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The Yellow Suitcase

          Coco Bouldin wouldn’t cry about missing her train. Doing that would risk mussing her makeup and so further muss the beauty of her passage, by train, across Italia (which was about the extent of the Italian Coco knew). By her itinerary, she should already be on her way to Florence. But instead, here she was, marooned in Milano Centrale.

          It had been a stressful morning spent negotiating Venice’s scab-colored cobblestones, the hard shell of her wheelless yellow suitcase forever bludgeoning her ankles, all to sweat the whole ride to Milan in anticipation of her upcoming tight connection. Then to frantically decode the station's transit screens, and scale its torpid escalators, just to be taunted by an empty track where her Firenze-bound train should have been. Her mother had suggested Coco pack a watch and two pairs of sensible shoes in a modern, wheelable suitcase; instead of Italy she'd also suggested Denmark, where things were orderly and where Coco could explore her matrilineal heritage in the flesh.

          But! All could still be redeemed. Everything was at Coco’s disposal to make her first trip out of the U.S. as lovely as possible: springtime scenes in the lushest country she could readily picture, beautiful men murmuring ciao bella as they passed her by. And then, practically speaking, there were the station’s porters, whose assistance she could rent. For there was also her little snap-clasp leather pocketbook, the color of bone, hooked tenderly over her forearm, supplied with plenty of Euros and a well-backed debit card. There were the silken peach blouse and cream-colored trousers that encased her. And of course there was the yellow suitcase filled with other beautiful garments, each selected to supply Coco with all the femininity she’d longed for, in homage to her father’s formative nostalgia for the distant time when people would dress up to travel.

          Coco’s trip had been made possible by the inheritance her father left her, now at her disposal by virtue of her very recent college graduation. So this beauty was being made in his memory, Coco liked to think. In her curation, she tried to channel Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall, both of the Hepburns: all the stars she’d watched in old pictures with her father, women he’d described as classic beauties. Sometimes he would call Coco’s mother the same, even though she lived by her artless digital watch, pragmatic in a way that beauties, in Coco’s mythology, had little reason to be.

 

          Her triceps burned as she hauled the suitcase (1960s vintage, like her bone-colored pocketbook) into the depths of Milano Centrale. Beyond the women’s restroom, past the luxury shops and gelaterias, beside the long line of passengers waiting at the ticket counter, a bank of men vied for the attention of especially pressed travelers. Some of them had called to Coco earlier, and she wanted one of them to assist her now. She wouldn’t be waiting in line thirty minutes to feel like a child before the bobbed Italian ticket tellers, their scarlet station regalia clashing with their brick-lipped grins, for, truth be told, the morning had shaken Coco’s confidence. She couldn’t bear the thought of one of those women making her feel more foolish than she already did.

 

          The only recourse now was to slip into her shell’s advantages, to double down on the beauty, however coltish, she’d only recently come to claim. In her skin the color of coarsely ground mustard, her wiry (though not nappy) curls, and her lips pouted and thick (but not too much so), the likeness of Coco’s father combined with a confounding resemblance to her still living and very pale mother. Coco’s father had always insisted that his daughter’s beauty derived from that combination of dark and light. He had insisted, further, that his daughter could be whoever she wanted to be in the world.

 

          Banking on her exotic allure, Coco approached one of the black porters, matching his eye contact as she moved toward him. The rise of his eyebrows wrinkled his satiny skin, darker than Coco’s father’s had been, though not by much.

 

          “I missed my train to Florence,” she began in English, and in a tone she hoped was charmingly haughty, like maybe Daisy Miller’s, who Coco had read about the day before sitting in St. Mark’s Square.

 

          The man didn’t say anything while he looked her over. Coco hoped he wouldn’t notice the bruises on her ankles—just the suitcase that had made them, the anchor of her warmly hued attire.

 

          “I want to know if I have to buy a whole new ticket,” she added, still assuming the man understood what she said at all, “or what I should do.” Careful, Coco knew. Brisk, not brusque!

         

          The porter wore jeans, black Chuck Taylors, and an olive green T-shirt with a black button-up over it. The sleeves were rolled to his elbows, revealing forearms wound with plump rivulets of veins.

 

          “My sister, may I please see your ticket?” he asked.

