It began raining as they crossed the border of Bosnia. The seats in the bus were small and the man sitting next to the girl was large. He wasn’t sure what to do with his weight. The girl was listening to the same song over and over again. She would pull her walkman out of her bag and rewind the tape each time. Her elbow gently hit the man’s upper arm every time she did this. He kept folding and unfolding his hands. He would occasionally wipe the sweat from his hands onto his pants and then massage his knees for a little while.
The bus reentered Croatia. The road was winding and overlooked the Adriatic Sea. The view would have been pretty if it wasn’t raining. The man thought this with an audible sigh. To look out the window he had to look past the girl. She was in the window seat, he was on the aisle. Her head was leaning back against the headrest but her eyes stayed open. The man didn’t think she minded that he was looking towards her to look out the window.
He noticed the color and thickness of the sky resembled the water in the mason jars where he kept his paintbrushes. He would leave his paintbrushes in the jars and not clean them for too long. Eventually they would harden, dry out and he would have to buy more. Stupid laziness.
The girl shut her eyes and she kept them shut for a little while. The man wondered if she was asleep. But her breathing never got heavier and every four minutes she would rewind the tape so the man assumed the girl was just resting her eyes or pretending to be somewhere else.
The man watched the view for a little while and then carefully unwrapped his sandwich that he brought out from his bag on the floor. The sandwich was not good. The bread was stale and hard and the meat was tough, still he was thankful for it. After he finished he stared at the seat in front of him for a long while and thought.
The road climbed up cliffs and the cliffs dropped into the sea. The man looked at the girl’s knees. He was thinking strange things. The man began to entertain the idea that if no one on this bus knew who he was he was then granted the freedom to be anyone at all. The man realized that everything he did or said that was seen and then processed in the head of this girl, on this particular bus today, would be collected and then reordered in her mind forming a simple, but permanent, if she chose to remember it, portrait. For this girl the entirety of his life would be captured in this one picture. If he chose to talk to the girl he would become a character in her play. The thought made him happy, the endless possibilities this allowed him. He wondered why he had never thought about this before.
The man was thinking strange things.
When the man was a boy and he drove by the water, which was quite often, he would count the islands. Croatia has eleven hundred islands. The most the man remembers counting in a single car trip was thirty-four.
The girl’s mobile phone began ringing in her purse but she didn’t hear it because she was listening to that song. The man decided to lightly nudge the girl. She opened her eyes quickly and pulled off her earphones. He pointed to her purse and she smiled apologetically.
The man pretended to be looking out the window but he was also listening. How couldn’t he? He listened to the sound coming out of the girl’s phone it sounded like the crashing of an endless stream of pots.
“Not now, please not now,” the girl said softly.
There was a short pause and then the pots began to be tossed again, slowly at first and then more quickly and forcefully.
“Come on, I’m on a bus, please not now—”
His voice kept going. One muffled explosion after the next. The man caught himself looking; his eyes followed the steady line of tears that filed down her cheek to the big heavy drip off her chin.
The man turned back to the bus seat in front of him. He thought about space. He thought it was peculiar that this person on the other end of the girl’s phone, this person who was not on their bus, could come into the girl and rip everything apart inside of her. He thought how it was strange then that he was physically the closest human being to the girl. He thought that physically there may be hundreds or thousands, maybe even millions, of people closer to this girl than this particular person who is touching her so forcefully through the mobile phone.
“Okay, okay, stop it, enough, okay? Seriously—”
A pot was thrown again and then the girl forgot she was on the bus, or maybe she left the bus.
“Look, fine! If you want to play that way, fine! Remember that burn on my wrist that I said was accident? Well I put that iron on my— No, no, you be quiet! I’m done okay? I’m done, I don’t care anymore—I never cared, don’t you get it?”
The man concentrated on counting the islands. Four so far.
“I’ll go over every scar on my body. I’ll take off all my clothes and we’ll count the scars and you’ll see! I have all the evidence. This whole fucking thing is recorded so don’t look the other way now and don’t say you’re sorry because your words are as empty as—Don’t—God please, you’re killing me, you’re killing me—”
There was a few a moments when the girl said nothing, the explosions on the other end burst again, one after the next after the next. When she spoke again everything had changed. Her voice was quiet, a pleading ache.
“No, don’t say that. Stop now, please, okay? Can we stop now? Please.”
Quickly the man focused on her face and not the window and then he focused back on the window. He thought her face, with all those lines of tears and the tears debris, looked like an old oil portrait that had been left in hard elements, resulting in the paint to splinter sending cracks all over.
“No, no,” she cried softly. “Don’t go, please don’t.” Her voice gained momentum suddenly, like a runner on the last lap, “I’ll be good I promise. I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. Please, give me a minute, don’t go. I’ll explain. I’ll be good I promise, I promise. Please, mercy. One—”
Silence and then the nothing. It had stopped, he had hung up, vanished. The man knew and the girl knew. And the man did not know what to do. The sound of the silence reached down into the girl’s body and yanked apart all of her intestines. The man did not know what to do.
The girl’s head fell like a weight into her hands and she sobbed and with each rolling sob her body jerked over and over again. Like a fish pulled out of the sea, the man thought.
The man looked at the girl, after a hesitation he brought his hand to her head. He stroked her hair gently, once. The girl pulled her head up and looked at the man. “I’m so sorry,” she said. Her head and hands fell like a pile into his lap. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she sobbed into his legs. She was trying to catch her breath. She took big catches of air, her body continued to jerk. Then silence, then jerk. Violently rolling like that over and over with her head and hands on the man’s lap.
The man kept his hand on the girl’s head. He looked up and faced the sea. He counted a fifth island and then quickly thereafter a sixth. The man said nothing but he kept his hand on her head as the bus continued through Croatia.