I sat in the back of the taxi cab, wondering if the taxi driver was purposely taking the long route with every twist and turn of the steering wheel. I watched as the monitor went from 2.76, to 3.30, to 5.76, and so on. I sighed every time I checked my phone, watching as the minutes until 9:00 PM decreased.
“It’s 6.20” he said quietly. I handed him a twenty and asked if he had change, hoping he did as I did not want to part with my entire bill.
I looked out the window as he counted my change, recognizing the train station I had been at just four days prior. He handed me my change in mostly coins. I tried to count them as quickly as I could, making sure he wouldn’t see I didn’t trust his counting.
I stepped out of the cab and immediately walked past the police officers outside and toward the entrance to the train station. When I was feet away from the door, I was hit with the familiar feeling that I had forgotten something. Often when traveling, I ignore this feeling as it is usually a side effect of running late (which I always am). This time, however, I came to a complete stop until I realized what I was missing—my fucking carry-on.
Only I would forget the most essential part of my items: my luggage. I quickly turned around and ran toward the cab, almost getting hit by another taxi as I crossed the small intersection. I watched as the taxi driver pulled my baby blue luggage from out of the trunk, looking very puzzled as he looked in all directions and didn’t see me. The police officer I had previously run past laughed at me, saying “your luggage!!” as I laughed nervously in return.
I apologized to the taxi driver for being in a rush and being so absent minded. In the process, he informed me that in the past, he’s forgotten to give people their luggage but never the other way around. I truly am one-of-a-kind.
I rushed back to the entrance of the station, looking for my train number 2411. I saw it listed under track 6, and headed down. I was stopped by a security guard right before entering the track. As I handed her my ticket, all the coins I had just received from the taxi driver fell out of my hand and onto the floor. “Put your money away,” she said, probably annoyed with another tourist running late to catch their train. “I’ll hold your ticket while you put those away. You’re on time anyway.”
I stashed the coins in the front left pocket of my jeans, which probably isn’t what she meant by putting them away. I stepped on the weird elevator ramp down to the underground level, looking for my track.
I threw my belongings on the conveyor belt at the security check. A loud beep came from the monitor as I was being checked—my phone was still in my back pocket. The security guard let me go anyway. I made it inside my train with ten minutes to spare, remembering how I profusely I was sweating as I sat in the back of the taxi cab thinking I was going to be late. I stacked my luggage on the first rail I saw, taking a seat two rows in front of it. I sat down and finally put the euros in my wallet. I pulled out my novel and began to read where I left off the last time I was on a train. A few pages into the book, the train in motion, the train usher stops in front of me only to inform me that I wasn’t in my assigned seat.
How do trains in Europe work? I had been on two thus far—one had assigned seating and one did not. How was I supposed to know when I needed to sit in my required plaza? I asked the usher if I really had to move. He asked if I was comfortable, to which I replied yes. “Okay, you can stay.”
I continued reading my novel, occasionally dozing off despite the obnoxiously loud British man shouting with headphones on in the row next to mine. 23:40 came around and the PA system announced we had reached the last stop. I grabbed my luggage and jumped off the train. I followed the small crowd of people rolling carry-ons in front of me, hoping they were also in search of the train to the airport. I made it to the tracks with current departing trains, overwhelmed by the amount of trains leaving this late at night. I asked the first security guard I saw if there was a train headed to the airport. He looked at me like I was stupid, taking a few seconds too long to answer my question. When he finally did, he said track one and I went down another weird escalator ramp.
To my surprise, there was nobody on this side of the track. The train had also just arrived—which was not a good sign. I decided to trust the words of the security guard and hopped on the train.
Once inside, I realized there were only two people on the train—one looked like he was either homeless or high off something, or both, and the other was disguised in a dark hoodie and far too down the train for me to ask him anything.
“Is this train headed to the airport?” Without saying a word, stranger number one brought his hand to his chin and nodded no. The alarm which let me know the train was leaving started ringing, and I got off the train as quickly as I could.
I walked toward the upstairs ramp, now assured that the security guard I first spoke to was completely distrustful. Once on the first level again, I headed toward the first security guard I saw.
“Excuse me, which train do I have to take to get to the airport?”
“There are none.”
I looked at my phone, confused as the time had not yet hit 00:00. “Okay, so there isn’t one right now, but when is the next one?”
“There aren’t any ’til tomorrow morning. But there’s a bus that’ll take you to the airport. Exit up front, walk up the ramp, pass two roundabouts and then you’ll be there.”
“I don’t know how to use the bus system here—is there a chance I could just stay here and wait until the next train arrives? My flight isn’t until late in the morning, I don’t have to be on a train until 6:00 am. “
“The train station is going to close. You’re going to have to take the bus.”
His beautiful brown eyes and scruffy face made it easier to take the bad news that was coming out of his mouth. It also helped that he was nicer than the first security guard I spoke to. Still, I pictured the worst—what would I do if I couldn’t find this bus stop? Would I be stranded somewhere with my luggage in the street?
