She came back to his apartment. He just felt uncomfortable going to her place the first time. He knew she'd understand. Well, it is a bit of a mess right enough, she laughed, albeit in truth embarrassed beyond belief. Once inside, frozen by the cold gust of his air-conditioning, she remarked to herself how dreadfully few things he hung on his walls. But she knew his bedroom closet would be neatly hung, the blue button-down shirts starched in a neat firing-squad row. An apartment that was too clean and too sparse. Antiseptic bleak. Fluorescence splashed garish white off stark surfaces. Feeling his clean wood floor underfoot, she was seized with the sensation of being the only thing that really lived here, a living visitor to something absent or, worse, something that had never been there at all. And this was love. Potentially.
Above the kitchen trashcan something whitish and moist worked its slow way up the wall. He had just stepped into the bathroom for a moment, closing the door halfway. The bathroom light leaked out across the hallway; it was exactly what her father did, this familiar intimacy. He emerged, zipping-grinning, and she gestured at the crawling thing.
“Is that…a maggot?” she asked, daring him to deny it.
He peered at the wall, face blank and irrefutable as stone. It was none other than a maggot. He tore a paper towel from the roll by the sink and squished the larva inside it.
“No,” he said, denying it.
He dropped the re-wadded napkin into the kitchen trashcan, and peered discreetly inside. The trash was empty. He must have changed the bag this morning, every morning most likely. She watched him ever so carefully wind and loop the empty bag before marching it downstairs to the dumpster. It would ripple in the breeze. On returning, he seemed positively nonchalant. He smiled a smile her way.
Later, tense and warm, numb with anticipation, she would walk down to the 7/11 to buy smokes. Of Parliaments, they only had menthol, which seemed post-coital inappropriate, but she bought a pack anyway. Then back, quicker than expected, she discovered him crouched over, frantically scrubbing at the white countertop with a frayed green scouring pad. He wore a clean white apron. There was a reek of disinfectant. He ceased immediately on discovering her gaze fixed mutely upon him. She didn't say anything at all. This was love, after all. Potentially.
The evening passed without further incident. They slept together and it was not unpleasant. The maggot was never mentioned again. But many times in the warm dark of that night she awoke suddenly with the conviction that something moist and small and unspeakable was making its slow way up her bare legs.
Greyhound takes a snaky route that hits all the little towns no one knows about but eventually someone has to go to. You stop over in dingy Davenport, pass the hours waiting for your connection in a park two blocks from the station, sitting on a bench, legs tucked beneath you, watching the Mississippi tug itself quietly in that way you’ve never seen another river do.
You like to ride the bus. You like the buildings rolling past the window like toys with crumbling paint: the way the whitewashed ice-cream parlor with its green copper roof leans into the record store with melting windows, a record store you’re sure still must carry LPs. You love the Main streets with lampposts, courthouses, and tributary streets named Navajo and Ash, how they're lined with tiny white houses with couches on the porches and hung bright with Christmas lights year round. And every town has a Main street. You can count on it. You like the murals and red neon of the sad strip clubs--Kiki’s Inn, Crazy Rocks, Paper Tiger--and the Denny’s there, just like every other Denny's you've ever seen, except for the black dog rushing up the end of its chain to bark you on your way, never imagining you will remember him now and always.
You like very much the girl with the green eyes dreaming with her head on your shoulder, even though you don’t know her name, or maybe because you don’t. She said she'd tell you a story in the morning about a princess and a kelpie. But she’ll get off and you’ll lay your feet in her warm seat, sleep sound with your head against the cool window. At your mother’s house, there will be Styrofoam peanuts in the kitchen and no soap in the bathroom. For breakfast will be the bowls of Cocoa Puffs she never let you have as a kid. She’s found a new church and a new fellow from work, a keeper this one she'll say. Oh honey, she'll say. I miss you. But you're not there yet and you still have no idea what a kelpie is.
You learn to recognize how far you’ve come not by the names of the towns but the peculiarities of their gas stations. The one more than halfway and always a little too early for breakfast has a vending machine in the women’s bathroom that sells tampons, temporary tattoos, and an assortment of miniature sex toys. These have always interested you, because the picture is so much more colorful than the one for the tampons and you have no need of tattoos really, temporary or otherwise. So you deposit your 75 cents for a colorful little prize and the machine gives you something to make it last, something to put in your pocket and carry with you to your final destination. But you only carry it to this place where you sleep, and it works pretty well all things considered and, drifting off hunched in your anorak, the engine humming its rhythm in the dark, the window's throb against your skull, you don’t, in your heart of hearts, feel this is a thing that’s meant to last.
Bethany Reece is a writer living in Galesburg, Illinois.
Top photo "Woman's Body" courtesy of
Celiece Aurea, Los Angeles, U.S.
Bottom photo "Greyhound Bus" courtesy of Todd Hansson, Brisbane, Australia.
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