Longing is the heart of a good story, and in this weekend’s fiction section, Nathan Tavares takes us on a school bus journey that blends the desires of the past with the desires of the present, a divorce party and maybe more. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
The steering wheel turned easily. As a kid, trying to peer over the driver’s shoulder, Kurt had always imagined the wheel of the school bus as the gigantic helm of a ship. Like it would take all of the muscles of his upper body to turn.
“Do you think she’ll hear us coming?” Annie asked. The other of the Annes—Anna—was behind her, applying lip gloss in a small mirror.
“The sound of a school bus is pretty unmistakable,” Marissa said.
Kurt tried to push his jitters down into his stomach. What was he so worried about? He was just taking out some friends. He would ask one of the girls to make him a drink, but he’d be driving the school bus all night. Not a good idea.
At a stoplight, Kurt surveyed the group in the rearview mirror. Robin and Marissa sat just behind him. Robin had wolfish features and wore a burnt orange dress. She spoke, moving her hands quickly in the air, while Marissa nodded. Marissa, with her dark hair and eyes, was usually quiet. Intense, even. Behind them, the Annes swapped stories about their kids. The Annes almost looked like sisters with their honey hair and short frames. Lily, her bright blue dress in contrast to her dark skin, bent over the cooler in the back. She’d wanted to go to a strip club that evening, had said it would be hilarious, but Kurt had shot that idea down. No. First they’d hit the casino, then go dancing. Lily swayed as she walked towards the rest of the group, a sweating pink plastic cup in her hand.
The girls in the bus shared memories with Joanie. They’d gotten to know her in college, or at work, where she sold advertising for a sports magazine. He only knew them because of her. None of them had as much history with Joanie as he did.
Kurt and Joanie had met as freshmen in high school, when her family moved in three houses down from him. He didn’t have many friends at the time, girl or otherwise. He’d been the doughy kid on the debate team who memorized weird American history facts. He’d never believed that girls were creatures with pretty smelling hair and weird habits, like some guys did. He didn’t even remember what his and Joanie’s first conversation was, just that it took place on the bus and that Joanie spoke first, leaning over the back of her seat to chat. Playing with her hair. Knocking on the window. Never sitting still. He swam in Joanie’s pool that summer, awed by the flesh that poked out from her purple one-piece. She walked to his house some evenings, and they climbed out of his bedroom window and onto the roof. His house was tiny and loud. The roof was the only place he could hear himself think. Stretched out, they watched the stars. If he was quiet enough, he could hear her breathing.
But tonight wasn’t about him, or the rest of them. The bus was a support group on wheels. Kurt’s idea. Every huge life event should be marked with a party and cake. Especially divorce. They were there to celebrate Joanie’s freedom after three years of dating and just over a year of marriage.
The steering wheel felt slick under Kurt’s palms. The side of the bus tipped up as he steered around the corner. Marissa screamed in mock-terror, lifting her cup so the liquid wouldn’t splatter on her dress.
“Hey, driver, try not to kill us, alright?” Marissa asked.
“I make no promises,” Kurt said. “Tonight is all about the unexpected.”
“Unexpected” wasn’t exactly true. He’d planned this for a week. He lived a life of syllabi and lesson-plans. Classes had ended three days earlier. He’d lucked out that semester, but there was still that one freshmen composition class that rolled their eyes as he talked about comma splices and the passive voice. He never felt like a life-changing teacher. He didn’t expect to change Joanie’s life with one booze-filled night out, either. He just wanted to pull her out of her rut, even for only a few hours.
Lily was leading the group in a round of “The Wheels on the Bus” when they rolled up to Joanie’s place, a condo in a tree-lined cul-de-sac. Kurt remembered moving couches in with John, Joanie’s ex. Joanie had still had her post-honeymoon tan as she helped arrange furniture. Kurt wished he could say he’d hated John from the beginning, but they’d played on the same flag football team, had laughed over beer and hot wings after games. Didn’t the fact that John showed no signs of dickery make the divorce worse? No cheating. No explosive fights. Just one day, wanting out.
The idling bus engine sounded like ball bearings rolling inside of a barrel.
“Should we call her?” Robin asked as they waited on the curb. She stood. Kurt could feel her breath, light, on the back of his neck. Years ago, Joanie had tried to play matchmaker with him and Robin at some party in her dorm. Nothing happened. His fault.
“No, you should honk,” Lily slurred. “Much funnier.”
Kurt jabbed the center of the steering wheel. Two goose honks. He pictured Joanie sitting in her living room, stroking her hair like she always did when she was nervous. What if she came out, saw the school bus, and decided that she’d rather lock the door and hide? Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
“I can’t wait to see her face,” Annie said. “I’m so calling her.”
Kurt honked twice more. He looked out of the bus. The front door of Joanie’s condo cracked open—slowly at first. Then she stepped outside.
She’d worn white like he’d asked, a dress that hung off one shoulder. Her brown hair draped around her face. She carried a white cardigan to ward off the chill the late May night might bring. He had trouble remembering the girl she’d once been. Wide glasses. Braces with bright blue elastics. Stick-insect limbs. Acne that she’d tried to camouflage with bangs. She teetered, hesitant and beautiful, on her front stoop.
