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Bus TripsSusan Stinson
After I quit my job with no notice at all, I rode home in the long last seat of the bus, the one usually staked out by heavy-lidded boys who held their legs wide apart to claim extra space. I plopped down smack in the middle and put my bag on the seat next to me, as if I were one of them. I felt jostled by potholes -- cocky, reckless, and scared. I pulled a notepad out of my purse with a mild flourish, then leaned it against my knee to begin a list.

I needed to buy food for the trip: oranges, bananas, carrots, crackers. I could bring cheese in a can. Peanut butter. Knives, cups, a package of napkins. I should call my Aunt Frankie and tell her I was coming to see her.

I drew an asterisk, then continued, urgently. Aspirin, toothpaste, asthma spray. A canteen? I was planning so hard that I almost missed the stop for the Big Y.

At the store, I lingered among the produce, falling in love with both the oranges I chose and those I left behind. I bought a sympathy card and stood next to the mail box in front of the store to address it. As I tried to think of what the right words were, it occurred to me that I should have bought two cards: one for Frankie, who had lost a friend, and one for Ida's boys. In the end, I wrote it to Frankie. I said that I was sorry about Ida's death. I added that I was on my way for a visit, which I hoped would not inconvenience her.

Dropping it in the mailbox was a relief. I might get to Texas before the card did, but at least it would be on its way.

When I got to our apartment, I left the groceries on the table in the Big Y bag. Minnaloushe almost knocked it over, but he calmed down after I put out some canned food. I stroked his back while he crouched over the bowl. Suddenly, with a shock like touching an electric fence, I thought of Lilian. I had to let her know that by the time she got home tomorrow, I would be gone.

I had been about to go into full packing mode, but, instead, I moved away from Minnaloushe and sat down at the table. He looked over his shoulder at me, then went back to eating. I fingered the tablecloth and took a slow breath. Lilian.

If I left a message on the machine at the house where she was staying, there was no telling when she would call me back. Lilian was slamming. She would be filled with poetry and adrenaline, distracted. I needed to be looking in her eyes when I told her that I had quit my job so I could leave tomorrow to go spend time with Frankie in Texas, halfway across the country.

Lilian had never met my aunt, but she had watched the stream of packages bring serving spoons, grapefruit knives, Tupperware and sofa sleeves to our door. She said that my aunt's gifts seemed materialistic, which made me bristle. Once she came across some Aunt Jemima potholders from Frankie that I had shoved in the back of a drawer. I had been keeping them hidden but available to use when I was alone with something hot to lift.

When Lilian found the potholders, she slapped them down on top of my plateful of toast. We had to talk. Later, I reluctantly threw them in the dumpster. It was wrong, of course, to use racial stereotypes to sell pancakes, but the folds that Frankie had worn into those potholders fit my hands like nothing else. It was hard to give them up.

Lilian used dish towels to take pans out of the oven. She could be lazy in the kitchen, but she was full of moral energy. I embraced her influence as much as I resisted it.

Now I found the Boston schedule in my files under "B," and followed my finger down the shaded column of departure times. The next bus left at two fifteen and got into Boston at five. If I hurried, I might make it.

I rubbed Minnaloushe on the side of his mouth, grabbed my purse, and rushed out the door. I could hear him complaining all of the way down the stairs. Minnaloushe expected to be combed and toyed with after he ate.

As it was, I got to the bus station out of breath, and bought my round-trip ticket with just minutes to spare. Usually when I traveled, I made careful preparations, but this time I hadn't eaten lunch, and I didn't even have water for the trip.

I tucked my ticket into the zippered compartment of my purse, then checked my watch. I thought with regret of the packing I should be doing, and of the late night I was going to have when I got back from Boston. Tucker had said to be at the regular stop at five in the morning. I went to the counter of the doughnut shop, and ordered a cup of tea with milk. I didn't buy a doughnut. To risk the agitation of sugar on an empty stomach seemed unwise. The man at the cash register had an unlit cigar in his mouth. My bus was announced as he took a drag of air and handed me my change.

The bus was half empty, so I had a seat to myself. I waited with the cup in my hands until we were on the highway, then opened the lid. Heat rose in a soft column through the cooled air. I leaned my face into the steam and took a sip.

