I wake up to a low-pitched vibration against my head. I open my eyes and immediately begin blinking into the darkness. While my vision reconciles with my surroundings, my memory attempts a sleepy reconciliation with where I am at the moment. I’m flat on my back on a thin mattress, staring up at the ceiling a few feet above my face. A gentle rocking rhythm and the clacking sounds from outside remind me I am on a train. Occasional jolts of the car and the pervasive smell of dank mold confirm it’s an old train. I’m on the top bunk of a sleeper cabin in an overnighter from Suceava to Bucharest, Romania.
I roll my head to the right and a soft paw pushes against my forehead. I’m not traveling with a pet so this is reason for mild concern. Tufts of fur obscure my view, forcing me to lift my head to determine the source of the paw. As I do, I see something move on my stomach. My body goes rigid and I squint into the shadows, bringing a cat into focus. It stares into my eyes with casual indifference. Cats mastered this countenance back in ancient Egypt. You can see them in hieroglyphics sitting beside pharaohs, not giving a single fuck.
I’m contemplating the cat on my belly when I hear muted babbling coming from below my bunk. I turn my head to the left and discover a small, disheveled woman standing with her arms outstretched to the cat sitting on my stomach. She furiously whispers to it as her eyes bulge with panic beneath an eye mask that has been pushed up on her forehead. She whips errant strands of tangled black hair from her face while imploring the cat to jump into her hands. I watch her with mild fascination to see whether this will work. I’m certain I’ve never seen a cat jump into anyone’s arms. She casts a look of concern at me but doesn’t speak, saving her words for the cat, words which grow louder with agitation. I assume she is telling the cat it needs to relocate but I don’t speak Romanian. (Actually, that’s not entirely true. I learned the essentials before I embarked on this adventure: please, thank you, help, coffee, red wine, beer, I feel ill, one more please. )
While I watch the young woman talk to the cat on my belly, another cat, the one that woke me up with a paw to the face, decides to join the party. This cat moves to join belly cat by walking across my head. I flinch as it narrowly misses stepping on my eye and rests the cool pads of its paw on my cheekbone. If belly cat used his stare to let me know he didn’t give a fuck, face cat chose a more demonstrative means.
The frantic woman sees face cat and begins hissing at him. From the corner of my right eye, I see face cat give a quizzical look to the Romanian woman and then look to me as if expecting a translation. When I offer no help, he turns his attention to belly cat.
The young woman’s eyes go wide with horrible expectation and for an instant, time and space cease to exist. Face cat crouches down in predatory mode and in a furry blur, launches itself at belly cat, igniting a rolling tornado of screeches and paw swipes lasting two glorious seconds. The fight ends in a flash with one of the felines running across my face and the other jumping from my bed to the bunk across the aisle.
It lands on a sleeping woman, who bolts upright and screams. Someone then turns on an overhead light. The screaming woman, who also has an eyemask and messy black hair, looks down at the frantic woman standing below us and spews an incendiary rant, none of which I understand. The two women appear to be related. The frantic woman from earlier looks up and returns fire at the screaming woman. She adds frenetic arm waving to the mix along with a few familiar-sounding words, none of which are please, thank you, or another white wine. A grumbling old female voice from directly below my bunk joins the chorus of vitriol but is ignored. All three women are yelling and I’m confident I am the only person listening. Moreover, everyone is now oblivious to me save the cat that made the jump across the carriage. He is sitting on the edge of the opposite bed, staring at me and licking his paw. I recognize the glint of malice in belly cat’s eyes.
The noise in our car hits a crescendo and then instantly dies off as if a director yelled cut. The woman on the adjacent bunk turns to me and says something in a calm voice. I infer she has asked a question by her pitch. This is my cue to utter the one Romanian phrase I know.
“Nu vorbesc la limba Romana.”
I smile with no teeth and wait. Both of the likely siblings mutter ‘sorry.’ Someone then turns off the light and the carriage goes silent.
The exhaustion deep within my bones sinks me further into the thin mattress as I try to go back to sleep. My eyes close but the adrenaline continues doing laps through my circulatory system. I lie motionless, save for the occasional train jolt, hoping the mere act of faking sleep will eventually become real sleep. I spend the remaining 81 minutes in trancelike wakefulness.
Someone comes around to the carriage about ten minutes outside of Bucharest to announce our arrival at the station. I sit up and gather my things, ignoring my fellow passengers. Something about sleeping in a car with three strange women feels inappropriate even though no mention had been made when I booked my ticket and the women didn’t seem to mind. The only possible objection came from the cats. One cat in particular.
I pull a hoodie from my bag and zip it over my t-shirt then descend the dodgy ladder to the ground. I ease out of the car into the narrow corridor of the train without making eye contact with any of the ladies. The moment I shut the cabin door, screaming erupts on the other side once again. I walk away from the familial shitstorm the same way Will Smith or Tom Cruise walks away from a massive explosion in the background. On the platform, I don a thick wool coat and am looking for the taxi queue when the three women exit the train with several bags and a pet carrier. The young, frantic woman holds one of the cats in her arms. She doesn’t notice me but the cat locks onto my eyes and refuses to break contact.
As I walk toward the taxi queue, the cat glares at me. I pass the women and nod to the frantic one who smiles sheepishly. The cat meows at me as I pass. I wink at him because I know what he meant.
“Fuck you too, belly cat.”