I knew that man was trouble. That man, who rubbed his body along the bus aisle, hefting a duffel bag over his shoulder without seeming to register its size, walking so slow and cocksure that passengers behind him had to stop and put down their things and wait for him to fondle the headrests.
The man smiled at me like I was an old girlfriend. He was dressed like a young guy but had the sunpocked skin of a man nearing middle age. I held my gaze one inch into his eyes, not at but in, where his synapses would register my personal wall. This trick took forty years to master. His eyes turned to the girl beside me.
“Hey baby,” he said.
The girl ignored him, fussing with an exposed bra strap.
A silver chain strained his neck and another one, chains linked flat, held steady on his big wrist, when he snapped his fingers at her like she was a dog. “Didn’t your mother teach you,” he said. Speckles of shaved hair stubbled the man’s arms. His fingernails were groomed and perfect save for the one on his left index finger, which was split clean down the middle. The expanse of his finger without a nail was smooth and pink like a baby’s tongue.
“Hi,” said the girl, looking at his chin.
“Hi, yourself.” The man repositioned the bag on his shoulder. “You have a beautiful smile,” he said. He smelled like a meatball sandwich. “Has anyone ever told you that?”
“No,” the girl said.
“Who made you so beautiful?” he asked. “Did heaven make you that way?”
The girl turned to her window but her smile was visible in the reflection. They stayed like that for a moment, him leaning forward and her looking out. Outside, a woman barred from entering the boarding area lay face-down on the sidewalk and screamed.
Beside me, the standoff ended. The man continued down the aisle and the girl exhaled sharply through her nose.
I closed the book I was reading and held it on my lap. “That guy’s a loser,” I said.
She turned to look where he had found a seat. “He seemed fine.”
“He is not fine.”
“He looked good,” she said. The bus started rolling. “I’m trying to make some friends,” she said. “I don’t know anybody in Long Beach.”
“That guy doesn’t want to be your friend.”
“He was nice.” She gave a limp shrug that made her hands rise and fall on her lap.
“Trust me,” I said. “That was such a line. ‘Did heaven make you.’ Give it up.”
The bus swayed gently as if we had rolled into a shallow pond and become buoyant. We would be rolling for the rest of the day, with two stops for meals and two smoke breaks. With enough care and attention, I could read three good-sized books and maybe start a fourth before we arrived.
The girl hadn’t brought any distractions with her and sat with her back to the armrest, frowning as the scenery greened. “Do you think he likes me?” she asked.
“I’m sure he does.” In my book, the children had special powers. One of the children had become lost in the forest, and when the other two went to find him, they learned of their own powers to gaze through trees and sense heat in the ground, respectively.
“You think?” She tugged at her t-shirt hem with two pinched fingers.
“Sure.” The child who could sense heat in the ground knew that creatures were nearby, and the child who could gaze through trees found a congregation of wild animals meeting on the horizon. The children walked towards bravely this meeting, holding hands.
She licked her palms before smoothing them over her hair. “Do I look okay?”
“You look fine.” With every step the children took, their bravery waned until it was like a tightrope under them. They shivered on the line but continued their forward movement, sensing the importance of the gathering of animals.
I held the page in my book and looked at her. She was skinny in cutoff jean shorts and a dirty blue t-shirt that fit snug under her armpits. Her hair was limp on her head as if it had been taped on. Her makeup, a shade too dark for her skin, caked around her lips and blemishes, and her mascara gathered her lashes into sticky triangles.
“It doesn’t matter how you look to a slimeball,” I said. “His goal is to take advantage of you, with or without your consent, and he won’t be your friend when it’s over. You have to protect yourself from these men, don’t fall prey to them.”
I went back to my book, satisfied that I had stopped an advancing storm. The girl sniffed her disdain and turned to look out the window.
At the lunch stop, we stood on the shady side of the McDonalds and she accepted the cigarette he offered her, holding the lighter to it before she put it in her mouth. They talked about the weather and how the back of the bus smelled like garbage wrapped in wet garbage. He told her she looked like a movie star. I could have plucked out his eye.
“You need to watch it,” I said.
“I’m watching everything,” he said, smiling. He was so close to my face that I could have taken his chin in my hand.
“Me too, man,” I said. “Everything.”
The girl stood wide-eyed in witness.
