The bus is destined further south, but it stops on the shoulder of the highway for us to step off. The other passengers watch as we file down the aisle and climb down. Our feet hit the ground and the heat swells around us.
We watch until the bus is gone and then start down the road. We are going west, on to find a quiet place, but we can only guess the distance; all we know is an indistinct spot on a map.
Motorcycles growl past. Vans and trucks carrying more people than the air-conditioned bus that just left us. Along the road we pass rows of simple houses with hammocks drooping outside. More bikes lean in wait, helmets hanging from handlebars.
Someone approaches. We explain our destination and he gives a price. Too high, of course, but what leverage do we have, standing on the side of a highway in the rising heat?
“Okay,” we say.
There are two motorcycles and two drivers. She pulls the red helmet over her head and I put on mine. We hoist ourselves on the springy backs of the bikes. The drivers laugh and speak in their own tongue; we communicate through shrugs and eyebrow movements – just go with it, it’s beyond our control now.
Over the highway we go, dust in my teeth and wind flushing tears from my eyes. Through the sting and blur of water I see shuffling roosters and old unmoving men; running boys and marauding dogs.
I try to watch the small circular mirror aimed back from the handlebar. The moving world in blurred miniature. Half-dead palm trees and a pale blue sky. A motor wails behind and a biker overtakes us, some shirtless boy who pauses briefly before accelerating on.
I turn my head against the wind to scan behind. The road straightens out for a long visible stretch, but she is nowhere.
We have spent days wandering through cities. We have dodged ceaseless traffic. We have moved south through industrial towns and hiked along highways, breathing dust and exhaust. We have explored busy neighborhoods and empty neighborhoods, been watched from doorways and windows. Haggling has plagued every meal; every ride has been a swindle. No transaction, no destination, has ever been certain. But she has always been there.
She is not there. Short facts repeat in my mind. She is not behind me. I cannot see her. I cling to the seat and face forward, just believing that at any moment the other motorcycle will swerve into view, and I’ll shrug and smile as she does the same.
I turn to look again. A thick tower of smoke rises from a burning pile in the road. She is not there.
Trying to think of something else, I look to the landscape. It’s ingrained, from schoolbooks and Hollywood – stock footage of bomber jets littering tumbling explosives, people in cone hats running through the fields, dense green forests full of unseen assailants. A helicopter could rise up over the hills and it would make sense; twirling blades could belong to this place as much as a palm branch.
There is no sign of her for what must be a half an hour. We have passed through villages, through jungle; I am miles from the place I last saw her, and this idea settles into my mind with stunning frankness. The driver glances back occasionally as well. As he has done twice already now, he slows the bike to cruise so that the trees along the road are focused, definite; but eventually he shrugs and accelerates back to his preferred speed. The roadside greenery returns to a blur.
There have been times of uncertainty. There have been times when it all seemed foolish. Feeling the wheels of a bus slide from the road in the night; young boys with guns and leering eyes; taxis in unknown places taking too many turns. There have been times that have made me doubt the value of all this – moving between towns and through strange countries, entrusting her and myself to boats and vans and buses protected by dashboard idols and swinging charms. But nothing has prepared me for the sense of absolute error that has come from simply not knowing where she is. We never needed to come to this place, I think. It is an awakening panic.
The imagination surprises with its thoroughness and freedom, the way it moves so easily through the possibilities. A young woman on a stranger’s motorcycle. An empty road. An abandoned building, striking pink paint peeling off the cement. Old, understandable grudges. Even shaken free of human cruelty, the imagination quickly leaps to other paths: mechanical failure; a sharp turn and a wayward cow; an overturned truck.
My eyes are draining down my cheeks, the droplets pushed by the wind. It has occurred to me, to my own surprise, to pound upon the back of the driver and demand that he turns around. My hands remain where they are.
Straw-topped huts and hammocks appear ahead. The motorcycle slows to a halt. I slide off and remove my helmet, keep my eyes on the one incoming road. My driver picks up a banana, spots an acquaintance, and sits.
I pace along the low huts, ignoring the vendors’ invitations for fruit. I can only think of the mistakes I’ve made. A motorcycle arrives. Just a driver, a man in sandals, slacks and a long button down shirt. I begin to rule out options, transforming doubt into dangerous certainty. I want to cry. I want to hurl my helmet and take the driver by the shirt and fill the air with intelligible rants. I want to believe that nothing is wrong. But I pace in quiet, eyes trained to the road. Another bike appears with a rider. Buy some fruit? No. Banana? No! I watch the one who brought me here, swinging now in a hammock. I am going to talk to him. I am going to command him to take me back, to call his friend, to search every village. Off into unknown places, knocking on doors. I am going. I am going when a red metal frame and gleaming red helmet appears, and I see her blinking with relief as the wind dies, eyebrows telling she’ll be happy to step onto solid ground, telling me it was not the best but it was also not the worst. Here we are – our quiet place.
About the author:
Owen Tucker is originally from Washington State. He graduated from Whitman College with a degree in Philosophy. He has lived and taught English in various parts of China for over two years. He is a writer and illustrator for thisridiculousworld.com, a China-focused blog.