 

          Coaxed by his warmth, Coco opened her pocketbook and handed him the useless slip.

 

          “This vendor is out of the station, across the street,” the porter determined. His accent was an aural bricolage Coco couldn’t decipher. “I will take you there.”

 

          He offered to handle the yellow suitcase, but to her own chagrin, some mixture of vigilance and pride made Coco refuse.

 

          “As you wish,” said the man, then started leading the way back out of the station, weaving through the travelers as through a field of wheat, touching backs and shoulders lightly, scattering them. Coco hurried to nose the suitcase into the pathways he breached before they sewed themselves shut again.

 

          On the curb waiting to cross the street away from Milano Centrale, Coco asked whether the porter worked for the station, though she could guess that the answer was no, between the man’s lack of uniform and his colleagues' hustling manner.

 

          “I work on my own,” he answered, plucking the sunglasses that hung from his collar and putting them on. “You’re from the States,” he said then.

 

          Coco wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed or pleased by her legibility. “Where are you from?” she asked. Her foot ached when they stepped off the curb. Over the course of the morning, between the tightness of her shoes and the swiftness of her gait, the tender side of her second toe had been sawed open by the corner of her big toenail.

 

          “Africa, what do you think?” He shepherded her through all the cars clogging the station’s drive. “You see black skin. Africa.”

 

          “I’m black and I’m not from Africa!” said Coco.

 

          “You’re not black,” he answered.

 

          This was not new. There’d been the white playmates of childhood assuring Coco that they thought of her as simply tan, or even as simply “herself.” And then black peers in high school, informing her that she acted white. Then the lonely years of college, where she’d avoided all that altogether. And now, this brief companion, adding his vote to the mix.

 

          “I am black!” Coco all but whined, momentarily breaking character. “My dad was black!”

 

          Since his death, this truth had begun summoning Coco’s attention over and over, like a grandfather clock tolling in a quiet home. Whenever it did, Coco felt unprepared, like she was somehow already late. The matter of blackness was now an open question, no longer a background fact fixed by her father’s presence in her life. Coco wasn’t so sure the porter’s thoughts on this would have mattered to her if her father was still around.

 

          But the man just laughed at Coco’s credential and asked her name. Then: “Coco,” he echoed, chuckling more.

 

          They mounted the sidewalk on the other side of the street.

 

          “What part of Africa?” Coco asked, really wanting to ask what was so funny about her name.

 

          “Africa,” he repeated, offering again to handle her suitcase when Coco switched it between her hands a second time. “You don’t have to be afraid,” he said with a scoff. But his saying so itself made Coco skittish.

 

          “What part?” she asked again, pretending not to notice the way oncoming pedestrians, if they weren’t already deep into their smartphones, averted their gaze from the two of them.

 

          “West Africa.”

 

          Coco brightened. “My dad once took a mission trip to Sierra Leone!”

 

          This time the porter clapped her on her back with rough familiarity. “You’re too much, Coco.”

 

          Would either Hepburn let herself be clapped like that? Or let herself speak in such flustered vacuities? If so, it would surely come across as some type of charming. Coco just felt silly, even if thrilled by the touch of the man’s hand on her back.

 

          But, no time to dwell: they were entering the designated ticketing office. At the counter, the porter spoke to a clerk in a navy blazer. Her sympathetic gaze pushed past him to Coco, whom she sent worried looks, as if she were some sort of captive, until the porter began arguing Coco’s case with, from what she could tell, a fair measure of brusqueness.

 

          Relaxing into her inability to participate in the negotiation, Coco assessed the condition of her pocketbook strap. There was a little tear on the underside of it, which she had all trip long been pretending not to notice while in fact noticing it compulsively. It could’ve been her imagination, but it seemed more serious than the last time she checked. There might have been a fresh smudge on the leather, too.

 

          She considered perching on the Tourister suitcase to rest her feet, but then the business was done, to the tune of a fresh ticket issued free of charge; the new train left in an hour. The porter’s competence bolstered Coco, shook everything back into balance. So she left the big yellow suitcase for him, leading the way out of the office.

 

          “Maybe you want to grab a coffee?” she offered on a whim. “Before we go back?”

          This time, the man’s mirth at Coco’s very being was displaced by genuine pleasure. “Ah! Viva caffé!”

