The train would be leaving in thirteen minutes. Olga sat in the first seat and leaned back, slipping her heels out of her shoes. She had arrived in Buenos Aires around eleven that morning. She’d been walking all day and now her feet throbbed. She had gone into the city pick up a referral form at Social Services for some OB/GYN procedures. For months she’d been running around, trying to arrange that mammogram and Pap smear business. She never went for her yearly checkup at the clinic. It had been three years now. It was always like that, until one day she’d find herself overcome with fear, imagining that a tumor might be lurking in her ovaries or breasts and she had been ignoring it. She visualized a monster silently growing inside her body. The next day she would rush to make a doctor’s appointment. “It’s urgent,” she would tell the secretary. “It has to be this week.” When it was all over and she had regained her composure because the test results were fine, she’d vow to return in a year but immediately forget and wait three or four years for her next checkup.
When she emerged from Social Services, she went to the Once neighborhood to buy fabric for kitchen curtains. It was a sunny morning, and she walked around and around before deciding. She bought some checkered material. Although she would have preferred something in yellow, she couldn’t find exactly what she was looking for, so she bought a green-and-white checkered fabric, paid cash, and took a taxi to Constitución Station.
A young man strolled down the aisle of the train selling hot dogs. Olga was hungry, but she didn’t buy anything. She thought of her diet, the fat in the hot dogs, the bread. She’d wait until she got home and have a salad. Even though it was already after two. A salad wouldn’t be too heavy.
A boy sitting across from Olga bought a hot dog and was spreading mayonnaise on it. She liked mustard better. She could ignore her diet one more time. How fattening could a hot dog be, after all? The vendor continued down the aisle. She closed her eyes, tasting the mustard in her empty mouth. I should have bought it, she thought.
Only four minutes till departure, and the boy sitting opposite her had already finished eating. All the seats were taken. Two minutes to go, and many passengers were standing. Olga prayed there’d be no pregnant woman, no old man to force her to put her shoes back on and give up her seat.
The car was packed when the train started moving. The boy who had eaten the hot dog had fallen asleep. The trip was dull until they reached Banfield, she thought, when the guy appeared. He must have been around fifty. Short, light-brown hair and a dark green jacket. She noticed him when he sidled up to a woman. Olga didn’t detect anything at first. Maybe he was trying to cop a feel. Then she saw the guy’s hand dip into the woman’s purse. It made her nervous to see that. She put her shoes back on and sat up straight in her seat. She didn’t know what to do. But she checked to make sure her purse was tightly closed, and she pressed it against her body.
She looked the woman straight in the eye, but she was reading a magazine and seemed to be concentrating hard. She watched as the guy moved away from the woman’s body and zipped his jacket. Olga imagined he would exit at the next stop. She was relieved when the car doors glided open. Many people had gotten off, and she followed the passengers along the platform with her eyes. The robbery victim had found a seat toward the front of the car and was still reading. Olga considered telling her, but just then she spotted the guy in the car again. He was watching her. She pretended to ignore him, but he kept staring at her. He stood there leaning against a post, just looking at her.
Olga was afraid. She could get off the train at Temperley and try to find a policeman on the platform. Or get off and catch a cab home. Or stay on the train till she could be sure the guy had already left. She felt very uncomfortable and had to do something, but all the possibilities frightened her. But the man looked away as he pulled a wallet from his pocket. He opened it, glanced at it briefly, and stuck it back into his pocket again. Then he sat down on one of the empty seats up front. He was probably close to the woman whose wallet he had stolen.
She’d get off in Temperley and wouldn’t say a word.
When she descended at platform three, she didn’t even dare turn around to see if the guy had gotten off too. It occurred to her that he might be following her. She was afraid to cross the bridge, but she mustered the courage when she saw a group of teenagers heading in the same direction. She hurried to cross along with them. The bridge was very long. As soon as she reached the other side, she hailed a cab. She managed to see the thief descending the last few steps just as her taxi pulled away. He was walking along calmly, and she didn’t even attempt to turn around. The cab driver tried to engage her in small talk, commenting on how the weather had improved, how bad traffic had gotten lately, and about the potholes in the streets. But Olga didn’t answer. She paid and ducked quickly into her house, still thinking she was being followed.
She made herself some coffee, and even though she wasn’t hungry anymore, she fixed a sandwich from a fried chicken cutlet that was in the refrigerator and then ate a piece of cake she had sworn not to touch, left over from the weekend. She thought about the thief. Now she was sorry she’d eaten because she felt heavy, with a swollen belly and that guilty feeling she had every time her diet suffered a setback. Maybe the guy really just wanted to intimidate her, she thought, frighten her into keeping quiet. That’s why he had stared at her that way. She didn’t tell anyone. But she thought about the incident constantly for a few days, and then she gradually forgot.
That morning she was lost in thought when she boarded the train. It was the day of her Pap smear appointment. She hated going for those tests. They made her nervous. Bad luck: she had to travel standing, but she leaned against the back of a seat to release her tension. “Relax,” the gynecologist always told her. And as soon as she had loosened up, he twisted a tourniquet inside her vagina. Lately everyone had been telling her the same thing. “Nice and relaxed,” the ophthalmologist soothed as he popped in the contact lenses that irritated her eyes. “Relax,” said the dentist as he injected the numbing medication. I’ve had enough of them, she thought.
