Short Story by Imas Istiani (The Jakarta Post, July 31, 2017)
This time, I simply couldn’t hold back the tears from rolling down my cheeks.
Another problem created by an unbearably frivolous mistake had led us to crisis: We’d missed the bus to go back to Mount Pleasant, the last and only bus on the schedule.
Actually, we hadn’t missed the bus. We’d been sitting down in front of one that had “SAGINAW” written across the windshield and didn’t see a bus to Mount Pleasant. When the bus started moving, I realized it was the bus that we’d been waiting for!
“Tell me, what should we do now?” I seemed to be asking myself more than him.
He frowned, thinking for a way to get back home. I’d never wanted to call it home before; my true home is really far away. That tiny two-story apartment was just a place where I slept at night with the other noisy roommates.
Home to me is a place where you can find a life, which rises with the smell of an old sofa that you have sat on for years.
He finally opened his mouth. “How much money do we still have, exactly?”
“Ninety-five dollars in bills, three quarters and two dimes. I don’t want to count these useless little pennies,” I grumbled. We only had US$96! Just enough for buying another two tickets for tomorrow.
“Be calm, honey, let me think for a moment,” he said soothingly.
Then he suggested: “How about asking a friend to pick us up? We can give him all our money in return.”
It should have been the easiest solution, but it wasn’t at all possible. Since we got here three months ago, we haven’t had many people we could call “friends.” The only friend we had was Ivan. But we knew how busy he was with his fulltime job on top of his college classes. “How about taking cab?” he said. “It will cost us hundreds of dollars.” “Another bus?” I shook my head, “I told you, this is the only bus station in this city.” “How about taking the train?” “Honey, you know very well the reason we traveled by bus: no train runs to Mount Pleasant.” I finally made the decision: “Okay, let’s just spend one more night here.”
“Are you sure? But how? We don’t have any money for a hotel. I mean, I can sleep anywhere, but what about you?”
“I don’t know. But let’s save the bus tickets for tomorrow. There’s no other way.”
For the next few minutes, I clasped the two bus tickets in my left hand. We stared at each other, knowing that the very few dollars in my right hand could get us nothing but some cheap food.
“Let’s just go and take the Rapid bus. We still have the one-day pass. I was right when I told you not to throw away those passes. See, it’ll saves us a few bucks.” He tried to cheer me up. That was what I loved about him, always being able to see the light in the dark. In contrast, it was hard for me to pretend that everything would be fine.
“Where are we going to sleep tonight? I’m so tired!” I protested.
“Let’s think about it on the bus. There’s no use sitting like fools inside the station.”
He took my hand but I released his grasp immediately as we left Central Station. In front of the station, there were Rapid buses, ready to take us anywhere around the Grand Rapids. We looked at the big map posted in the middle between the bus lanes. “Okay, then. How about taking the No. 5? There are so many routes that pass Woodland Mall. I bet this mall must be humongous. It’d be good for us to kill time. And Thanksgiving is coming soon, they’ll have a lot of sales and discounts!” I was so excited just imagining it. He roared with laughter. “Oh, woman! It’s so easy to distract you! Look, the bus just arrived!” After we were on the bus, I was glad I’d decided to buy the one-day pass. I thought I would only use it twice today. Oh, sure — like he said, it would save us a few bucks. Thinking of the day we were having, my anger floated to the surface of my face again. “By the way, don’t forget that I am still angry at you,” I told him. “Oh, come on… Honey, who had this idea of traveling spontaneously?” “It was me, I know! It’s just that I was so exhausted with school stuff! And also, I’d planned it, okay? I’d bought the round-trip tickets and reserved the hotel two days before!” “Yeah, but you forgot to check that the Ford Museum closed at five yesterday and you blamed me for it?” “We could have gotten into the museum if we hadn’t taken the wrong route!” I barked back at him, even though I knew it wasn’t his fault. Lovingly, he put his arm around my shoulders and lowered his voice. “Love, listen to me. I am really, deeply, sorry for what’s happening. Sometimes, things get out of our control. Does it still hurt?” I didn’t say anything. “Just tell me when you don’t feel well,” he said. Another half hour passed in dead silence. This city must be so beautiful during summertime. Winter would come soon and all the leaves would fall. Even with no leaves left, the trees would still stand strong with their arms reaching out to the sky. It was natural, the leaves falling. No sadness. No misery. No loneliness. The trees know that whatever is happening, no matter how devastating, it would end. And the sun will return. And the leaves. And the joy of summer. It’s probably the only reason these trees are able to withstand the freezing storms.