“Okay. Can you tell me again how to get to this bus stop?” He repeated his directions once more, assuring me that this bus stop was easy to get to and that I wouldn’t get lost. Apparently I was on the look-out for a yellow bus.
I left the station through the doors he pointed at, repeating his directions in my head. Okay, up the ramp, past two roundabouts. Yellow bus. I got this.
Headed toward the ramp, I noticed a taxi parked outside of the station. I walked past him and then backed up. I asked how much the fare was for a ride to the airport, to which the man replied 30 euros and that he was off-duty at the moment. Just my luck. I consolidated myself with this unavailable taxi by telling myself that this was a sign from the universe to take the bus and save my money.
Dragging my suitcase behind me, I walked to the intersection and waited for the blinking green stick figure to appear on the monitor. I took a breath and observed the beauty of the city around me. Madrid wasn’t a bad place to be lost in. At midnight, maybe.
I crossed the intersection, filled with relief when I saw a bus stop past a roundabout. Though I was almost certain this wasn’t my destination, at least there were two guys who looked my age that I could ask for help. I waited for their conversation to end and asked if this was the right bus stop to wait for the bus that would take me to the airport. The shorter of the two boys laughed, telling me that the guy next to him was in the exact situation I was in. Lucky for me, this guy knew where the bus stop was, so all I had to do was follow him.
As we walked through the city at midnight, both followed by our luggage behind us, we asked each other questions about the other. His name was Rodrigo, and he was headed to the airport to go back to Costa Rica after studying abroad for a month. Like me, he also had dark wavy hair and dark framed glasses. I imagined how we looked to others, a young couple walking through the city together. What gave away that we weren’t a couple was the difference in our outfits: he was dressed in nice jeans and nice dress shoes, too. A gray coat accentuated his outfit. I wore a plain yellow sweater, jeans ripped at both knees, and navy converse that I stared down at every time I took a step through the stone-paved streets of Madrid. I did this to avoid looking at Rodrigo through the small talk.
He asked where I was from, where I was headed, and why I had been in Spain. I replied United States, New York—but not from New York, and visiting friends and presenting research for a week. As I spoke to him, I couldn’t help but think that he was my sign from the universe for missing my train earlier. I was destined to meet him, but I didn’t know why yet. And maybe I’d never know.
We walked in silence for some time, both admiring the bright lights of the city. I didn’t know what street we were on, but I recognized it from every picture of Madrid I had ever seen. The streets were busy for the time of day—taxis and cars filled every lane. Large, swanky hotels like the Ritz and Palace Hotel adorned the busy streets. I admired them longingly, hoping I’d one day have the chance to return to this city during the day and maybe stay in one of those over-priced hotels.
We walked past a park, at which a young couple was having an altercation. The man was upset with the woman and cussing at her. She cried and yelled back, trailing behind him. Rodrigo and I walked around them, avoiding getting caught up in their argument.
Rodrigo broke the silence by telling me that the bus stop was up ahead. I didn’t know how he knew this, but I trusted that he was right. As we crossed the busy intersection, I read the “Refugees Welcome” banner that hung from one of the larger and much older buildings. When we reached the bus stop, he walked ahead of me, and asked the bus driver if we were in the correct spot. The driver said yes, but wrong bus. We’d have to wait a few minutes for the next one. It wasn’t yellow, also. I should have known this wasn’t our bus.
We walked a few feet up ahead and asked the people waiting there if we were in the right spot. When they replied yes, I sighed a breath of relief. Rodrigo asked me if I knew which terminal I was headed to. I did not. I made it on the bus and texted my friend with much better internet to look up the terminal I needed to get off at. This bus stopped at Terminal 1, Terminal 2, and Terminal 4. I prayed that my terminal was one of the above.
I sat in a row with two seats, hoping Rodrigo would take the seat next to me. He was also planning on spending the night at the airport, and I thought it would be nice to have company. He chose to stand behind me instead, his larger luggage limiting his seating options.
The bus stopped at Terminal 1, and then Terminal 2, until Rodrigo and I were the last two passengers on the bus. When the time came, we got off at Terminal 4 and walked together in silence. Once through the entrance, we both walked our different ways without goodbye. I assumed this meant I’d be seeing him later. Or maybe he avoided goodbyes like I did.
It is now 3:22 am and I’m sitting alone in a navy blue bench in a set of several benches of shades of blue. My stomach is reminding me that I should get something to eat. Every time someone walks by, I am hoping that it is Rodrigo so I will have company and not have to spend the remaining five hours in solitude. This is a big airport, though, and my chances of ever seeing him again are very slim.
I still have quite a journey until I am back in my room and in my own bed, but I can’t help but think of how proud I am. I managed not to get lost in a big city at night, befriended a stranger, and made it to my destination on time. Perhaps being alone in Madrid at midnight wasn’t the best thing to ever happen to me, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. One day, I will be able to travel completely alone without feeling scared or anxious. One day, I’ll return to Madrid, and maybe stroll through this same street at midnight again—without luggage this time.