I had never seen Virgil speak so long and so forcefully before, and from the look on his face when he was done, I would’ve guessed that Virgil had never seen it, either. We all cheered after his final word and continued cheering when Clive closed the door and pulled the bus out onto the highway. Then, slowly, we settled into our seats. We started to get lost in our thoughts. We watched as the sky dimmed and the headlights turned on.
Jimmy leaned against the window, staring out at the blur of cars and roadside. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, nor did I feel comfortable asking. I wanted us to be on this journey together, but in some small way it felt like we were each on our own journey. The best I could do was take mine on the same path as his. The best I could hope was to be by his side as we went along.
I closed my eyes and felt us taken forward.
We were driving through the middle of the country in the middle of the night. I’d lost track of the place in the same way I’d lost track of the time—all I knew was that it was late, and we were on a highway, and I couldn’t sleep. Friday night and Saturday day had passed uneventfully as we drove deeper into America. Now it was Saturday night, and I’d almost grown used to the sound of the bus breathing its heat. Everyone else seemed to be asleep, their eyes closed and their screens in resting patterns. I felt a stirring next to me—Jimmy taking a look out of the window, watching all the nowhere-somewhere passing at a headlight pace.
“You up?” I asked gently.
“Yeah,” he said, his voice lower with the weight of nighttime. “Just thinking.”
“What about?” My own voice was a bare whisper, a pencil mark on the air.
“I dunno. Just things.”
He was still looking out the window, his face a shifting map of shadows. Over the past twenty-four hours, I’d been letting the rips between us heal slowly rather than try to fix them with too many stitches of apology. I relied on the quiet gestures, like now as I put my hand on his leg, just to touch some part of him.
“What kind of things?” I asked.
Silence for a beat. A slight moan from somewhere behind us—dialogue with a bad dream, or the sound of a half-awake stretch. I was fully turned to him now, secretly glad he was awake so I didn’t have to take such empty distance alone.
“I think we have to be realistic,” he said, measuring out his words as if he were using each one to fill the gap in a puzzle.
“About winning this?” I asked.
“No. About us.”
Now he was looking at me head-on, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what he meant. I’d always hated the word realistic. Or, more truthfully, I’d always hated the way people used the word realistic—as if it were a limitation, as if reality was something that conformed so severely to likelihood that surprising things could never, ever happen. From what I’d seen, reality was much more complicated than that. Sometimes it was remarkably predictable, but a lot of the time it didn’t go the way anybody would expect. I didn’t believe in using probabilities to rule out possibilities.
It wasn’t like Jimmy to put so much faith in realistic. I thought he knew how little sense reality made. Especially in terms of us.
“Where is this coming from?” I asked now. “We don’t want to be realistic. Love isn’t realistic.”
I could immediately see that it was a mistake to use the word love—it didn’t make Jimmy any more comfortable with the conversation. But I didn’t want to take it back, either, because that would mean something much worse.
He put his hand on mine, so I could feel his palm on my skin and his leg underneath my own palm. The warmth there, so usual.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Really. I’m just talking about—I don’t know, the long term. I know you don’t like to talk about it or think about it…but I guess I can’t help it. I mean, we’re sixteen. I’m almost seventeen. We can’t act like this is going to be forever, right?”
“But we can’t act like it’s not,” I insisted. “We can’t.”
It’s not like I knew for sure that Jimmy and I were going to grow old together—that we were going to still be in love through college and after college and all the years beyond that. It’s not like I had our wedding planned and our children ready for their school pictures and the wallpaper for our bedroom picked out. But, sure, I had daydreams. I had hopes, even if I didn’t have certainty or even faith. I liked those daydreams. I saw no reason to tie them to an anchor.
Jimmy didn’t argue with me. But he didn’t say anything to make it better, either, leaving me to be the one to continue.
“Is this about what happened before we left?” I had to ask. “About me not coming? I told you I was sorry about that.”
“That’s only part of it,” he said, the sadness so clear across his face, mingled with the lasting tiredness. “And before you ask, I can’t even say what the other parts are. I guess I’ve just been thinking—there are so many things that are bigger than us. There are so many people we haven’t met, so many places we’ve never been. I love you, and I love being with you, and I don’t want that to change. But I can’t ignore the fact that it might change. Right?”
Did he really want me to tell him he was right? I could say, Yeah, let’s be realistic. Let’s start to wonder when it’s going to end. Let’s give in to the odds that we won’t be together ’til we die. Let’s allow ourselves to give up a little…and then watch as that giving up grows and grows and grows until we’ve given up altogether.
I couldn’t tell him any of that. I would not be the one to lead us down that path.
I leaned over to him, my elbow hitting the button for the reading light above us, sparking a small spotlit halo. Keeping the one hand between his two different touches, I moved my other hand to his cheek, then back to his hair. When I kissed him, I closed my eyes. He wasn’t ready for the kiss, but he received it. I pulled back before he could lose his linger.
