Art by Aron Wiesenfeld
TUBE: TRANS-URBAN BLITZ-EXPRESS
A novel by Ksenia Anske, Draft 2
Chapter 1. Red Shoes
The train is breathing.
Olesya thought she heard an inhalation, a shudder under the carpet, thick blue carpet, the blue of varicose veins, near purple. No, she felt it, through the soles of her shoes, new flats acquired especially for this US tour, and not at some filthy roadside market either but in a genuine boutique on Tverskaya, a red lacquer pair that cost her $350, half of her monthly principal ballerina salary, but it was worth it, dammit, it was worth it to spend—
There it is again.
A dragging laborious stretch ran through the casing of the machine as though it expanded and contracted, rushing out the air with a hiss. Olesya tore up her feet. Her heart thrummed.
It can’t be. I’m just—
She glanced out the window. They were standing. According to the large electronic clock it was 11:08 A.M. The train wasn’t due to depart for another five minutes.
I wish we’d leave already. I don’t know if I can stand any more of this...whatever it is, are they checking the wheels? I hear Americans are never late, not like Russians. For us the concept of time doesn’t exist. I’m the only weirdo, always showing up before practice. Should’ve taken a shot of vodka like Nastya said. Now I’m hearing things that aren’t there.
Olesya shook her head and continued to unpack. Her lucky charm—a toy train locomotive—the present her father gave her the year he died, the token of his memory she carried with her ever since, was already unwrapped and sitting on the foldout table, scuffed and scraped by a decade of life in pockets but still discernably red, the bright red of the Soviet flag that faded to the color of a healed scar.
She hung the coat on the hook by the door, stepped into slippers, carefully placed the flats on the floor, unzipped the cosmetic bag, and started brushing her strawberry hair, wavy, trimmed neatly to shoulder length—also in prep for the tour—at the Charodeika hair salon on Novy Arbat the day before departure.
If Alla Borisovna finds out, she’ll kill me.
Olesya quickly rolled it into a bun, a dozen bobby pins between her lips, and proceeded pinning down every wisp that dared to stick out. A moderate amount of hair spray, and she patted her head all around, checking herself in the mirror.
Looks good. I don’t think she’ll be able to tell.
Outside the announcer mumbled something in English. The voice came out warbled, echoey.
What did she say? God, it’s dark. Like in a crypt.
Another inhale. A definite inhale. The carpet rose a fraction of an inch and fell, sagged back into place. Sagged more, inward, bounced back. And a rattle, the type that shakes up moisture in pneumonic lungs.
Jesus. Maybe I’m dizzy.
Goose bumps broke over Olesya’s body. She stared at the floor for a tense moment, then lifted up both legs and pressed her face to the coolness of the glass, forcing herself to think back to Moscow railway stations like Leningradsky with its clocktowers and arcades from where she traveled to her grandmother’s funeral in St. Petersburg, or to Belorusskaya with its mint-green walls that sent her on a trip to Prague, or even the unsightly Kursky with its open concrete platforms from which she departed to spend summers in Crimea.
None of them were as dingy, as oppressing at this Chicago terminal. Dark. Ceilinged. Dully lit. With red-vested personnel scurrying to and fro with luggage trolleys. And the trains. The color of flesh with red vertical stripes between each window, a blue line on the bottom as though they were dipped in venous blood, and that same blue line along the ridge of its roof, flanked by two red ones, all three culminating in round lights at the front of the engine where below its mouth sat the company logo, a creamy smudge of the rushing train bursting out of the inky circle rimmed in red and buttressed by red letters TUBE, and underneath that, smaller, Trans-Urban Blitz-Express.
In this cold artificial light instead of the intended highly refined ecru the carriages looked pink, the unhealthy pink of a human limb that has been severed and—
Olesya shook her head. Her eyes drifted to the carpet threads, woven stitches running in rows, pumping liquid from the head of the train to the cars.
What am I thinking? It’s absurd. It must be the wheels. The wheels are—
The wheels are what?
In pain? The whole train is in pain. It’s hurting.
The thought burrowed through Olesya’s head and departed, leaving her with a headache.
“It’s breathing...” Her voice startled her.
She cast a glance around the compartment: two berths facing one another, tooled in red velvet of an unpleasantly rich hue, with upholstered backs to lean on, and over them on beige walls in place of upper berths of the cheaper, 36-place cars, head-supporting pillows appended on hooks of pale bronze—that same disgusting tone of the carriages, a band of cotton over each adorned with TUBE logo, in protection of the velvet from the oils secreted by scalps, and above them four sconce lights, two on each wall, round, frosted glass held in bronze cilia as though eyes, blind, staring at Olesya in a vain attempt to see her. No nets, no shelves of any kind, no other surface present except the table jutting out like a lip under the window fringed with TUBE curtains, chintzy cotton, same blue line on the top and the bottom, same red vertical stripes as though traced by dripping paint, and, mercilessly, an unadorned shade behind them by closing which, Olesya surmised, it was just possible to make the roomette pitch-black.
If you want to read the whole thing, it's here, with a little intro.