I managed to get a job at a summer camp in Maine but had to start as soon as classes ended because the owner needed extra work done on the place. It killed any shot at an actual summer vacation, but I needed the money if I wanted to live off-campus next semester. One of the few good things about the situation was that the camp was in the middle of nowhere, so I would have nothing to spend my money on. My wrestling coach hated the idea but helped me put together a workout regimen to keep my skills sharp.
I sat on the bus watching the crowd of people boarding. I had arrived early to get the seats farthest from the driver. The bathroom was next to me, which was a minus, but no one could sit behind me, which was a bigger plus. I took a bus to the campus my first semester and learned that three angles of attack by the odor and nastier habits of people were too many. I had put my backpack on the seat next to me hoping that it would prevent other people from sitting there.
The traffic to the bus died quickly, and the bus driver got in.
I started to think I was having a lucky bus trip when sporadic traffic from the terminal to the bus started again. The bus driver started to get in and out of the bus, anxious to get going. A mass of people came out of the station and headed towards my bus.
I counted heads and came up with a good chance of having a partner.
She broke from the pack suddenly.
It was a girl/woman about my age, long blonde hair streaming back as she ran for the bus, obviously hoping for some kind of choice in seating. She hit the door of the bus, made a rough turn, and jetted towards the back. She hit a wall when she saw me.
She was pretty in that cookie cutter way that women my age can be; young, fresh, and still carrying innocence. At the time, though, two things crossed my mind: 1) female, which is always the preferred choice on an extended trip if you HAVE to sit next to someone, and 2) she did not look like she would acquire a ripe stench after a few hours in the bus, or even after more than a few.
She looked at me.
A brief flash of recognition passed between us and I thought I might have seen her on campus a few times. Then her face settled into exasperation at my having gotten there first. I took my backpack off the seat next to me. I saw the beginning of a sniff at the suggestion. I raised a hand to stop her from making a decision we might both regret. I pointed to a gentleman in the same aisle she occupied. I could not see him, but it did not take mathematical genius to know he was taking up more space than offered by his own seat.
She looked at him and walked quickly towards me. She took off her book bag and threw it into the overhead rack. I smiled as she plopped down.
"Don't think I'm gonna forgive you that easily for taking my seat," she said. I could hear a hint of laughter in her voice as she looked at the incoming crowd and shuddered.
"I'll be quiet. I swear! I won't even talk to you," I told her.
She looked at me strangely for a second before returning to counting the people getting on the bus. She was wearing a pair of jean shorts with a sweatshirt bearing our school crest.
"I think we might get lucky," I said.
"How?" she asked, looking at me briefly.
"They look like family, or at least close friends. They're gonna want to stick together. The chairs in the middle are their best bet. The loners look mean; they'll want to be in the middle, too, just to make the family people uncomfortable about talking. I already counted and there's just enough to leave the back rows empty," I explained while pointing out different people to her.
"Good!" she said with some passion.
I looked at her for a second. "First time on a bus?" I asked. She nodded. "You're not supposed to be on this bus?" I asked her.
"No," she said guiltily. "My parents sent me a plane ticket but they couldn't come get me. I'm supposed to take a cab home, so I returned the ticket for the cash."
"And pocketed the difference between the bus fare and the plane ticket?" I finished for her.
She started to nod but changed her mind.
She leaned against the bathroom wall and crossed her legs on the seat. She was watching our bus mates intently for anyone crossing into our designated territory. The bus stopped filling up with the closest anyone had gotten to us being two rows in front of us. There seemed to be many people on the bus who wanted to sit in groups.
"You can stay back here," I said. She looked at me, confused. "I'm harmless, I swear."
She rolled her eyes. I tried to smile innocently. "You should sit back here for now. If you move up now and someone notices you, they might come back and sit down with you. Then you'd have to deal with someone hitting on you until one of you gets off."
"And you won't?" she said smiling.
I tilted my head to one side. "I'll make you a deal," I offered, "but only because I really don't want to HAVE to hear somebody hit on you for the rest of my bus ride."
"The jealous type?" she said, arching her eyebrows.
I hesitated at the playful tone in her voice before continuing. "You protect me from having to give this seat to someone else, and I won't hit on you."
