Eleanor Gray thinks the man behind the counter at the Greyhound ticket desk has the look of someone who reads a lot of porn. It is the way he looks at her like he is checking her out and licks his lips as his eyes cross her breasts, but with an almost imperceptible shake of his head at the same time, as though comparing her somewhat unfavourably with others in the catalogue in his head and indeed under his mattress: he has seen better elsewhere.
The first thing she needs to do is get out of the heat which is hitting ninety degrees. The streets are deserted and her footsteps echo on the concrete and after about five minutes she cannot stand it and ducks into a coffee shop, heading upstairs where it might be quiet and she can think about what to do next, because even by her standards it’s a bit early to start drinking. But then sometime later there is a creak on the stairs and a woman with red hair and t-shirt saying Iowa Mom arrives and sits down at next table along and takes out a folder. They nod at each other. Eleanor looks out of the window, watching her reflection in the glass. The street below is silent.
At that moment a random gust of wind blows the window next to her shut and scatters the woman’s papers across the table and onto the floor. Eleanor gathers them up and hands them over. “That was odd. The weather’s been so still.”
“Thanks,” says the woman in a tone which Eleanor feels is a little curt and goes back to work. But then, she looks up and says, “There’s probably a storm brewing. There were a few last week.”
“I wasn’t here then, I was in London,” says Eleanor. There is a pause. It has been some time since Eleanor has had a conversation with anybody, not since she was in an office, reading THAT email before clearing her desk and deleting the entire Q drive and walking out of the office towards the lift without looking back. Eleanor Gray bets the woman opposite in the Iowa Mom t-shirt wouldn’t mess up her life by walking out on her job and her husband on the same day. She looks like she gets up early to exercise and colour codes all her appointments on her phone instead of keeping notes written on bits of paper in the bottom of her bag.
The woman says “Are you on vacation?” and Eleanor shakes her head, “No, I’m just travelling through. Got to move on.” And when she says this her heart beats a little faster with excitement. After a moment she says “But I have been here once, before I started college. I’m kind of retracing my steps. Unfinished business if you will.” The woman looks mildly intrigued so Eleanor pulls a photo out of her purse and uncrinkles it, “Look, this is me in the bar across the street.”
“Wow,” says the woman, looking curiously. “You carry this around with you?”
Eleanor prods her frappucino with the straw. “Yeah I know. I was in love with the guy in the picture.” She keeps quiet about the subsequent shameless fuck on the sofa of some porch to the west of campus.
Of course this is the purpose of her visit. She may not have long and needs to keep moving but Eleanor Gray is not ‘just travelling through’ any more than the man on the bus with the hipflask slurred to her that his son he had been visiting in the correctional facility in Chicago was ‘a good kid really’. He was going home to Las Vegas, said it was the most beautiful city in the world and she had smiled politely and said yes, she was sure it was but he was slurring a bit by then and she had been glad when the bus had pulled off the I-80 and headed down the hill into Iowa City. Eleanor Gray has spent fifteen years on a relationship that meant nothing and she is about to pick up where she left off even if she only has twelve hours left to do it.
Time has passed and it is seven pm. Eleanor walks to the bar, guessing it will still look the same, smell the same with the same sticky floor, playing the same appalling rock, same dead eyed grad-students and beyond clinging on to the last vestiges of their youth. But the beer is cheap and she looks, well, cheap as well as she catches sight of herself in the gleaming window of the sports bar next door which is full of attractive people with prospects. The last time she was here, Eleanor Gray had prospects in the way that you do when you’re young and single and travelling; full of hope and anecdotes and cut-offs and beads. This time it depends what you consider prospects because wrinkles and a back-pack aren’t a great look. But Jason can keep Natalie from her office, she thinks. Natalie certainly won’t be sleeping well with anyone after the things she said she might do to her when she had cornered her on Tuesday afternoon before she left. All that broken glass had kind of freaked her out as well. Good job she’d jumped on the plane later on. Just in case anyone said anything.
She opens the door and her eyes adjust to the darkness. It’s funny what you could say and the things you could do, thinks Eleanor as she walks towards the bar, when you didn’t have to actually do much, although she has realised that bit a little late. She leans against the counter, leaning away again when her waist encounters something cold and wet; and looks around.