It tasted milky, with a mild edge. I held it in my mouth, shivered, swallowed. The cup bent in my hand. I took another sip. As the bus moved along the highway, I drank the tea and left bite marks around the circle of the waxed rim. When the cup was empty, I traced its lines and worried the paper seam with my nails. Tea, heat, milk, and cup brought me back to the nights when I first met Lilian: Tuesdays at seven, I would sit on a folding chair in her used clothes store to drink Earl Grey with cream from a paper cup and let Lilian give me lessons in expression.

I had copied her number off a flyer in the Laundromat, and was part of a small class of earnest adults. She offered transgender-friendly women-only sessions on Wednesdays, but I wanted to be more effective when I spoke up at work, so, for the sake of realism, I preferred a mixed group.

Lilian taught expression by standing in the clearing at the front of her store and listening with motions of her head and body while students read aloud. She checked us for varied tone and nervous habits. She was a big-hipped woman whose clothes made soft sounds as she moved. She was a little smaller than me, or maybe a little larger. I was a bad judge of that.

I wore a corduroy jumper to the first class. Lilian let her fingers brush it and said, "This is nice." I was pretty sure she was a lesbian. She wore nail polish. When I asked, she said the color was plum.

On the last night of the eight week session, Lilian arranged for us to read at the Methodist church. Friends and family were welcome, but there was no one I was ready to invite. I felt awful beforehand, full of clarity as I read from The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, and simply happy afterwards. I wasn't sure of the practical applications, but getting listened to was a pleasure and a relief. Then Lilian got up to read for us.

She wore a short dress with boots and patterned stockings. The pews swept out in front of her in waves of varnished pine with cushions on the seats. There were only twelve in the class, with a spattering of guests, but Lilian filled the room. Her fingers flew with drama. I loved her glamour. She wore eyeliner and read from Yeats.

    That is no country for old men. The young
    In one another's arms, birds in the trees
    -- Those dying generations -- at their song,
    The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
    Fish, flesh or fowl, commend all summer long
    Whatever is begotten, born and dies

Lilian had something conscious in her voice, and also something asleep. I leaned forward to listen, propping my elbows on the back of the next pew, and put both hands over my face. I wasn't getting the full sense of the words, but my body was fluttering. I ran my tongue in circles across my knuckles. My skin tasted of soap. Everyone else was watching Lilian. I bit one knuckle, lightly. I felt a small jolt pass like a breeze up my arms to my elbows, then wash over my breasts and shoulders to my face. Lilian's voice flowed over my head.

She finished. That was unexpected. It took a minute before I could lower my hands to clap. Lilian gathered the applause for a moment, then directed it towards the class. We basked in it until it faded away. Before we left, Lilian passed out class evaluation forms.

I picked up a hymnal and ruffled its pages with damp fingers, then I pulled a pencil from a small hole in the hymnal rack, and wrote on the form under Any Further Comments: "Can I see you again?"

Now I looked out the window, thinking about how well I remembered that poem, with its destination full of smoke and artificial birds. It was about moving towards death, or away from it. I thought of looking it up in one of Lilian's books to copy for Frankie, but I wasn't sure she would have the patience to make it yield a meaning. She was a long-time subscriber to Readers Digest, where articles got right to the point. We passed a deserted factory with the ace of spades painted across a bricked-up window. I was still moved by the sound of Lilian's voice under a poem, even when I didn't follow the words. We'd been together seven years.

The traffic was heavy. We were approaching the city. I had torn the cup into bits of paper, shedding wax. All of the other passengers were facing forward or leaning against windows. Murmurs drifted through the quiet bus.

The driver slowed at a toll booth. I thought of Lilian practicing for the poetry slam the night before she left. She had been sitting on the edge of our bed, saying her poem over and over. I had stroked my palm across her surfaces, listening. Her back had two folds: one where her belly met her thighs, and one under the shoulder blades with a swell where her breasts began. Her hips were textured. When she read her work in public, I found it hard to concentrate. I was distracted by the waves of her body under her clothes, and by wondering if others saw them, if so much motion were safe.

Lilian teased me about underwear. I believed in firm support.

By the time the bus pulled into South Station, I had been thinking of Lilian for hours, but I was no closer to what I wanted to say to her than I had been in the kitchen. All I knew was that I had to see her before I left for Texas. I stood for a moment in the bus port breathing thick exhaust, then went looking for a pay phone to find out how to get to the conference hotel on the T.

