By AARON STEVEN MILLER
In the dimness and filtered light of the school-hostel’s front hall, he read the note once more.
Looking for travel companion to hitch hike to Budapest this week. Meet here Wednesday at 13:00. Milku.
There he gleaned it. There it was, in this building with its waxed floor, in a band of daylight tossed from the long enameled windows: his next move. On lined paper posted on this bulletin board amidst the children’s artwork. He gazed at it, read it one more time. The handwriting was looping and firm, but not bubbly. It was welcoming. He read the word Budapest again. It whispered to him. It seemed far, too far. It was tantalizing.
On Wednesday, his backpack packed with his few belongings, he made it to the front again and saw a girl waiting by the board. She was European, for sure. She had a faraway look that North American girls traveling alone couldn’t cultivate. She wore long drab shorts and carried a medium-sized pack.
The day was overcast.
They went down back streets, toward an area that Milku had circled on her map. He followed behind her when the sidewalks got too narrow. Her backpack was red and soiled. His eyes traced the white stitching on it, and he wondered if she called it a rucksack, and also how she pronounced that word, rucksack. It bore a strange insignia on a white label:
Have you ever once hitch hike? she asked.
I have not too.
They ascended a highway entrance ramp toward the sound of rushing traffic. It sounded like a racetrack, a pervasive buzzing punctuated by rushes of air. He imagined massive swimming mammals surfacing one after another, splashing out, sucking air, and dropping back into the depths. A heavy, oily exhaust smell hung in the air. Atop the ramp, cars careened past. He and Milku put thumbs up too late. He thought: these vehicles are passing very fast. That thought kept occurring to him. These vehicles are passing very fast. He was almost saying it to himself each time.
Lately his mind had latched onto certain thoughts or phrases. He didn’t like it, but there it was. These vehicles are passing very fast.
They held their thumbs rigid in the air, turned their bodies as metal flashed. His eyes followed taillights for a while, then tracked outward, along the shoulder, wide and clean and receding to nothing. The pavement was free of patches and cracks, as if it were new. There was no trash in sight. Some time passed, turtlelike. He sat down on his pack for a bit. She thumbed. Then they traded off. Each was beginning to feel tired, and a slight heaviness of discouragement had settled into the backs of their skulls like a puddle of used motor oil.
A car with flashing lights came up the ramp. They stared at it, wondering where it was going, and it seemed incomprehensible to both of them that it would slowly and carefully drive past them, the word POLICIE on its side, and then stop, right on the shoulder. But it did.
Just ignore it, he said.
He’d had confrontations with authority and with assholes all across Europe. This kind of thing bothered him. But she didn’t seem to mind, and kept thumbing. Her face was pale with rosy blotches, her eyes minnow-gray. He tried not to look as if he was glancing, at her or at the car, but he had to look at the car, and then he had to look at her not looking at the car.
The two domes on the top spun alternately, one, then the other. The lights seemed shifted off-hue by the odd daylight. Bright green and orange flashes cast their weirdness all the way to the ditch trees.
The two POLICIE told them politely, and with only hints of smiles, that they must leave the roadway immediately. With tight smiles: Is prohibited hitch hike here. Must go another road.
We show on map, the policie said.
The other road would not be found. Instead, they made their way to the hlavní nádraží, the train station, and after some confusion and consultation of her book, bought tickets for a village called Kutná Hora. It seemed far enough outside the city but not too far. They would hitch from there.
On the train, they sat next to each other. They were very close but not touching. Milku opened her book and ran a stubby white finger across a dog-eared page where all the words had too many letters and probably too many syllables, although it was hard for him to tell where one syllable ended and another began.
She said there was a famous church in the town where they wanted to go.
A bone church.
A bone church, he repeated.
Scrub trees and utility poles scrolled past the window, blurring suddenly when his eye tried to track them to the edge.
Yes, she said. She was translating the words with too many letters. He followed her white finger as it slid over the tiny black type.
It says, hmm. It’s a church, in bone kind …. Mmm, no. It says: likening the entry of the Bone Church, when enter a place, and the history of it, the feeling is hard sentimental. No, the sentiment, it is a hard feeling. There is a word for this I don’t know in English. Also, hangs in the center a light, and bones in some areas. To the light there is a weight to it but also, mmm. This word I don’t know the English either. It means weight but also … has no weight.
He said, That’s funny.
