bought his on a trip to America with his grandparents, a fact that made me still more jealous. I wonder where you bought yours. They are juxtaposed with a pair of traditional Mongolian riding boots, and a heavy sweater. You are so graceful even under the bulk of the creamy wool. The way you walk makes me imagine you running through a verdant patch of green beachgrass towards the ocean in a floaty white dress, laughing. But you are only moving placidly forward in your leather boots, stopping to open the doors as you head towards the dining car.
Finally I see you open the last door, and greet the pompous steward, who waits tables, with a nod. He seats you at a corner table to the left of the door and shoves a menu haphazardly at you before leaving the carriage abruptly. I stop and duck into the closest toilet, locking the door with sweaty fingers. My hands are trembling and a sheen of sweat covers my forehead. I am unused to nervousness like this. For a moment I feel a pall of nausea, a deep rolling somersault of my stomach. I breathe shakily for several minutes, then wipe my hands on my sweater and go out into the dining car.
Immediately the imperious steward is in front of me, shunting me to the table opposite you. He throws me a menu and turns to leave, but I catch his elbow and order a bottle of grape Fanta to settle my stomach. I look over at you. You are looking down at the menu from under long lashes, one hand cradling a cup of tea. The steward returns with my Fanta, and I order a plate of goulash. I yank the top off of the bottle and take a sip, feeling self-conscious about my plebian drink. You sip your tea and yawn, a luxurious moment that looks at once grand and reserved. The sleeves of your sweater are overlong, and you have pulled them down almost to the tips of your fingers. The steward has been staring pointedly at you, and now he hovers by your elbow, waiting for your decision. You hand him the menu and order a plate of goulash and more tea. When he leaves, you pick up the teacup with both hands and lean forward on your elbows, staring into the middle distance. Your sleeve slides off your wrist and I see an armful of jade bracelets. After a moment you set down the cup and begin to toy absentmindedly with them. I remember learning that jade is predominantly found in Southeast Asia. I wonder if you have been there, if you wear the bracelets because you miss it.
Muddled thoughts are swirling through my mind like tealeaves in boiling water. Out the window I see a sudden square of light as someone opens the door of a ger. The incandescent bulb illuminates a dozing camel, curled around the small, fuzzy form of her baby. Whoever opened the door flings a pan of dirty dishwater into the sand and throws a few bones to a shabby dog. The squat outlines of more sleeping camels vanish into the night as the door is closed again. Sand whips against the window of the train, scattering a few grains onto the floor through a window that is not fully closed. The steward gets up from his chair and fastens the latch at the top, then goes back to the Mongolian newspaper he is reading.
I risk another glance at you. You have drained your cup, and are pouring yourself more steaming tea from a chipped pot. The train is shaking and a few drops of scalding liquid spatter onto the table. The steward vanishes into the train’s tiny kitchen and reappears with two plates of goulash balanced on one hand, and a cup and saucer in the other. He slides one of the plates in front of you, and then delivers the second to me, along with a complimentary cup of Lipton Yellow Label. I drop the bag into the cup of water and add sugar while it steeps. It smells bitter in contrast with the expensive loose leaf black that you are drinking. I look at you again. You have pushed back your sleeves to avoid dipping them in your dinner, and as you manipulate your silverware I watch your slender wrists flex under the weight of the bracelets.
I pick up my own utensils and begin to saw at the tough slices of meat in their lake of weak gravy. You are picking at the pile of steamed peppers that are draped unappetizingly over a bed of rice. We eat silently, alternating mouthfuls. I finish my meat and take a bite of the peppers and rice as you begin to slice your chunks of mutton into smaller pieces. The peppers look pallid, but they are full of flavor. I remember a class at my college when we learned that bell peppers are imported from Mexico. They taste like the sun, like words of Spanish whispered between lovers, like freedom. I look over at you, and, as you take a bite of a red pepper, our eyes meet for the first time. You smile.
I chew my mouthful fifty times, running through scenarios in my head. I picture myself striking up a conversation with you. In this fantasy I sleep on a bottom bunk in your compartment and get off the train with you. Disregarding my studies and my family we get on a plane to wherever those jade bracelets came from, and I never look back at the life I have left behind. I come back to reality and look out the window again, stalling for time. The train is curving around a retention pond, and its headlights illuminate a herd of camels drinking. Their owner has placed his ger nearby, and the faint smoke from the fire dying in his stove is trailing up through his chimney.
I turn over words in my mouth like cherry pits. The silence between us is becoming uncomfortable. I know that if I speak I will have closed a door, but another one will open. I know that if this moment passes I will have to live with your absence for the rest of my life. I open my mouth. Shut it. Breathe in. You are pouring more tea and its steamy fragrance mixes with the jasmine of your perfume. I close my eyes for a long minute, and then open my mouth with resolution.
I say, “Excuse me…”