 

          So they ducked into an economical café with a quick-moving line a few doors down. Even though this solitary trip was designed to provoke melancholic reflections on life, death, and time, Coco realized that she really didn’t mind a companion. Standing at the high counter paralleling the storefront window, he drank a strongly sugared espresso, Coco, a cappuccino.

 

          “It’s nice to sit and drink a coffee with you, Catherine,” said the man into their silence. His conspicuously lifeless lips belied his sincere tone.

 

          The drink Coco had been convincing herself she liked went straight bitter in her mouth. “Excuse me?”

 

          Amusement rocked the calm of his face. “I had to notice. Your ticket. Is this a name you’ve given yourself, Coco?”

 

          “No.” She shook her head, if only at the egregiousness of his misunderstanding. “No, I’ve always gone by that. No one has ever called me Catherine.”

 

          Of course, people had only ever called her Catherine. But within that bald-faced lie dwelled a valiant desire to protect the dignity of Coco, both the name and the persona. Fraudulence was not native to Catherine, but it could be to Coco, who was cultured enough to understand that all ladyhood depended on performance, which could, in dire scenarios, be seen as outright artifice. But it all came from a harmless desire: for beauty.

 

          “Curious,” the man responded.

 

          “Well, what’s your name?” Coco said, half indignant, half ashamed that it had taken her this long to ask. “Amaechi,” Coco echoed once he told her.

 

          But she did not feel any closer to him, really. It was not a name she’d encountered before, in books, in real life, or in any of her father’s tales of his mission trip—which had, she realized now, been consistently and curiously absent any African names at all, whether of individuals or of tribes. She wondered again where Amaechi had grown up.

 

          “How long have you been in Milan?” Coco mimed a sip of her coffee.

 

          “A year almost.” Amaechi drained his cup, as if eager to move along.

 

          “Do you like it?”

 

          “No,” he answered softly, with the slightest turn of his head. He could have been studying the white lettering on the café window, or looking somewhere far beyond it.

 

          “What brought you?” Coco asked, aware that her phrasing assumed the luxury of choice, which she dimly understood may or may not apply here. Yet she couldn’t think of another way to ask.

 

          She didn’t blame Amaechi for not answering her, if the answer was like the trouble that passed over his face. He didn’t even shake his head, just traced his finger through some sugar someone else had spilt on the counter.

 

          “No reason that concerns you,” he said finally.

 

          “The station is beautiful…” Coco observed after a moment, risking banality to fill the silence. From where they sat, they could see parts of its façade through the windows. She didn’t really like how it looked; it was just an obvious thing to comment on.

 

          Amaechi seemed to be purposefully distracting himself now, digging his hand into the pockets of his jeans and pulling out various scraps of paper that he laid on the counter.

 

          Still, he smirked at Coco’s remark. “See the stone lions, the falcons that sit across the roof?” he asked. He pointed out the ugly gargoyles, as if Coco might miss them. “Mussolini’s idea. He wanted it to look forceful.”

 

          “He built it?”

 

          Amaechi grinned. “I doubt personally, Catherine.”

 

          Coco rolled her eyes, secretly pleased to be teased again. “It’s newer than I thought, then. It looks ancient.”

 

          “Europe has a way of pretending it contains all of time.” His mild tone wielded more contempt than a scornful one could. “Do you know about the Nazi room?”

 

          When he looked her in the eye again, Coco shook her head no. “Somewhere in the station,” Amaechi said, “there’s a room where the floor is a swastika made of tile. Built to receive Hitler with all proper respects. Still there.”

 

          Coco thought this sounded like an urban legend from a high school more cosmopolitan than her own. The thought of such a room, hidden away deep inside the fake-ancient station, unsettled her to the point of her wishing he hadn’t brought it up.

 

          “Why?” she asked, pushing her half-drunk cappuccino away.

 

          Amaechi re-rolled his shirt sleeves before reaching for her suitcase. “Could be shame,” he said with a shrug, “or it could be pride?”

 

          Coco picked up her purse from the counter, minding the tear in the strap. “How do you know so much about the station?”

 

          Amaechi huffed. “Of course I read about it, Catherine. Don’t you know Wikipedia? Perfect for browsing while the laundry gets done.”