Robin elbowed her way over Marissa to the right side of the bus. She pulled the window down and whooped into the night air. “Get in here, you bitch!”
Joanie’s dark eyebrows scrunched in confusion. Then she laughed. Of course she found it funny. It was 8 pm and there was a school bus in her front yard. Kurt let himself breathe and opened the door with the squealing of gears.
They cheered as Joanie stepped in.
“Somebody, get her a drink,” Kurt said. “And please. Make it strong.”
She passed him, bringing with her the faint scent of wet grass from the neighbor’s sprinklers. He settled into the driver’s seat. He knew he’d be watching her all night, the way she smiled a little too widely when she was faking happiness. The way her right eyebrow dipped down when she was stressed. He felt a prick of sweat under his left arm.
In the rearview mirror, Lily swayed to the cooler. She filled a plastic cup with ice, vodka, and the barest splash of cranberry juice. Joanie reached for the cup. Kurt saw her wide smile reflected above him. He pulled onto the road.
“I don’t even know where we’re going. This is kidnapping.” Joanie said. She took a sip of her drink and then gasped for air. “God, that’s strong.”
“Don’t distract the driver,” Kurt said. “And welcome to your divorce party.”
Joanie’s eyes were hard to read in the rearview mirror. The bus was too dark. But finally, she laughed again and raised her cup, rattling the ice.
“Oh, Jesus,” she said. “There better be a lot more of these coming.”
Kurt steered towards Newport, where he and Joanie would hang out when they were younger. Cutting class and going to the beach. In college, they’d meet there after finals and get stoned, laughing at the seagulls and throwing potato chips at each other. He pulled into the parking lot after she was halfway through her second neon drink. Their first stop of the evening. “Newport Gold Casino and Lounge” was illuminated above the building’s entrance in a sign that would’ve looked ancient 30 years ago.
“We figured gambling would do you some good,” Robin said. She stood, some of her drinking sloshing from her cup in the process. “Because, with the shit luck you’ve had, things can only improve. Right?”
Joanie rolled her eyes like an actress hamming it up for the people in the back row.
Inside, the casino was all bad lighting and musty carpets. The air stank of old cigarette smoke. The gold wallpaper had probably had a sheen to it, once. The ancient nickel slots looked like giant toasters, ringed with lights.
The Annes flew to Joanie’s sides. Anna handed her a tall paper cup filled with nickels. They dragged her away into the rows of blinking machines.
Kurt had a few coins in his pockets. He fit a nickel into a slot. One of the machines blinked to life. Dizzy, spinning lights. A chorus of tinkling bells. He pulled the lever and played a quick game of chance in his head while the machine’s insides spun. Three horseshoes and Joanie would never have her heart broken again. One silver coin and two spades and he would leave the casino, drive the bus to his old house, and sit out on the roof, alone. Two gold bars and a cherry and he would kiss Joanie on the lips when he dropped her off. Just a peck. Innocent. In all the years they’d known each other, he’d never tried to kiss her. He knew how she felt about him. No sense in ruining things.
Two cherries and a pyramid. He won three nickels.
Nearby, Lily and Marissa stood in front of a cocktail waitress. Marissa tried to pull a drink from Lily, who sipped, insistent. Marissa plucked the glass away and then planted it on the waitress’s tray. Marissa flashed Kurt a concerned look. He was glad that she was playing the mother hen.
“How about we get you some water?” Marissa said.
Kurt was about to walk closer when he heard Joanie’s shout. For an instant, he panicked. He could see Joanie, a row away, her wedding ring-less hand resting on a lever. “Guys? I think I’m winning! Get over here!”
The cotton candy-colored lights illuminated Joanie’s face. He wanted to tuck that loose strand of hair behind her ear, but she did it herself. The lights flashed red and coins slid into the bottom tray of the machine. Joanie stuck out her paper cup to catch the overflow.
“That’s it?” Marissa asked. “How much did you win?”
Joanie poked her finger into the cup of nickels. She leaned back, her brown hair falling off her shoulders. “All of 10 bucks,” she said. “That’s a good start to a nice new condo, right?”
She smiled widely. Maybe she forgot about John for a second. If that was the case, then the night was already a success.
After an hour of gambling, Kurt ushered the group into what was normally the bingo room. He had transformed it into a classy dining area with paper plates and a stack of pizzas. The carpet was the same faded red, dotted with cigarette burns. The buffet table had a scratched top and rusty legs.
In the doorway, Robin touched him lightly on the arm.
“You’re a real sweetheart for planning all of this,” she said. She ran her thumb over the back of Kurt’s palm. The flutter of moth wings. “Let me know if you need any help tonight. Or you know, whenever.”
Kurt swallowed. Robin was beautiful. Sweet, too. He should talk to her more, maybe ask her out. But trying to flirt with someone always felt weird when Joanie was around.
