Sleeping With Strangers

by Patricia Thomas

Albert Davis Fiction Award
Second Place

I’ve slept with fifty strangers. At least. Last night, I slept with two. A woman we picked up in San Antonio. And an elderly Vietnamese woman we picked up in Phoenix. I liked the Vietnamese woman. If she didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have had Ritz crackers for dinner, questionable cheese applied on top with a plastic, red wand. I wouldn’t have had chocolate bears for breakfast.
There was a man I slept with in Houston. My age, a doughy stomach, tee shirt black as his under-eyes. He didn’t say anything to me as we watched Houston turn to the dehydrated cracks of West Texas. Meanwhile, every time someone used the bathroom in the back of the bus, the remains swam over us. I sprayed my perfume. The driver dropped him off in El Paso.
My mother called me when my seat got kicked by two kids, speaking a language I got an F in. She told me to send a postcard at least. The address is still the same. The door is always open. It always will be.
El Paso turned into Calexico, where we stopped at the terminal-slash-Jack in the Box. Where you had to pay a quarter to use the bathroom. Where America kissed Mexico. Where we stopped at border patrol.
The dogs sniffed the cargo. United States Border Patrol was now hiring. Apply online, and you too could be the keeper of dreams. I didn’t sleep with a stranger the night before. No one sat beside me.
“Sir, are you a United States citizen?”
When he gets on the bus, he asks the caramel-colored, “Señor, Señora, es usted un ciudadando de los Estados Unidos?”
“Miss, are you a United States citizen?” he asked me. I flashed my driver’s license. I nodded.
Everyone had their papers. But a part of me hoped the German Shepherds would sniff out cocaine like in the movies, sniff out adventure.
Finding something to eat in gas stations was like a Chopped episode; make a meal out of candy bars and beef jerky. Mom always made do with less. The bathrooms looked like death. The stalls were graves, covered in dirt, toilet paper mummifying the floors. A discarded syringe. Soiled Pampers. After dinner, I dreamt about running off with the border patrolman, marrying him in Vegas and endlessly wondering if he always wanted to patrol borders as a kid.
I slept with another stranger that night. When we woke, he said, “Going far?”
“Not far enough. I want to drive the Pan-American highway.”
“You can’t actually drive it, you know. The Darien Gap.”
“Then I’ll swim across.”
We had a bus transfer in San Bernardino lasting forever, and last night’s stranger shared his Animal-style fries with me. He told me he wanted to cross the Darien Gap with me, help me fight off the Colombian drug lords. After his mission trip was over.
“The best thing about spreading the gospel on the Greyhound: the person next to you has to listen eventually.”
I thought: the best thing about the Greyhound is having the person next to you.
He stopped for a smoke break in Perris—not Paris—and said he found God in prison. I said that was a weird hiding place for a deity. He laughed and pointed to his heart, the cigarette in the other hand swirling smoke in my face. “Not in there. In here.”
I shared tidbits of my own, recited with the enthusiasm of reading my grocery list. “My mother is raising my son. If you touch me right now, I’ll probably combust. I’m terrified of sharks.”
“I slept with over fifty strangers,” I added. He didn’t appear to know I meant this in the purest sense. I didn’t tell him any better.
We made it to San Diego when my mother called and told me about his first steps. I should have seen it. I should come home. When I cried, we were still rolling through the desert. So much dust, I tasted it in my sleep. The stranger asked, “What’s wrong?”
I didn’t have an answer right away. I thought of one right when he touched my thigh, as if giving me strength.
“I have to cross that gap someday.”
“You will,” he said with a smile.
He thought I meant the gap between the two Americas. I didn’t tell him any better.