Distortions
  A NOVELLA by Alison Turner
  1  Filtered
2  Overexposed
3  Aberration
4  Refraction
5  Interpretation
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  July 2014 Fiction Issue
 
 

2. Overexposed

Jenny had gotten good at Bolivian transportation. In five days she could navigate bus stations as easily as she could the metro in Paris after three weeks, and hailing a cab was as easy as not covering her blonde hair. She stood on a sidewalk and a taxi pulled over. When she opened the door to the backseat, two women were inside.

“Oh,” she said, and began to close the door.

“Si, si, a donde?” said the driver, hurrying out to help with her backpack. She needed the bus station.

“The South station?” asked the woman who had scooted to the middle seat. “That’s where we’re going, you might as well join us.”

The driver forced her bag into the trunk with the others while Jenny squeezed in the back. She wore a tank top and if she wanted to move she’d have to peel her arms from her neighbors’. She wished she had sat up front.

The driver hummed, honked, and pulled on to the street so fast that the woman behind him was thrown against her neighbor, who pressed into Jenny, who was ironed into the door.

“Is it normal to share cabs here?” said the woman in the middle, who had a half dozen clunky plastic bracelets choking her forearm. The three of them righted themselves. “This is like one of those movies where Americans get robbed and end up in foreign prisons.”

Jenny learned that Kelsey, the woman in the middle with the bracelets, was from L.A., and fifteen minutes earlier had met Sarah from Sacramento, who held a backpack in her lap and a worried look on her face.

“Everyone is Norte Americana?” the driver said. He had to sit up straight to see over the wheel.

“Isn’t that weird?” Kelsey said, breaking from the mold of the other two and inserting her shoulders between the front seats to chat.

Jenny knew she should converse with Sarah but she needed a thousand-year break from small talk. In Denver she worked at Express Car Rentals as a branch manager of desk services, and spent all day sounding interested in customers’ needs and temporary problems. She used all of her vacation time and cut deep in to her savings to get away from the familiar. Then their mom pushed her brother Dane into the trip, who barely had a hundred dollars saved. She suspected their mom gave him money to come because she worried about him: at twenty-three, Dane barely knew there was anything in the world but Gunnison, Colorado.

Dozens of cars ahead and behind corralled the cab next to an outdoor restaurant. Jenny counted how many different things people ate: fried chicken, steamed corn, fried cheese empanadas the size of both of her hands, paper plates of French fries. Dane must love the food. An old woman who had to be Quechua because of her braids, skirts, and bowler hat sat on the ground behind a shawl covered with leaves. Jenny loved those hats; they were supposedly introduced to the region by British railroad workers in the 1920s.

She felt bad about ditching her brother, but knew he’d be okay. He was one of those people who could end up at the wrong restaurant in the wrong city forty minutes late, and still get a second chance. It would have been nice to spend more time with him — they didn’t know each other better than someone has to know their sibling — but the timing wasn’t right. She had been waiting all year to fade into a new place by herself.

“What is she selling?” Kelsey said. She stretched out her arm to point at the Quechua woman, and her jewelry clacked.

“Coca,” said the driver. He pulled out a bag from the glove compartment and passed it to Kelsey. “Try it please,” he said.

Kelsey and Sarah discussed whether they should try some. Like highschoolers wondering if they should smoke.

“I’m good,” Jenny said when they asked her. She knew why Bolivians chewed the stuff: it supposedly kept you awake, curbed hunger and thirst, and fixed anything that Tylenol could, but it smelled like vomit and dirt. She was relieved when they handed the bag back to the driver untouched.

“Almost there, Señoritas,” the driver said, after the traffic began to budge forward.

“Do you guys know how much you’re supposed to tip here?” Kelsey asked.

Sarah rummaged through her coveted bag. She pulled out the edition of Lonely Planet Bolivia that Jenny had read cover to cover a month before the trip, and fanned through pages. Jenny knew Bolivians didn’t tip cab drivers, and that the fare was already higher for them as tourists, but she didn’t say anything. She had left her Lonely Planet with Dane, though he probably wouldn’t use it. Somehow, everything felt easier without the guide book.