“That’s what I know,” I said, my voice still barely above a whisper, my eyes steady.
He smiled a little. Shook his head at me. Thinking it was too simple, but not disputing it.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said. “Ever.”
Another sound came from the back of the bus—this time a shhhh.
Jimmy curved himself more into the chair, ready for sleep. I felt, though, that I couldn’t let him—not yet. I hoped to erase as much of this conversation as possible before he left me awake.
“I don’t want to have to think about this,” I told him honestly.
“I know,” he said, complete understanding in his voice. “I’m sorry I said it. Really, it isn’t anything. I’m just tired. I should never open my mouth after midnight.”
“The only way to deal with the future is to make sure the present is okay.”
He moved his hand from my hand, onto my thigh.
“It is,” he said. “I promise. We’ll be okay.”
He was closing his eyes now. Moving his hand over my thigh, under my shirt, up my skin.
I closed my eyes. Felt him gliding there. Then resting, right on my side, holding me gently.
His breathing slowed. I opened my eyes and studied his face, watched his chest rise and fall. I’d seen him like this so many times, at every shade of day or night. Napping, sleeping, breathing…I felt such tender fascination to see it. I could be his quiet watcher for as long as he was next to me.
Suddenly there was a shout from the back of the bus.
Jimmy opened his eyes, pulled back his hand, and we both turned at the same time. There, a few rows behind us, was Mira standing in the aisle, screaming at Keisha and Sara, who had somehow managed to sneak to the back of the bus together, a single blanket covering them both.
“HOW COULD YOU?”
Other people were stirring now.
“I can explain,” Keisha said quietly, trying to establish a calmer tone.
Sara decided to jump in. “We were just—”
“I don’t want to hear a single word from you, bitch. I want to hear it from her.”
But Keisha just started crying.
“Oh my God,” Jimmy whispered to me. “Were they—?”
“Yeah,” I told him.
“Are you sure?”
“What?” Mira was yelling now. “WHAT?!?”
Finally there was another person in the aisle—Janna coming to put her hand on Mira’s shoulder, to take her back to her seat in the front. Sara stood up—both she and Keisha had been clothed under the blanket—saying it wasn’t what Mira thought, it wasn’t what it might look like. Keisha’s every sob seemed to contradict this.
Most people were still asleep, their hard slumber fueled by the exhaustion of the day. As Janna and Mira walked past me, I didn’t know whether to acknowledge them or to pretend to be asleep. They probably wouldn’t have noticed me or Jimmy either way—Mira was crying now, too, and Janna was taking all of that burden onto herself.
I craned my neck again to see Sara and Keisha. Keisha was a wreck, and Sara didn’t seem to know how to work the salvage. For a brief moment, Sara’s eyes caught mine. I was amazed at the intensity of blame I felt toward her—for being the older one, for being the one who had more power, for being the one I assumed was the instigator. And also, I had to admit, for being the one who wasn’t part of our group of friends.
The look she gave me wasn’t beseeching—she didn’t want me to pull Keisha away like Janna had done with Mira. And it wasn’t apologetic. It was just matter-of-fact—we both knew what was going on, and that it had reached its inevitable breaking point. The only question was which way it would break.
“What should we do?” I asked Jimmy.
“What can we do?” he asked back. “I wish we could put the bus in reverse and make time go backward.” Which was just the kind of thing I would have thought, if I hadn’t known about this all along.
It was Flora who came down the aisle, using the back of each seat as a handhold. When she got to our row, she nodded to us and tried to smile. Then she plunged on, told Sara it would probably be best if she moved to another seat, then sat down beside Keisha and told her it was okay, there was nothing wrong with crying it out. Sara hovered awkwardly over them, and I thought there was something in the way she didn’t really want to leave, something that made me feel a little less blame. It was only after she walked farther back in the bus and sat in a seat where Keisha wouldn’t see her that Sara herself began to cry.
“Look,” Jimmy said. At first I thought he was going to say something about Sara. But then I turned and found he was resting his head against the window, staring out, pointing. I leaned in to see what he saw. There were bends and a rise in the highway ahead of us, so we could suddenly see the long rows of taillights wending their way west. There had to be hundreds of them, a long trail of red-bar Morse code, with only a few contrasting headlights moving the other way.
“Do you think they’re all going to Kansas?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. Then he took my hand in his and closed his eyes again.
I knew how hard it would be to fall asleep while sitting on a bus, holding someone else’s hand. I knew we were too awake with thoughts, perhaps too awake with questions. I had no idea where we were, only where we’d started and where we meant to go. With so many cars on the road in the middle of the night, with so many people crying in the close darkness of our bus, with so many uncertainties about what would happen to us, it seemed strange to think that this was our reality. But I guess that’s what it was. And it was changing all the time.
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