Helene and Mr. Bexley peel out again like Wacky Racers. A few people are being picked up by spouses, and there’s a confusing swirl of cars and dust. The bus driver puts down her newspaper at our approach and unlocks the door.
“Please hold on for a few minutes,” I tell her, and jog back inside. I make it to the bathroom and am violently sick. Before I can feel like it’s completely out of my system there’s a sharp rap on the bathroom door. There’s only one person I know who could knock so impatiently, and put so much irritation into it.
“Go away,” I tell him.
“I know.” I flush again.
“You’re sick. I told you.” He jiggles the doorknob lightly.
“I’ll get home by myself. Go away.”
There’s a silence and I figure he’s gone back to the bus. I throw up again. Flush again. I wash my hands, leaning my legs against the sink until the splash-back soaks into my jeans. Elvis clings to me damply.
“I’m sick,” I confide to my reflection. I’m fevered, eyes glittering. I’m blue and gray and white. The door is creaked open, and I squawk in fright.
“Holy shit.” Joshua’s eyebrows pinch together. “You look bad.”
I can barely focus my eyes. The floor is spinning. “I can’t make it. That bus trip. I can’t.”
“I could call Helene. She could come back, she couldn’t have gotten far.”
“No, no, I’ll be okay. She’s driving to a health retreat. I can take care of myself.” He leans on the doorframe, his brow creased.
I steel myself, cupping a little cold water in my hand and slosh it over the back of my neck. My hair has been unraveling from its bun and sticks to my neck. I rinse my mouth. “Okay, I’m all right.”
As we walk back, he pinches the little joint of my elbow between two fingers like a bag of garbage. I can feel the avid eyes watching us from the tinted bus windows. I think of the two girls nudging each other and shake him loose.
“I could leave you here and drive back and get you, but it would take an hour, at least.”
“You? Come back and get me? I’d be here all night.”
“Hey. Don’t talk like that anymore, all right?” He’s annoyed.
“Yeah, yeah, HR.” I wobble up onto the bus.
“Oh dear,” Marion calls loudly. “Lucy, you’re looking awful.”
“Lucy!” Danny calls from the rear of the bus. “Saved you a seat!” He’s so far back in the bus it telescopes claustrophobically. If I sit back there I will absolutely vomit on everyone. Sorry, I mouth at Danny and sit in the front seat and close my eyes.
Joshua presses the back of his hand to my damp forehead and I hiss. “Your hand is cold.”
“No, you’re burning up. We need to get you to a doctor.”
“It’s almost Friday night. What are the chances of that happening? I need to go to bed.”
The trip home is pretty bad. I’m trapped in an endless, unmarked period of time. I’m a bug in a jar being shaken by a kid. The bus is swaying, hot, airless, and I feel every bump and curve. I focus on my breathing and the feeling of Joshua’s arm pressed against mine. At one particularly sharp corner he uses his shoulder to support me upright in my seat.
“Why?” I ask uselessly. I feel him shrug.
We’re unloaded in front of B&G. A few women cluster around me and I try to understand what they’re saying. Joshua is holding me by the scruff of my damp T-shirt and tells them it’s fine.
He has a lively debate with Danny, who keeps asking me, “Are you sure?”
“Of course she’s fucking sure,” Joshua thunders. Then we’re alone.
“Did you drive?”
“Jerry needs another weekend. The mechanic. I’ll get a bus.”
He moves me forward; a heaving, sweating marionette. My mouth tastes like acid. His grip drops from my neck to loop a finger into the loop on the back of my jeans, the other on my elbow. I can feel his knuckle pressing above my butt crack and I laugh out loud.
The stairs to the basement parking lot are steep and I balk, but he pushes me on, hands tightening. He uses his swipe card to get us in and steers me steadily toward his black car. I can smell car fumes and oil. I can smell everything. I dry-retch behind a pole and he hesitantly lays a hand between my shoulder blades. He rubs it around a little. I shudder through another volley of nausea.
Joshua guides me to the passenger seat. He slings the bag I’d forgotten about into the backseat. He idles the car and I glimpse myself in a side mirror, my head rolled to the side, a dark flush on my cheekbones, gleaming with sweat, my mascara smudged.
“Now. Are you gonna be sick in the car, Shortcake?” He doesn’t sound impatient, or annoyed. He opens my window a few inches.
“No. Maybe. Well, possibly.”
“Use this if you need to,” he tells me, handing me an empty takeout coffee cup. He puts the car into reverse. “Tell me where to go, then.”