"Yeah. This bus stops in other places and picks up people. Let's them off, too, but we could get unlucky."
Her hand flew out so we could shake on it.
I liked cookies, but not having to share a seat with someone bigger than her was a good enough reason to kill any shot with her. I was coming off an unlucky cookie jar year, so why ruin a perfect record.
I settled back as the bus driver started the bus. We pulled out of the station. Most of the stress from finals and moving out that I had been ignoring hit me at once. My body just dropped into exhaustion. I put my head back and looked up at the overhead rack; my eyes were barely able to focus. I had stayed up most of the night trying to make sure I did not miss the bus, making sure I left the room perfect, and trying to figure out how the hell the next semester would work for me. I closed my eyes and let the rumble of the bus knock me into a deep slumber.
A whinily insistent voice woke me. "Excuuse me, I neeed to uuse the bathruum."
I opened my eyes slowly, knowing if I let the voice wake me too suddenly I was going to bash its owner's head in.
We had both fallen asleep and our bodies had come to an accommodation. She had her back to me, lying mostly on my hip and legs. Her legs were sticking into the aisle, blocking the bathroom door. I was lying with my head to the window, my legs in her leg space.
"Excuuse me," the voice came again, louder and more insistent.
This time it woke her. She sat up and backed away from the woman, pressing herself tightly against me. I got my arm out of her way. I had nowhere to put it but around her. She latched onto it, not knowing why the hell this woman was almost yelling at us, but hoping for some kind of support.
The woman opened the bathroom door while staring at us angrily. We made eye contact and I absorbed the challenge in her eyes. She huffed and entered the bathroom. The girl turned and moved away from me. She was looking at me with her eyes wide. I started laughing and she immediately broke into laughter with me.
"Excuuse me," she mimicked in between bouts of laughter.
We quieted down when the bathroom door opened. The woman looked down her nose at us before walking towards the front of the bus.
"Excuuse me," the girl mimicked again.
We smiled at each other. I tried to stretch as much as I could. She tried the same thing with as good a result. I paid careful attention to her motions. She had removed the sweatshirt and the stretching was doing fascinating things to the front of her t-shirt. I stopped looking when she made eye contact.
She was smiling at me.
The bus driver used the intercom to tell everyone we would be making a food stop.
I looked at my watch and said, "When did you fall asleep?"
"About 30 seconds after you did," she replied, giggling.
"Hey, we'll get to use a good bathroom." She nodded in appreciation.
"Can we eat there or do we have to bring it back?" she asked.
"We eat there. We will probably get like a half hour, especially if it's a pick-up spot. They'll have to unload baggage and take on new passengers."
"But someone could take our seats," she protested.
I pointed at the overhead rack saying, "We put the bags on the seats making it obvious someone is sitting here." She nodded her head in understanding.
"By the way, my name is Elvis," I said.
She looked at me strangely. I was slowly getting used to how openly expressive her face was and my ability to classify her looks only somewhere between funny and strange.
"Ask my mom. I had nothing to do with it."
"Jessica," she told me with a brief smile.
We looked forward as the bus made the turn into the station. The bus came to a full stop and people started piling out as fast as they could. I saw some pretty rough shoving going on in front. Jessica looked at me and broke into laughter. We waited for everyone to get off the bus before we piled our carryons onto the seats. She stopped halfway down as we were walking to the front to watch the wrestling match that was going on for luggage beside the bus.
"Do they lose baggage?" she asked me.
"No," I replied. "Usually people steal it."
She jetted out of the bus. I had to hold on to the chair because I was laughing so hard. I walked outside to see Jessica shuffling from one foot to the other, occasionally bending down to see where her bags were. She watched the people as they slowly move away from the bus before heading to me.
"It's still there and everyone who is getting off left," she sighed. I broke down into laughter. Her mouth opened into a wide O, and she punched me in the chest. I could not stop laughing. She kept punching me, harder each time.
"All right, all right. I'll stop laughing," I said. "But you looked so scared."
It started me laughing again. She shoved me towards the door of the bus station. I opened the door and motioned her through. She walked just inside the door and stopped. I had not noticed, so I walked right into her. I put my hands on her hips so that she would not fall over. Her hands came down on top of mine for balance.