When you enter, there is a, em, em, a big light? It’s a big ornament light, a light which hangs, with a chain, in the center of the … entering area.
Yes. That. A kandelier. And it is maked of bones.
She nodded, and looked quickly back at her book. It had a single black-and-white photo in the corner of the page, too tiny to reveal many details of the building, but it did look a bit like a church.
Let’s see it.
She started to hand him the book.
Not the book, the church with the bones in it. I want to go see it.
In a few hours, they were exiting the Kutná Hora station. They found themselves on a little winding road. Some of the tourists from the train, with their hats and bulky packs and books in hand, began walking toward the town with purpose. Others stood around in pairs looking at guidebooks and pointing in various directions.
The two of them took the main road but soon hung a right and continued down a small crooked lane until they reached what appeared to be another edge of the town. Thick shrubs lined the gravel shoulder of the roadway. It had been paved a long time ago, and the surface was cracked and buckling, revealing the rubbed shoulders of large cobblestones beneath it.
She seemed confident about the way, only checking the book’s map a few times. He followed.
She took a left. At the end of a short lane there stood a small stone building with a modest spire. It was much smaller than he’d pictured in his head. It looked commonplace, as churches went. His heart sank a bit, but then again, he didn’t know what he’d been expecting. He’d just been expecting it to be better—maybe to give some outward indication of what it contained.
As they neared, he examined the large bricks of its outer wall, like layers of shale, but he couldn’t tell what the white bits were.
They went in quietly, following the single file of other tourists through the open doorway. A narrow passageway lined with cool, rough stones led them to a yawning interior, a vaulted chamber.
He braced himself. Churches affected him physically. A stiffness of gait overtook him, an ataxic stage fright. Now it was the same. He didn’t know what to do with his hands. He put them in his pockets. Then he clasped them behind his back. Finally he hung his thumbs from the straps of his pack. He left them like that. He could sense that people around him had … expectations. Their expectations became about him, one way or the other. He was either in their way or not. And then his attention was drawn upward. Cameras flashed on a striking centerpiece, hanging from a long chain on a beam that spanned the width of the chamber, a chandelier constructed almost entirely from lengths of human bone. Fanning out from its center were long white femurs. People’s femurs. Ornamenting the reaches of these were arrangements of smaller bones, fingers and toe bones maybe, vertebrae, ribs arcing out in different directions. It did not look skeletal, because it did not resemble any kind of living thing, but all the same, it was constructed from the same material, and appeared especially naked, as skeletons do.
They walked toward it and beneath it and viewed it from the other side.
They came close to the rear wall, skirted it, and now he saw the kinds of stones he’d seen by the front door. From this side, he could see the white bits better. Perhaps they hadn’t been worn down by the elements?
In the rest of the chamber they looked at the bone chair and bone table, the bone scepters and bone interment vessel. The bone-encrusted altar and the bone-heavy crucifix, seven femurs high, on the bone-bedecked dais. And in the side chapels there were low, bone-framed windows that opened on crypts, and they could peer in and see heaps of skulls, berms of bones, long bones laid side by side, and piles of dusty digits. He thought of all the people the bones had once been within. He wondered how the bones had been cleaned, stripped of all traces of the rest of those people. He tried to imagine how the bones had been before, inside real bodies, moving around the world, walking, running, swimming. Whose bones were they? What kinds of things had they done? How many people had this place borrowed parts from? Or were all the parts of each person in here?
They stared into the eaves some more, trying to discern each of the individual bone types resting in there. The leg and arm bones were obvious. Those longer bones were stacked neatly to form enclosing ledges that descended into the wider basin, where the smaller bones were not so distinct. The smaller ones in the central area looked tangled up, like so many driftwood piles.
They each commented on the bone shapes. She said they were shaped like tools or airplanes from the future. He remarked that no matter how dry the place looked, they all seemed to have some memory of liquid. They looked as if they were shaped by rivers.
They didn’t speak anymore, or feel the need to. New tourists came and went. They walked around the interior a few more times, slowly, looking at the bones, each thinking something but not revealing it to the other.
By afternoon, they were making their way out of town. They held out their thumbs whenever a vehicle passed. Many country folk slowed down to look. It was a curious sight, a curious pair, those two, the stocky girl dressed like a boy, and the obviously American guy with his shaggy hair and shabby clothing.
