It was a pleasant enough ride to Rome until a fight broke out at the front of our train car. A girl was kicking and spitting on someone while a group of teenagers cheered her on. A young boy from the group, maybe to escape the line of fire, descended the steps and sat across the aisle from me and Jason. I glanced back up to the fight to see a hand from behind the row of seats clutching the girl’s jacket and a pair of lady’s boots delivering two solid kicks to her abdomen. The girl in the aisle screamed. She wasn’t speaking Italian, but I could tell by her tone that it was a string of expletives. She straightened her jacket and curled up in her seat with two feet dangling over the arm rests.
The boy to our right was maybe sixteen or seventeen, he wore cheap and ill-fitting clothes, he was a bit short but compensated for his height in muscular definition, which I noticed after he had removed his jacket to reveal a sleeveless shirt and bare arms. He hung the jacket on a hook to his left. He placed an oddly shaped box under his seat and checked to see if either of us was looking at him. He then removed his jacket from the hook and stashed it in the luggage area above his seat. He looked at us again before taking his seat. He maintained eye contact as he pulled the box back out from under his seat, opening it to reveal a blue parakeet living inside. The parakeet went through the motions of removing tiny cards from a drawer at its feet. The boy stroked the bird’s head a few times and glanced over at me and Jason to make sure we were looking. His actions were performed with a sense of confidence as though everything belonged to him, but also with a sense of trepidation as though this boy did not belong anywhere in the world.
He continued staring at us with a desperate sort of longing as though he either wanted to punch or kiss us. Jason scribbled something on a torn page of his notebook and handed it to me nonchalantly.
“I get the distinct feeling that he’s sizing us up. Checking to see if we make eye contact,” it read.
After a cursory glance around the train car I wrote him a response.
“The lady in front is an easier mark than us,” it read, referring to an elderly woman seated in front of the kid who was playing solitaire on her iPad. “Might just be curiosity. Maybe he likes your haircut.”
Jason grinned and rubbed the back of his freshly shaved head. We were both on edge again and I have to admit that it felt good. We had been pampered at my aunt’s house and I was afraid of getting soft. This was just the kind of encounter we needed to keep us sharp. The kid was still staring at us with vacuum eyes and a dead fish expression impossible to discern. I pulled out my jacket and pushed it up against the window to make a pillow, feigning a nap to see if I couldn’t draw out a more obvious response. It didn’t take more than a few minutes. The kid pulled out his cellphone, turned the volume all the way up, and played some hellish techno jazz fusion. The elderly lady turned around to give the kid a condescending look. He wasn’t paying attention to her though, he was still locking eyes with us. I shrugged and pulled out my head phones to tune him out.
“Maybe he just hates tourists. Making noises and staring just to be obnoxious,” Jason wrote.
I listened to music for rest of the ride which was relatively uncomfortable. I pretended to nap with my arms locked around my backpack, wary of any boarding passengers the kid might be in cahoots with. We were getting close to Rome as evidenced by the increasing number of graffiti covered surfaces, the influx of boarding passengers, and the overwhelming amount of patchwork domiciles lining the tracks. There were these little hobo jungles everywhere. Some were simple tarps attached to a couple of poles, others were reclaimed cinderblocks stacked to form walls with corrugated steel sheets covering the tops, others were simply tattered blankets laid over deep depressions in the tall grass. There were hundreds upon hundreds of these shelters that formed a kind of lost neighborhood staked to whatever ground they could find. These were not temporary structures either, these were people’s’ homes that passed like a blur across my train window.
With Rome closing in quick the kid eventually collected his jacket, parakeet box, and other items to rejoin his friends at the front. The girl who had been spitting, cursing, and fighting was awake again picking up right where she had left off. More passengers boarded and an older gentleman seated himself next to me and Jason.
“Gypsies,” he muttered.
The girl was swinging wildly in all directions and one of the kids in the group kicked her down the stairs. They all laughed and taunted her as she sobbed alone a few seats in front of us.
“Don’t worry,” the man said, “We only have one more stop to go.”