The story takes place in a minor Eastern European capital. A train from the west is pulling into the station, and on that train, in a first-class compartment, sits a high-level American diplomat, accompanied by his retinue consisting of his young foreign wife–let’s call her Mrs. O–and two interns eager to ingratiate themselves with the diplomat in the hopes of landing a prestigious post in the diplomatic service: let’s call them Intern P and Intern Q. The story is told from the point of view of Q, the younger and less experienced intern. From Q’s perspective, the diplomat is, rather ironically, a rude and ill-tempered person who takes no delight in the company of others. He is always immersed in his work; he leaves the tasks of congeniality to his wife.
The interns P and Q have decided that the best way to impress and ingratiate themselves with the American diplomat is through his wife; however, the diplomat must appreciate the attentions paid to his wife, but not be provoked to jealousy. The situation in the train car is both tense and delicate. Just as they are preparing to switch trains, Mrs. O’s Pomeranian leaps out of the open window and vanishes. Mrs. O waxes hysterical. Q declares he will find the dog and bring it back. The American diplomat continues on to the next stop, where he has an important meeting, accompanied by P. Q and Mrs. O remain behind to search for the Pomeranian with the turquoise collar.
During their search, Q find himself more interested in Mrs. O and her energetic personality; he is oddly impressed by her determination to find the missing Pomeranian in the Eastern European capital, whatever the cost. However, at the end of the day, they still have not found it. Exhausted, they return to the hotel next to the train station; a seedy place, the kind that also rents by the hour and whose rooms are upholstered with mirrors and cheap leather. They offer no rooms with two beds. Q gallantly offers Mrs. O the bed and makes a bed for himself on the floor.
They talk; Q had expected that she had come from a poor family, but no, she had just wanted to travel. What is it that you want from him? she asks Q. More or less the same thing, he replies.
In the middle of the night, Q is awakened by what sounds like a man and a prostitute in the next room. They are saying and doing the most shocking things. He cannot go back to sleep, nor can he avoid listening to them. Mrs. O also wakes up, and they both lay there, listening to the events in the room next to theirs. At first they makes jokes and try to talk over them, and then they become more serious, and after a while their dialogue blends with the dialogue overheard in the room next door, so that it is impossible for the reader to know what is happening where. Perhaps something happens between Mrs. O and the intern Q, or perhaps it does not.
The next day Mrs. O and Q take the elevator down to the front desk, avoiding eye-contact. The receptionist hands a long and detailed message to Mrs. O–a message from her husband. As she reads it in silence, her back to the staircase, Q hears the voices of the man and woman from the previous night. He turns around to see not a man and a prostitute, as he had imagined, but rather what appears to be a young husband and wife rushing out together to catch the next train. The husband is dutifully carrying the bags, while the wife carries in her arms a Pomeranian with a turquoise collar.
Q. watches them leave and says nothing to Mrs. O.
Accompanied by George Gershwin, “Three Preludes”
The intern Q awoke from an erotic dream, or rather an erotic nightmare, to find himself looking directly at the American diplomat, specifically at the myriad chins formed by the diplomat’s downward attention to the papers, in stony disregard of the city now visible from the train windows. Next to the diplomat, the Intern P was reading a treatise in French on reforms in border crossing regulations, the cover ostentatiously lifted so that, Q theorized, the present company might behold him in this, the plenitude of his intellect and being–his tea untouched, for such, Q imagined he was supposed to imagine, was P’s enthrallment with the monitoring of boundary lines between the sovereign powers. The train lurched ahead again and then stopped abruptly. Q felt queasy. He turned his head away from the window, where he could see Mrs. O, stroking her dog and feeding it little bits of her sandwich, owner and pet alike exuding the scent of a disinfectant used to ward off an especially contumacious variety of flea known to flourish along the Eastern European railway.
Q mumbled something polite that no one acknowledged and opened the window. He inhaled deeply the diesel fumes tinged with the smell of baked bread. Up ahead on the platform he could see gaggles of weary relatives–the train was two hours behind schedule– a man selling sausages, two beggar children eating packets of sugar. Above them, in grays and yellows, the Intern Q could just make out, through the smog, the grey and yellow cupolas of the historic city center.
Q pretended to doze off again; he could not yet summon the energy necessary to mask his abiding terror of saying the wrong thing to the diplomat or the diplomat’s wife, of speaking too much or too little or in the wrong tone or so much in the right tone that he sounded insincere and thus, after years of hard work and study and excellent marks, losing forever his chance of a post in the diplomatic service.
Frankly, Q had not expected travel to be so dull. He had expected a feeling of liberation, to move and speak and think freely–was freedom of movement that not the great existential promise of travel? But instead, here he was trapped in a nauseating medicine chest with a smug little sycophant, a jowly old spy, a woman with an empty smile and emptier head, and an overfed Pomeranian. Q experienced a pang of desperation in the form of a mild pressure just below his lungs.
The train made its final lurch into the station. Detecting a scent of fried sausage, Mrs. O’s Pomeranian perked up, stared fixedly at the open window, and then, as if the living projection of the Intern Q’s repressed desire to hurl himself out of the train and into the mystical melancholic unknown of Another Country, the Pomeranian leapt, tracing out before Q’s eyes a perfectly calculated trajectory through the window, and, narrowly missing a passing taxi, dissolved into the exhaust fumes of the city. For a moment the Intern Q remained paralyzed with envy and admiration before the Immortal Leap of a Pomeranian more valiant than himself–a Pomeranian, moreover, whom he had so recently and cruelly underestimated. One must always be willing to amend one’s judgments of character, Q thought, still staring out the window.
The distressed cries of Mrs. O yanked him back into the tedious present of spoken dialogue.