Chapter 9 – Unusual Request
As Steven was settling in his cabin, he felt the train’s soft vibration slowing and the noise of the track joints getting further apart. There was an announcement that the train was going to make a scheduled stop in a small town nearby. He had barely noticed that they had travelled any distance, short or long, when he was shaken out of his sleep as the spring-loaded door of his compartment opened with a bang, sending a cold rush of air inside. The frightening image of a red-faced black woman standing in front of the door was revealed, her shoulders squared, looking at him, mouth slightly opened showing her shining white teeth in contrast with her black skin. He knew at that moment that he would bear the wrath of whatever she had endured at the hand of the train employees, a thing he understood at a young age being the son of his mother. He braced for impact.
“The bloody train is full and there is no way for me to change compartments until we get to Winnipeg, in about thirty-six hours,” she said, a vein visibly throbbing on her forehead.” If the train had not left the station, I would have stepped off.”
We are stopping in a few minutes, so be my guest, he thought, seeing that all her blood had now relocated to her face. “Listen, I know you may not want to hear this right now, but I am a gentleman. I don't snore and at least you will not have to fight for control over the bathroom,” Steven offered, trying to elicit a smile from her which clearly had not worked. “It's only for one night. You'll barely know I’m there and you will see I have very nice bedside manners, if you pardon the pun.”
“Well, it seems I have little choice, do I?” she retorted with a distinct resignation in her voice; as if she had been forced to follow a guard escorting her to her own execution. “I can't believe they're doing this to me. I had clearly told them that I would not even consider buying the ticket if they could not guarantee that either I would have a cabin by myself or at least with a woman. I must have repeated it five times! The lady on the phone even put me on hold to ask her supervisor.”
Or go and take a smoke brake. He sighed. “I know you told me already, but the fact is you are stuck with me,” Steven said, trying to appear sorry for her misfortune as he got up the lower bunk bed and extended his hand to her. “Let’s make the best of it until you have the chance to find an alternative, shall we?”
She paused for a second to consider, her rage slowly replaced by acceptance. “Fine, you are right. My name is Jessica at any rate,” she said as she sat down on the lower bunk, ignoring Steven’s outstretched hand.
“Again, I’m Steven. I’m off to Vancouver and then I hope to continue traveling to Asia and maybe Europe. What about you?”
“I am from Detroit, Michigan and I’m traveling to Banff on the West Coast for a nature tour of your beautiful country,” Jessica answered, finally cracking a smile for the first time. “I’m going to meet some friends there.”
“Boyfriend?” asked Steven, smiling in return.
“Hell no! No boyfriend for me in the near future,” said Jessica, looking at Steven for a sign of je ne sais quoi. Steven kept a poker face as he sustained her gaze. But the entire time, all he could think was Girlfriend then? But that never crossed his lips.
“Look, I had breakfast very early this morning and it's now almost noon. Why don't we go and see what the galley has to offer?” proposed Steven while moving toward the door.
Jessica smiled and felt herself moving forward, flexing her long legs and standing fully erect, towering over Steven. Although at the beginning every fibre in her body was telling her not to trust him, she couldn't help but feel that maybe everything would be alright. After all, the train restaurant was a public place, so what else could possibly happen?
They walked in a file, Jessica making sure that Steven was in front, passing through several train wagons until they reached the Dinner Car. Leather benches and fully-furnished tables were attached on either side against the same large window with round edges like those in their compartment. The tables were already set up with all the utensils they would need for a five-course meal, if that had suited their fancy. In the middle of the white cloth was a wide based flower vase. The view outside with trees on each side of the train was adding to the décor. Steven ordered the tilapia with salad and Jessica a New York cut steak with baked potatoes. The food was good and they enjoyed a glass of red wine that was half past decent. A few times during the conversation, Steven’s mind had drifted to Stephanie and their last dinner together, which was only yesterday. But Jessica never noticed his absence as she almost did not stop talking, from the minute the waitress took their orders and the garcon de table picked up their dessert plates.