He shook his head. “Nice girl like you,” he said. “Getting involved.”
The driver called us to board but the man didn’t break his gaze when the girl flounced in front of him.
“Old bitch,” he said, to me.
“Not another word,” I said.
When he put his hands up, his half-stripped index finger bulged.
The girl was at me before I sat down. “Jesus Christ,” she said.
“Jesus,” she said. We were rolling out of Quartzite and across the California border. Her friend had found a new seat behind the driver and was wrapping his arm around a distracted teenage boy.
“Trust me,” I said. “I’ve been where you are now.”
“Oh, I bet.”
“Attention is the most worthless commodity on the planet,” I said. “When you treat it like it’s precious, you’re blinding yourself to the possibility that you might find it elsewhere. And it’s everywhere, attention is everywhere.”
“He was sweet to me.”
“Of course he’s sweet to you. You’re a beautiful girl. You have fine features and kind eyes.”
The girl looked out the window, scratching her neck.
“Any man would be so lucky to be sweet to you,” I continued. “See, and now you’re acting like nobody’s ever complimented you before.”
“Well,” she said.
“If you’re going to commodify this situation, you may as well treat yourself as a valuable commodity. His attention is desire for your commodity, but you need to realize all angles of the situation. It is a pebble placed on a monument. Give the monument your respect, not the pebble.”
She pressed her lips together, exhaling sharply through her nose. Her every movement seemed like a miracle, as it was with younger women. I tried to imagine myself like that, living as I was at home, all of us a family before my mother left and my brother fell ill, but when I pictured myself, I only saw a girl lost in the woods.
“Do you know what I mean?” I asked. After so much time penned up with my books and my silent brother, it was nice to have an interested third party. I wanted to say more but reconsidered it and allowed her to review her thoughts as I considered the days ahead. Outside, the green landscape began to bear fruit, long lines of orchards and roadside stands. I opened my book again to read of the gathering of animals dancing in unison, but the girl began to talk again.
“I just figured he’d want to hang out,” she said.
“You don’t even know what that means.”
“I got nothing better to do.”
“Don’t you have anyone to stay with?”
“My dad’s out there,” she said. “I don’t know.”
“What don’t you know?”
“I don’t know.” She rubbed her eye with the palm of her hand, smudging liner.
“You’re just a child, aren’t you.”
“You should have somewhere to stay.”
“That’s exactly why I was talking to that guy. Jesus Christ.” The eyeliner made a wet halo around her right eye. “He seemed fine and you ruined everything.”
“Quit it.” For once, my mouth moved faster than my brain. “You should stay with me if you need somewhere safe to stay.”
“With you?” She lifted up one delicate corner of her lip. I could see her watching television on her belly in my living room, picking marshmallows from a box of cereal.
“Sure,” I said, because it was too late to take it back. “Stay with me for a few nights, get on those feet.”
She looked at me, eyes narrowed. Then, she laughed. “We’ll see,” she said. “You totally ruined everything else, so you owe me.”
“You’re right, I owe you.” Without thinking, I reached for her face. I held her chin and wiped away her smudged eyeliner with my thumb. The girl allowed the movement. I cleaned her off, thinking about the vast system of payments and debts.
The apartment was just as I had left it. Clean white sheets stretched over the mattress on the floor, blending into the white carpet and then the bare white walls to give the whole place an institutional feel. The kitchen area, deliniated by a change from carpet to linoleum and flanked by old laminate countertops, was functional and airless. Taken all together, the place was immaculate; one room, but room enough for me. I plugged the television in and opened the windows. It was comforting to remember that I could keep the small inventory of my posessions in one small space. My books were stacked high in all four corners, with more piled up on the card table. I wet a paper towel and wiped the dust from the countertops.
“Hell of a trip,” the girl said. She yawned, slouching under her two backpacks at the door. She wore one on her back and the second strapped to her chest, the overstuffed pack resting on her belly. The two had the visual effect of counterbalance, holding the girl upright and steady under their equal weight. Her eyelids drooped.
“Take a load off,” I said. “Want some water?”
“If you don’t have any beer,” she said, rubbing her eyes. She looked like a sleepwalker. I felt as if I had coerced her into following me home, though she had gone willingly into the cab and followed me into my apartment without so much as observing the street names.
