The old man smiled expectantly and I realized he was talking to me. His spectacles were large and square, sliding down the greasy bridge of his nose. He wore a vertically lined polo shirt and loose fitting gray khakis with frayed belt loops. His eyes were round and peculiar and his eyebrows were quiet, rectangular strips of hair. He looked like he could have been handsome fifty years ago but time had transformed his face with fine lines and wrinkles.
I smiled politely and met his gaze. “It’s coming.”
In my neighborhood, the trolley was always late. Just when you had given up all hope that you would get to your destination on time, it would slowly roll towards you on the tracks as if to say “fuck your schedule, I’m here aren’t I?”
“I’ll wait until it gets a little closer. Are you going for it or should I?”
I raised an eyebrow and slowly glanced around me. It was just the two of us at the bus stop. The sky was grey and it looked like it would start raining any moment. I clutched my umbrella in anticipation. At my feet, there was a clump of cheap looking extension hair, a Capri-Sun straw and a used Band-Aid.
Then I saw what he was talking about. “The dime?”
“My brother-in-law picks up pennies. I won’t do that, but I will grab silver.”
He slowly bent at the waist to grab the coin, giving me a fair view of his thinning gray hair. I watched the glowing lights of the trolley as they inched closer to our stop. His hierarchy of coins was based on value obviously. It only takes ten dimes to make a dollar but it takes ten times more than that if you’re picking up pennies. Personally, I liked copper. Pennies have the romantic shine of rose gold and the President that freed the slaves on them. As a black person, I’m clearly biased.
Shifting my weight from foot to foot, I said, “Aren’t pennies the lucky ones?”
He squinted at me for a moment before answering and his glasses slid farther down his nose.
“Yeah, but there’s just a stigma there…about picking up pennies, you know?”
I shrugged imperceptibly. “I guess.”
He seemed to be done talking and I wasn’t all dissatisfied by the silence. I welcomed it in fact. I thought about the weather and thanked my lucky stars that at least it wasn’t snow. Snow is pretty when you touch it and it looks like sugar the way it coats everything in sweet whiteness. But like everything else in Philadelphia, it starts out pure and gets polluted by city life. Whether it’s smog, piss, or car tires, it ends up far from the way it started.
The trolley arrived and I picked a seat close to the back. My boyfriend broke up with me last night and I didn’t want an audience if I started to tear up again. I barely made it out of the house with any mascara on and forget about eyeliner. I squared my shoulders and willed myself not to cry.
Stop it. It’s better this way. You know it’ll be okay. It’s not goodbye it’s see you later.
The thing about him was that I had a whole list of baby names in my diary, alphabetical and separated by gender.
For a girl:
- Giada (my favorite woman to watch on Food Network, pretty and Italian)
- Sapphire (after the woman who wrote Push)
- Delphine (the blonde from Orphan Black)
- Theadora (Adora for short)
- Deolinda (a Portuguese fado band)
- Lolita (like the dirty Nabokov book)
- Dahlia (one of my favorite flowers)
- Corrine (after Corrine Bailey Rae’s “Like A Star”)
For a boy:
- Forest (because green is my favorite color and I like to camp)
- Iroh (like the Uncle from Avatar: The Last Airbender)
- Solomon (like the man from 12 Years A Slave)
- Abel (the Weeknd)
- Apollo (Greek god)
- Horus (Egyptian god that may or may not have a bird for a face)
- Kenny (cute guy from my senior year business class in high school)
- Koi (like the fish, my favorite animals from Hawaii)
He broke up with me over the phone with all the usual lines and I cried. For like three hours. I blossomed for him. I opened up everything there was to open. My legs. My heart. My purse. My house. He set me on fire in the best and worst ways and now we were extinguished, seemingly for good.
I sighed. As always, there were two extra loud niggas on the bus talking about the pussy they may or may not have gotten last night and other ratchet topics. I tuned in simply to tune out of my own mind.
Nigga A, the loud obstinate one, was about fifty pounds overweight and had sweat beading up everywhere that he had pores. His fingers were stubby and brown with chewed down, ragged nails. Nigga B was slightly better dressed with hazel eyes and a bad mustache.
“That’s how girls think. I’ma give it up to this guy and I’ma be with him. But guys don’t think like that, they think I’ma fuck this girl and then I’m going to fuck this other girl. Now, after I fucked her once if she wants to come back around again, cool, might as well get my money’s worth. I took her out didn’t I?”
Nigga A laughed heartily and I saw the gold fillings in his teeth out of the corner of my eye. He was wearing a fake Gucci belt and some questionable Versace sunglasses. His hair was peasy. His eyelashes were long and curved and his bottom lip jutted out much more than the top one. I wondered if he was in college or if he did something else during the day.
Might as well get my money’s worth.
