April 4, 2016 by The Citron Review
by Jeffrey Ricker
After a while you start to take note of the drivers you encounter. There’s the one who drives very carefully when the bus is packed, and the one who drives like he’s Sandra Bullock in Speed. One always looks tired; another always looks in the mirror as if he suspects the passengers are up to something. This one’s chatty. That one plays the “please move to the rear of the bus” recording way too often.
There’s one who smiles at you whenever you get on board. He has a tattoo sleeve on his right arm; it peeks out from underneath his shirt and you wonder how far up his arm it goes, and if he has any in other places.
You get on one morning and, when he smiles at you, he also says good morning and asks how you are. You smile and hope that you’re not smiling too much, just a little, the way he’s smiling. You say you’re doing okay. You sit at the single-person chair, no other seat next to it, behind the driver’s seat. It’s the only seat open. He starts asking you questions, making small talk, which is also a change from most days. From all days, really. Before today you don’t recall ever exchanging a word with him except perhaps to say thank you when you got off the bus.
Already at this point you know where you want this to go, but you try not to think about that.
Somewhere between Granville and Cambie you get his name—Mark—and when he asks your name, you make one up. Why the lie? You don’t know. He says he’s noticed you don’t ride the bus on a set schedule and asks you what you do for a living. You feel somehow exposed, unmasked by this stranger with the tattoo sleeve who’s noticed you when you thought you were the one noticing him.
When he asks if you’re a student, you laugh and say no, you’re way too old for that, you’re just between jobs. He says that must be stressful and you say not really, you’ve got enough to get by for a while. This is another lie. You haven’t worked in over a year. Unemployment keeps you up at night or wakes you from what you thought was a sound sleep only to find yourself lying on sweat-soaked sheets with your heart racing. Because you don’t have enough to get by on, not for long.
You don’t tell him that, though. Talk like that has scared you off in the past, and you’re still holding out hope for… something.
He asks where you’re going today and you confess—it feels like a confession, at least—that there’s no place you have to be today. In the rearview mirror, his smile unfurls, a bloom opening wide. Game on.
You stay on until the end of his route. When he gets to the last stop he says you have to get off. He’s taking the bus to the garage around the corner and then clocking out, but he’ll be back as soon as he can after that. You stand on the corner—it’s hot and sunny, a perfect August day—and when he comes jogging up the street toward you, he looks not quite as tall as you imagined him to be when he was seated behind the big wheel of the bus. But he’s still handsome and dark haired and a little scruffy, and you like that. You respond to that. Your hope is an ache that’s almost audible.
It’s a little after noon and you suggest a pub, which he counters with a coffee shop—he doesn’t drink, he tells you. So you go for lattes and cinnamon rolls and he tells you about growing up in a small town in the interior and how he couldn’t wait to leave and get to the big city, although even here he doesn’t feel quite like he fits in. Sometimes he thinks of going back, but he’s better off here (which sounds like something he’s trying to convince himself of when he tells you this). And anyway, he never thought he would love driving a bus, but it makes him feel like he’s doing something that’s needed.
At some point, you tell him your real name, and you don’t know why you didn’t tell him right away but you want him to know your real name. Because you like him. You don’t tell him that last part, but you feel it.
He brushes his index finger along the side of your hand, where it’s curled around your mug, and he says, Would you like to come back to my place?
And you would. So you do.
He has you up against the wall even before he’s kicked the front door shut behind the two of you. His mouth on yours, the insistence takes you by surprise but not so much that you don’t know what to do. It’s been looping in your head, like a premonition.
You slide your hands under his shirt and lift it off. The tattoo sleeve goes from his wrist to his shoulder, a school of fish twisting their way up and down at the same time. You undo his belt and coax his jeans down over his hips. Another tattoo, a snake this time, circles his left leg from just below his knee to just above where the jeans pool around his ankles.
He guides you toward his bed—it’s a studio apartment so the bed’s just across the room, underneath the big window that overlooks the street. He penguin walks you in that direction, his shoes still on and his jeans around his ankles. You giggle, how funny you both look walking like that, but you don’t want to turn around to watch where you’re going because then you’d have to take your eyes and your hands off him. The backs of your knees brush the edge of the bed and he nudges you gently, not too hard, sending you tumbling backward onto the mattress, onto the plain white sheets that smell like him.