 

          Abashed but smiling, she followed him out of the coffeeshop. These were the best parts of those charmed, expat-filled books Coco loved losing sight of herself in. In them, Americans, whose maleness Coco accepted and whose whiteness she never thought to question, would happen upon each other on their continental travels, plucking up the odd sympathetic local along the way. They’d all get drunk together and become something like close friends, till one day, they’d never see each other again…Things like that.

 

          Now, Coco found herself thinking more about such books than the fact of having drunk coffee with Amaechi or of whatever it was in his past that he hadn’t wanted to share with her. She was already thinking ahead to her train ride to Florence, of what she might read, having finished with Daisy Miller before getting to Milan. Of all the books she’d brought along on the trip, only two were written by black writers: an anthology of African-American poetry and Giovanni’s Room. The former, Coco had addressed over a cannoli in Venice, only to be struck by a line by a poet named Amiri Baraka, talking about smearing black poems on “girdlemamma mulatto bitches,” whose brains he compared to “red jelly stuck between 'lizabeth taylor's toes.” Insulted as she’d never been, Coco returned swiftly to her Fitzgerald.

 

          But walking beside Amaechi now, it seemed only natural to Coco that she spend time with some black writers in the midst of all this European pretension, as Amaechi had helped her to recognize. After all, she could be an appreciative traveler and an interloping critic. New train ticket in hand, pretty purse on her arm, Coco Bouldin was sure she could be all that she wanted to be, just like her father had always said.

 

* * *

          Outside on the street, Coco and Amaechi waited to cross the same boulevard of half an hour earlier. The veins of Amaechi’s forearms surged as he transferred the yellow suitcase from one hand to the other.

 

          Then: “Your father is black,” he repeated out of nowhere, cackling briefly up at the sky. He’d gotten the verb tense wrong, as if to add salt to his mockery.

 

          “What’s so funny?” Coco asked.

 

          “You’re an American, Catherine.”

 

          “So?”

 

          “What is your mother?”

 

          “What do you think?” Coco parroted, cocking her hip. “White. You see my skin.” The light changed, and they started across the street.

          Amaechi raised an eyebrow. “Africans are black.”

 

          “I never said I was African.” Despite herself, emotion thickened her words.

 

          “You said you were black.”

 

          “Americans can be black! You’re the one who called me your sister.”

 

          Amaechi shook his head as they approached the station. “It’s only an expression of chumminess where I come from. Americans are Americans, Africans, Africans—black.” Then he shattered his seriousness with a deliberate grin. “Why make it complicated, dear Catherine?”

 

          Dodging Amaechi’s glances as they waded back through the crowded station entrance, Coco had little choice but to think again of her father. He was the only black American in the photos from his West African trip, which showed his beaming face crushed against the sunburnt cheeks of his fellow missionaries in one shot and how he kept his distance from the village’s deep-burnished elders in another.

 

          Still, he’d spoken of the experience with repletion. He’d called it the most meaningful week of his life. Coco and her father had planned to take a mission trip together when she finished college. Instead, she’d ended up buying tickets to Europe, alone.

 

          Amaechi strained to open the door for Coco with his free hand.

 

          “You never answered my question,” she said. Several other travelers slipped through the door along with Coco. “Earlier,” she continued once Amaechi made his way inside. “I wanted to know why you’re here.” Over the renewed din of the lobby, her words felt excessive. But Coco found that she needed to know.

 

          “Why are you here?” Amaechi answered, with a twinge of irritation.

 

          He peered up at the transit screens, maintaining the suitcase as he did, where Coco would have relished the chance to set it down. Watching him, she was pained to remember the weight of the thing, how she wouldn’t be relieved of it until she was back home again. Then, her trip would become nothing but a collection of impressions: the breeze, smelling of pigeon musk and brine, billowing the curtains of the Venetian hostel room, bathing the strangers sleeping around her in sangria morning light. The steaming ravioli stuffed with cornmeal and cheese. The dark sheen of Amaechi’s face, the sharp plane of his nose, the whiteness of his teeth bared by a laugh. All of that, Coco would one day recall with a winsome pang over freezer burnt domestic gelato, scrolling through the pixels on some smudged screen.

 

          One day. But now: “For the beauty,” she answered. That’s why she was here in Italia.

