Killing Time in Crystal City
I came for the name.
I should probably be embarrassed to admit making a big decision based on such lameness. But I figure if you are aiming for a place to do a total reboot on your whole entire self, then you aim for a place with a name like Crystal City.
It’s a name that calls you to come. As soon as you see it on a map, or on a bus schedule, or if you hear somebody mention it, the impulse is to think, yup, that’s the place. It wants me and I want it. It conjures immediately The Crystal City, the very home of clarity and radiance and shimmering promise. I can’t be the only one to have noticed that. I know. So it has to attract lots of people, peoples, types. Lots of people who are looking for stuff. Looking for what I’m looking for.
Whatever that turns out to be.
More than anything, it needs to not be the place I am leaving behind. Ass Bucket is the name of my town. Not really. But, really.
I might well find out what I am looking for just by going. Maybe somebody there will even tell me.
Or, possibly, I don’t have to wait that long.
• • •
She gets on the bus at our one stopover, the midpoint between Ass Bucket and Crystal City. I wouldn’t have noticed her, since I have the premium, top-deck, front-seat position, except that she bangs her way up the stairs and down the aisle with the kind of stomp and thump that just forces you to turn and look.
So I turn and look.
She throws her backpack onto the window seat and takes the aisle seat, second from rear, left. I become aware of my staring only when she stares back, with an exaggerated head tilt and a dropped open mouth that are not meant to flatter me.
She has noticed me. Already, right there, my life has changed beyond all recognition.
She has a cast on her left arm. I have a cast on my right. If you do not answer when the universe calls out to you as clearly as that then you, pal, are a shitbag and you deserve to be a shitbag and live the loser life that comes with it.
I turn away and look at the road ahead, because she intimidated me and forced me to. But every real part of me wants to do the opposite, wants to do what I would never do. Before, anyway. I would never make that long and scary walk down that aisle separating me from her. Before.
Now, however, I can’t stop thinking about doing exactly that. The road and the cars and the landscape ahead, so mesmerizing up till now, are suddenly nothing, and the girl behind me means everything. If I can’t do this now, when everything tells me this is the this and now is the now, then I might as well just slither out the bus window and walk all the way back to Ass Bucket to resume my former life as a shitbag.
That thought propels me out of my seat, onto my feet, backpack in tow, to my new best seat in the house. Aisle seat, second from rear, right.
I sit for ten silent minutes, which is not really that long of a silence unless every one of those six hundred seconds is spent on my agonizing over coming up with an opening, the opening, that will launch the conversation and the future and all the incredible betters and bests waiting for me in that future, and an eleventh minute waterlogged in the realization that the reason I am speechless is that I have just put all that lifetime of pressure on this one small opening jab of communication.
Just speak, ya dope.
“We have something in common,” I say, shocked at the sound of my own voice but not as shocked as I am at the sight and sensation of reaching boldly across the aisle and tapping her cast with mine. I draw my arm rapidly back to my territory and savor the sad and thrilling reverberation of that instant of human contact, and plaster be damned because human contact it was.
She turns her head slowly in my direction, the kind of slowly that suggests I’m either getting attitude already or maybe her neck was also injured in whatever accident did her arm harm. I’m hoping the universe doesn’t hold it against me that I am wishing her neck pain over attitude.
The long turn of her head takes a little detour to look at the spot where I touched her—like I left a stain or something—then continues up to engage my actual face.
“What?” she says. Could she possibly know of the torture that went into the first run of my clever line, never mind the rerun?
“I said, we have something in common,” I say, and watch with fascination as this arm, which apparently belongs to me but could just as easily be the mechanical grabber on one of those carnival claw machines, reaches over and taps hers again.
“Well, it wouldn’t be proper boundaries, because I have them. I also have pepper spray, a knife, and steel-toed boots I like to call the ‘testicle testers.’”
This is not how it’s supposed to go. The new and wider and bolder world is supposed to be friendlier and appreciate gestures like this. I am supposed to get things right this time. And the new and wider and bolder me cannot just accept this kind of failure if things are going to improve, and they have to improve, they have to improve.
“I’m sorry,” I say, leaning in a slightly unnatural way in the opposite direction from her. And I place my left hand on top of my casted right forearm, as if I can hide the shameful thing.
I cannot possibly hold this pitiful and awkward posture for the rest of the ride, but I fear I am going to attempt it, shitbag that I am.
Fortunately, I don’t have to put it to the test because after about two minutes, she speaks to me.
“Hey,” she says, and I turn cautiously to see her expression not quite the hard thing it was. Her face shows what I might possibly recognize as pity, which I am more than happy to accept.
