by Jacqueline Doyle

Clara huddled on a bench in the cavernous boarding zone of the New York Port Authority, inhaling clouds of exhaust with the arrival and departure of each bus. The evening rush hour commuters had long since gone, leaving the terminal almost empty. She shivered in the cold. She couldn’t imagine life beyond this minute, beyond the ticket to Parsippany, New Jersey clutched in her left hand, the blue canvas tote bag she guarded in her lap. Not that anyone would want the bundle of clothes she’d jammed hastily into the bag, sobbing, while Jason sat stone-faced on the edge of the bed. ‘It just happened,’ he repeated before she slammed their apartment door behind her. Now she was alone, visualizing the cell phone she’d left behind on the bathroom counter. Shit happens, she kept thinking, about the phone, about Jason, about the plans she’d had when she and Jason moved to Manhattan. Shit happens. The concrete platform in front of the splintered wooden bench smelled of urine and vomit and all the sad souls to whom shit had happened.

A little girl pedaling a pink tricycle rode by, serious and intent. What was she doing here? Where was her mother? At another time Clara might have offered her help, but tonight she sat paralyzed, listening to the roar of engines as buses accelerated to leave, the honking taxis and stop and go of the nighttime traffic outside. Sounds were magnified by the high ceiling, a vast echo chamber. The changing traffic lights on Eighth Avenue reflected off the gray cement walls: green, yellow, red, green, yellow, red. Manhattan had once seemed so glamorous. Everyone in a rush, everyone with somewhere to go.

‘Are you okay, miss?’ A uniformed security guard with shaggy gray eyebrows peered down at her with a mixture of concern and disapproval, as if a twenty-something girl by herself at this hour of the night was probably not okay and should know better.

‘I’m fine,’ she said, waving the crumpled ticket. ‘Just missed my bus. There’s another soon.’

She didn’t want to go to Parsippany, but here she was returning to her parents because she had nowhere else to go. Everyone there was trapped. She should have made new friends in the city, instead of basing her entire life on Jason and his acting career. She should have worn a warmer jacket, she should have thought before she slammed the door on Jason’s latest confession, she should have remembered her cell phone. She should have told the security guard about the girl on the pink tricycle, but it was too late. He’d moved on.

She smoothed out her ticket. ‘I knew he wasn’t right for you,’ her mom was going to say. Maybe she’d wait a day or two. Her father would become angry, jowls trembling as he banged his fist on the kitchen table, making the dishes rattle. ‘The guy was a deadbeat. Anyone could see that.’ Her mother would put her hand on his arm to mollify him, worried about his heart. ‘Lots of young girls work at the Chase Bank right here in town,’ her dad would add, once he’d calmed down, as if working as a suburban bank teller was something Clara would like. ‘Or that insurance agency. What’s the name of that outfit?’

Her credit card was maxed out, but there was $753 in her checking account. More than enough to buy one of those overpriced jackets at the tourist kiosks downstairs. A Mets jacket or one of those stupid I Heart New York hoodies, just as she was leaving. Or—she almost laughed at the unlikelihood of just taking off like that, with no plans beyond the moment—enough to buy a new ticket to someplace warm. Miami, Memphis, Atlanta, New Orleans. Yes. New Orleans. In college she’d designed sets for A Streetcar Named Desire, and she’d always wanted to see the ‘peculiarly tender blue, almost a turquoise’ that suffused Williams’s French Quarter, the lyrical ‘atmosphere of decay’ he described in the stage notes. She could sit in the window at Galatoire’s, follow his footsteps through the city.

Clara stood up abruptly, just as the Lakeland bus to New Jersey arrived, belching exhaust, brakes wheezing. The folding doors opened with a loud thunk. A few passengers had gathered to get on the bus and she let them go first. She wavered as she watched them file past. A tired looking woman with a shopping bag from Zabar’s. Two businessmen in suits and overcoats, both on their phones, faces shuttered. Four teenage boys smelling of beer. ‘What the fuck you gonna tell your dad?’ one was saying to another. They laughed and swaggered. ‘What happens in New York, stays in New York, you know?’  

Had she ever been so young? Scenes from her past appeared and disappeared like a slide show on a screensaver. She and Jason toasting each other at Nico’s Bar on College Avenue, beer bottles raised. He’d been the handsomest boy she’d ever seen. An actor, no less! She and Jason laughing in bed on a Sunday morning, sections of the New York Times strewn across the red velour comforter. So many cozy Sundays. Could she leave that all behind? Jason pacing back and forth in front of their sagging futon sofa and stunted ficus plant, wailing, ‘Just give me another chance.’ Did he know his lines became less convincing each time he performed? No wonder his career wasn’t taking off.

Green, yellow, red: the traffic lights shifted on the wall.

‘You getting on, or not?’

Clara hesitated, momentarily distracted by a glimpse of the girl on the pink tricycle in the distance. Even from far away she sensed the determination on the little girl’s face, her calm persistence. She seemed to be headed toward a small knot of passengers surrounded by luggage, waiting to get on a bus that was de-boarding. Her mother must be one of them, probably weary at this late hour, too tired to keep her small daughter in check. Clara imagined the girl’s upcoming journey to some distant place, her face pressed against the cold, wet window, taking in the unfamiliar scenery rolling by as her mother slept, tracing her initials in the condensation. She’d be excited, bound for somewhere new.

‘Sorry,’ Clara told the bus driver. ‘I must be at the wrong bus stop.’

He gave her an impatient wave as the bus doors snapped shut.

Clara tossed her ticket in the trashcan and turned away, hurrying toward the stairway to the ticket counters, already on Bourbon Street, arms bare, a light sheen of sweat on her face. She closed her eyes and the Port Authority receded. Bourbon Street! She could taste it. The door to a restaurant swung open as she passed, releasing a gust of noisy laughter and the smell of grilled fish before it closed again. The air felt warm and humid on her skin. She savored the easy swing of her arms, the sway of her hips, the click-clack of her heels on the pavement. She quickened her pace to follow the spiraling notes of a melancholy jazz trumpet solo, just ahead of her, right around the next corner.

Jacqueline Doyle’s award-winning flash fiction chapbook The Missing Girl was recently published by Black Lawrence Press. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Post Road, The Pinch, Superstition Review, and Wigleaf, and has been short-listed in Best Small Fictions 2018 and Best American Essays 2013, 2015, and 2017.

She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be found online and on Twitter @doylejacq.