They walked that way for hours. As he followed her, he watched her calves, her slightly inturned feet making tracks, her backpack swaying. He looked at the back of her sandy orange hair, cropped very short. He wondered if it was dyed. There were no roots—it continued down the nape of her neck in shortening and lightening whorls of orange hair until it became invisible and disappeared under her thin t-shirt.
They switched places, and she walked behind him for awhile. She seemed to enjoy this, and began talking about her hometown. She said it was both friendly and serious.
He asked her, Do they have bone churches where you come from?
Oh, I don’t think so, no. We put the bones underground.
There’s something about bones being above ground that bothers me, he said.
Yes, she agreed. And the higher they go, the more they worry us.
Right. Bones should not be in a chandelier.
Never in a roof.
Bones are all we really leave behind.
No! Not at all true!
You’re right, it’s not true. We leave possessions behind. We leave thoughts behind. But bones are really part of us. And they seem to last forever.
Well, not forever! But a long time.
Lately he had not been thinking clearly, not at all. But for a moment in this conversation, his mind had seemed as clear as the sky above. He’d had a moment, for sure, where he’d felt happy, and there hadn’t been many lately. The ones he’d wanted to be happy were always sodden with a loneliness he could never shake. And the ones like this, where he bridged something with another person, they always came crashing down, always with a phrase or two, or a few simple words, some small addition of personal address that wound up caving the whole thing in.
But, he said, already hearing his voice as too plaintive, they’re the part of us that stays around longer than we do, and longer than everything else that makes us who we are.
Well, she said, bones are only possessions too. They are just some more objects we keep around, but we keep these objects inside our bodies. And what about paintings, or sculptures? Those can last much longer than bones.
His next step fell heavy on the road. He’d been onto something there, some thought. It had come up lucidly at first, so complete and perfect, and as he tried to expose it, first to himself and then to her, it became loose, fell apart, went to vapor.
They walked along, listening to a breeze that had picked up the canopies of the trees. An insect drone had begun from deep in the long throat of the weed-socked ditch. And in the trees—they could hear it there too.
He shook his head and looked down the road. She was laughing now. She had picked up part of a fallen branch and was using it as a walking stick.
She smiled into the air as she walked, content as a cat.
You know we have a saying, she said.
You have a saying?
Yes. When something is going well, no matter what else is going not well, we can say something like ‘happy weasel!’ So if we see this car—
He heard it almost as she said it, a vehicle rounding the bend they had just trekked.
It’s good! she shouted. We’re happy weasels, and we say ‘happy weasel!’ When it’s hopeful, when it feels good to hope, we say it: happy weasel!
The car approached, passed them, and diminished in the distance. They were left again with the sound of treetops, insects, grass shifting.
And when it’s not going so well, we say, sad weasel!
Happy weasel and sad weasel, he said. He shook his head.
She repeated the phrase ‘sad weasel’ each and every time a car went by, without fail. He said he wanted happy weasel, not sad, but each time they thumbed, it was sad weasel all the way.
You get the happy weasel and the sad weasel, she said. It’s always happy first. Then, it’s sad.
After one particularly crushingly sad weasel, Milku stopped and took her pack off, removing from it a large plastic baggie. She explained that it contained fourteen grams of pot which her local friend had grown on his farm in Plzn.
Happy weasel, he said, and they both laughed and repeated the phrase. Then she sat down on the shoulder of the road and rolled a joint, her little fingers carefully breaking up a large wad of densely grouped buds and withered leaves and packing it into the paper. They sat there, and no cars came at all, and they smoked in silence until they’d both had enough. Then they stood, dizzied from it and stoned from it and not caring, began marching again.
After some time, they heard another car, its engine sounding at first like a tiny motorcar, something with a toy engine that only blew bubbles, puttering along, then growing into a strumming which faded out and seemed almost to disappear but then re-emerged even louder than before, like the wind-sound disappearing as you went through a tunnel. They both walked slowly in reverse, thumbs out, watching the distant apex of the road for its emergence. It glinted out of the tree line, coming along the bumps in the road rising and falling, and they held their thumbs higher aloft. Finally it was on them, and passing, and it seemed to be slowing, the brakelights gleaming like watermelon candies, and then for sure it was slowing, and veering, it seemed, onto the shoulder and then back onto the road, where it came to a stop.
They were running, at a light clip. He tried to see who was in the car but wasn’t close enough to make them out. He could only see that there were two people in the front seat and one in the back.