“What?” I say. I try to match the disinterested tone she used when she asked me that same question, because I think that acting the way this cool person does is a pretty good step to start on whatever it is I’m starting on. She doesn’t seem to notice.
“How’d you get yours?” she asks, pointing from within her proper boundary area at my cast.
Oh. Oh right. What kind of feeb am I, that I thought I could initiate an arm-cast discussion that wouldn’t come fairly quickly to this question, which I do not want to answer? Which I really, really, do not want to answer.
“My dad did it.” The words burst out of me like the stream from one of those pump-action water guns.
“Oh,” she says, but an unstartled “oh.” “You poor kid.”
She doesn’t follow it up for any elaboration, which is a surprise and a relief.
“How about you?” I say, pointing from an appropriate distance because already I’m learning these rules of the road I’ll need to live by.
“What? I don’t even know you. I’m not telling you something like that.”
What? That was an option? Opting out was an option?
“I didn’t know that was an option. Just refusing to answer the question? Especially after you just . . . that’s an option?”
She tilts her head again, befuddled by my befuddlement. We’ve only just met but this is already an unfortunate recurring motif in our relationship. She knows I’m a dolt before she knows my name.
“Everything is an option. Nobody has to say or not say anything they don’t want to. Don’t you know even that much?”
“Of course I do. I was just . . . I was going by what you . . . I’m trying to work out the way things are done. . . .” The trailing off at the end is the most intelligent part of my response.
“Did the spaceship forget to come back for you?”
“Hnn. Yeah. Very funny. Actually, I’m just out, seeing the world.”
She’s underimpressed. “Right, well maybe you should think about going back home,” she says with a drop of kindness that unsettles me. “I’d worry that you’re going to struggle at this.”
Home. Where is that? What is that? I’m happy to go there, but all I know for sure is that whatever home is, for me it’s not back anywhere, it’s someplace out forward.
“What this is it that I’m going to struggle at?” I ask, still undecided about what percentage impressed/offended I am at what she’s thinking she’s knowing about me.
“Running away,” she says with a dollop of duh in her voice.
“I’m not running away from anything,” I say. I hope I sound more like an appalled man than a cornered six-year-old, but I wouldn’t bet money on it.
“Okay,” she says, shrugging. “But I’d still be worried that maybe the street could be an unkinder place to an innocent somebody than home. Even a home with an arm-breaking father in it. What does your mother think about it all?”
I am trying to work out how she does this, slipping multiple provocations into such brief strings of sentences. What would be the it all that this mother would have an opinion on? Innocent somebody, by the way? The street? What and where is this street, and what does it have to do with me at all?
“Why would I tell you that?” I say. “I don’t even know you. I don’t have to answer that.”
She laughs, deep and rich like a hot hearty soup, and I notice her left eyetooth is missing. “Okay,” she says, “so it’s possible that you are capable of learning some things as you go along. You might not be quite hopeless.”
Now we’re getting someplace. She’s already easier for me to talk to. So I go for it.
“You’re coming on to me now, aren’t you.”
She tilts her head this time at such an unfeasible angle it could possibly twist right off.
“Right, well, I knew this was your first time running away, but I didn’t realize it was your first time ever leaving the house.”
“It’s not,” I blurt far too quickly in my desperation to quash the idea.
She laughs harder this time. “You actually responded to that. That is so cute.”
“It isn’t,” I say, tragically persevering.
She turns away from me, from my overwhelming cute imbecility that might be contagious. She looks like she’s addressing me in my original seat way up there at the front and the top of the bus, back in that time when the only fully developed idea I had about proceeding to better things was that the top and the front of everything were what you should always shoot for.
“You’re giving me a real dilemma here, funny boy. I should throw you back like the little fish you are, except that you’ve already amused me more than anybody has amused me in a long time.”
The fact that I have been inadvertently amusing does not have to be a problem for anybody.
“And what little conscience I still have is nagging at me not to let you go out there and get savaged by all the big fish waiting just for you.”
She’s doing it again with the provocations.
“Hey,” I snap, or nearly snap anyway, but do enunciate clearly and with vigor. “Who asked you to do anything? I don’t think I at any point suggested that I needed you to let me or not let me go out there, even if such a place as out there actually existed or represented a challenge that I was unprepared to meet.”
She hesitates several seconds, continuing to stare ahead, composing herself, then turns to me, smiling broadly. “Oh, it does. And you are. And you’re doing it again, being kind of adorable and I think I just might be in love.”