Guys could be such assholes sometimes and then they wonder why females are always on the defensive. They always want something. If they want to be friends, it’s because they want to see if they can fuck you when things don’t work out with your boyfriend. If you do fuck them, they can’t keep their mouths shut about it. Then they want to come back for seconds without a clue as to where the “whore,” rumors came from.
That’s something I never got. I’ve had guys beg me to send them nudes. Like persistently. And if I do, I’m a whore. And if I don’t, I’m a slut because they’ll probably make something up anyway. Niggas these days, I’ll tell you, fuck them and the horses they rode in on.
Nigga B finished laughing and asked, “you got a cigarette?”
Versace guy sucked his teeth. “Damn man, your cheap ass is smokin’ me out.”
Nigga B looked around embarrassedly, “ain’t nobody smoking you out.”
I thought about Mason. I stared out the trolley window numbly and waited for my feelings to pass. They always did but not before coursing through my entire body in a frenzy, touching anything soft, organic or malleable. I tried to smile and it felt like stretching threadbare fabric. He left me. He was really for real this time. It’s really over. He really fucking left me.
I remember the way Mason would kiss me. Lazily, thoroughly, like he had forever to explore my mouth. Simple things, like how he would always hold the door open for me and heat up leftovers when I went over his house. Our Netflix dates. The sex. His tendency to tickle me.
I loved him with absolutely everything inside of me. I called him my Hercules because of how unbelievably strong he was.
I called him my sexy little turtle. I called him yum-yum. I called him baby.
Most importantly, I called him mine.
I remember about six months in, a disgusting event sealed our relationship. It may sound ridiculous and it may sound crazy but I knew I loved him when I got diarrhea over his house.
So his mom made fish cakes and I had two or three over some white rice. They were good, golden and crispy from being fried to perfection. The breading was sweet and salty and the insides were soft and warm. They were so good I barely chewed.
His arms were around me, holding me close to the warmth of his body. With my cheek, I smoothed a wrinkle in his plaid bedspread. His sheets smelled really good. We were spooning and I was playing with his fingers. As usual, we watched Scandal.
I felt a twinge in my stomach but I assumed that my period was coming early or something. The pain started to become repetitious and I felt my muscles tighten. I could hear my stomach growling and it felt like it was bubbling. I curled into a ball.
I saw Mason’s eyes widen and I tried to smile reassuringly but all I could really do was grimace.
“Fleur? Baby, what’s wrong…why are you holding your stomach like that?”
I told him it was nothing and gingerly tried to lie on my side. Maybe it was gas or something. Whatever it was was not moving through my stomach pleasantly at all. I could feel myself sweating as the pain started to become sharper.
I ran to his bathroom. And when I say ran, I mean it, like 5k race, ran to his bathroom and shut the door. I stared at the white wallpaper and the wooden ceiling fan. I pressed my face against the cool porcelain of the sink, my stomach was doing an 80’s dance routine.
“Oh my God,” I groaned. “Fucking shit.”
I could hear Mason outside of the door, tentatively knocking. “…Babe?”
“Leave me alone,” I called miserably. My ass was a running faucet.
“Do you have diarrhea?” He asked.
I paused, completely mortified and searching for something to say. “Um, yeah.”
Seconds later, the door creaked open and he had two stomach pills and some bottled water.
I was torn. I wanted the medicine so my stomach would go back to normal but how would he ever have sex with me again when he saw me on the toilet?
I shrieked. “Mason, get out of here!”
As if the diarrhea wasn’t bad enough, I had a motherfucking witness.
He ignored me and put his phone on top of a stack of folded towels. I could tell he was trying to distract me because he put on my favorite Kevin Hart skit. The one with the ostrich.
“Babe, you need this,” he said tip-toeing over to me, with the pills and a green plastic bucket.
And as if it couldn’t get any worse, then it happened. I threw up all over the bathroom floor. And when I say I threw up, I’m talking about some serious projectile vomit, full of half chewed grains of rice. His lip curled back in sheer disgust and he handed me the bucket firmly.
“Hold this. If you feel like doing that again, do it in there.”
Then he watched me take the pills and told me to drink. I could feel his eyes on me as I swallowed the last of the water. He came back with a wet mop and cleaned everything up. The cleaner he sloshed all over the floor smelled like lemons. It had a white guy on it flashing me a shit-eating grin. I wished I could sink down into the floor and have the ground swallow me up. Anything to just not be in the fucking situation I was in.
Afterwards, he held me like a good boyfriend and I apologized until I was sick of the sound of my own voice.
“I am so fucking embarrassed. I am so sorry.”
“Fleur, it’s fine.”
And then he kissed me lightly on my mouth, nibbling on my upper lip. And that’s when I knew this boy must love me. I just threw up all over his bathroom and he’s kissing me, like it’s no big deal. As disgusting as that is, that’s when I realized that I wanted this boy for as long as he would have me, that this boy was my lover and my friend and my future husband.
