2012 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Runner-up
We wore our winter clothes.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” said Valerie.
We were riding on the bus.
“I want to know.”
We were going to work. We had different stops.
She sat by the window and looked outside. Baltimore with its windows boarded-up.
We’d forgotten about that night, or pretended to. It was easy when we were fucked up on vodka and X or buying coke at 3 a.m.—the next day wasn’t real. We danced on tables, walked in traffic, shared a cab with drag queens, fell down flights of stairs without any bruises. But we woke up real. She would be in the living room, asleep in front of the television. I slept fully clothed in our bed. Later we would stay under our quilt on separate sides of the couch, order subs from Mario’s, watch reruns of Absolutely Fabulous until the street lights came on. Last night didn’t even exist.
I wouldn’t have said anything.
I wanted everything the same.
We had been standing at the bus stop—her shoulder next to mine. She had reached for me as we were getting ready for work, her arm around my waist—I wanted her on top of me again, I wanted the smell of her perfume. But we were waiting for the bus. We talked about Valerie’s new paintings, how much I hated my sculpture class. Our professor wanted us to work with found objects—tinfoil, milk cartons, clothes hangers.
We had met at art school. Valerie grew up in Baltimore—she was black, middle-class. Both of her parents were college professors. My parents came from Argentina. They had worked for years at their friend’s mercado in L.A., selling dulce de leche and empanadas.
Valerie had short braids, wide hips. I was tall, thin with dark blond hair—a white girl to anyone in Baltimore.
No one would have told us we belonged together.
I had mentioned a Greek restaurant I wanted to try.
“Not worth it,” said Valerie.
When did she go?
Our bus had rolled up.
Some people can have arguments and discussions on the bus. They talk about money and shoes and bosses and medication and who has screwed whom and who is more righteous and when will they learn. White people, black—it doesn’t matter.
But my parents never spoke about anything personal in public. Even in private. Los Americanos were insane for telling their lives to strangers.
“When?” I asked.
I knew who it was. That purple-haired girl—they were locked by the hip at the bar that night, one of the nights we didn’t talk about. They pulled away from each other, but I knew they wanted me to leave them alone.
“Paula,” said Valerie.
I felt warm inside my coat, but I kept my gloves and scarf on. The bus moved forward.
“You brought it up,” I said.
The bell rang for a stop—it wasn’t one of ours.
A woman and a child got on the bus. He wore a navy-blue snow jacket, kept rubbing his face. His mother slapped down his hand. They were up front. We sat next to the back exit. The woman yelled at her child, and we could hear them, but we weren’t distracted. This kind of thing happened. You learned to block it out.
“Christmas,” said Valerie. “When you went to L.A.”
The bus pulled forward.
Someone yelled behind us.
A man dressed in a black hooded parka ran next to the bus. He climbed onto the platform, breathing heavily.
I was the only white girl on the bus. I looked white even though my father was half-Brazilian, almost as dark as Valerie. I didn’t know what I was. But I could sit there, not say anything and they would stare at me anyway.
“Did you fuck her?” I asked.
Valerie took off her scarf—worn and gray.
She stared ahead at the front of the bus—the boy in the navy blue snow jacket kicked out his legs. His mother was falling asleep.
“You were with your parents who don’t know I exist,” she said.
“This is not about my parents.”
I wanted everyone on the bus to know everything. I wanted them involved. Maybe someone would be on my side.
The man across the aisle looked at us. He had caught his breath after running for the bus. He shook his head and laughed to himself as if we were some late-night TV show.
I lowered my voice.
“My parents don’t even know I exist.”
“It’s not just that,” said Valerie.
We were downtown where the windows weren’t boarded up. There was construction, sidewalk repairs, bakeries, cafés, hand-crafted furniture stores. Tourists. We got closer to our stops.
“You want too much,” she said.
I stared at the boy in his navy-blue snowsuit. He kicked his legs as he watched his mother sleep. He kicked harder. She opened her eyes and yelled at him again.
I wanted to play with Valerie’s coat buttons, to place my knee against hers, to hold her hand behind her backpack.
She put on her gloves, pressed the tape.
“You’re leaving?” I asked.
She stood up.
I held onto the seat in front of us.
“Move,” she said.
“Trouble in paradise,” said the man across the aisle. He laughed as if no one could hear him.
I stared ahead at the people on the bus who weren’t paying any attention to us. They read the newspaper, listened to headphones, looked out the windows.
We would ride the bus until the end of the line—wherever it went. We would stay on this bus until we knew each other again.
But Valerie stood there. She didn’t give in.
“This is why, Paula,” she said.
I stood in the aisle and let her go.
A woman with shopping bags heaved herself on the bus. The man across the aisle leaned forward in his seat. He waved her over.
My stop was coming up. I stood near the back exit.
People always found each other on the bus in Baltimore. She settled down next to him. They talked about someone who had died. Someone from church.
I held onto Valerie’s scarf. She had left it behind.
The bus pulled away from the stop, moved on.