“Here’s the problem,” the German is saying. “You say you want to be alone, and then I turn around and find you with another guy.” He’s standing above me, holding onto one of the bus’s overhead straps. His nails are dirty, a thin smile of darkness at the end of each finger. The lights of Vancouver shoot by in the windows behind him.
“I told you, he came up to me.”
“You didn’t have to accept the drink.”
“It’s not like you were going to buy me one.”
He stares me down, his eyes red and unattractive. “You’ve made it very clear you don’t want anything from me.”
He’s mad because I won’t sleep with him. This morning, he found me sleeping the wrong way in the hotel bed, my feet touching the place on his head where he’ll be bald in a few years. I explained to him that it was a matter of getting rest—I couldn’t stand the sound of his breathing, the oniony smell of his breath.
“I invite you on holiday and this is how you thank me—by flirting with other men right in front of my face. You’re a spoiled American. That’s what you are.”
Before I can retaliate, a man boards the bus. He’s drunk—dunker than either the German or I—and it’s obvious he’s ready to make a show. He’s a biker type, with a leather jacket and a faded paisley bandana, thin but for the fact that he’s nine-months pregnant with a beer baby. He’s recently dyed his hair. Cute, I think. Such useless vanity. He takes the seat across from me, lets his legs fall open in the way men do. When an ambulance goes by he says, “There goes the meat wagon!” He looks at me, hungry for engagement. I look down, clean my fingernails with a paperclip.
Above me, the German sighs. He’s always sighing, like a dying balloon. He does not want any distractions, not when he’s in the middle of making some point that might win me back or, at the very least, hurt my feelings. He doesn’t know it’s too late, that even the powder smell of his deodorant now turns my stomach.
“Don’t you just hate riding the bus?” the biker asks, looking at me.
“I do,” I say. “There’s a complete lack of privacy.”
“That’s exactly it,” he says. “No privacy. No freedom. Anyone in their right mind would rather be on a bike. I recently lost my license—for technical reasons—but any other night you couldn’t pay me to ride the bus. It’d be just me and the road. Me and my bike.” He grins, revealing a mouth of bad dental work. “Hey,” he says. “Ask me how I got my first bike.”
The German clears his throat. “Listen, friend. She doesn’t want to talk to you.”
“No, I want to hear the story,” I say. “Go on.”
The biker doesn’t notice there’s tension between the German and me—he’s too excited to have an audience. “All right. So my wife, or my ex-wife or whatever, she and I had just gotten back from our honeymoon cruise. We had all this money from our wedding—checks and envelopes just stuffed with cash. We did the math and decided we each got to pick one big thing. She bought a big King-sized bed that went up and down with a little remote. I got my chopper. Only three grand and some change. Can you believe it?”
“Wow,” I say. “I almost can’t.”
He keeps on, despite the German’s sighs. “I remember my first ride, coming down from Whistler, just burning up. Pulled up to the station with smoke piling out behind me. How embarrassing. Just burning up on the mountain. Didn’t know a thing what I was doing. I was so young, eh? Just a kid. A little baby on wheels. All smoke and no fire. Just like you,” he says, and points at me. “How old are you, dear? Seventeen? Eighteen? You couldn’t be a day over twenty, eh?”
“I’m twenty-five,” I say, the annoyance clear in my voice. Our stop is still more than half an hour away, on Barnaby Mountain, where the hotels are cheaper. This city is all about its mountains, the complete opposite of Kansas, where the German and I met. Here, the land rises and gathers around the edge of the city, a silhouette of hunched gangsters. Going blue to black to white.
Meanwhile, the German’s knee keeps bumping into mine. Every time, an avalanche of disgust.
“Sounds like you’re a bit of a sour-puss,” the biker says, loud enough that the whole bus can hear. “What’s there to be sad about on a night like this? We’re going up a mountain, if you didn’t notice. We’re alive on God’s green earth.”
“She’s sour because she hates me,” says the German.
“That so?” the biker says. “Well then give her a little kiss, eh? Cheer her up!”
Before I can say anything, the bus stops and everyone must rearrange. The German steps toward me to make room for a group of girls to pile out. I make a mean face at him, but he’s not looking. He’s watching the people, who are all bursting with kindness. It comes easily here, at little cost. The Canadians are all please and excuse me and sorry, sorry, sorry. People get off the bus and call “Thank you!” to the driver. Incredible.
There’s a scuffle at the back door, which isn’t opening. When it finally does, a girl walks through and everyone on the bus goes quiet. She looks like death come to retrieve us. White makeup gone grey around the eyes. Shaved head. Face so gaunt you could sharpen a knife with her jawbone. Her body is loaded with silver hoops and hooks, like a trout on a bad day. In a way, she’s quite beautiful. Big, watery eyes and a small red petal mouth. Skin like week old snow.
“Hey, what do you think about a girl like that?” the biker asks the German.
The German looks annoyed, then seems to reconsider. “She probably has more of a pulse than this one,” he says, gesturing toward me.
The biker roars. “Woah! That’s hurtful, man. She must really have your nuts in a bind.”
“You can all go screw yourselves,” I say, and scoot down a few seats, so that I’m next to the skeleton.
“It’s true,” the German says. “I don’t even know what I did. One minute everything’s fine. She’s kissing me. Saying she’ll miss me when I leave for Germany. And then next she’s like ice. I did nothing. Nothing to deserve this…this…meanness. Like I’ve dragged her here by the hair.”