“Go to hell.” I start laughing again.
“So that’s where you came from.”
“Shuddup. Go left.” I navigate him to my apartment building. I keep my eyes closed, and count my breaths, and do not vomit. It is quite an achievement.
“Here. Out front is fine.”
He shakes his head and in defeat I direct him to my empty parking space. He has to help me climb out of the car and I sag against him. My cheek momentarily rests on something like his chest. My hand grips something like his waist.
He hits the button and we stand at opposite sides of the elevator car, and the Staring Game is overlaid with hot, sweaty memories of the last time we did this together.
“Your eyes were like a serial killer that day.” I must have vomited out my filter.
“So were yours.”
“I like your T-shirt. So much. It’s magnificent on you.”
He’s mystified as he looks down at himself. “It’s nothing special. I . . . like yours too. It’s as big as a dress.”
The elevator doors opens. I lurch out. Unfortunately, he follows.
“I’m here,” I lean on my door. He digs my keys from my bag and unlocks the door.
I’ve never seen anyone so desperate to be invited inside. His head pokes in farther. His hands are hanging on to the doorframe like he’s about to fall in.
“It’s not what I expected. It’s not very . . . colorful.”
“Thank you, good-bye.” I push into the kitchen and seize a glass. Then I drink straight from the faucet.
“I think we could find an after-hours clinic,” Joshua says behind me, and takes the glass before I can drop it. He pushes my toaster straight against the wall and to fill in the awkward silence he folds a dishcloth. His fingernail picks at a crumb glued to the countertop. Oh man, he’s one of those people who love to clean. He wants to roll up his sleeves and bleach and scrub.
“It’s so messy, isn’t it?” I point at a mug with a lipstick mark. He looks at it longingly and we simultaneously begin to try to get past each other in the tiny space.
“Let me take you to a doctor.”
“I need to lie down. That’s all.”
“Is there anyone you want me to call?”
“I don’t need anyone,” I announce proudly. I hold my hand out for my key. He holds it out of reach. I don’t need anyone to look after me. I can get through this. I’m alone in this world.
“Alone in this world? So dramatic. I’ll go to the drugstore and see what I can get you.”
“Sure, sure. Have a nice weekend.”
As the door snicks shut, I reconfirm that my apartment is a bit of a disaster zone, cluttered, and yes, a little colorless. My dad calls it the Igloo. I haven’t had enough time yet to put my stamp on the place. I’ve been too busy. The Smurf cabinet takes up a large part of the living room wall, dark without the special lights switched on. Thank goodness Joshua left.
My bed looks like I’ve been having disturbing, sexual dreams, which is accurate. The sheets are all rumpled and twisted, and on the side where a man should be is strewn with books. Lingerie straps and Smurf-patterned underwear peek out of drawers like lettuce from a burger. I take the copy of Joshua’s planner from my nightstand and hide it.
My shower is wonderful, torturous, endless. I turn it cold and freeze. I turn it hot and burn inside my skin. I drink the spray. I goop a big pile of shampoo on the top of my head and let it rinse away. An indication I must be near death is I can’t be bothered to condition.
My head spins with nonsensical images, and I lean against the tiles and remember what it was like to lean against a tree with Joshua Templeman shielding me with his body.
In the privacy of my mind I can imagine whatever I want, and they aren’t progressive, twenty-first-century thoughts.
They’re depraved, brutal cavewoman thoughts. In my mind, he’s electric with the animal instinct to protect me, his heavy muscle braced over my body. He absorbs each impact and it is his privilege. He’s injected sharp and hard with nature’s superdrug, testosterone.
I’m wrapped in him, safe from anything the world wants to throw at me. Anything painful or cruel will have to get through him before it has any chance of touching me. And it will never happen.
I scream when I realize that resonating voice isn’t in my imagination and cling to the tiles.
“Don’t come in!” I did close the door. Thank you, guardian angels. I cross my arms over all of my X-rated zones.
“Of course I won’t,” he snaps.
“I am completely naked. Bruises . . .” I’m a Monet watercolor; purple water lilies floating in green. He says nothing.
“Well, go out. Into the living room.”
My skin hurts when I towel myself. I crack the bathroom door open and hear silence. I scurry out and find underwear, a heinous beige bra, shorts, and an old crappy pajama top with a picture of a cute dinosaur on it, his drowsy eyes half closed. Underneath him reads: SLEEPYSAURUS.
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