How many days have I spent on buses, watching the countryside slide by under the translucent reflection of my face? How many greasy spots has my forehead left on windows as far north as Colombia and as far south as Chile? How many bottles of something I hoped was the equivalent of TUMS have I eaten before boarding a 20 hour bus with a bad case of the runs? I know that one actually, once. And once was too many.
“He that will learn to pray, let him go to the sea.” Or ride a bunch of buses in South America. I add silently myself. But a part of me loves the long bus rides. There’s a space between the world beyond the glass and my reflected image. A shadow that’s created by the movement and the waiting, a temporary space for thinking.
Several months ago I was in a Payless shoe store in the US, holding a barefoot little girl with luminous almond eyes on my hip. She was an expert at being carried on the hip, resting there casually with one hand on my shoulder. We were supposed to be eating ice cream at the park but somewhere along the line her shoes had gone missing, although it’s possible I hadn’t put them on when we left.
“Hello, can I help you find anything?” A woman’s voice follows the chime of the door as we walk in and I see a wide cheerful face appear around tower of men’s dress shoes.
“We just need some shoes.” I motion towards Madelyn’s bare feet.
“What size is she?” The saleslady asks me in a sing-song voice, giving Madelyn a little finger wave. I look at my mom but she shrugs.
“What size are you?” I ask Madelyn, she hides her face in my neck. “I’m not sure.”
“Well, how old is she?” She coos this, Madelyn peaks out at her from under long dark lashes, straight-faced.
“Erm….” Oh… She’s asking me mom questions, acting like I might know mom stuff. She thinks I’m Madelyn’s mother. I’m honestly shocked. I mean I guess I’m old enough to be her mother. I’m older than her mother. But honestly, how could anyone think I could be a mother? I’m not ready. Madelyn’s mother saves Madelyn from falling furniture and speaks Spanish and has matching chocolate eyes. I collect weird socks. I open my mouth to explain, “Two? Ish? I think two.”
The woman looks up at me for the first time, is that confusion? …sympathy? I feel heat creeping into my cheeks. She thinks I’m a bad mom. Maybe she thinks I just got out of prison and this is my first time buying shoes for my daughter. My own mother has either not noticed or decided to ignore me, looking at tiny tennis shoes.
“It’s okay, we have a chart.” She puts a hand gently on my arm and guides us over to a plastic sheet with numbered footprints printed on it. I try to catch a glimpse of my face in the window, do I look like an ex-con? I set Madelyn down on the footprints and she takes off down the aisle.
“Hey!” I race after her and swing her up and into a princess carry before we turn the corner. Madelyn and my mother laugh. We play this game a couple times before the saleslady takes pity on me and captures one tiny foot as I hold Madelyn, gently pressing it to the chart. My mom already has a tennis shoe, in the correct size ready for us. We wiggle it onto her foot, she squirms but doesn’t complain and I set her down again.
“How’s that feel?” I ask. Madelyn walks away, she grabs a pair of shoes and shows them to me. They are silver and sparkly. “Oooh very pretty!” She shows me another pair. “Very nice! Do your feet feel ok?” She walks away. I realize she’s not testing the shoe. My mom and the saleslady exchange a look and with a word my mom stops the escapee and presses on the toe of the sneaker in miniature. I remember her testing my shoes like this, searching for my toe, checking that it isn’t too far forward or too far back. I check the other foot and the saleslady beams at me. We leave the shoes on her feet and I release her into the store. I want to tell the woman I never went to prison but my mom and Madelyn are now studying little pink purses and I am distracted by the way love is streaming out of my mom’s face. The saleslady looks towards the register as I turn to face her. Maybe it’s my jaw, maybe I have a murderer’s jaw.
There was a little girl on a bus out of the Amazon staring at me, not unlike the puzzled saleslady, not too long ago. She doesn’t seem interested in my face, only my arm. I turn to her and she snaps her face forward, carefully not looking at me. Her companions peak curiously around her. She’s tiny, pixie-like as she balances on the edge of the bus seat. Her dark hair is in the process of escaping a lopsided ponytail at the back of her head. Strands the color of fresh turned soil cling to her forehead and she pushes on them with an open palm, not so much moving them off her face as smashing them against her skin. Her uniform has that casually disheveled look unique to children who have spent a long day undoing the tidy state someone sent them out into the world in.
I straighten up and she notices and resumes studying the arm. I twist it for her, exposing the iris and heart on my forearm. She lifts deep brown eyes to my face and grins at me. Her teeth are tiny, perfect rows and I smile back.
“Tattoo or painting?” She asks in Spanish, I can barely feel her fingers tracing the ink.
“Tattoo.” I answer in Spanish and touch my arm, “The ink is under the skin.”
“How old are you?” Another child asks leaning around her seat, behind her. He reaches for my arm and rests his fingers on my wrist.
“The same as my mom.” He says this matter of factly.
“How old are you?” I say. I wonder if I look like a mother or perhaps an ex-convict. I do not know how to say this in Spanish and even if I did, I don’t know how to say it without sounding like a lunatic.
I remember that. Nine. Chatting with a crowd of children in broken Spanish. The bus pauses, the driver shouts something. They abruptly run forward and leap from the steps, hollering “Ciao!” And there’s still so much I don’t know.
I come back to my neon blue bus seat, it’s dark and misty outside. I check my phone, sixteen more hours.1