The passenger window went from half to all the way down as they neared it. They leaned down to see a blond woman, her face so round it could have been perfectly round, except that her cheeks seemed to push it even wider than that. Her eyes were bright blue, widely set and squinting. Leaning into her from the driver’s side, a man’s face appeared, and he could have been related, so similar were his features. His corn-husk hair was almost identical to the woman’s. They both seemed to be smiling. But then again they both had wide mouths and squinting eyes—it could have just been how they looked.
Milku explained their destinations, both final and intermediate, and that they’d been walking for some time and would take any kind of ride at all, near or far. The woman and the man looked at them with a kind of amused, jovial incomprehension, and then another woman got out of the back seat. She wore shorts and a halter top and was cut from the same genetic cloth as the other two. She walked carefully around the both of them, getting a look at each, and opened the passenger door to get in as the other woman made room by scooting to the middle.
The rear door was open, and the man gestured to it. There seemed to be an understanding that no one in either party would comprehend the other’s spoken language in this situation, so no words would be spoken.
They got in and closed the door, and the man started driving.
Thank you, Milku said.
The man looked at them in his rearview mirror, his eyes, blue like the others’, smiling. The woman who had been in back glanced back at them, smiled, and then kept smiling and staring. The woman in the middle did the same. They sat like that for some time, while the man kept glancing in the mirror, and the two backseat travelers did their best to smile back.
America, the driver said, finally, after one of his glances.
Milku was looking out the window, at the clouds.
Yes, the American said. You guessed it.
One of the girls who had been looking at the driver now looked back at the American again, with renewed interest. The middle woman said something to the driver, and he said something back. They seemed to be saying:
They don’t understand.
Not a damn word.
We can say whatever we want, and they have no idea.
Yes, just look.
Just look at them.
I am looking at them right now, and talking about them, and they don’t have a clue what I’m saying. I’m saying it right at them, to them, about them, and they have no idea.
Look—he’s giving us a blank stare.
Then he imagined they were talking about how far to take them, whether they thought it was safe, how funny it was, how strange and/or curious, how adventurous, how romantic. Then he imagined them saying far more sinister things, and then they were silent again, and seemed to be enjoying the drive and the wind blowing in and the extra passengers, which were like special
exotic cargo unexpectedly discovered along the way, in the least likely imaginable spot, on the road from this village to that village, the most mundane stretch of road in all of the homeland. Who would have thought an American and some strange girl would be wandering down this road? It was funny, really, and they had every reason to be looking at each other from the corners of their eyes, wanting to comment on the oddity but holding back because you simply couldn’t do that openly all the time. But still it was amusing. Odd people came through this country, and it was okay. It made things interesting.
They hadn’t gone very far, it seemed, maybe a half hour, maybe less since the pot was still wearing off, before the man slowed the car down and stopped it in the middle of the road. He turned around to face them, smiling, and the two women smiled, and he motioned his hand off in the direction of the woods, which they could both see in the distance, at the far end of an empty field.
They gave thanks, and Milku said, OK. They both got out and watched the car pull slowly away, the blond heads looking back.
Sad weasel, Milku said.
The sun sank behind the tree line. They walked through lengthening shadows across the road. The air got cool. As darkness fully settled in, they left the roadway, crossing the ditch into someone’s tilled land. There was a grove of junk trees that sat like an island on higher land in the midst of the cleared field, and they made for that. It looked like a snarled collection of rakes and brooms silhouetted against the indigo sky. Looming closer, until they slipped between white trunks, stepped over hillocks and shadows. Then they were in it, staring out. The darkness had become thorough, and he pulled his small flashlight from his pack. The beam bounced from trunk to trunk, caught a shrub and rolled its shadow around, then rested on a low, curved cement wall. It was an opening as wide as a full arm span, a hole in the earth, with a cylindrical lip extruded about two feet above ground. Near it were two others, nearly identical in appearance, but offset slightly behind the first.
Look, he instructed.
She followed his beam down the first hole, where it spread weakly down the curved wall and then vanished in the total darkness below.
Don’t stand too nearly, she said, and tugged his wrist.
In the distance, a dog started barking.
He switched the light off. She grabbed his elbow now, with two hands, not as any sort of contrivance to gain closeness, but as if she feared he might jump into the hole.
He whispered, It might be the dog of whoever owns this land.
Their eyes adjusted. They could see the smoothest ground just to the left of the cisterns. They sat down there, in some tussocks of long grass, and lit up more of the happy weasel. The moon came up, and the field became white.