We prepared to get off the bus when it entered a big shopping area. The mall had been decorated for Christmas. There was a 10-foot-tall Christmas tree surrounded by fluffy bears and boxes of presents giftwrapped in shades of green and red. A few toddlers were going around happily carrying toys their parents had just bought for them.
I couldn’t help but gaze at a 2-year-old girl with green eyes and the cutest dimples. My mind flashed back to this morning.
“Are you OK?” he said. “Do you still feel the cramps? If you feel tired, let’s just sit down on that bench.”
We sat for a while, thinking where we would spend the rest of the night.
“The mall will close in the next hour,” he broke the silence. “Then?” “We can go to Meijer or Walmart, they’re open 24 hours. Or any coffee shop will do.”
We got back on the bus and headed to Meijer. Once we got there, we grabbed a shopping cart and walked slowly. Aisle by aisle. Shelf by shelf. I leaned against the cart so I could rest a little bit. After wandering down the grocery section for the third time, we finally grabbed the biggest and cheapest bread we could find and one bottle of juice. We ate the bread at the bus stop just before midnight, and caught the last bus that took us to a 24-hour coffee shop in the Grand Valley State University area.
We ordered two large Americanos. I didn’t put any sugar in mine. I hoped the bitter taste in my mouth could help keep my mind busy. I looked around. There was life everywhere. People milling about. Living.
“I’m glad I did it here, in Grand Rapids. I certainly don’t want to return to this city again,” I finally uttered my true feelings for this tiring day.
“Sweetheart, don’t let the past get in the way.” His weary eyes sparked with mixed feelings of confusion, guilt, and also relief.
“How could you say that, as if this isn’t going to haunt us forever?”
“Remember, we talked about it several times! I told you if you didn’t want to do it, we could have it!”
“Easy for you to say. And why would you call him ‘it’? Because he just looked like a tiny bean when we forced him out?”
“Honey… Please… Don’t start this again. I’m tired of it. Just tell me what I should do to make you feel better. Tell me, please…”
I couldn’t tell him what I wanted him to do. I desperately needed to cry, so at least I knew I still had a heart that could feel, even though I felt so numb inside. “Do you think he will forgive us?” “Sure, he’s a good boy. Look, he’s watching us from Heaven. He understands why we did this to him. It was the best thing for him. We don’t want to be irresponsible later on, that’s why we had to let him go so early.”
“I am deeply sorry that I spent almost all of your savings. I didn’t realize it cost that much.”
“Don’t ever say that again. I would do anything for us.”
He held my hand for the rest of the night until dawn. When the bus finally arrived, we bought two passes and headed for Route 1. It was an unfamiliar route for both of us. There weren’t a lot of people on the bus at this hour. We sat in the back. Then we got off at Meijer in Clyde Park to buy another bag of bread and a big soda bottle and had an early breakfast at the bus stop.
An hour later, we got off at Alpine’s Walmart. We didn’t go inside the store because we’d already had enough of shopping and walking. The scenery across the parking lot was a sight for sore eyes. From the top of the hill, we could see half of this quiet township. But it was too cold to stay outside. We hopped on another bus that took us to Central Station. The rain and the cold made us stay inside the station. Except this time, I didn’t mind the wait.
Imas Istiani is an Indonesian writer. She is also a lecturer in English literature and a Fulbright scholar.