I looked around to see what had made her stop.
It was the station.
It was dingy.
There was a thin layer of dust over everything. I could see overflowing garbage cans. I took a firmer grip on her hips and walked backwards out of the place with her firmly in tow. She tried to get out faster, so she bumped into me. I noticed how much shorter she was than I was. My crotch hit her just above her ass.
I started an internal chant about some kind of bargain we had made, I think with the devil. I must have spoken aloud, because when we separated she tilted her head to smile at me.
"What was that?" she said, smugness lacing her voice.
"I was cursing our little bargain, the one where I cannot hit on you," I said.
The smug smile dropped off her face in surprise.
I walked to the other side of the bus. I figured there had to be some kind of deli or fast food place around. I tried to remember the stop from Christmas, but it did not help. My mom usually made sure I had enough to eat on the trips. I spotted a deli sign on the corner of the block across the street from us.
"Hey, look," I said, pointing to the deli.
She smiled and started running across the street. I started running after her. We got there almost at the same time.
"Why are we running?" I asked.
"The bus will leave, won't it?" she said.
"Not for another half hour," I told her.
"Do they wait that long?" she asked.
"That's what the sign in the station said," I explained.
We walked inside. The place was much cleaner than the bus station. Jessica noticed the customer bathrooms and headed straight for the women's. I could see the guy behind the counter giving us a smile that said he had seen people like us many times before.
I gave him a friendly greeting proceeding to order a sub and some potato salad. I started looking around for some food I could safely take on the bus and a canister of air freshener.
I heard Jessica ordering behind me as I was trying to decide between scented or unscented. She came up beside me to watch what I was doing.
"Which do you prefer, scented or unscented?" I asked her.
"What do you need that for?" she asked back.
"The fat guy was eating in the station and he didn't take any luggage off the bus. I think he's in for the long haul and I saw wet spots around his armpits."
"It can't get that bad," she said, trying to say it knowingly.
The counter guy broke out into laughter. She turned around to look at the counter guy. "Listen to the boy, miss. He's speaking the gospel truth," he informed her.
She turned around and grabbed the biggest canister on the rack, turned to look at me. "I'll split the cost with you."
"Done," I said. We paid as soon as the sandwiches were made.
I headed out the door and to the bus. She hurried to catch up with me. "What's the hurry?" she asked me.
"The bus," I said.
"But it isn't leaving for a half hour," she said trying to get a potato chip in her mouth and keep up with me.
"Ah, but that's what the sign said. It doesn't mean the bus driver can't catch a 'tude and leave early." I started running for the bus. I heard an angry gasp behind me, then her steps chasing me.
We made it around the front of the bus. I looked inside and saw no bus driver. "We're cool," I said over my shoulder. I moved to sit on the step up to the station. She sat down next to me.
"You were just fucking with me, weren't you?" she asked me as she looked for a way to attack the huge sub she had bought.
I looked over at her. I had gotten less stuff on mine. I wanted to laugh because she could not figure out how to eat it.
She bumped me with her hip. She decided to take the sub apart and make it a salad; at least that's what it looked like when she spread it out on her napkin-covered lap.
We started eating in relative peace.
"Why'd you take the bus over the flight?" I asked her, trying to find any sign of pickles in my sub.
She mumbled something.
"Why'd you take the bus over the flight?" I asked again.
She sighed and looked at me in frustration. I smiled at her. "I painted my room," she said, attacking the sub angrily.
"My roommate and I are art majors; so we got this bright idea to paint murals on our walls, ceilings, and floors."
I started choking from the laughter.
"It looked pretty cool," she protested.
I nodded, trying not to spit food from laughing.
She punched me. "I didn't know the school charged you so much for painting your room back to that ugly off-white."
"Please, just stop!" I managed to wheeze out. My stomach was beginning to hurt from laughing.
She carefully laid her sandwich down, took mine out of my hands, and pounced on top of me; punching me repeatedly.
"Okay, okay!" I managed to get out.
She punched me one last time for good measure before she went back to eating her sandwich.
"So how was your freshman year?" she asked in an obvious bid to change the subject.