She was talking about a band she knew, something he thought she was calling Naked Kill, but it could have been some Finno-Ugric word instead. Nakkeddkill.
It’s kind of a—like a hard, hard stuff, like not like metal but like steel sounds. Like a bone hitting a steel. But also soft, floats into, um, um, into spaces.
It floats into spaces? Sounds cool.
In the dark, her pink lips drew together and the white clay of her brow bunched up. She laughed through pursed lips, surprising herself, and covered her mouth with both hands. I am sorry. I am very stoned now.
I am very stoned too, he said.
But guess what?
I have some bread.
Are you trying to tell me you have some bread?
She wagged a finger, still smiling, and leaning forward. It is exactly what I am saying!
They ate some bread and some warm cheese from the Oedki! pack and smoked some more and talked some more, and smoked. The dog started barking again, and the sound hit them differently, with less psychic effect. Now it was just sound. They got quieter, and the dog kept barking, so they stopped talking altogether and smoked some more and listened to its barks, sharp and reverberant, coming across some other expanse of the field. They imagined the dog, in a pen, gazing into the darkness, barking. They were somehow connected to the dog, in that the dog knew about them and they were intensely aware of the dog, and that no one else in the world had this knowledge. And the dog’s owner probably sat in the house, aware that the dog was barking, but not cognizant of why. Because the dog sensed two people sitting silently in a place where people usually did not sit.
The only sound was the barking. After some time, it sounded mechanical. It became pleasing in its repetition and mild in its report. It lulled the two of them as they sat cross-legged. The near part of the field, washed white by moonlight, dropped off like a white beach into an ocean with no end in sight. Out there the field was starkly textured but seemed to take on an aquatic insubstantiality. The dog’s bark was now the clanging of some distant buoy, then the clank of pulleys against mast, the church bell ringing above the bleached white skulls at Kutná Hora. He pictured the long femur bones in the chandelier, the careful stacks in the chapel wings. The field was a vast ossuary, a landfill of reverently placed bones. Centuries of traveler-couples who got lost in the wilderness and came to rest forever. Each bone part of a person, a frame for some covering. Like boats, shelters, and shields. One could believe that the bones were the inception, that life began with fully formed bones. Humans, he thought, must have been created out of some craftlike endeavor of attaching tendons to long bones and carefully stretching muscles across them. Weaving the long tendons, pulling them taut. Laying a lacework of veins and capillaries across them. Some native spirit made every last human being and then watched them live out a life and die and decompose. And now it could begin again. Now soft matter would be restored to its rightful place across all those inanimate bones. It would begin again from the bones that lay out there. Those oddly curved, turned, knobbed rods, runically shaped mineral objects, the kind of bones that exist for eons and nourish the sea and soil. A field of flowers could grow on that sea of bones.
And it was a sea. A white beach dropping into a white sea, as pale as her skin, and now he couldn’t remember who she was or what she looked like. He now sat on the brink of an ancient European sea next to a Nordic nomad.
He was aware of her in the corner of his eye, could see her without turning, her head just there, like an egg, a skin-shell. But her face was shifting, becoming boylike, then girllike again, unfamiliar and familiar. She became a young man, then an older woman, then a young boy with a fresh round white face. He didn’t want to look at her, because she wasn’t looking at him.
The bone church they’d seen was vastly distant now, farther than Budapest even. This was the real bone church.
Who even was she, this happy weasel? Who were these two weasels, in the grove, and were they really much different than two wild animals crouching here, growing fearful of the dark and the barking dog, growing increasingly aware that it might be closer, that it could smell exactly where they were, that to its keener senses, it was as if they were perched in broad daylight within sight of the farmer who owned the field, clearly and boldly trespassing?
He didn’t know whether she was thinking the same thing. He couldn’t just ask her. He considered saying something about the white bleached pool of bones before them, but his mouth and face would not respond to the brain signals he tried to send. Now the shore was made of eggshell too, and he heard waves gently washing it, lapping it, and frothing around the bones at the edge. He allowed his own bones to infect the softness of his body. He felt this happen. Ossifying all of it, until he was one human-shaped calcification, bone-still, staring out with his two tender eyeballs, the only part of him not completely turned to bone. He sat like that, like a coral with eyes, two soft orbs peering from a mound of bone.