 

          Fully expecting him to mock her some more, Coco was surprised when Amaechi simply nodded.

 

          “That’s right,” he said, standing tall amidst the eddying travelers. “Of course, Catherine. This is, again, where we are different.”

 

          “Where are you from?” she asked again, heeding the solemn tolling inside her; they would be parting ways so soon. Amaechi sighed like an impatient teacher, the kind young Catherine would have gone home to her father and whined about. “Nigeria.”

 

          “Why are you here?”

 

          “Nigeria,” he said again. “My country is in crisis.” He looked around the station as if warding off the sight of it. “I am a refugee.”

 

          More than comprehending this statement, Coco felt it, and felt herself foolish and naive by virtue of it. To think she’d had the nerve to think of herself as road-weary! Seeing Amaechi there with her suitcase was suddenly like seeing him holding everything he owned—and the fact that the suitcase was Coco’s, whose nostalgic dresses and novels would do Amaechi little good, somehow did not diminish the resonance of this image. It was searing into Coco’s brain as she would remember it, and remember Amaechi, long after she’d decided never to mention their encounter in any recitals of her Italian escapades to come.

 

          Regardless, the clock was ticking toward her departure.

 

          “Come, sister,” Amaechi said. “We won’t have a repeat.”

 

          Remembering the Nazi room, Coco wondered if their purposeful movements excited the dust motes inside it, if they inhaled them as they hustled through Milano Centrale. She was thrilled and appalled by the very thought, and she was thrilled and alarmed by Amaechi’s hand grasping her elbow, lightly, as if she were a tame but delicate creature he meant to protect.

 

          At the sight of the passengers bottlenecking between the ticket-checking guards at the main platform, Coco felt a pang of urgency. Soon, she’d have to resolve the blush of their encounter with one final burst of insouciance, the kind by which Amaechi would remember her fondly, and with a flicker of desire.

 

          So, pretending a Hemingway character’s bottle of lunchtime wine coursed through her system, Coco spoke to Amaechi like an old companion as they joined the line, confessing that she was still mad at herself for missing the earlier train.

 

          “Stop thinking about it,” he answered, with a bluntness, yes, like someone close. “Maybe this one is better for you. Everything happens for a reason. We don’t know. God knows.”

 

          His gaze was nomadic again, seeking everything but Coco. Above their heads arched the platform’s magnificent vault, its windowpanes glowing with antique sun and partitioned by black iron rods, like an enormous insect’s page-yellow wing. The light spilled down over the bustling passengers, warming the crown of Coco’s curls.

 

          She ignored the pain in her toe as she and Amaechi advanced incrementally in the line. Amaechi was once again rifling through his pockets, which signaled to Coco the pinnacle of their approaching adieu: his payment. It was her responsibility to initiate, and it would unfortunately entail stressing her pocketbook’s injured strap, just long enough to find inside the purse some combination of coins to compensate Amaechi for his assistance, and maybe even more than that: Coco couldn’t deny wanting to compensate him for all the trouble he’d seen, trouble she couldn’t fathom, and perhaps wouldn’t want to if she could.

 

          And then she would take back the yellow suitcase and be on her way. For, all sentimental attachments aside, everything was back on track: the events of the day could still be set with a postcard gloss, worthy of postage across the Atlantic back home.

 

          On the strength of this conviction, Coco reached for the purse, telling Amaechi that she could take it from here.

 

          “I will take you to the track.” His pocket finally yielded a piece of paper that looked like a ticket. “I could not forgive myself if you missed your train a second time.”

 

          The chiseled profiles of the ticket checkers were unsmiling, and Catherine, if not Coco, had long been compelled by even the pretense of authority.

 

          “What about them?” she asked, feeling artless as she did. “What if they ask for ID?” “It is no problem, sister,” Amaechi said, peevish, and traded the suitcase and the pseudoticket between his hands so that he stood closer to Coco. She half-ignored the way their bodies jostled together in the fracas, the slide of Amaechi’s arm against hers.

 

          “You should stay longer in Milano!” he urged, cheerful again as they drew ever closer to the guards. “I could show you, show you to my friends.”

 

          “After all this trouble?” she said, equal parts coy and cross. But the fantasy was clearly implied.