There’s an apartment building across the street but Mark doesn’t pull the curtains shut before he yanks your shoes off and lifts your legs—he’s a little rough, but you don’t mind that, you kind of like it—so he can take your jeans off, too. It’s the middle of the afternoon anyway and probably no one is home unless they work an early shift or are out of work. That’s the one thing you can’t get out of your mind no matter how hard you wish you could, even now when both of you are in nothing but your underwear and he’s making that ache reach airplane decibel levels each time he grinds his hips against yours. How precarious everything about your situation is, how you could be out on your ass next month or the month after if one of the dozen jobs you’ve applied for doesn’t call back. Sure, you could go home to your parents if you had to—not because you want to, but because you know they would take you in—but that would be an even greater humiliation than being unemployed: being thirty-four and forced to live at home again.
Now Mark has slipped his hand under the elastic at your waist. His palm, callused, scrapes and kind of hurts but you don’t ask him to ease up, mainly because his mouth is still on yours and has been since you both landed on the bed, but also because you don’t want to be let go of. You mirror his moves; he moans against your mouth and tugs at your underwear so forcefully that you think you hear them tear.
There’s always a rush of excitement the first time you’re naked with someone, the shiver of desire mixed with fear of what they think when they see all of you and the myriad ways in which your body has betrayed you: the softness around the middle, the veins in your ankles, the archipelago-shaped birthmark over your left hip. If any of it registers with Mark, he doesn’t let on as he slides up the entire length of your body, kissing you again. His body is fit, hairy in the right places. Unfair, it seems, considering his workday involves sitting behind a steering wheel. Still, you consider yourself lucky. Punching above your weight to land someone like this, even for an afternoon.
Though you wouldn’t mind more than an afternoon. You allow yourself this thought even as you chide yourself for it, but you like Mark so far—and he seems to like you given what he’s now doing to you below the waist—and that’s something besides employment that’s been missing from your life.
Now it’s the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday and you’re over-caffeinated and lying on your back while he’s down there doing things that make you think of—actually, they make you not think, finally, for the first time in ages. You’re not thinking and that means you’re not worrying. For once.
Afterwards, he falls asleep before you. He’s nestled next to you, curled up almost like a cat in the bend of your arm with his head resting on your chest and one arm draped across your belly. At first you thought he was going to say something—he made a little mumbling noise right before his breathing got heavier—but now you’re watching the sunlight stripe the side of his leg; the left leg, where the snake coils. Then you’re staring at the ceiling and then you’re asleep.
You’re not sure at first how much time has passed when you wake up. He’s still lying in the same place, the sun has slid down his leg, and your arm has fallen asleep. You gently extract your arm from beneath him and sit up to begin the process of gathering your clothes, which are scattered across the floor like milkweed. Mark doesn’t stir until you’re putting your shoes on. He smiles in that happy, half-asleep way that people get after they’ve just gotten lucky, a look you haven’t seen in a while, and it makes you lean across the bed again and kiss him, one hand sinking into the mattress and the other braced against his chest. He asks if you have to go and you tell him you do even though you don’t. You hesitate, then he hesitates before he smiles again and curls up tighter and pulls the sheet around him.
Okay, he says, his voice milky with drowsiness.
It’s not until you’re outside that you realize you don’t have his phone number and didn’t give him yours. You could go back upstairs and knock, but he’s probably already fallen asleep again. You want to let him sleep, because maybe he’s dreaming already. Dreaming something happy.
You ride the bus home—it’s the speed demon this time. You wish it were the one who drives very slowly so that you could float in this in-betweenness a while longer. But your stop arrives sooner than you expect and you have to hurry to get off before the door shuts again. When you’re standing on the sidewalk once more, even though this is your neighborhood and your building is just a block over, you’re not sure which way to go. You’re not ready to be home yet.
When you get on the bus the next day, it’s the driver who plays the “please move to the rear of the bus” recording too often. You squeeze as far back as you can, which isn’t even halfway to the middle. The recording plays three more times before the bus finally starts moving. You’ve got nowhere to be—none of the job applications you sent out have gotten a response yet—so you ride a few stops and get off, cross the street, and wait for a bus back home. You try not to be disappointed—you don’t see Mark on this route every day, after all, and you didn’t make plans to see each other, so it’s not like you can blame him for not being there. Even though in the back of your mind you can’t help but think this is another application you’ve filled out that won’t get a callback. And yes, you know where he lives and you could go hang out in his neighborhood in hopes of running into him, but that would seem stalkerish and, worse, a little desperate. Even if you are desperate.
Anyway, there’s always tomorrow. And if you don’t see him tomorrow, there’s always the next day, or the day after that.
So you keep riding the bus.
Jeffrey Ricker is the author of Detours (2011) and the YA fantasy The Unwanted (2014). His stories and essays have appeared in Little Fiction, Aftertastes, and in the anthologies Foolish Hearts: New Gay Fiction, A Family by Any Other Name, and others. A 2014 Lambda Literary Fellow, he has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.