"Not great, but I got everything done I needed to get done. So I guess it was all right."
"That wasn't really informative."
"Well, you could have been more specific."
"All right, what was the best part of last year for you?"
"Only, if you answer each question, too," I replied.
"Okay, that's fair." She had for the most part done enough damage to the sub it seemed. She started to clean herself off.
"The best part of my freshman year?" I thought about it for a few minutes before I answered.
"Two things. I made dean's list both semesters and earned the varsity slot in my weight class."
"Oh, a scholarly jock."
I could taste the disdain in her voice.
"That from someone who painted murals on her dorm room walls."
"Hey, jerk! Those paintings had meaning."
"Uh-huh ... expensive meaning." I couldn't hold the laughter in again.
She sniffed and looked away until I got control again.
"So what was the best part of your year?" I asked her, wiping my hands to get rid of the lettuce stuck on them.
"Painting my room," she said brightly.
I tried not to laugh.
"And making the dean's list for both semesters." She said it smugly.
"Ahh, the scholarly artsy-fartsy type, huh?"
She gave me a mean look. I decided it might be best to leave all of that right where it was.
"So what was the worst part," she asked me.
"Can I plead the Fifth?" I asked, trying not to smile remembering the scene with my mom.
"Oh, no! If you answer it, I'll answer it. But you have to be honest."
"How do I know if I'm honest that you'll be honest?" I asked her.
"You don't, but then again I don't know if you're being honest, do I?" she replied.
"All right. The worst part, huh?"
She nodded vigorously.
"Six unused condom boxes," I replied, blushing.
"What?" she said looking at me with intense curiosity.
"It was my mom. I swear," I said, blushing even more.
"What does your mom have to do with six unused condom boxes?" she asked, obviously trying to hold back laughter.
"Well, I was going away. She thought, you know, college, freedom, sexual experimentation, AIDS, herpes," I said trying to imitate my mom's voice, "and God knows what else. She decided to make sure I would be safe. Now, I have to explain to her why not one of the boxes is open."
She started laughing.
"Hey, it's not funny. She is not going to believe I didn't have sex. She's just going to assume I didn't use them when I was having sex."
She laughed even harder. "Why don't you just lie?"
"You don't know my mom. I can't lie to her worth shit."
The bus driver started heading for the bus; so I got up and reached down to help her up. She kept laughing as I pushed her towards the bus.
She got in the bus and started heading towards our seats while slowly regaining control. She handed bags to me so I could put them into the overhead and then let me into the window seat.
She sat down.
"Okay, what was the worst part of your year, then?"
"Paying for the rooms being painted over," she said before breaking down into laughter again. I joined her for a few minutes.
We finally stopped.
"Come on, be serious. I admitted I spent the entire year sexless. You can at least be honest with me."
"All right, all right. The worst part," she quieted down and looked out the window past me. "I guess my roommate's boyfriend," she said.
I looked at her curiously.
"He was always around. That kept pointing out that I did not have anyone. Anytime we went out, I was that third wheel. It kinda sucked."
"It would have been easier if Mark hadn't tried to fix me up with every guy that he knew."
"What was wrong with them?"
"Mark is the artsy type, so all he knows are artsy guys. Have you ever met artsy guys?" she asked me.
"Umm, no. They usually avoid jocky guys."
She laughed at that but continued, "Well, they are probably as bad as I think the jocky guys are."
"Ohh," I said. "How come only this Mark tried to fix you up, why not your roommate, too?"
"It was a stroke of genius."
"Okay, after the third dating disaster, I cut a deal with my roomy. I would go with her to all the sporting events her boyfriend wouldn't go to with her, and she wouldn't even mention my all-alone status or how this guy was just so right for me."
"Sporting events?" I asked.
"She's a jocky-artsy type."
"It's a really long story."
"I have time," I said pointing at the rest of the bus.
"Okay, her dad wanted a little boy, but instead he got four little girls. So when my roomy was born and her mom couldn't have any more children, he decided this new little girl was all his to raise how he wanted. So she played Little League, Peewee Football, got to talk to her daddy about sports, and now she watches sports, and loves sports etc., etc."