Eventually she rolled out her small sleeping bag, curled sideways on top of it, and shared it with him. He lay on his back first, then rolled toward her, closed his eyes and saw the dog coming through the woods, with the farmer behind it, barking and intently staring down its nose. He opened his eyes again to get rid of the image. The illusion was gone. His surroundings were crisp and visible. They were in a slight crevasse in the earth. The grass and weeds had grown cool to the touch. He propped his head up on a mound, and beyond her head was the beach, its gentle plashing coming across the sand at him. Its whiteness grew more luminous, and he thought he was imagining this, but it continued, and he realized the moon was up. The shadows shrank. He felt thoughts passing through his mind. They simply passed through, like the clouds above the park he’d visited in Praha just days before. His body trembled. It seemed the girl called Milku was a field away, even though he could see every hair on her head now, clearly delineated. He didn’t touch her. He couldn’t tell if it was cold, and he was shivering, or if his body was just trembling for no reason. The dog kept barking. One thought stuck with him: Surely with the moonlight intensifying like this, they would be discovered soon, by the farmer who owned the land. Doing this at home would be unheard of. Perhaps in her country trespassing was no great crime, but he had come from a place where shotguns had a specific use in this situation.
He moved closer to her, drew his chin down so his breath fell somewhere in the folds of her shirt, curled his hands up against his chest and let his elbows just touch the small of her back. His forearms pressed slightly above that. He drew up his knees, and adjusted his head to rest a little less directly on what might have been a rock, and made himself close his eyes. He held them shut.
The barking and rustle of trees eventually transferred into crimson and purple zigzags of color, bursting, and fading, and re-bursting, and their bursting coalesced into honeycombs of luminous, shimmering blue. He told himself he was safe. He resisted an urge to get up now, run swiftly to the road, and instead focused on warmth, light, and the sure drift of his consciousness—away from the waking world, into another one.
The morning came upon them and all things were right. No dogs barking. The field was made of soil, not water or bone. The trees offered up views of the distant road, the lay of the land, houses and more trees on the horizon. She was up, and she just looked like a European girl, not a skull or a bald bone face. She was packing things into her bag. The grass was matted down, and he was amazed they had slept the whole night here, on this mound in the middle of a field. It was now another day. It seemed like a profound act of creation.
She had some marshmallows shaped and colored like strawberries that she shared with him. And there was some more bread left, and they divided that. Soon they were stumbling across the furrows of the field and back up the embankment of the road. The grass was dewy. Small birds made peeping sounds in the bushes. A single cricket trilled somewhere in the ditch. The road was completely empty. They stood for a moment in the middle of it, looking down it one way and then another.
I hope we will see some rides, Milku said.
But they did not see rides for a long time. And the few that came just passed them by. Finally a quiet mustached man in a cargo truck stopped for them. He spoke a little English, enough to understand where they wanted to go, and then drove them to a gas station, where he filled up and said, Now Budapest other way, pointing at a fork in the road, gesturing in the direction he wasn’t going.
They went into a restaurant adjoining the station. The place had five or six tables, and they sat down at one wearily. It had check-print vinyl coverings and a tiny plastic box of translucent napkins. A grease-specked clock on one wall told them it was early afternoon. The waitress, a plump woman in a stained white apron, left laminated menus on the doilied paper mats and walked away without a word.
He felt the day slipping away as they ate. The food tasted good. Thick dumpling bread and a small pork cutlet doused in gravy. But it made him drowsy almost immediately. From the time he’d opened his eyes this morning, he’d had a feeling the journey was already complete, even though they had not gotten to any planned destination. Now, there was no farther to go.
It had been eleven weeks total. He’d given himself three months to get some kind of work, and now the time was almost up. He had a flight from Rome that had been scheduled since the beginning of the summer. He could still change it, but now he knew he probably wouldn’t. He would not make it to Budapest and then back to Rome in time to get that flight. He didn’t know what he’d do at home, but he didn’t know what to do here. He knew he should like it here, with this girl. But at this moment he didn’t. And she wasn’t going to give up. She was reading from her guidebook. He could see she wanted to keep going and, somehow, she could tell that he didn’t.
He asked her if she still wanted to hitchhike. She put her index finger on top of the dimple in the center of her chin, just for a second. Then she said she thought she might get a train. There was one that left from this town. It went all the way to Budapest.
What will you do? she asked.