Luck is on her side. He sits in the corner, reading a paper, looking pretty much the way he had done when she first set eyes on him in this same bar fifteen years ago except he has a massive receding hairline and is wearing glasses which he probably didn’t before, proving his Facebook and Twitter profiles are inaccurate. There is a pitcher and glasses on the table. He looks up as she smiles and he blinks and smiles back. Eleanor Gray feels her chest growing hot and her heart thud behind her bra as she orders an Amaretto Sour and walks very slowly over to the booth he is sitting at because her legs are wobbling with a combination of excitement and fear. She is aware of him watching her and he smiles again as she approaches. “Hey,” he says. “I keep looking at you and thinking I know you.”
“You probably do,” she says, sitting down. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be here,” she says.
He raises an eyebrow “Well it’s not my traditional hang-out these days,” he says. Then he looks at her backpack. “You’re in town for long?”
She shakes her head. “Bus leaves at six tomorrow. I’ve got to move on, I’m going to Vegas.” Beautiful after all, like the man on the bus said. And she will need money soon. She grins. “Wanna come?”
He looks amused. “I’d love to, but ...”
She laughs and drains her drink. “Yeah, I know…” There is a pause and her hair falls across her breasts where her top has slipped. She refills both glasses and misses and Miller Lite splashes all over the table. “Where’s your husband?” he says suddenly, looking at her rings and filling her glass from the pitcher on the table.
He fucked someone called Natalie,” she says and she remembers the colour Natalie’s face went in the lift when she had said what she was going to do her. She stops for a moment. “I’m erasing the time I spent with him and going back to where I was before. Which was here in Iowa City heading west.”
“Kind of like Thelma and Louise,” he says.
“Yes but on a bus and by myself. But, yes,” she says, and prays that he doesn’t ask why she isn’t driving. The glass is mysteriously empty again, but her eyes are sparkling as they meet his before she goes to her purse to dig out the photograph and join everything together. “Shit, I can’t find it,” she says going through her bag and remembering sliding it across the table to the woman in the ice-cream parlour, who did not slide it back.
She can feel his foot against hers remembering the last time she was here, the way she had felt that connection even though she had said she was just passing through and he had looked at her and said ‘Can’t you stay?’ and she had said No and regretted it ever since.
It is getting late. “I should go,” she says because the bar which has filled up is now empty and they are playing Guns ‘n’ Roses. “I need to get to my hotel.”
“I’ll walk with you,” he says getting up and they leave. When they get to the street she steps out from the kerb and he grabs her hand because she is walking straight in front of a car and it isn’t until they are halfway down the street towards the Capitol building that she realises that his hand is still in hers and she smiles as he stops and kisses her. The heat has not died and it is as stifling as ever as her stomach turns over as the railroad clangs forever in the still night air.
Eleanor Gray wakes at sunrise in an empty Motel Room on the Coralville Strip where the sheets are rumpled on both sides of the bed. She smiles and gathers up the things and gets a cab to the greyhound station as the clouds part leaving a white and yellow sky. It’s a long while until Vegas but it’s a beautiful city, she thinks giving the clerk at the ticket office a dazzling smile and blowing a kiss before boarding the bus to see how far she can go.
Scott Harman hurries back home early the next morning before questions are asked if he is late for work, with the sort of smile on his face that only an unexpected sexual encounter in an arid desert of opportunity can bring. Funny how things turned out he thinks, jogging by the river and heading east, he never normally went to the Deadwood, he was only supposed to be meeting his brother who didn’t arrive. There was something familiar about that woman though he couldn’t exactly place her. Maybe he’d seen her on TV, he thinks, blood pounding in his chest as he rounds a bend. He hoped she wasn’t wanted for anything. He should pay more attention to the news. Scott Harman reaches his apartment and continues his day.
© Alison Fogg, 2012
Alison Fogg has a BA in American Studies from Hull University and studied creative writing at the University of Iowa. She writes novels and short stories and has featured in One Eye Grey: Stories from Another London. She currently works in Local Government and lives in Colchester.