She didn't know exactly how it happened, but at one point in the middle of lunch she was starting to feel as if she had known him all her life. Although she knew that he was rather young, only a teenager (If he had known, Steven would have said; a fortnight from twenty actually) but she couldn’t help sensing wisdom beyond his years- in his composure, gentle demeanour and soft speaking voice. He somehow knew what to say to make her feel at ease. She was observing herself saying things to him about her life that were so personal that she had not even discussed them with her closest friends, except probably one thing, but that he would find out soon enough. Although she was totally baffled by this, she couldn't prevent herself from doing it anyway. After lunch, they took a walk down the train’s many compartments until they reached the glass dome-covered section of the Skyline car. The wagon was completely bathed in natural light. On the first floor were regular sitting benches, the most important feature of that car, other than being the last one at the back. It had two floors. They both climbed to the second level and stepped inside the observation dome. This magnificent glass bubble could accommodate forty people, comfortably seated two by two, and provided an unobstructed view of the snow-covered forest that stood tall all around them.
The train progressed forward and it finally came out of what seemed to be a never-ending curve to the right and returned to a straight portion of tracks. As the observation dome, the last wagon of the train, finally freed itself of the last remaining trees, a magnificent sea of freshwater was starting to take shape on their left.
Although Steven had lived in Toronto all his life, he had never gazed upon Lake Superior or the rest of the Great Lakes. This massive body of water was stretching as far as the eye could see. The sky was denuded of all clouds and the water was a pure deep blue. Steven, with great excitement, couldn't resist interrupting Jessica who was telling him one of her rather sad stories. Placing a hand on top of the soft chocolate skin of her arm, he encouraged her to look to her left to admire the newly forming view. Without taking a second to even look in the direction that he was now pointing at, she jerked her arm away with so much force that she almost hit her head against the rounded glass dome. Looking at him with eyes on the brink of tears, she got up and tripped clumsily as she jumped over the seat next to her and dashed for the centre aisle. She then vanished down the stairs through the spiralling staircase. Steven remained seated, dumbfounded. Although it was only a normal gesture without any ill intention, he couldn’t prevent himself from feeling guilty for what he had just done. Gathering his thoughts, it all became clear to him: Rape or sexual assault, not a lesbian.
He waited a little, looked outside at the landscape and wondered what he should do next to try to mend his new traveling companion’s emotional turmoil. Fortunately, the other people sitting in the dome didn’t seem to have noticed the scene and continued looking at the Great Lakes as the train slowed and passed over a bridge. Knowing that he would have to return to his cabin sooner or later, he decided to bite the bullet and made his way back to his section of the train, stopping at the first class bar to have one of his favourite drinks, a Mott’s Clamato Virgin Caesar. As he lingered at the bar drinking the red, spicy liquid made with clam broth and tomato, he couldn’t help thinking that Mott’s should have received the Order of Canada for this. Upon arriving at his cabin, he found the door locked. He waited for about five minutes and started knocking gently.
“Jessica, I'm sorry if I did something to offend you. That was definitely not my intention,” offered Steven, trying to keep his voice low enough not to attract attention to himself, despite the empty corridor and the soft rumbling of the train. “May I come in, please?”
The seconds felt like minutes as he waited for a sign of life from the other side of the door. He was on the verge of using his key when Jessica slid the door halfway and looked at him, her eyes still damp with tears as she clutched a box of tissue in her hands and retreated inside the room. He paused for a few more seconds, hoping against hope that his new companion was going to be fine fast, and thought that committing a crime was bloody easier and less stressful than dealing with emotional uproar, even from a total stranger. He opened the door fully and clicked it in place to prevent it from closing automatically. He pulled the retractable seat and sat on it, looking at Jessica who was now sitting Indian style on the bottom bunk bed.
She unfolded her long legs, got up and walked toward the door, the gesture making his heart sink. He didn’t want her to have to leave their compartment on his account, but his feeling was short-lived as he saw Jessica close the door, lock it, and return to sit on her bed.
Still sobbing, she looked at him, opened her mouth to speak and closed it again. She resumed her sitting position on the bed, her head almost touching the mattress above.