I opened my eyes and Mason was sitting next to me on the bus seat, with his hand on my bag.
“I was worried that this would be the one day you wouldn’t ride the trolley.”
His voice was husky, like he had just woken up and he smelled vaguely of green tea and tobacco. He believed in morning matcha each day for the antioxidants and “health benefits,” but still insisted on a daily cigarette. Not unlike the man himself, his habits were often contradictory. He put his hand on the side of my face and I took a shaky breath.
I sighed, “why are you here…don’t you have class?”
I eyed him warily and he slowly pulled an almond granola bar out of his front shirt pocket.
It was my favorite, the ones with little chocolate and peanut butter chips. He held it out like a peace offering and I took his olive branch. I finished it in three bites.
He chuckled softly and chided me like a doting father, “you always forget to eat breakfast.”
“And it’s the most important meal of the day,” I say finishing his sentence out of sheer habit.
We stared at each other for a while. I felt a bit claustrophobic. He took himself out of my life and now it seemed that he was poking around my cage to check up on me. I thought of the time he took me to the zoo, the signs that said “Do Not Feed The Animals” and “Please Do Not Touch.” I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to step away or move closer.
“You miss me?” he asked.
I could feel myself welling with anger.
Who was he to ask me if I fucking missed him after he broke up with ME? And then what is this bullshit attempt to lecture me on meals? Who is he, my father? This is all wrong. He better not try to touch me. He better not –
Then it was too late. He was kissing me and I could hear him murmuring apologies. His lips were soft and full and brushing against mine and I felt his hands in my hair, petting me. I pressed as close to him as I possibly could, holding his biceps and seeking the comfort that his touch always gave me. He tasted like smoke and peppermint and I could feel his smile against my lips.
I felt his shoulder jerk and his teeth clicked painfully against mine.
He looked angry and it took me a second, as I held my mouth, to absorb the situation. Versace guy had pushed Mason into me and was standing threateningly over him.
“Bitches ain’t shit, nigga. Don’t nobody want to see that.”
I could feel my mouth gaping open in a blend of shock and anger and I was the first to react.
“Maybe you should mind your fucking business!” I yelled out at him.
“Wasn’t nobody talking to you, bitch!”
“Yeah,” Nigga B chimed in, “get a goddamn room.”
I saw the anger building in Mason and I tried to calm him down by rubbing his shoulders frantically. It was too late. He was already clenching his fists. I could smell the testosterone flowing through his body. He swung at Versace guy and aimed right for his face. He hit him so hard I could feel the impact making the windows vibrate.
“Mason, no!” I screamed, but I couldn’t do anything about it.
“Don’t make me stop this trolley! We’re not going anywhere until you return to your seats!”
The trolley driver had a shrill, almost metallic sounding voice that grated against my ears. His face was about five different shades of red and I could see him waddling towards us down the aisle. His stubby legs reminded me of a mother duck and his red face was like an angry pimple.
The rest of the passengers were in various states of fear, amusement and disgruntledness. A small Asian woman with chestnut brown highlights clutched her baby stroller and watched in horror as Mason broke Versace guys nose. The baby started to cry and his wails were like a police siren. I could almost feel myself being bathed in red, white and blue lights.
We’re all going to get arrested.
“Return to your seats!” The trolley driver repeated over the noise. “Break it up or I’m calling the cops!”
The fight was still ongoing and some of the passengers had pulled out their cellphones. Mason had a bleeding cut above his eye but Versace guy looked worse. I watched Mason grip Versace guy’s throat and squeeze. Versace guy was clawing at his arm and gasping for air. His eyes were pink and his nose were bleeding steadily unto the ground. He started to turn red and started to convulse. His eyes rolled into the back of his head.
“Mason,” I edged out. “Mason, no. You’re going to kill him. Baby, stop.”
“Stop!” I screamed.
I felt a hand on my shoulder shaking me and I started to cry. “Mason, let him go! Just stop it! Please!”
“Ma’am, wake up.” The trolley driver nudged me. “It’s the last stop.”
I wiped the tears that had leaked out of my eyes and breathed out a sigh of relief. As I slowly collected my things, I had to shake the weight of the nightmare away. My phone buzzed in my pocket and it was a text from Mason.
I read it aloud slowly. “I’m an idiot. I’m outside the terminal.”
Amiah Taylor fell into the rabbit hole of reading at a young age and never quite left. She is an aspiring Black essayist who looks up to wonderful nonfiction authors like Roxane Gay and Brittney Cooper. Her work is present or forthcoming in Refreshe, Un-Ruly, Carefree, KAMSI, and more. You can keep up with her reading and food adventures on Instagram.
Image: “Insecurity Blanker” by Nicole Monroe