I took two glasses from the cabinet and rinsed them out before filling them. “Put your things anywhere.”
She leaned forward and shrugged her arms together. The backpack on the front of her body hit the floor hard. She righted herself and deposited the second bag behind her in the same manner, leaning back. When the bag hit the floor she almost went down with it. “That was a hell of a trip,” she said.
“You said that,” I said, handing her a glass of tap water.
“How long have you been away from this place?” she asked, accepting the glass. “It smells like rotten fruit.”
“Sorry, no ice.”
We drank the water in silence. If something was off about its flavor, I couldn’t discern it. While we drank, I glanced down to see if there was a nametag on her bag, while she craned her neck slightly to check the junk mail piled by the door.
“I’m only around here half the year,” I said, sweeping the mail from the counter and dumping it in the trash. “Otherwise I’m out in Texas, taking care of my brother.”
“Who’s with him now?” she asked, leaning against the wall.
“The state and I take turns.”
She nodded slowly and scanned the room. “What do you do out here?”
“I read and go to movies. I teach a language class at the community center.”
Her eyes were lidded to the point that it seemed possible she was simply turning her head from side to side, asleep on her feet. “Cool,” she said languidly, as if from a dream. “Cool.”
“Do you want to lie down?”
“I don’t want to take up any space,” she said. She had edged herself into a corner and was crossing her arms in front of her body, the empty glass pressed against her upper arm.
“It’s all right,” I said. “We were on a bus for twenty hours. Your back’s got to be killing you.”
She set the water glass down on the bar counter and rubbed the wet spot it left on her arm.
I picked up her glass and put it in the sink. “You should really lie down.”
“I am pretty tired,” she said. She looked towards the bed.
“Go on. I have some things to do. I’ll leave you alone.”
The girl was asleep on the mattress before she got horizontal. I nudged her bags into a pile next to the door and went to take a shower.
The water came out rusty before it sputtered clean. It felt good to take a hot shower after such a long trip. I thought of the girl stinking up my sheets with the unwashed smell of the bus. After ten hours, everyone smelled like a wet pair of pants. After fifteen, it got into your skin, your hair, and then into the inner crevices of your nose and ears, seeping into your bloodstream, until you became the wet pair of pants.
It was better that she was ruining my sheets. I considered the alternative, of her allowing that monster on the bus to take her to whatever gunked-up pit he called home. He was fingerbanging her at that moment in another dimension. My lip curled in victory.
The shower’s water was superheated to the point that every stream from the head made a distinct red welt on my skin. The shower was refreshing but it couldn’t get inside me, even when I tugged my earlobes down and forced the water in, even when I opened my mouth and sent the water down my throat. The smell of the buss was the kind of ingrained smell that got into your body and coiled around your animal cells. Removing it would require weeks of pure living. I would have to wash the sheets.
My brother, who meant the world. He was the kind of thoughtful boy who could spend an afternoon entertained by games of his own invention. We played soldiers together, shouting up and down the hills. He invented a game for us, where we would lie on the ground and wait for one to fall on our foreheads, a leaf lottery. The winner could create the rule for the rest of the day, for example that leaves were to become our only food, or that we weren’t allowed to call for Mother. He was ten years older than me and my only protector. Sometimes he could stay outside for days at a time. Mother would wake up and ask me where he was and I would say he was at a neighbor’s house, a neighbor I had invented to protect my brother: invisible walls, invisible roof, invisible dog.
Once, he was gone for a week and Mother sent me out after him. The bolt clicked behind me. Stickers snagged my white tights and my saddle shoes pinched. It must have been Sunday and it must have been cold, of course. It always was some a variety of cold, then.
I looked for my brother behind the shed and by the big oak. I found the stream at the edge of the property and walked up its bank beyond where we had ever gone together. I found a sandy shore and shouted his name. I walked along the stream on the other side, calling for him. I picked up sticks and threw them into the woods so that the animals would be scared away from me. I tried taking off my shoes but the rocks cut into my stocking feet. I sat down and cried for a while, because I wasn’t sure if I was lost or if he was lost or if we were both lost or if it was only me. I would remember this feeling years later as I changed the urine pan under his body, the curdling mass of dread for the fact that he had left me.