 

          They reached the portal to the platform before he could say anything more. As he had intimated, and to Coco’s relief, the guards gave Amaechi’s ticket no special scrutiny, nor did they ask for his identification or for hers. The whole thing was simply a matter of ceremony, although, Coco couldn’t pretend she hadn’t noticed the hardness that crept into the guard’s eyes as he glanced between herself and Amaechi, standing together.

 

          “Looks like you’re coming with me instead,” Coco joked as the two of them moved toward track seven. Amaechi tried to laugh, but it came out short and forced. “What did you just show them?” she pressed.

 

          “Just an old ticket,” he answered, waving the matter away with his hand. “I told you, they don’t look. No problem.”

 

          He seemed to want her to believe that this was something he did all the time. Yet Coco could tell his cockiness was less heartfelt than before. She surmised that nothing could totally displace the grim possibility of being caught. She couldn’t bear the thought of Amaechi being somehow punished for helping her. In the same breath she surmised that if such an axe were to fall, it wouldn’t be on the one day Amaechi agreed to assist Coco Bouldin.

 

          It was much too ugly to entertain, and anyway, there her Firenze-bound train gleamed on the track. Amaechi finally set her suitcase down beside it. In moments they’d be back on their separate ways.

 

          “Well, Catherine,” he said, “I hope the rest of your trip is pleasant and safe, and you return to Milano again one day.”

 

          “I hope to,” she answered, striking a rather graceless pose by stabilizing the bottom of her pocketbook against her thigh. That way she didn’t have to strain the strap after all, and maybe he would see it as a charming enough gesture for the two of them to go out on.

 

          But by the time Coco, coins in hand, looked up again to pay him, Amaechi’s face was closing like a heavy door, everything that lay behind it suddenly locked away.

 

          Coco stood with her back to the scarlet blur of the station cops who charged from the front of the platform. But in one more second she saw them slam Amaechi against the waiting train like he was a presumed purse mugger, Coco the damsel, pivotal and irrelevant at once.

 

          “My friend! My sister!” Amaechi shouted, either of her names apparently forgotten. Coco looked on in immobilized lucidity. It was not a scene out of any book she'd care to read. “Everything’s fine!” he called. “Your ticket is good.”

 

          Coco had never doubted that—and she wanted to say so.

 

          “It’s because I’m black!” Amaechi shouted, his chest still to the train, his antecedent achingly undefined. For an instant, Coco saw her father there in his place.

 

          “Hey!” she cried, snapping out of her reverie. “What are you doing?! He didn’t do anything!”

 

          The men didn’t hear her. They spoke in brutal Italian, but Coco could tell that they were demanding Amaechi’s papers.

 

          “I’m a Christian!” Amaechi continued in English, and so still addressing Coco, as if she were the one he had to convince. “I believe in God!”

 

          But a cop grabbed Coco’s suitcase and started corralling her toward the steps that disappeared into the train, setting her suitcase on the ground in front of them to block her way.

 

          “Your papers, too,” he said, addressing her in English.

 

          The Hepburns were a broken fantasy. But there was something, Coco prayed, surely something to her elegant trousers and manicured hands, to her heliotropic hair corkscrewing up toward the God that her friend still believed in.

 

          Coco pried the beige pocketbook open and pulled out her passport, slamming it into the cop’s waiting hand.

 

          For they were going to listen, and she, Coco, would be the one to let it be known: “This isn't right!” she bellowed.

 

          But the officials were grabbing Amaechi’s hands, spitting “Basta!” at his repeating selfdefenses. Other passengers went along, averting their eyes.

 

          “Fine.” The cop handed Coco her passport, turning his back to her. When she poked him hard in the bicep, he whirled around again. “What, girl!”

 

          “Well!? He didn’t do anything!” She folded her arms. “He helped me! I needed help!”

 

          “Your passport?” the man replied. “He has none. He has no business here.”

 

          Before Coco could say more, the cop took her arm, his grip a clamp compared to Amaechi’s tentative touch. With the other hand he gave a dismissive wave to his counterparts, who now had Amaechi cuffed and cowed. Then he snatched up the yellow suitcase in an elegant sweep and forced Coco onto the train, now sounding its warning whistle.

 

          Coco looked back over her shoulder in vain. The cop was following close behind her. There went Amaechi’s receding back, twinkling with handcuffs.

