by Teodor Reljic
The bus cut through the air hard; I heard it before I saw it. Its back seemed to stare, little red lights teasing as it zoomed away from our sight. It was the coldest winter I could remember, and as the bus left us I imagined it cutting through air that was like ice, its sharp edges leaving us, leaving me and Henry in an urban wasteland that was in fact half an hour away from our hometown.
And the bus is gone too, I thought I heard Henry say, and saw him wave his large hand up and down inexplicably. I knew he was fragile that night, maybe that’s why I turned the bus into a balletic motion, and as he said something else I didn’t quite hear as we both stamped our feet on the tarmac to keep warm, I came up with another metaphor.
A blade. A thick blade in the air. A thick blade through the ice that wasn’t snow or hail but that felt like both, and neither.
When I finally turned around to look at Henry – his round, tanned face looked rounder under the harsh lamplight – I winced at the pain he must have felt as he pulled the fake smile into a proper rictus; I imagined the wind sliding through the large gaps in his teeth and entering his mouth.
Funny how that makes your mouth feel dry. His mouth, being dry right now, must be the sweetest irony of all; his mouth, which is primed to speak out with fresh grief, and all we can do is gaze at what is a poor excuse for a highway, waiting for the next bus, which will now come God knows when.
“And the bus is gone too, Joey,” he said, and I heard him clearly this time. “And the bus is gone too, but another one will come again…”
If I hadn’t known him I would have thought getting dumped would has left him bereft of a dozen million brain cells too, the way he was talking now. But I knew that he was a stranger to grief, and I waited for him to settle into a more conventional response. It was one of the many mistakes I made that night.
“And the bus will come again, it will come again,” was the refrain of my friend, my best friend for years.
What still amazes me about that fluid hour, to this day, is how little of conversation actually took place. Henry stood next to me, and to an outside observer – someone squinting away at us from the opposite end of the road, say – we looked to be in perfect alignment; human friends with human limbs and faces, our attire a perfectly harmless combo of jumper and jean, our shoes barely visible from the distance and just as unremarkable.
But the difference between us at that point was keen and persistent. I say persistent because it’s like every second brought something new – an expression to his face, a half-sentence that seemed strangely off key – that made it feel like we’d started all over again, like we needed to be re-introduced.
I had no indication that she would do this to him. I had no idea of knowing that, throughout the course of their three-month relationship, this woman would alter his internal dynamics so drastically that, once she was removed, my friend would cease to be my friend but a cypher, or a mish-mash of elements that never quite clicked into place. That he would resort to babbling inanities. I wished he would cry.
The next bus wasn’t the right one but by the time it came, I was still thinking of tears. I was thinking about how we’re all made up of a large part of water, and how the fact that my friend wouldn’t cry when something made him so clearly distraught was a sign that his humanity had gone missing. I then thought about the first bus, the one we missed, the one that cut through the thick, icy air like a knife, and I imagined that icy air returning to its more primeval element: to water; to tiny water, to invisible water, and I wanted the hour to pass quicker so that I could dream of this water, so that I could move alongside it and with it, so that I could carry on living…
“Why don’t we drive?” I thought. Then Henry said something similar. “I wish I had a car,” he said, and I quipped that he needed to get a licence first. He laughed, those gap teeth opening up to the ice air again, and his thin eyes shaping themselves further into slits.
“You’re right man,” he said, nodding. For a second I wondered if everything was back to normal. But still no tears came.
When we finally boarded a bus, we found it to be pitch black. We weren’t alone but we may as well have been – the only evidence of any other occupants were shapes I mistook to be abandoned bags at first, though which revealed themselves to be human-shaped when the bus sped past lamplights.
I wished that Henry would have died then, then I’d have some excuse to have overreacted, to have sapped away at his drama so hard that I was near breaking point. I wanted the light to be snuffed out completely. Perhaps it was the cold – the same cold that made your mouth dry – but the bus didn’t smell bad at all, and I could fancy myself getting swallowed up by its enclosed darkness. I closed my eyes to fantasise this and thought of my dull, empty life, even duller when offset against Henry’s recent drama.
The abandoned bags shifted a stop before ours – they were old ladies, and I could think of no excuses for them being out so late, all alone. I knew this to be a failure of my imagination, and I chastised myself once again.
Yes, I belonged in the darkness, I thought. The drowsiness washed over me, and I didn’t have the strength to resist the drama. It was so delicious, to think of death now. When Henry wouldn’t listen, when he couldn’t, poor thing.
Another’s troubles are always such a bore, no matter how boring you might be.
I knew I didn’t deserve to dream that night – or any night whatsoever, after my non-display of affection with Henry. Home felt suddenly stranger, like I was breaking into my own house. In my drowsiness I pictured myself in some mid-90s TV thriller, clicking the phone on to hear my voice messages and discovering that I’ve been stalking myself.
No dreams came except for the dark, and for a text from Henry. I read it with bleary eyes so I couldn’t be sure whether or not I was dreaming as I read it (it was still there in the morning).
‘Hey man,thanks4 tonite. I must hav been weird. I knw u were a bit freaked out cos you were quiet…’
He always left his texts open-ended, as if not answering wasn’t an option – nothing to do with politeness, he probably just couldn’t even entertain the thought.
My mother always said that the morning was for decisions, and that night was for thinking yourself to sleep, and dreams. I didn’t dream that night but I did make a decision that morning.
I was happy with Henry. I really was. He was nice, steady; an invention with no humanity but with just enough purpose to be convenient.
With no purpose of my own and still in my pyjamas, I scribbled down ‘Convenient invention’ in my diary. Scribbled under today’s date, it had nothing to do with marking a point of schedule. Instead, it was like a badge – a reminder of what I had accomplished the night before.
I wish I wouldn’t miss her, but there would be fictions for that too, I’m sure.
Teodor Reljic does not look forward to the end of the world – he’s seen far too little of it. In the meantime he enjoys travelling to distant lands in books and films but unlike poor Johnny Keats, isn’t innocent enough to consider this a worthy substitute for actual globe-trotting. His next destination remains uncertain, but it’ll doubtless be powered by – and peppered with – writing of some kind, since, being a graduate of English from the University of Malta, it’s the only real skill he has.