It’s true, he didn’t drag me here by the hair. I agreed to this trip because I had nothing better to do—no job or obligations until school starts in the fall. If nothing else, I figured I could escape the heat in Kansas, where I have to sleep naked with a portable fan roaring beside my head. I figured that in Canada, the German and I could keep the windows open. It would be all cool breezes and maple leaves, poutine fries and moose. We were barely off the plane when I really saw him: the shock of his thin, dry lips—like two dead grubs rubbing bellies. Sideburns. Glasses. He’s smart, smarter than me, but in a bookish way that screams academia. The best thing about him is where he’s from, even though seventy years ago his people tried to eradicate mine. We joked about it in the beginning—his grandparents shouting Achtung! at mine. It was, after all, his accent that first got me. I have a thing for voices, for language. I’ve been known to sleep with men because of the way they pronounce the word photography. The German’s not nearly as bad as some of the other foreigners: the Israeli who slept with a knife, the Ukrainian who wouldn’t kiss me on the lips because he found my mouth unsanitary. Anybody would agree that the German is a good catch. He’s nice, opens doors, pays for things—like this trip—but at the end of the week he flies back to Germany, and I will likely never see him again. I’ve talked about visiting, but I know it will never happen. Whether he thinks it will is none of my business. Either way, our fling has a deadline. Maybe because of this, he’s started to let loose his English, shaking off words like they’re mosquitoes. Just this morning he referred to a bagel as a muffin. Once he said it, I could barely share his coffee without feeling sick.
An ex-boyfriend once told me I have a heart that changes sizes. I’d dumped him on his birthday, via text message. I try not to think of this now, with the German. It’s totally different. I’m older, the German is the German. He keeps on, telling the bus that I’m selfish and a prude. I look over and see the skeleton smiling at him, her red lips twitching.
“Is that your boyfriend?” she asks me.
I’m surprised that she speaks—I imaged her voiceless, that if she opened her mouth a spider would crawl out instead of words. But her voice is smooth and kind, something that could sell bubble bath on commercials. I say, “No, but he probably thinks he is. We’re just travelling together.”
“He’s beautiful,” she says. “I like his nose. Makes him look like a professor.”
“He is a professor.”
“You’re kidding. How funny.” She smiles to herself, like she’s guessed the correct number of jellybeans in a jar. Maybe she’s high. Who cares.
“You can have him if you want him. But just so you know, he has an expiration date. He goes back to Germany on Monday.”
“That so?” She looks down to her lap, where her hands lay one on top of the other. She has nice hands. Long, slender fingers with round nails. They’re painted with a layer of clear polish.
“Come give your man a kiss, eh?” the biker is saying to me. “Make the world right. It’s a beautiful night for love in Vancouver!”
I give him the finger. He’s amused to see me angry, like I’m a zoo monkey hurling my own shit.
“Come on, sweetheart!” the biker sings. “Give our man a kiss! Look how sad he is! Kiss him! Kiss him!”
It takes a minute, but eventually the whole bus is chanting. Everyone’s drunk and I’m burning up, my face a flame. I think of whether I can transfer hotels, maybe sleep in the lobby. Could I change my plane ticket? Maybe get a direct flight back to Kansas City? The bus grows louder, and I wonder why the driver doesn’t say something. Perhaps he does, but we can’t hear him over the chanting. Kiss him, kiss him!
Beside me, the skeleton rises. “Watch this,” she says and then moves toward the German. She walks like an insect, fluid on thin legs. Crawling toward him. The biker doesn’t seem to see what will happen, but I do. Her red lips on the German’s thin, dry mouth. They move together. A flash of pink tongue. I’m not completely disgusted. It’s a good kiss. Tender. His giant hands move to the small of her back, where a silver chain hangs loose from her black mesh vest. I notice yet another silver hoop, at the bottom of her spine, where her back becomes her butt-crack. How does that even work?
The biker goes wild as the kiss continues, going deeper and deeper. I’m frozen between anger and laughter. We are coming to a stop now. A small crowd of people are gathered near the doors. They’ve missed everything. Poor them.
When the skeleton pulls away from the German, the bus erupts into applause. I do not clap, but I hum, a single note that gets lost in the commotion. It’s moments like this that I wish I were something other than a writer—a dentist, a janitor, one of those people who give change at a tollbooth. Anything to feel productive, to have something to lean back on and say: It’s all right that I’m humiliated, because at the end of the day, I’m doing good work in this world.
I catch the skeleton’s eye as she grabs the German’s hand and leads him off the bus. Where is she taking him? To a party with strobe lights? To her home? What does a girl like her look like at home? What kind of pajamas? I’m thinking little cotton skulls and crossbones, tiny red swastikas, but that’s probably too obvious. Maybe she sleeps naked, or in a ratty white t-shirt. I picture the German’s long arms around her, enveloping her. They will sleep well like this, entwined. A breeze will cough through a window above them.
When the bus pulls away, I’m left with the ugly image of myself that the German will wake up with tomorrow morning. Emotionally, everything feels like static. Practically, I do not have a key to our hotel. I cannot even remember the room number. I’ve been following the German the whole time, blindly trailing behind him like the tail of a comet. What now?
The biker gets up and takes the seat beside me. A smell of alcohol radiates from his body as he puts his hand on my knee and squeezes. “Rough night, eh?”
“You don’t deserve to be alone—a pretty girl like you. He’ll come to his senses, I’m sure. In the morning.”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s moving. And I don’t like him.”
“Well then.” He smiles, pats my knee. “Aren’t you the smart one?”
The bus stops and he rises, totters toward the doors. He flashes me a smile before stepping off. “Thank you!” he calls to the driver, who waves a hand in the rearview mirror.
For a moment, everything is still. Then the doors close, sealing me in.
About the Author: Becky Mandelbaum is from Kansas but is currently pursuing an MA in English at the University of California in Davis. She is the winner of the Lawrence Arts Center’s 2013 Langston Hughes Award for fiction, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in South Dakota Review, Midwestern Gothic, and Kansas City Voices.
Artwork: Adam Loewen