Joanie stood by the stack of pizzas, slice in hand, and took an enormous bite. She wasn’t a dainty eater, or a girl who blotted away the pizza grease before shoveling the slice into her mouth. Just outside the banquet room, Kurt waited for something. When he turned back to Robin, she was gone.
Marissa had made a cake. A two-layer white cake with purple flowers and curlicues. She brought it to the table as Kurt appeared at Joanie’s side.
“Mar, it’s beautiful!” Joanie said, then paused. “I still have the top of my wedding cake in the freezer.”
“This is a divorce cake,” Marissa said. “Much better than a wedding cake. All about what you like. No agreeing on flavors and fillings.” She handed Joanie a huge meat cleaver.
“This must’ve taken forever!” Joanie turned to Kurt and swatted him surprisingly hard in the chest. “I blame you for this,” she said.
Kurt glanced down at his shirt. Earlier, it had taken him forever to iron out all the wrinkles. A splotch of grease, in the barest shape of a fingertip, stained the front. His chest felt a fading ache from Joanie’s hand.
She cut into the cake with the bright steel meat cleaver. Jam, thick with strawberries, pooled out from each slice. The cake looked like it was bleeding.
Later, after they’d cashed in 80 dollars worth of nickels for crisp twenties, Kurt sat again in the bus driver’s seat and said they had one final stop. Joanie was in her perfect buzzed state—when everything seemed funny and she hugged her friends and told them how much she loved them. She’d taken a piece of the divorce cake with her. “I’m eating it on the one-year anniversary of the divorce,” she’d said. “Hopefully I’ve gotten laid by then.” The Annes were helping each other touch up their makeup and fix their hair. In the seat behind him, Robin texted furiously. Lily reached for a drink in the cooler, but Marissa stopped her.
“Where’re you taking us to now, captain?” Joanie asked.
“You’ll see,” Kurt said.
The club where they were headed was in Newport, just a short drive away, and was hosting an outdoor block party. Live music. A bar in the open air. A dance floor that overlooked the ocean. The guy Kurt had spoken to on the phone had said the party was the club’s most popular event.
The school bus rounded the corner. Kurt pulled into the lot amid stares from the people in line. Then he spun in his seat and tried to read Joanie’s face in the darkness. Around her, the girls chattered, collected purses, and stood up.
“We thought you’d like to go out dancing,” he said, keeping his voice steady. He eyed Marissa, his backup.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go flirt a little.”
He could feel the air of hesitation. The bus idled. If he turned off the headlights, the overheads would flicker to life. Joanie seemed to want to stay hidden. She looked down into her plastic cup as if reading a message on the bottom. The outdoor lights from the club swept across her face, but left her eyes shadowed.
“I don’t think I’m up for a big crowd just yet.”
Even after all these years, maybe Kurt didn’t understand her as well as he thought.
“Should we just call it a night?” Marissa asked.
Joanie bit her lip. She swept her gaze across the street to where the waves crashed onto the sand of a small beach. Then finally, something shifted in her.
“Let’s go for a swim,” she said. The corners of her lawn-green eyes crinkled in excitement. “You’ve been dragging me around all night. Now it’s my turn.”
Kurt waited, unsure. The water was bound to be freezing. Some of the girls protested, but Robin wrangled them, shouting at the Annes to move their asses off of the bus. Only Marissa waited behind, making herself a drink. Kurt watched as Joanie and the other girls crossed the street, heels clicking the pavement. Lily had her shoes in her hands. Robin stumbled, and then Joanie was at her side. Together, they ran to the shore, kicking up sand at Joanie’s white dress.
Kurt sat, unmoving, with the bus’s heater blasting warm air into his face.
Finally, Marissa handed him a plastic cup. The liquid tasted bitter and sweet. They watched as Joanie made it to the shoreline. She ran in to her knees, her dress sticking to her legs like wet paper. So cold! Kurt heard her yell.
“Remind me again. How long have you known her?” Marissa asked.
“Since I was 13,” Kurt said.
“And how long have you been in love with her?” Marissa asked.
Joanie gathered the courage and plunged into the water. Kurt drew in a breath, like that cold was deep in his lungs. She surfaced, screaming with laughter, her hair matted to her skin.
“Since about five minutes after that.”
Marissa’s hand touched his shoulder, and the warmth radiated. On the beach, Joanie yelled to the Annes. Get in here, you bitches! Anna waded into the water. Annie chugged the rest of her drink, threw the cup into the sand, and waded in deep enough to splash Joanie. A wave crested far offshore.
Marissa squeezed, and walked out of the bus. She crossed the street, her strides long, and joined the others.
A wave slammed into Joanie’s back. She stumbled, regained her footing. She tried to brush her wet hair from her face. Then, she dipped all the way underwater and came up, pushing back her glistening hair, her face clean again.
Kurt closed the bus door, sealing himself inside. He could still hear the rush of the ocean, dim, and the laughter that spilled from Joanie’s mouth. She splashed, happier than he’d seen her in too long. She jumped to avoid the crest of a wave. The other girls kicked in the surf, all of them daring now.
Soon, Joanie would be too cold. She’d want to leave. And when she was ready, he’d take her away.
—photo Flickr/krc krc