It occurred to him that he was abandoning her, that he’d committed to doing something with her and now he was going to go back on that promise. They didn’t know each other very well, but they’d had some kind of a pact, it seemed. She had really wanted someone to travel with, maybe to make hitchhiking seem safer. And now she would have to travel alone, by train. But what could he do? It seemed impossible. He told her about his flight, told her he’d have to get to Rome right away, to get the flight.
Can you not change the flight? she asked.
I don’t know, he said. But what he meant was that he didn’t want to.
It’s OK, she said.
Sad weasel, he said.
I’m OK, she said. I can take by train, will be much faster.
Anyway, he said. Your luck might improve without me.
She pretended to pout. Sad weasel, she said.
They waited for the bus to the train station, paced around the dirt lot in front of the restaurant, sat on the side of the road. After a while in the sun, they went back in the restaurant and sat again and had coffee. When the bus came, they both boarded. They sat together, her in the window seat. There was space between them. The bus pulled out, and they watched together through the same window as small corners of the unknown town slipped in and out of view and then gave way completely to open land.
In Rome, he put more money on his credit card than he should have for a real hotel room, one with marble tiles, a TV, a private bathroom with a real showerhead and hot water, a double bed and clean glasses for water. The bedspread had flowers on it. He had a whole week until his flight, and he spent most of the time in the hotel room. At night he ate pizza at the restaurant around the corner and came back up with wine, which he drank from the bottle as he sat on the bed flipping through channels. He watched hairy Italian women massaging their crotches with jelly dildos as their chests heaved. They shook their bleached hair out of their dark eyes and looked intensely at the camera.
People really put themselves at other people’s mercy sometimes. He thought of Milku’s round white face. He thought of her rounded calves, her inward-turned feet. Her heavy socks made him regret things. Maybe things he didn’t say. It was interesting, maybe, that you could regret something you hadn’t done. He regretted not going the whole way to Budapest.
Her strangeness got in the way, maybe. Or the circumstances, the road, the journey, the uncertainty. They’d gone through the whole experience without really knowing each other any better, it seemed. And was that his fault? Was it anyone’s? He felt so old now, but knew he hadn’t been around too long. There weren’t many years to cover. He just hadn’t come very far. They seemed like long ones, sometimes. The four years of college, while seeming like a vast, agonizing stretch at the time, went by quicker than the stretch of four in high school before it. Every year, everything passed by a little faster. He could see that now, could see that pattern developing, even though he knew he hadn’t lived much more than a couple of decades. Do we all just hurtle faster and faster until we go smashing into the grave?
On the television, an Italian leprechaun jumped into a bowl of rigatoni. A woman in a brown suit walked across the top of the screen and at the bottom it said: LEGGATORE SCUTTI NONA CAZA!! Or something like that—he wasn’t sure. It flashed on the screen too briefly, and then the next commercial started.
After he got back to his hometown, he filled his grandfather’s army duffel with a sleeping bag, sheet, a few changes of clothes, brought a few books and stocked up on food, and left his parents’ house on foot one night. He hiked to his old high school and lay down in the park where the kids who smoked used to smoke. He unrolled his sleeping bag. Put a sheet on it. Rolled up a shirt for a pillow. Then he lay there and looked up at the street lights obscuring outer space with their auras. He looked from a rooftop along a power line to a treetop, and then down at a statue of Lincoln. He sat up and smoked a cigarette, because it seemed like something he’d never done in this park, never did with the kids who did it because they were the kind of kids who did it and he had not been. He had a small flask of Old Grand-Dad bourbon, and he sipped on that too. It seared and then burned and then warmed, and then soothed, and he repeated the process several times as he smoked his cigarette. He sat and listened to the late summer insects and the tree frogs droning. He wanted to stay like this, not have tomorrow come. The high school he’d gone to was stately and prewar, and it loomed above the neatly trimmed grass across the street. He would have never imagined he’d one day sit across from it in the night, watching its lightless rooms and lighted halls from this vantage, five years after he’d left it. He had come full circle, out of this high school, through college, across Europe, and now back here again. He looked from the school, to Mr. Lincoln, then back at the school, and back at Lincoln. Then he rolled a joint and smoked it, lay back down on his sleeping bag, and listened for distant sounds.
Aaron Steven Miller is a graduate of the Writing Workshops at the University of California, Irvine, where he was an Arlene Cheng Fellow and a recipient of the Glenn Schaeffer Prize in Modern Letters. His recent work can be found in Guernica, Joyland, and Medium. He lives in New York.