I have my righteous scolding finger already poised, and my mouth open to retort when her words themselves finish the long journey to my brain and I jam to a halt.
“Oh,” she says, pointing at my face. “First thing, right away, you’re going to have to lose that blushing thing or you are dead meat out there. And God, boy, if that means you took the love thing literally, then man oh man do we have our work cut out for us.”
“I’ll take the rapid blinking to mean, unfortunately, yes.”
“Grrr,” I say, punching my own thigh with my cast. “How can I possibly have the option not to answer something if my face keeps answering for me?”
“No doubt about it, you’ve got a conundrum there. A poker face is probably one of those things that you have to grow, over time, like a beard. Hey, maybe grow a beard.”
“Yeah, thanks, but if you look closely I think you’ll agree that beard-growing is another thing you could probably do better than me.”
It appears I have said something wrong.
“What?” I say. “What? I was talking about my inability to grow a beard, not your ability to. Come on, you don’t have a beard.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do, and thank you for pointing it out, zithead.”
“Ah, so it’s my skin now. Very nice. Feels like I’m talking to my sister.”
“So, you have a sister, then.”
“Grrrr. No, I don’t.”
“Does she have a beard? Is she in the circus?”
“Can we start over again?” I say, with prayer-hands for emphasis.
“Why? This was just getting fun.”
“Fun is overrated.”
“That’s extremely sad,” she says in an extremely sad tone. “Just how bad was your father?”
This one’s easy. “I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Okay. Then how ’bout, what’s your name?” She extends her healthy right hand to me across the aisle.
I happily extend my less-healthy one across to her. Finally, a question I am not only anxious to answer, but one I have prepped for.
“Kiki Vandeweghe.” Because why not, right?
She splutters a laugh right in my face, but still shakes my hand.
“Your name is Kiki Vandeweghe.”
“That is correct.”
“I was going to guess Benedict, or Kenton, or Skippy.”
“Kiki Vandeweghe,” I assure her.
“And you’re just gonna go with that, yeah?”
“Because it’s my name.”
“Your very red ears wiggle a bit when you lie. Awfully cute. Like how elephants flap away overheating with their ears.”
“Where have I heard that name before? Is it some sports—”
“So what’s your name?” I blurt.
She laughs. “Well, I was gonna be Kiki Vandeweghe until you showed up. So I guess I’ll go with Anastasia Dimbleby.”
“Really?” I say, as if anybody’s name should really come as a surprise.
“For you, we’ll just leave it at Stacey. Best not to make things any more complicated for you than they already are.”
Right, so it’s more mockery. No problem. “Thanks for that, Stacey,” I say, getting a stupid little shot of thrill when I say her name.
Stacey. My friend, Stacey. I made a friend. Already.
“What are you, like a human thermometer or something?” she says. “You need to get that blushing thing checked before your head pops right off.”
I really, really do, dammit.
“Sign?” I say, pulling out the little stubby blue marker that I have been carrying for just this purpose.
“I want you to sign my cast. I want to collect signatures as a kind of record of my travels. And then I’ll sign yours.”
“Okay,” she says, shrugging, “but no thanks on signing mine. I prefer all record of my travels to be kept inside my head and no place else.” She then goes on to sign “Anastasia Dimbleby” in long sloppy script along the belly of the forearm part. I’m about to pull back when she turns it over and signs “Stacey” across the knuckle part where I can look at it all the time.
“So, Stacey, are you running away?”
“Why would I do that? I don’t run away from things, things run away from me. I’m just on a kind of grand tour.”
“That sounds nice,” I say.
“Nice,” she repeats, but in a tone with twelve more layers of everything than the one I used.
“When did the tour start?”
“Two and a half years ago.”
“When does it finish?”
She lets this last one sit there for several seconds, though her face shows nothing along the lines of pondering.
“I haven’t given that a single minute of thought.”
That one sounds like a hint that further questions will not be taken at this time. So we both just look ahead for now.
• • •
There it is. I can see it coming, and I rush back up through the near-empty bus to my original seat so I can take it all in fully.
“Don’t you want to come up here and have a look, Stacey?” I call back to her. Best seats in the house. She has her eyes closed and waves at me wearily. I return to the view by myself.
Is there a better capsule, a better pod of motion and vision? A space module, sure, I’d be on that right now if it was ever on offer, pointing and laughing at everybody stuck down here on Planet Puke. But let’s be real. And real is the front seat on the top deck of a bus going somewhere. Everything is in front, everything’s forward. Nothing’s behind you, no rear window view for you, sir.