I hesitated on the sidewalk outside the hotel, watching a series of calm families carry light luggage through the automated glass doors. Two beautifully dressed men came out holding hands and wearing name tags. I wished I had taken time to change from my blouse and slacks into my linen suit. I surveyed my hair with my fingers. It was too short to stray much. I fished chapstick out of my purse to give my lips protection. I was intimidated by the controlled lushness of the guests, but, more than that, I was nervous about facing Lilian.

I stood there a moment longer, shifting my weight from hip to hip, missing the enclosed starkness of the bus. I considered making use of my time by doing Kegel exercises, but, instead, my pressing need to find a bathroom propelled me through the big glass doors.

An impeccable toilet in a wide stall steadied me. After washing, I helped myself to hand lotion and a free sewing kit shaped like a matchbook. I took a deep breath, nodded at my dependable haircut, tucked in my blouse, and strode back into the lobby.

I found Lilian sitting in Au Bon Pain, leaning across a croissant towards a husky brown-haired woman, who was speaking eagerly. Lilian -- visibly tired, radiant and engaged -- was stroking a paper napkin with the blunt end of a pen. I hurried towards them, dodging tables.

Neither of them noticed my approach, so I touched the strap of Lilian's dress where it had fallen to the soft top of her arm. "Lilian."

She glanced at me casually, a little bit irritated, as if I had interrupted her conversation at our kitchen table, then she startled. "Carline. What's wrong?"

I lifted the strap back to her shoulder, and put my purse down on the table. "Everything's okay. I just need to speak to you."

Lilian thrummed her fingers against the table. The napkin fluttered. Coffee shook in their cups. I took a step back to watch her. Her name tag shone in its plastic cover. The cafe was brightly lit.

Lilian slid her palm across the table to touch her friend's hand, and said, "This is Carline, my lover."

The woman smiled, alert and friendly. I was glad to hear the word, "lover," a strong acknowledgment of me. Lilian's poems made people feel that they were close to her very quickly, but she kept a careful public face. Sometimes I felt slighted by what she didn't let show.

Now she turned to me. "This is Cordelia. She's a fine poet."

Cordelia laughed, touched her own cheeks. "Pleased to meet you," she said.

I liked her, but I needed her to be gone. I pulled my billfold out of my purse. "I'll get something to eat."

I bought roast beef and brie on a roll, with an orange juice. By the time I got back to the table, Cordelia was standing beside Lilian's chair, handing her a skinny, yellow book. "See you in the semifinals," she said.

Lilian dropped the book into her bag. I sat down. She looked at me and opened her hands in the air, available. "What's going on?"

I picked up my fork, then put it down. "How's the slam? Did I hear Cordelia say you made the semis?"

She sat up straighter. Her hips curved over the sides of the small chair. Her voice got sharp. "Carline, why are you here?"

I stuck my hand in my pants pockets and stared at my plate. She waited, fingering her cheap plastic pen, trying to sheathe her impatience. I had come all this way. I had to talk.

Still, I gazed at the sandwich, gathering my thoughts. My fingers closed around the sewing kit. I pulled it out of my pocket and opened it, as if I were doing a small, hard chunk of work. "I quit my job. I'm going to Texas to see Frankie. I'm leaving first thing tomorrow. I had to tell you."

Lilian's expression was flat, with uncertainty swelling underneath. "What?" she said. "Huh?"

The sewing kit had two white buttons, a brass safety pin, and a needle bound to a piece of cardboard by rows of threads in common colors: white, pink, brown, black. I folded the cardboard down and slid the needle back and forth beneath the threads. "Don't worry, I'll still pay the rent."

Lilian shoved the table away from her. A little coffee spilled.

I was ashamed. Money would be a big problem, but I was using it as a smokescreen for fact that I had made my decisions without her. "I'm sorry."

Her voice shook. "Carline, are you leaving me?"

I pushed the needle free and balanced it between my thumb and index finger, with the point against my thumbnail, near the quick. "No, love," I said. "I'm not leaving. It's just a change. A trip. I got the offer of a free bus trip to Texas, but I have to go at five in the morning. Tomorrow. That's the only time. I've been frustrated at my job. You know that. I'll be back soon. A few weeks. I haven't seen Frankie in so long. I'm worried about her. She didn't sound right on the phone last time we talked. She just lost one of her friends. I'm sorry, Lilian. I love you. I'm sorry. It's only a couple of weeks."

