Daddy texted that he got a surprise to cheer me up, something u always wanted, he said, so on the Greyhound trip home after a terrible semester at college, options line danced through my head. Maybe a Harley Davidson with stretched-out front forks and ape-hanger handlebars? Possibly one of those shiny MacBooks with the new processors.
I’d had the seat to myself after boarding in Detroit until this lady plopped down in Toledo. On the trip up to school, a Juggalo evangelist offered me Faygo Redpop and asked, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and path to Shangri-La? Wicked clowns never die.” So a young-ish woman somewhere between the age of an older sister and aunt felt like a better option. You know. At the time.
She said she was Carrie and she looked like one too, strawberry blonde ringlets and clear green eyes and a creamy t-shirt stretched over her ample chest, which I was absolutely not staring at.
“Can I sit here?” she asked though she had already settled in and was rummaging through her khaki backpack, head down, curls spilling over her shoulders. Not waiting for me to reply, she added, “I’m going to see my boyfriend.”
“That’s awesome,” I lied. Then back to my phone and all the things I ever asked for for Christmas, and not her elbow squished into my side. Is it a pony? I texted my dad while unsuccessfully ignoring Carrie.
“You got a boyfriend?” She blinked her big round doll eyes at me. “Girlfriend?”
My cheeks warmed. To throw her a bone, I said, “I’ve had both,” aware of my heartbeat.
She pulled a doe-foot applicator out of a princess pink tube with a glurp and applied the opaque peachy-nude lip goo in slow motion. It probably had a name like Inner Thigh. Or Rosy Tongue. Or maybe rosy tongue licking up inner thigh. Our eyes met and I dodged, worried she might be able to read the dirty thoughts in my gaze.
“You wanna see him?” She wiggled her nineties-thin eyebrows and shlicked her lip gloss back together, then tilted her head at me like a curious little cat.
Oh god don’t think of pussy.
“Oh, no, thank you,” I yelped on the last word, startled when my phone buzzed with a reply from Dad: Try again I typed back: Is it a motorcycle?
Carrie was still talking. “Do you think having sex with a girl makes me gay? Because I’ve done it. Once.” She grinned wide. A shiny silver back molar glinted.
Exclamation points flashed in my brain and I tripped over my answer. “Oh, well, I don’t know, I guess it depends?”
On my phone, Daddy said: Not that either
She explained she’d met her boyfriend on a Facebook group for pet owners. I told her I was heading home from college to see my father and she asked if he was hot. I didn’t say anything because sometimes you just have to close your eyes and think of coastal cities, you know?
Soon after, we stopped at a travel center. One frowning teenager with faux freckles staffed the Taco Bell inside. They took my order and then I floated over to the condiment station in the dining room where Carrie loitered with a Baja Blast, and fired off another guess to Daddy: A life-size Barbie Dream House?
“Can I tell you a secret?” Carrie leaned way way too close to me, her breath rot and whiskey on my face. I managed to suppress my shudder despite the red flag red lights in my head flashing no no, but then our orders were ready.
Back on the bus, I tried to keep one hand on my purse while unwrapping my soft taco supreme with no lettuce, and lost a few cubes of tomato to the bus floor in the process as the driver pulled away.
“You know,” Carrie chewed a cinnamon twist while she spoke, “what I asked you earlier. About being gay?” A conspiratorial smile played at the edges of her shiny, shiny mouth. “What if it’s a dog?”
I forgot how to chew.
My taco, half-bitten, frozen in my hand. Stuck and aware that I could not escape from my window seat without leaping onto the highway, I thought of San Francisco.
What about me invited this?
The shock subsided enough to will my muscles to finish the process, stiff and mechanical. She giggled and watched as I swallowed the pasty lump of food and then I understood. Daddy reminded me all the time how gullible I could be, so I was proud of myself for figuring out this joke. “You’re totally straight if it’s a dog.”
Daddy’s new reply said I wish princess u deserve barbie’s house so I tuned out Carrie’s stream of conscious cinnamon crunch-and-ramble and sent: TY daddy followed by Is it all of my tuition paid?
I took another bite, this time smaller, just in case.
“Wow!” I said to Carrie when it seemed appropriate. “Really?” I said. “Huh,” I said. Out the window, the area codes on the billboards shifted. Dad texted back: Now ur making me feel bad. I faced my phone to my chest when she glanced over.
“You ever feel the inside of a tomato? With your finger?” Carrie wiggled her watermelon-pink fingertips in front of my face.
I flinched to move away but my body only smashed harder against the bus window. I typed Jk daddy give me a hint, crunched up so she could not spy. Then to Carrie, whose expectant eyes were not letting me off the hook, I said, “What?”
“Tomato guts.” Her smile glowed deranged, or maybe my complete inability to follow what she said made it seem deranged. “That’s what it feels like. It’s just like a massage. They like it.”
“The tomato does?” I asked. Only a couple more miles to go. Come on driver, step on it. Daddy replied: I already did 😉 😉
“Look at her.” She thrust her phone in front of me. On the spiderweb-cracked screen, a medium puppy, some sort of mixed-breed with the coat of a Rottweiler, black and tawny. “His new bitch. He wants me to meet her.”
“Oh,” came out before I could stuff it back in. The people around us seemed to pop into being. A Korean War vet, a preteen, a mother and her baby. Could they hear this?
“Do you think that counts as a threesome?” Carrie asked.
The realization of what she said, all the squishy bits, the horror, draped over me and I couldn’t speak. I swallowed my urge to react and thought of Los Angeles instead.
And eyes glittering, she asked, “Don’t you think she’s cute?”
I did, of course, but not as she did.
I bit the inside of my lip with one of my front teeth. Pressed down harder when she touched a nail to the screen, to the poor puppy’s puppy head. Bit so hard I tasted copper. Taco Bell shifted in my stomach, flour tortilla and meat and seasoning and cheese and low-fat sour cream and diced tomatoes churning, partially digested in a sea of disgust.
Portland Boston Baltimore.
The sun was setting when we pulled into the station. A crowd of loved ones populated the platform and I searched the chaos for my dad. Carrie, somehow completely oblivious to my world of no said, “You should meet my boyfriend!”
I exited the bus behind her and slipped past, into the crowd. She shouted my name — why had I given it to her? But then I saw him — Daddy. His handsome, open grin. His kind eyes. I beelined for him, ignoring Carrie behind me.
But the same voice, Carrie’s voice, said, “Cody!”
And my dad, Cody, smiled past me and lit up at someone else. At Carrie, who caught up to me and shot hearts through her stupid doll eyes at my father, my Daddy. A cold sweat fell over me and the Taco Bell swirl threatened to fountain out of me.
Then I saw her.
On the end of the leash, Daddy had the puppy from the photo, so I did what anyone would do. I grabbed it and I ran.
Daddy’s mouth gaped in a smile, then in surprise, and my heartbeat hammered in my head as we left him far, far behind. Chunks of taco meat rushed into my mouth, but I spit them on the sidewalk and kept going, because Daddy was right, I had always wanted a puppy, and who rescued who, anyway?