Kelsey was explaining that she needed the overnight bus from Santa Cruz to La Paz, the city on the other side of the country where Jenny would meet Dane at the end of the trip. Her whole reason for coming, Kelsey said, was to volunteer at the orphanages in La Paz, which existed because of the social, economic, and infrastructural issues that Jenny had studied thoroughly in Lonely Planet. Kelsey said she couldn’t wait to start making a difference.

“Okay, Americanas,” the driver said, pointing to a plaza the size of a football field. People maneuvered suitcases and bags of cloth as large as children in and out of an arch that said Estacion Sur de Autobuses. He hummed, wrenched the wheel, and something exploded.

Kelsey screamed and grabbed Jenny’s wrist so that one of her bracelets dug into Jenny’s skin. It wasn’t an explosion, but the car had convulsed, as if a rock had dropped on the hood. Jenny worked her arm free and looked over the seat in front of her.

The driver shouted Spanish too angry for her to understand, yanked off his green and black beanie, and shook it out the window. The three passengers leaned forward to see better through the crusted-white splotches on the windshield. The smell from hundreds of passengers on hot days steamed out of the cab’s upholstery.

“Should we get out?” Sarah said. She pulled her backpack to her chest. Jenny held the door handle and would only have to pull.

 A man’s head emerged from under the front of the taxi, then two hands splayed far apart across the white hood, as if from different bodies. He stood, and his parts assembled into one man in a baggy tank top. The arm holes sagged down, exposing dark circles around his nipples.

“We hit him?” Kelsey said. She plucked one of her bracelets, a sequence of pink cubes and turquoise spheres.

The man leaning on the hood squinted into the windshield. The sun on the glass must have made it look like what was in the car was one painful, white glare.

He moved. With one hand on the body of the car, he stepped around the hood; the same hand reached for the roof and it bolstered him to the passenger door; one more step and he arrived at the back window. He curled his fingers over the glass that wouldn’t go down all the way, lowered his chin to the edge. Pock-marks shaped the surface of his large cheek-bones, and when his mouth fell open, Jenny smelled beer, animal fat, and coca leaves.

“Señoritas,” he said.

“Jesus,” Sarah said.

 “Touristas,” he said. One of his hands crept into the cab and wilted into a cup. He chanted and Jenny watched his bent fingers move up and down. The skin looked dry and wet at once, like cracked leather covered in oil.

The hand shot upwards and the face vanished. The driver, who left the cab without Jenny realizing, had jerked the man away by the shoulders. When the man stood he was a foot taller than the driver but swaying, so that the driver was able to shove off.

“Everyone’s watching,” Kelsey said. The man staggered away and movements on the edge of the crowd seemed to harden. A teenage girl sat on a stool next to a juice machine with curls of orange rinds spilling over the edge, her hand listless on the crank. A man with a raised rack of socks and belts rested his post on the ground and stared, and the people around the display of Jello cups with the whipped cream that didn’t melt, watched.

After slinging her pack over her shoulders, Jenny walked away from the cab behind the other two Americans. For a moment, she thought that Kelsey had accidentally grabbed her bag, and she checked at her own waist for the green piece of string that Dane had looped around a strap while they waited at the airport in Denver. The string was there: Kelsey and Jenny had the same bag. Now she knew what she looked like from behind.

She would have to push through all of those people and find the right bus company and buy the right ticket and get on the right coach and for the first time it felt impossible to do alone. The two Americans in front of her stopped, blocked by people. Jenny turned for a moment back to their taxi. From this angle she could see the front bumper, sharp and dangerous and dented.

The three of them stood close to each other, as if still squished in the back of a cab. They must have washed together into a smudge of light skin and travel gear. This was not the kind of fading Jenny had been waiting for.

 
     
  © Alison Turner, 2014

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