“I'm terribly sorry. I should have known that you didn't like to be touched by men, but I was cut in the excitement of the moment-”
She interrupted him gently and managed to speak this time. “It's not you. I haven't told this to many people, mainly out of unfounded shame, but I think you have a right to know. I was raped by two men in my hometown in Detroit. Since then, I'm afraid of all men including my own brother who never laid a finger on me.”
“Shit, sorry to hear that. Damn men and their needs to gain control over others,” Steven said sadly. “It happens too many times. I have a friend who was also assaulted in the parking garage of her apartment building while taking out the groceries from her car. It took her months to get over it. Now she has a boyfriend and they are getting married.”
“How did she manage to do that?” asked Jessica, as someone in pain who hopes for a miracle to fall from the sky.
“I can clearly see that right now you're shaky, so I would rather not say,” Steven responded, deep in thought, remembering all the discussions he had with his friend Myriam in the weeks following her attack. She had been his private martial arts student for a few months at that time and her being as such had done nothing to help her that night.
“Please tell me,” she begged.
“I'll make you a deal. Let's continue on our journey and if you still want to change compartments in Winnipeg, I would totally understand. But give me more time to get to know you a little better before I tell you. I feel I’m not ready yet to have such a conversation with you right now,” continued Steven, avoiding her eyes. “We still have three days to go. I will also get off the train in Banff as well and stay there for a few days at least. I promise I will tell you before we go on our separate ways. I hope you don't mind.” Jessica nodded and smiled.
The train continued relentlessly day and night. As she had requested, Jessica was offered a cabin with an older woman a few wagons away, but had refused it to the total confusion and dismay of the staff. She was feeling totally secure with Steven now and didn’t feel it appropriate to part with him. The entire situation made her remember her favourite story while growing up. A Thousand Nights and One Night. She sort of felt like that now. She would have to wait yet another night to have the story told to her.
Steven was making a genuine effort to make her feel that not all men are animals. That made her feel happier than she had ever been since that frightful day.
They continued their newfound daily routine, spending as much time as possible making use of all the splendours offered in and out of the train. After two full days in the prairies, seeing nothing but flat lands and farms, they awoke and found themselves in the middle of the Canadian Rockies. This time, she had been the one grabbing his hand in the Dome Car as they both felt overwhelmed by the scenery and the effect nature and time had on things.
With the precision of a Swiss watch, they arrived at the small train station in the Banff National Park. They just had enough time to eat breakfast and rushed out of the train before it departed again for the West Coast. As they disembarked together, Jessica looked for her friends, but they were nowhere to be found. Steven put his luggage down and reached for his back pocket, took his cell phone out and handed it to Jessica. It was a new Ericsson model he had seen in a movie, featuring his least favourite actor, but the phone had looked small in Arnold’s hand and Steven had went for it. For nearly thirty minutes she tried repeatedly to reach her friends’ phones, their families in Detroit and the hostel where they were supposed to stay, all of it turning to a dead end.
“If you need to go, I understand,” she said out of politeness. But she was freaked out and would have begged him to stay if needed.
“I have rather grown fond of you during these past few days and I have made a promise that I intend to keep,” replied Steven, grabbing her hand, which was no longer bothering her. On the contrary, she had been the one initiating touches now and even ventured a hug once. He had felt a little like a guinea pig, but was happy to sacrifice himself for the betterment of mankind, or womankind, in this case. “In the train, I have made a few phone calls as well. I finally managed to get a room at the Banff Spring. Apparently, it is the best hotel here and since we have spent three days and three nights together cooked up in a little room, I see no harm to share a large one with you.”
“When I did my research for this trip, I found that the Banff Spring was only fit for kings,” she observed.
“Then be a queen for a day, or more to the point, a night.” argued Steven, laughing, and she did, too. “The room is already booked and paid for, and as you know I hate eating alone.” And it is even paid using my real credit card this time. That, he didn’t add.
“Well, we can’t stay here all day,” replied Jessica. “Let’s go to your hotel and I’ll continue making my phone calls from there. They should have arrived yesterday. They were driving from Detroit via the United States, crossing the border somewhere in Alberta.”