As soon as the train pulled away from the station, she saw him. He was wearing the same jacket, but now it seemed cleaner. She wondered if he would recognize her. Although she didn’t want to look his way, she couldn’t help it. He was younger than she recalled. She had the impression that he hadn’t seen her. He didn’t look like a thief. She watched him open a young woman’s purse. The woman held several folders in her hand and carried a black purse that closed with a fastener. It was quite an easy purse to open. The whole thing was very quick. When the train lurched, he pretended to stumble over the woman, opened the fastener, and pulled out her wallet. “Excuse me,” he said to the woman and kept on walking. He stood close to the door of the car. And from there he looked at Olga. The inspector came by to ask for tickets. The girl nearly dropped her folders as she stuck her hand into her purse, looking for her wallet. She seemed to be angry with the inspector. She didn’t even realize that her purse was wide open. The thief got off at the next station and walked along the platform in the same direction as the train. Olga watched him until he disappeared from view as the train took off. For a moment it seemed to her they were walking along together. She inside, he outside.
For the next few days she read the newspaper, especially the police blotter. She invented a sort of classification of robberies. Bank robberies, robberies on a train, group robberies, individual heists – they weren’t the same at all. But what most attracted her about the train incident was its spontaneity, the element of the unknown. Bank robberies are planned. She recalled that sometimes even newspaper reporters themselves marveled at how well the robbers knew everyone’s comings and goings at the bank, the schedules, the routines.
She didn’t go to Buenos Aires that week. But the following week she did, to pick up her OB/GYN test results. She was preoccupied that day; she always feared they’d tell her something was wrong. Still, at every station she tried to monitor the arrival of new passengers to determine if he was among them. She wondered if he’d been looking for her. She thought he might have looked for her last week and been disappointed not to find her. She noticed a girl standing in the car, very well dressed and carrying a leather book bag. She imagined that book bags would be easy to pick because people wore them in back. She also saw another girl who had fallen asleep in one of the seats farther toward the front of the car, her purse resting on her lap. The girl didn’t even wake up when the train jostled her from side to side.
Olga arrived at the clinic early and waited on the sidewalk for a few minutes. Soon after, the secretary arrived by taxi, opened the clinic door and invited Olga in as she explained why she was late. She seemed nervous, talking constantly while opening the blinds and straightening some magazines. “The doctor really lets me have it when I’m late; he says he doesn’t like his patients waiting outside.” Olga pointed out that the doctor hadn’t arrived yet and that he’d never know unless some patient told him. “No, but he phones to make sure I’m here.” And then she bolted because somewhere inside the clinic a telephone was ringing. The secretary’s purse, together with her wallet, lay on a small desk where she greeted the patients. She had removed her wallet to pay the cab driver and hadn’t had time to put it away again. Her change was on the table, too. Olga did it quickly, almost confidently. She opened the wallet and took out a fifty-peso bill, which she stuck into the depths of her own purse. Then she sat down again. She realized that she had been sitting in a different chair earlier and was afraid the secretary might notice. She changed places and crossed her legs, trying to capture the same position as before. The secretary returned to the waiting room, announcing that the doctor would be there in half an hour.
On the way back, Olga hoped she might catch a glimpse of the train robber.
One month later Olga went to a meeting at a neighbor’s home, one of those meetings where a sales representative promotes a certain product and demonstrates its benefits. Direct sales. There were seven women. The hostess always received a thank-you gift for volunteering her home. But before the meeting started, the sales representative announced that she had two gifts this time, which she would present at the end of the meeting. Then she opened a bag that held some hermetically sealed plastic containers in every imaginable shape and size. They were inexpensive products; nearly all the women ordered something. Before leaving, the sales representative gave the hostess her gift: a set of the plastic products and some gold-toned jewelry. And she announced that the other gift would be for Olga. Olga was surprised because she was never lucky with those sorts of things. The sales representative explained that the company always gave something to first-time customers. She handed Olga a little plastic bowl, saying that it was very useful for making hamburgers. Olga couldn’t hide her disappointment; she had expected something else. It seemed to her the other women were happy they hadn’t been given such an insignificant gift. She left before anybody else. She went into the bedroom to collect her purse. All the women had left their handbags on the bed. She opened one at random and found a brown leather wallet, which she swiftly nabbed.
A few days later she saw him again. He was on the platform when she arrived at the station. They boarded the same car, but he walked ahead to the forward cars. She followed him. They ended up in the same car. It was strange. He was about to rob a man in a suit when she spotted the security guards. But he hadn’t seen them because his back was turned. She walked over and stood facing him. She made a facial expression that he immediately understood. They got off the train together at the next station.
The passenger sitting in the window seat remarked on it when then train pulled away.
“They were about to rob the man in the gray suit. Those two were accomplices,” he said. “I’m sure of it.”
And he craned his neck in search of the couple walking along the platform, lost in the crowd.