 

          This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, not remotely. They were supposed to listen to her.

 

          She could push past the cop. She could demand justice for her brother, her friend. Demand a translator, a lawyer, whatever it took! Coco could knock off the cop’s hat and slap the smirk from his face. She imagined her fingernails turned to talons, the tips of her curls sprouting fanged little heads.

 

          She could do it, before it was too late. Before the train started moving. Before she would never see Amaechi again…

 

          Yet moments later Coco Bouldin was in her assigned seat, her ticket indeed perfectly in order, the yellow suitcase and the bone-colored pocketbook stowed securely beneath her. Giovanni’s Room was unopened in Coco’s lap. Instead of feeling comforted by the Baldwin as she’d hoped, Coco found herself confused by the blondeness of its narrator, the opening reference to his conquering ancestors. That wasn’t anything she cared to escape into right now— and Coco was still too adrenalized to concentrate, anyhow.

 

          At the same time, she knew that reflecting back on her afternoon would end her up in tremulous despair, because she’d been useless. When she’d tried to question the cop who forced her onto the train, he interrupted with explanations of how that man was dangerous: for her, for the station, and for, he seemed to say, the world. His leer scorched her defiance to a leathery skin: You are a very beautiful girl. He squinted with the effort of translation, their bodies so close in the car entryway, his smoky breath filled Coco’s lungs. I am jealous that he was with you...

 

          So, Coco was thinking ahead, to Florence. She’d lug her battering ram of a suitcase under the glower of its basilica, and over its beguiling footbridges, striking ankles as she went. The pocketbook would get shoved under her perspiring armpit, no longer to dangle from her arm, its strap having been strained too far in the scuffle at Milano Centrale.

 

          But after that trek to her room for the night, Coco decided that she would shower, get into her fresh bed, and write her mother an overdue trip update. She would write that here it was beautiful, but she still looked forward to coming home.

 

          She would not write of Amaechi. She would not ask her mother what had happened between the moment the guards waved them through and the police arresting Amaechi—wouldn’t speculate on what it was that had made them come for him, on what Coco could or could not have done—what she could maybe have done had she looked more like her mother, or like Elizabeth Taylor, who in this moment Coco could believe had her brains between her toes.

 

          Those were the things Catherine did not wish to deal with, and Coco could not. Handling the baggage hurt, like it hurt to know that she was even now on her way home, and so in a much different way was Amaechi, all because she’d wanted to pay him to show her how lost she was.

 

          She could forget. She swept her hands over her tired arms, her skin cool. Out the window, the cantaloupe sunset ripened around the train, Verona rising from the river like Venus’s halfshell. In her official testament, her trip would be unsullied, perfectly worthy of the circumstances that prompted it—and her mother would never know how unfastened Coco had been to need Amaechi’s help in the first place.

 

          Beyond the train window, a siege of gray cranes standing in a backlit marsh, pecking the water for sustenance—there, and then gone. She would forget Milano Centrale. Now ninety minutes from Florence, Coco tried to convince herself that, for the sake of her sanity, she had no other option.

 

          The train was too chilly. She started easing the yellow suitcase out from under her seat. Of course the side with the twin toggle latches faced toward the back, out of her reach. So she had to slide the suitcase almost completely out in order to swing it open, her legs planted on either side of it in such a way that had Coco been wearing a dress, it would have looked like a birthing.

 

          The most accessible wrap was an old purple cardigan she’d brought for wearing to bed. It clashed with the blushing palette of her outfit. Coco didn’t care. The passengers around her shifted in their seats when it became obvious that she was tearing up. She was bothering them, she gathered, with her emotion, with her clashing, both superficial and internal. She even managed to elbow her neighbor, a stylish seven-year-old with a sparkly-cased iPad, as she shoved the suitcase back into its cranny.

 

          “Sorry…” she said in English, since she would never know Italian.

 

          She turned quickly to the window but could still feel the parents’ indignation burning a hole in her cheek until the three of them detrained for Verona.

 

          If the sweater’s embrace could be Amaechi’s—if he was there, riding along with her—he would tease her for the moment's inelegance like a brother, a friend, a lover would. Like somebody who would save you if he knew how, and somebody who you would save, too. 

Published by The Plentitudes.  September 2021.