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Roseland

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I’m twenty-­one. On a Greyhound bus going from New York to San Francisco. I haven’t planned a route. I simply head west and take my time. I sleep on the buses at night or at an occasional hostel. I have been on the road for weeks and the loneliness is palpable. But America’s landscape fills me. I live on pretzels and bagels, and bus stations start to feel a little like home. I cry at the beauty of the Grand Canyon. The electric-­blue birds that fly from the bottom of the gash to the top.The crazy goats. I decide I could die happy on the Angel Trail sometime when I’m old as the light changes with the sun going down. I become caught by the rhythm of travelling through darkness. The anonymity of it appeals to me. Attention from men is routine simply because I am young and alone.

A Vietnam veteran sits next to me and starts to tell me his story. At one point in his narrative it becomes essential for him to hold his head in his hands and throw his face towards my crotch, his hooch breath hot and regular into my jeans. He does not move or continue his story. I don’t stop him from breathing heavily into my pubis bone. He clutches at my sacrum. It’s a silent plea. ‘Can I stay here? Back where it all began?’ I stare at the top of his head and out of the window. Then I stroke his hair, and feel strangely alive and maternal. A second veteran confesses all to me a week later and curls up identically into my lap, crying. I offer no comfort this time, suspicious that word has gone around on pirate walkie-­talkies about a gullible gal.

The bus drives towards Texas. It’s 2 a.m. I watch the highway and its lights. I’m sat next to a plump boy in dungarees. He has dark curly hair and is most likely a twenty-­year-­old virgin. I fall asleep against his shoulder. Half waking I feel the warmth of his arm. I put my coat over me like a blanket. In doing so I have created a hidden place. Soon I feel his hand brush against my knee testing my depth of sleep. I fake a dream, a light sigh. He places his hand tentatively upon my leg. Then it moves to my thigh. I edge nearer to him, still faking, complicit. His hand travels an inch higher every ten minutes. He ends up exploring me with his young fingers. I feel his hydraulic bliss of being allowed in. I don’t feel pleasure. Or pain. My isolation subsides, replaced by his need. And that is enough to allow him to continue. It’s a game. An act that I want to be good at. I finally tire of it and turn away from him as though the dream bed has shifted again. He holds me gently for miles, my back to him. Through one state and into another.

Ipretend to wake and the boy in dungarees stares at me. He puts his hands in his pockets. The sky is powder blue and the bus smells of disinfectant and petrol. ‘Morning,’ he says. He is more direct than I had expected. I smile. ‘The next stop is Roseland,’ he says, unabashed. ‘I live in Roseland. Would you want to get off there?’ I am probably a year older than him yet I feel like Mother Time compared to his boyishness. ‘Would you?’ he repeats. And I shake my head, silently saying goodbye to a life of white fences. And apples. And rosy-­cheeked children in dungarees. Or maybe just an alcoholic existence at a gas station.