On the bus ride back from Chicago, I watched across the aisle as an Orthodox kid passed a plastic sack of candy bars from the last rest stop back and forth with his friend in the seat behind. He had a black satin yarmulke bobby-pinned to his outgrown haircut, and he hummed a pop song that’d been playing over the gas-station speakers while he pretended not to be picking his nose.
I’d spent the weekend with Pump. I’d loved him since we were thirteen, when I’d loop his block on my bike while finger-spelling his name against the handlebars. Back then he’d worn a black trench with a rolled-up spiral notebook in the pocket penned wall-to-wall with painstaking sketches of big-titted fairies. He’d once tried to rig up a ray gun using parts from his mom’s microwave. All through high school we’d rent videos as an excuse to press against each other on his basement couch. Swap “high school” for “freshman year,” “basement couch” for “dorm bunk,” and I guess we were still up to the same thing.
The velour track-suit in front of me cooed to her boyfriend on her cell; the yarmulke licked milk chocolate from the corners of his chapped lips, which were sort of poufy and girlish. I couldn’t bring myself to lean against the window, where a greasy sheen from some prior occupant’s hair distorted the view—an endless spool of snow-draped fields, occasional interruption of birch. You knew you loved someone when, weekend after weekend, you’d find coworkers to cover your best-tipping shifts and drone through Wisconsin for him.
While Pump had migrated south to study design, I’d stalled in St. Paul: part-time cosmetology classes, serving at Sorrento’s. Last night, Pump had said, “Why don’t you just move down? Lena”—his only friend in Chicago, a withdrawn, poetic South Dakotan who swaddled her thin blonde hair in thrifted paisley scarves—“said you could stay with her.”
“Lena thinks she’ll get to see you more that way.”
“It’s not like that!” I could tell he didn’t quite know he was lying, so I non-answered by pushing my lips against his shoulder. His T-shirt smelled weird, like corn chips.
Later, I chanced a pants-less trip to the communal bathroom and, thighs tensed to keep my ass hovering above the seat, pissed four beers into the stained bowl. Scotch-taped to the stall door, a creased centerfold, the woman’s splayed labia at eye-level. Staring at her, I felt old. I wanted to draw her a skirt.
Pump hadn’t pushed me on moving in with Lena, which was good, because I hated Lena, and I hated her apartment that I’d never seen but knew would have a mattress on the floor and a dumpster lamp and a six-toed cat. Lena was in dental-hygiene school, but she looked dingy. I couldn’t imagine her cleaning anything, let alone other people’s teeth.
I’d started to feel like I lived on the bus. Two more hours. I hoped my bike was still padlocked to the rack by the station. I was hungry, and even though I knew exactly where his hand had been, I would have eaten one of yarmulke’s candy bars. I wanted Pump next to me, and I was so tired of having Pump next to me, and I knew that, even if he hadn’t figured out yet that he wanted Lena, he would before long.
When we were kids, Pump had worked one summer as a gardener, one of the sugar-cornered Victorians sprawled along Summit. On the Fourth—the family long-weekending at the lake—Pump snuck us in. In the almost-dark, we flattened ourselves against the fence, all spy faces and finger pistols; we elbowed our way across the lawn to the screened porch, collapsed onto a chaise with coarse-grained, sun-proof upholstery I knew would mark my back. Through the screen, the dense, invisible scent of roses. Pump was straight-armed, shirtless, hovering above me. Somewhere, muffled fireworks, though the neighbor kids’ Black Cats were closer, louder. I tipped my hips to his. I wondered if anyone had noticed us. I wondered where my family was, if I was missing anything.