It was growing dark and my thoughts made the tears came harder. I couldn’t even remember which direction I had to follow the creek to get close enough to the house to see its lights. I could imagine Mother asleep in there by the fire, a bottle tucked under her breast like a nursing doll.
Branches cracked and fell in the woods and the sound of them froze me towards their source. It was dark enough that the shapes changed shape in the darkness. There was no moon and no eyes shone back at me. It was cold then, I realized, and I had been sent out without my jacket. I felt foolish for not having waited until a leaf fell on my forehead while I was walking along the creek bed, so I could wish the sun to stay up until I found him.
The sounds came closer. I was so scared that I gathered up my tears and put them back into my body. I held my hands to my face and licked my palms.
My brother emerged from the forest, and the darkness settled back behind him like a curtain. He was naked to the waist, despite the cold. “Baby,” he said. “Why are you scared?”
“I couldn’t see you,” I said.
“But you knew I was out here, didn’t you?” He seemed thinner than usual, his skin resting loose on his body like a paper bag covering a pear. “You knew all along.”
He knelt down beside me. “And you came out here to find me.”
I nodded again.
He touched my hair, my face. His hand, a branch of his body, was as cold as any branch in the forest. “You’re not scared anymore, are you?”
I shook my head.
He put his face close to my face. There was a wildness in his eyes. “Not even a little bit?”
The air around me was the same as the air inside my body. “No,” I said.
“Come here, then.” He made a cradle in his arms, kneeling on the forest floor. His legs were a bough under my back. “Before we grew hair and got dangerous, we were all babies,” he said, his mouth by my ear, holding me in his arms. “Did you know that, baby?”
“Yes,” I said, a lie, because I could only think of my brother as a fully formed man, even then when he was small. I knew already that he would send our mother away at last so that it could just be the two of us. The scope of our shared future was too much for me and I began to whimper.
“Hush,” he said. “Hush, now.” Our foreheads were naked of leaves. His hands were hands and my body was a nursing doll.
The girl twitched and groaned in bed. She was running a half-marathon in her dreams. Her arms shook. She rolled closer when I lay down beside her, but didn’t wake. I considered the possibility that she was dreaming of the man on the bus and the thought filled me with a mixture of grief and jealousy, because I had saved her from the man and she didn’t yet understand how grateful she should be for my actions. I pictured her bloody in an alley, her stomach ripped with a shard of mirrored glass. I imagined her body disconnected and oozing like a bisected worm, scattered across a public park. I thought of her hair tied to a buoy, a gleam of white bone from her open throat catching a fisherman’s eye. But here she was, despite my considerations, whole within her reliable container.
I edged closer and when she sensed my warmth, she cuddled up under my arm. Her lips were planted on the skin stretched between my armpit and my breast. I was naked from the shower and she was fully dressed but curled her body around mine like she had been woven from wisps of smoke.She pretended to be asleep for a while, and then her eyes opened and she looked at the wall. After a while, I got up to make us some dinner.
“Do you like tomato soup?” I asked from the kitchen. “I don’t have any milk, but I can make it with water.”
There was no answer from the bed.
“Tomato?” I asked. “Or chicken and stars?”
She was sitting up with her back to me.
I was holding the can of chicken and stars. “Here’s what we’ll eat if we have chicken and stars,” I said, reading the label. “Chicken stock, enriched macaroni product, including wheat flour, egg white solids, niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid.”
The girl didn’t respond, which sent a quick wave of fury through me. “Do you hear me? Cooked chicken meat,” I said, louder. “Carrots, modified wheat starch, lower sodium natural sea salt, chicken fat, celery, cooked mechanically separated chicken, monosodium glutamate, salt, sugar, maltodextrin, onions, corn oil, yeast extract.”
She wouldn’t even look at me. Putting down the can, I went to sit beside her on the bed. She was still for a moment, but reached for my offered hand. I put my other arm around her and leaned my head on her shoulder.
“Modified food starch,” I said. “Spice extract, cornstarch, beta carotene, soy protein isolate, sodium phosphate and chicken flavor, which contains chicken powder.” I held her close. “It’s important to realize all of the angles,” I said.
She got up and let me lead her to the table, where she sat quietly while I made lunch. She stared at the bowl I set at her place, at the spoon, her hands, the table. We were going to have such a fine time together. Lucky girls like her didn’t have the capacity to be truly grateful, so I felt grateful for her.