They walked together and exited the small station and stepped onto the snow-covered streets of that small, but magnificent Canadian touristic town. The snow had surprised Jessica, considering that they were five days short of the month of May, but such is Canada, he had replied. Steven also knew from talking to a few people on the train that Banff was a town of six thousand, mainly comprised of young Canadian boys and girls more interested in partying, drinking, and fucking until the wee hours of the morning than making a life for themselves in the little Canadian Redneck Mountain Town. He had also been warned that Banff had the highest level of HIV per capita in Canada. So he thought that he would enjoy the place for its picturesque qualities, the mountains and the fresh air, but wouldn’t indulge in any of the previously mentioned extracurricular activities.
In front of them stood a row of shops and behind the low wooden structures lay Sulphur Mountain, the highest mountain of the national park. On the street, a few cabbies were chatting in good old-fashioned cowboy talks. The air was indeed very fresh, the shops all around them had typical saloon-like wood facades and the streets were rather quiet at this time of the season and this early in the morning. As they approached the first cab, the driver said goodbye to his buddies and opened the trunk. “Americans, eh?” said the driver, lifting his Smithbilt cowboy hat with his finger as a gesture of welcome.
“She is, but I’m from Toronto,” Steven replied. “We are off to the Banff Spring, any good?”
“Oh yeah. Best in town for a century, although the newly built Rimrock Hotel is not bad either,” answered the driver. “Japos bought an old motel and renovated it, hundred million in renovation. The town didn’t want them to build a new hotel, so they kept a part of the original wall up in the garage to prove it was only renovations. Smart cookies, these Japos. They didn’t conquer us during World War II so they’ll buy us one building at a time,” he added with a chuckle and a cough, a parting gift of the smoke he had just finished and discarded in the garbage can next to his Ford Expedition taxi.
“He means Japanese,” explained Steven in a low whisper in Jessica’s ear as he helped her put the luggage in the trunk.
“Thanks, I didn’t clue to that one.”
“Fascinating, Sir,” agreed Steven, now sitting next to Jessica at the back and murmuring something else in her ear that resembled something like Welcome to redneck country.
“Ah, call me Bob. How long you two love birds been married?” he asked.
“We are not…” replied Steven, interrupted by Jessica. “Newly wed,” she said, grabbing Steven’s arm and tapping it with her right hand and exposing her shiny teeth.
“I remember my first night after the wedding. Didn’t know which way was up, no sex education in school, you see,” said Bob. “Today, you kids have videos and all. In my days, good old Sears catalogue, that’s all we had. Sorry ma’am didn’t mean to offend.” At that, Jessica smiled, thinking that men would be men no matter how nice the countryside can be.
The driving was smooth and the view was incredible. It would have been almost romantic, but for the yapping of the driver who was now telling them about the Calgary Stampede and how he broke a leg there when a horse threw him clear-off—before they were born, of course. The taxi finally stopped in the original stone entrance. Steven let the bellman open the door for Jessica and bring their luggage upstairs. After a few more advice from the driver and a little arguing with Jessica, Steven let her pay the taxi fare and they went together to check-in.
The lobby and the corridors were all richly decorated with massive paintings in large and thick wood frames. The feel of the century-old hotel was essentially present in everything. They liked the room even more. It was spacious. Wood trims and antique wood furniture seemed to be the general theme. The room smelled of lavender emanating from an electric essential oil burner on the night table. It offered a view on the small waterfall and the little stream that had given the hotel its name more than a hundred years ago. To add to the prestige and the romance, the Rockies could be seen all around them through the large windows.
“I will go and discuss the activities and sightseeing tours with the concierge. Feel free to use my cell phone if you want to try to call your friends again,” informed Steven, leaving the phone on the night table along with a second room card.
Jessica thanked him, grabbed the phone, and entered the bathroom. She closed the door behind and locked it.
On the way to the lobby, Steven’s thought drifted to Stephanie in Toronto. If Stephanie were there, they would have been in a deep embrace in the room, kissing. His face would be covered with her beautiful long brown hair, but not for long. Stephanie generally preferred saying ”Hello, to Junior” first upon entering hotel rooms. And it was with that thought and a smile as if he had won the lottery that he arrived in front of the concierge desk.