Lilian was shaking. The strap of her dress fell off her shoulder again. "This doesn't make any sense. Who's driving you to Texas?"

I reached out to stroke her arm. I held the needle flat against my fingers in my other hand. She let me touch her, but I couldn't feel her presence in her skin. "It's nobody. Just the driver from my regular bus. He has to go for his job, and wants company. It's nothing, Lilian. That's not it." The guy at the cash register rang somebody up.

Lilian separated herself from my hand, straightened her strap, and rubbed her eyes. "Carline, you have the money to buy yourself an airline ticket. You've got vacation time. You didn't have to quit. And I don't understand why you have to go tomorrow. Tell me what's happening."

I sat back and ran the point of the needle lightly across the grooves of my fingerprints. This trip didn't have anything to do with her, except that me leaving so abruptly would affect the whole pattern of her daily life, if only for a while. I hadn't let myself consider how that might feel to her. My thoughts flicked away from it even now.

Maybe I could help Lilian with her strap, attach it to the other one across her back, so neither would slide around. It wouldn't be good when she took the dress off or put it on again, but just for today, for the semis, it might work. Some kind of tie would do the trick, but a stitched thread would be more stable and more discreet. I could do it in about three minutes, in the women's room.

I didn't suggest it. Instead, I gazed at my lover with her puddle of coffee and her puffed up eyes, and thought of watching her at a reading, how she stood in front of people and let words pull things up from her deep places. I'm going to a deep place, I thought, but I'm a literal woman. I believe I'm going to get there on a bus.

I put the needle down on the rim of my plate and mopped up the coffee with the napkin. Lilian reached across the table, picked up the needle, and inserted it carefully in the paper that had wrapped her croissant. I was surprised she had noticed it. I considered taking a bite of my sandwich, but that seemed indecent. Instead, I rested my fingers on the damp spot left by the coffee, and said, "I'm trying to tell you what's happening, Lilian, but I'm not sure I know."

She took a breath and used her knuckle to draw a wide circle around the blistered burn on my wrist. "Start with this."

I closed my eyes for a moment, then opened them. I had come with a plan. I had decided to say, "kitchen accident," to anyone who asked about the burn. Just those two words, which were almost true. I had thought that no one needed to know anything more, but now I could see that Lilian did. I nodded at her. "Some boys threw cigarettes at me. In the parking lot by the dumpster two nights ago, when I stepped out to see the moon. They were yelling 'fatso' and calling me like a pig."

"Baby, that's awful." She leaned towards me.

For a moment, I pretended that we would crush the little table between us, then I squeezed coffee out of the napkin onto her saucer, and said the next thing. "I went upstairs and burned myself. With a match."

Lilian settled back. I let my eyes stay on her bare arms. A group of women sat down next to us. She picked up her pen. Finally she said, "Why?"

I twisted strands of my hair into curls with my fingers. This was not good behavior for any table. I reminded myself that we were in public, and put my hands in my lap. "God, Lilian, I don't know. I've been trying not to think about it. Maybe because a burn is a conversation piece."

I lifted my eyebrows, but Lilian's face was still, with just a tremor around her mouth. She kept looking at me, so I kept talking. "I just can't do it any more. I'm sick of cutting through the cemetery because I get insulted on the street."

Lilian rolled her pen between her fingers, shaking her head. "If you think you're going to get away from that shit in Texas, of all places, you're in one silly dream. If it's not fat, it's something else. Don't you know that much about the world, Carline?"

I did, in fact, know a few things. Lilian had taught me to look people in the face and speak when they stared on the street. I had, in my time, moved close to surly men to mention that they were being impolite. I had stopped tasteful women in the midst of stares to speak of food. Most looked away, for instance, if I said the words, "gravy on bread." Lilian moved down a sidewalk with a firm stride that reminded me of Frankie. I tended to step briskly, too, but now I found myself exhausted. I ached with the desire to take a very long ride.

I rested my eyes on her strained face. "It isn't rational. I'll miss you every day. But I'm going."

Lilian winced as if she'd been hit. She tapped the eye end of the needle with her pen. "Do you want to lance that blister for you?"

I knew compresses were the best thing. We both started crying when I told her no.

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