The bus station I come into, though, looks just like the bus station I pulled out of. Could just about be the same place. Could be a big fat fast one played on me, and the driver took a big wobbly go-round to get back to the same, same place.
Except why would he do that? Because people don’t need reasons. Making believe that people need reasons to be demented and shitty accomplishes nothing other than to make you demented and shitty yourself. Which you don’t want. I have to remember to tell Stacey that at an appropriate moment so she knows that I did in fact learn a little something about life before I met her. A little something.
Except, anyway, I saw it, more than the bus station. I saw Crystal City on the approach. So no matter how much the travel zombie industry wants to disguise their zombie-town depots to look just like each other everywhere, we know better. We won’t fall for it, because we have arrived, and we know it.
Why do they want to do that anyway, make your destination look like your departure when they know all you want to do with your departure point is to depart it?
“Anyway,” I say, as the bus hisses into its bay and I return to collect my backpack and my actual friend.
• • •
The bus station of Crystal City is precisely as grimy as the one back in Ass Bucket. It’s a little bigger, though, so there are more bays, more buses coming in, more going out, belching more exhaust into the oily air and beeping randomly and for no apparent reason other than to make everybody more jaggedy and angry.
I follow behind Stacey as we bump our way out of the big daytime dusk of the garage area, fighting through the flow of fellow travelers to get to the terminal on the other side of the thick glass doors. Already my eyes feel irritated and what passes for air here is working my lungs over to provoke the first whistlings of wheeze as I breathe.
The diesel-mechanical stench is replaced by a deep-fried-humanity stench as we push through the doors into the waiting lounge, cafeteria, ticketing offices tilt-a-whirl of busfolk society. Just a few steps in, Stacey turns around sharply and I almost bump into her before braking.
“Is that you making that noise?” she says.
“No,” I say, and lung-whistle right through it.
“Of course,” she says. “Of course you have asthma. Why wouldn’t you have asthma?”
“Okay,” I say firmly, “first, it’s controlled asthma, it’s only that the concentrated bus fumes set it off a little. And second, is that some kind of asthmatic stereotyping thing you’re doing there? Because that would be very uncool.”
Stacey’s hungry grin tells me that my passionate defense of the maligned tribe of asthma sufferers has done nothing to the old fire of prejudice other than throw another log onto it. Before she can say more, however, she’s cut off.
“Derek?” says the small, nerved-up girl who nudges Stacey aside to speak right into my chin like it’s a microphone. “Are you Derek? You are, right? Sure, it is you. It’s me, Molly.” As she says her name she smiles really hard, really hard, as if you can amp up a smile like you can a scream. She also holds up her right arm, showing me her cast.
Her intensity could just about push me backward all by itself but I help it along by inching away from her breath, which is slightly sour but with a top layer of Scope that is so strong it’s almost a mist.
“Sorry,” I say, “but I’m not Derek.”
“What?” she says, sounding genuinely perplexed by my failure to be Derek. “But you look like you, pretty much. And it’s the time, and I’m here. And the cast, and everything. You have the cast, and everything.”
Stacey takes this as her cue, and bumps Molly’s shoulder with a casted forearm roughly enough to send her sideways into the path of a big fat businessguy, who jolts her even harder without seeming to notice.
“Yo, rudegirl,” Stacey says as Molly pushes her glasses back up her face and fails to hide the large, watering eyes. “You are mistaken. This is Kiki Vandeweghe, he’s not your Derek.”
I’m looking at the slight, twitchy girl whose voice sounds like she has an air bubble trapped in her throat, and who is dealing with the superior force that is Stacey by wrapping her arms around one another in what looks like a badly needed hug. And as I’m looking I think I am sorry for not being Derek. I’m sorry I couldn’t have been that, and prevented this.
“Hey, sorry,” Stacey says a lot more warmly now that she has made her point about manners and now that she can see the delicacy of the little lost creature before her. “Are you all right? Are you hurt?”
Molly shakes her head without speaking and continues her unilateral embrace. Her hair is a large gingery mass of a garden with curly parts and frizzy parts and bushy parts shaped into an almost perfect globe. She seems to have attempted some kind of parting in there between the middle and the left side but it’s mostly fought back, and the overpowered hair clip is really just floating about six inches away from the scalp. Between the shape, the color, and the midstripe it looks a lot like a Cleveland Browns helmet.
Stacey steps up to her and gently takes the clip, which appears to be in the form of a yellow school bus, and works it back through the hair to where it belongs. Molly holds completely still, but follows Stacey intently with her wide eyes.
