Working title: The Crying Man
[From a work in progress ... not necessarily the one I'm working on currently.]
Nicole had learned on previous bus trips that ignoring the no smoking signs, or refusing to stop smoking when asked, or fighting with the driver and with other passengers, even sneaking to the toilet cubicle to smoke--all of that was a losing battle. She couldn’t win by fighting and she couldn’t hide. So she didn’t smoke. The safest way, Justine said, was to throw the pack away before they got on the bus.
“I won’t smoke.” Nicole put her fingers up, good little boy scout.
“Yes you will.”
“No, really, I won’t. I prom—“ she glared at her sister. “Oh fuck, fine!” and she hurled the package in a garbage pail.
Three days in a bus seat. That’s what they had to look forward to. And she was only four hours in. Nicole nearly cried with boredom. But Justine slept like a baby, shifting and dreaming and lying across Nicole. Nicole fumbled automatically in her bag for cigarettes or anything that might help, but there was nothing.
“What did I fucking do to deserve . . .”
The woman across the way caught Nicole’s eye with a pitiless smile.
“Your girlfriend there sure can sleep.”
Justine was lying with her face nuzzled into Nicole's lap. Nicole saw in the woman’s grin an obscene assumption. She regarded this creature sourly for a moment. Women, women, women, nothing but sick old women on this bus. There wasn’t a man worth looking at twice. Even the driver was a woman. And each one of these witches privately figured they were better than the rest. They feigned interest in each other’s morbid catalogues of family illnesses. They compared the disappointments they had borne. They bitched at the driver and acted out, especially here, where no permanent damage would likely come of it. And as the trip wore on, they came and went, each miserable matron replaced by an exact copy of herself, none of them venturing very far away from home. They looked at Nicole’s short skirt, they clucked amongst themselves. Nicole saw, as her sister never did, the bottomless ill will of other women. And now this one, imagining she saw lesbians with her x-ray eyes. Little did she know.
Nicole leaned forward and hissed, “This is my sister. So, why don’t you mind your own fucking business?” The woman's pupils visibly wowed and she sat back without another word, her cheeks flaming. Nicole yanked her iPod out of her bag and rammed the bud-like earphones into her ears. She ran her fingers like claws back through her hair. She told herself to be still.
The road scrolled away beneath the window. At dawn, a small brown hawk floated alongside the bus, lazy in its curiosity. Nicole watched the small wild thing watching her, pacing the vehicle as if it was afraid of nothing on this earth, or perhaps it was watching itself reflected in the bus window. Slowly it lost interest and drifted off among the amber fields, the small neat head angled now to watch the ground.
Nicole saw towns drift by, fences and power lines swoon and rise, a wheat field’s pale nap undulating in the sun. She entered a strange empty mental state, a state of patience. Meanwhile, Justine seemed to be on fire. She shifted and slept, put her legs across Nicole’s, draped her head out into the aisle. She rolled and struggled …and yet she seemed nearly unconscious. Her forehead was damp, her cheeks cherry coloured, and yet she slept on. How could she stand it, this little girl, normally unable to sit still? Nicole lifted her sister’s limp legs and squirmed uncomfortably.
Did their mother ever feel like this, looking out the window of the car as their father drove, one of her three daughters draped across her? She remembered her mother had a habit of asking them to draw letters on the back of her neck as they drove and she would guess the letter, always wrong, so they would draw it again, more carefully this time. Starved for touching. Nicole and Justine and their other sister Caitlin wrangled like puppies, annoyed by every turn the car made, all of them gliding across the back seat, seatbelts perpetually undone, piling up on each other and shoving and kicking back. Caitlin’s piping voice teasing strangers out the window as they passed, both parents shushing her. Crying, complaints, silent kicking fights, long hair being pulled and yanked or brushed and braided, spitting, rubbing spit into cuts, little fingers gripping or pulling, little fingernails tickling, jelly beans used as lipstick, playing cards floating out the window.
Now, many years later, her father seemed to be aging terribly, forgetful and confused, while her mother was living in the mountains with Dennis. Their mother moving first across town and then across the country with her new boyfriend. Dennis carrying their mother’s clothes out to his car while their father sat in the back yard with a coffee in his hand. Nicole and Justine had been speechless the first time they’d met Dennis. His somnolent and almost prissy gait, his Buddhism, his long hair in a ponytail, his macrobiotic diet, the way he recommended jazz records to teenaged girls as if they’d give a shit, the pristine, never-used canoe he kept permanently roped to the top of his expensive car.
“Did you see them kissing? Using their tongues?”
“Shut up! Shut up or I’ll scream!”
She wondered what their mother would say when she saw them, Nicole and Justine, standing on her doorstep. She wondered what her mother’s house looked like, what Dennis was like now—though she could guess. A guy like that never changed the way he looked or acted or ate. Men like him were perfect in their own minds. Why didn’t Nicole ever feel perfect? Why was that?
“Justine?” she shook her sister. But Justine slept on.
Justine and Nicole, two lucky stars, shooting through the world, having fucked up on rent, on both their jobs, Justine evading her social worker, both of them as usual, driving forward without more than a morning’s thought about anything. Lucky stars. This trip had been Nicole’s idea. And now here they were, going to see their mother, look her in the eye, remind themselves why any of it could have happened.
That’s what Nicole wanted, to see her mother. Justine figured they might as well pressure Dennis for money. Seeing as he had so much money. And seeing as he had
something to hide.