How Rolling Stone Saved My Life

I was traveling alone on an overnight train from Istanbul. No one else came into my compartment, and in fact most of the train was empty. I thought I heard male voices, but they were faint and in a language I didn’t know.

It was close to midnight on the first day of the new year. I sat in the corner by the window reading Rolling Stone magazine. A fellow volunteer, who didn’t like me, had given it to me for the trip. He was thoughtful like that when people were watching–though to be fair, I’d given him a reason not to like me. But that is not this story.

The conductor slid open the compartment door and asked for my passport and ticket. I didn’t speak Turkish, but I spoke my Bulgarian, “Americanka. Doh Bulgariya.” He raised an eyebrow. “American?”


He chuckled, spoke in rapid Turkish, checked my ticket, and left.

the view from my balcony in Yambol--my train destination
the view from my balcony in Yambol--my train destination

A while the later the conductor came back. He was a large man. Sweaty in a ratty, faded uniform. I asked if he needed to see my passport again. He shook his head. He didn’t speak English or Bulgarian and I wasn’t sure what he said. He repeated himself.

I wished I had a Turkish phrase book. He stood in front of me, stuck out his hands, and rubbed his forefingers together. “Sex,” he said.

Now, like I said, I don’t speak Turkish. Maybe this was some Turkish word for ticket. “What?” I asked in Bulgarian–kakvo? “Sex,” he repeated and brushed a finger down my cheek.

I still had the Rolling Stone magazine in my hands, and he tried to take it. I got it into my head that Rolling Stone would keep me safe. I held onto it. He tugged. I held on. He threw his arms up in frustration. I hoped my face showed nothing more innocent puzzlement. “Kakbo?” I said again. His tarnished brass buttons were at eye level. “Ne Razbeerum,” I said. Meaning–I don’t understand.

He rubbed his fingers together again. The train rocked on and he had to shift his weight to keep from stumbling over. The world passing by was dark. Pitch. There were no lights from villages. It was as if the train was speeding through nothingness.

Gently he touched a strand of my hair. This, I thought, is when I stop being me and step over that line we forget is there beside. I’m here, and soon I will be there. Into that otherworld of them. Victims. Numbers. This is what it is like. He could take my passport. He could throw me off the train. He’s the man in the uniform and I’m traveling alone. My dad will never know.

“Kakvo?” I said to him again.

He sat next to me.

My mind raced. That may be a cliche, but that’s what it did. My thoughts rushed through every idea I ever had about being trouble and what I might have to get out. Like someone running through a burning house to find that incredibly important document but they can’t remember where it is.

I’d bought a ring as souvenir in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.

“Husband,” I said in English, holding my hand out, twisting the magazine so that I wouldn’t let it go.

He said something I didn’t understand.

“Baby,” I said and tapped the corner of the magazine on that silver ring. “Me. Mom. Baby. In Plovdiv. With husband. Waiting. Baby.” I hoped I looked like a woman with a baby.

He tilted his head to the side. “Baby?”

“Yes. Da. Baby,” I said.

He scratched his face. “Baby,” he mumbled along with something else. He stood up. I smiled. “Baby!”

He shook his head and shuffled out.

There was me. Still on my side of the line.

In real life we forget that line is there. Normal life over here. Disaster one step away. We forget until someone says, “Look. See. The abyss.” Sometimes we’re lucky enough to have a Rolling Stone magazine to hold onto.

In fiction we have to push our characters over. Not into the abyss with a train conductor specifically, of course, but we have to push them somewhere. The story of the character who traipses through life on the edge without noticing or falling, like that Fool on the Tarot card, is not that interesting. Or enlightening. Or revealing. Or compelling. (Pick your own appropriate adjective if you please.)

In my novel I just finished (yes! la-di-da! Look at me!), I had to walk away from the page a few times. I can’t do that to her. I’m not that mean. I felt like I was the one trying to pull the magazine away. And she’d let go.

8 thoughts on “How Rolling Stone Saved My Life

  1. Synchronous that you should mention today of all days the need to push a character to the point where she has enough to lose that the reader will care.

    Reading your entry, I don’t have to watch “Run Lola Run” today.

    Maybe tomorrow.

    By which time you’ll have another reminder up.

  2. (Man. Shelly always says a lot in a few words, doesn’t he???) (Oh, btw, Run Lola Run: fabulous movie, and a nice connection to this blog post.)

    When I wrote the climactic, next-to-last chapter the first draft of my First Novel That Wasn’t Published But Still May Be, not one but two main characters were dead. I cried like a baby while writing it. My girlfriend (now wife) objected to either of their deaths — she really liked them both (as I did) — but I thought, well, that’s how the story goes. I think becoming invested in our characters, respecting them, means they’ve got to have the freedom to notice the onrushing edge, and sometimes plunge over it and maybe not still be whole afterwards.

    So glad you were reading Rolling Stone at the time and not Cosmo, which might have made it difficult to make your point with the conductor. 🙂

  3. JES, in Bulgaria at that time I’d read anything anyone gave me. Magazines and books in English were in short supply. But, yes, I’m glad it was Rolling Stone too. Maybe it should’ve been The Economist!

  4. I felt a little sick reading the first 3/4 of this post. I’m glad you remain on the other side of the fence. I do hope your character understands what happened to her, although, “And she let go,” makes me queasy. Now (as if I wasn’t going to already) I must buy your novel to see how she fared.

  5. Very interesting. Exciting and scary. I, however, am boring.

    I grew up in a dangerous place among dangerous people, and I ran from danger. Hey, it got me out of the ghetto, but I have never really thought of myself as excitement.

    Excitement comes from conflict. I aim for peace and harmony and avoid drama… in life.

    This does not make for interesting stories, though. For stories, we go for conflict, risk, stupid choices, crazy makers, rashness, selfish motivations, darker instincts. fear, weakness, character flaws…Do we conquer them or do they conquer us?

  6. Sophie, I got queasy writing it, and I thought that if I were a better person, I would keep it to myself. Well, maybe not better person…I don’t know the word I’m looking for. I don’t want to exploit an event or a feeling, but I want to say what happened. Can’t explain where the impulse comes from. Self-obsession? Who knows.

    rowena, I refuse to believe you are boring. I read your blog after all. And it isn’t like I was looking for danger. I was sitting on a train reading a popular magazine. The locale may seem exciting, but as I understood once I lived over there for two years, it isn’t exciting for the people who live there. Anyway, my life is plenty dull now. I stay work. Play with my son. Write. That’s it. And I like it that way.

  7. How frightening. I’m so so glad this came out in your favor.

    Of course you should write about this event, if you want to. We should all pull out whatever we have and slap it on the page.

    I, too, on my long sojourns learned how the exotic quickly becomes the familiar. It makes the world a smaller place, doesn’t it? A very good experience to have, I think.

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