Suddenly it occurs to me. Maybe I just could be Derek. The Derek or a Derek, what’s the difference? I’m betting no difference at all, as far as Molly is concerned. So yeah, why not? She could have her Derek, the universe could have some rightness, and I’m pretty sure it would even be okay with Kiki since he is currently unattached.
“What’s this, a convention or somethin’?”
Startled, I look to my left where the speaker is holding up a left arm almost completely covered in a cast that is bent at the elbow. Since it is twice the cast of anybody else’s here, I’m thinking he may want to be our leader.
“No, it’s not a convention,” is my clever response to the man who acknowledges me not at all.
“Molly?” he says, walking right up to Stacey. “Please, tell me you’re Molly.”
Stacey goes right on taking care of the business of hairdressing before she sizes the guy up. “Even if I was Molly, I wouldn’t tell you I was Molly.”
Molly tells him she is Molly anyway. “I’m Molly.”
Stacey is still looking the guy up and down when she says to her, “Are you sure? Maybe you’re not Molly.”
“I’m Derek,” he says, still staring at Stacey and staring a stare that says he is failing to recognize any of the hostility waves radiating from her.
I step in quickly. “Sign my cast, Derek?”
“What?” he snaps, but grabs the marker and squiggles his mark along the outer edge up near the elbow.
“This is your Derek?” Stacey asks, getting in between them and holding her gaze.
“I guess so,” Molly says.
“Who are you?” Derek asks Stacey’s back. Stacey’s back keeps him on hold.
“You thought he”—she thumb-points back at Derek—“looked like him?” She pinkie-points at me.
“The picture was kinda blurry,” Molly says, the air bubble in her throat expanding.
“Oh, the picture is more than kinda blurry,” Stacey says.
“What picture are we talking about?” I ask.
“Uh, I’m here to meet Molly, right, so if the two of you who are not Molly would be on your way, we can get on with getting to know each other.”
“That picture,” Stacey snaps.
And a picture he is. I mean, I know I’m not bringing home any blue ribbons from the fair, but if he looks like me it has to be me after being dragged underneath a truck, left to age in the summer sun for a couple of months, and then given an all-over coating of a fine-grade motor oil. Although, it appears by his dense stubble that he is well capable of growing a beard. Like, three times a day.
“How old are you, De-rek?” Stacey says with a hammer blow to that second syllable.
He seems to be up for the game with her, which I personally think is unwise.
“Why don’t we just call it early thirties,” he says, all leery.
“What piss,” Stacey spits. “I didn’t ask what year you were born.”
“See, Molly,” Derek says, leaning in to take her hand, “I tried to be nice and get along with your friends, for your sake, but it just doesn’t work with some people.”
Then, it goes emphatically wrong.
Then, Molly takes his hand.
Then, Stacey nearly takes off Molly’s hand, in slapping the two apart.
“What’s wrong with you, girl?” Stacey says, starting to shuffle the girl away toward the streetside exit. “This is a bad thing. You have to know this is a bad thing.”
“Nothing’s wrong with me,” Molly says, but puts up no resistance to Stacey’s mothering.
“You are outta line,” Derek snarls, walking after them. “She wants to be with me.”
Even though nobody’s invited me, I start fast-walking after them. Derek is managing a seriously quick stride that keeps pace with the now-running girls while at the same time not looking like he’s chasing or pursuing anybody. The kind of thing I’d think takes practice.
What kind of guy practices that?
Myself, I’m pretty sure I look like I’m running, or run-shambling, as I catch up to the action. The girls have reached and gone through the middle one of a five-across bank of glass doors to the street. They run hard left. Seconds later, Derek goes through that same door while I pass through the one to his immediate left.
Then it all becomes a mess of a run-shamble as I half-stumble, half-throw myself to the ground in Derek’s path. I fall hard to the pavement, breaking my fall mostly with my good arm while I also take Derek right out of the play. He hits my side just below his knees and just like that he is up and over, his legs taken right out from under him. I am looking in the direction of the fleeing girls as Derek flies over me and hits the pavement with his jaw after his big bent cast breaks all up on impact with the sidewalk.
He is howling and growling, rolling on the ground and holding his resmashed broken arm and bleeding a good puddle from his mouth as I scramble up and scram away.
I might not be a superhero, but I can fall down like nobody’s business.
• • •
I walk up the street, through the center of Crystal City, trying to catch up to them. I trot for a couple of blocks and then walk hard for a couple more. Then I walk slowly for a couple more, before I start trying side streets off the main drag and then side streets off those, with no plan, no idea what I’m doing. And no luck.