Ben Kessler is the current Co-Editor-in-Chief of Portland Review. He lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.
A manta ray swims by and I sign my initials onto its back. The letters are big and loopy and dumb, smeared by the ray’s momentum. It’s skin is glossy and polished. My shirtsleeve dips into the clear water and I roll it to stop the dripping. Outside it is February cold, dry frosted, but in the near-empty aquarium the heat casts back off the fishtank glass and the parquet dancefloor breeds sweat. There is food, but it isn’t good. There is a group of middle schoolers chasing each other around and screaming giddy screams. I think the action is juvenile, as if suddenly I’m an adult, and not simply an older kid.
I’m on the sort of high that comes after a concert, the kind I often get, and will continue to get even after tonight/tomorrow. We sang well. I sang great. And now I’m walking behind the velvet rope with the girl I like. I bury my nerves. She shows me it’s okay to touch the rays by first doing so herself, her close-cut red nails wavy at the end of her refracted hand. I’ve always loved the way that light blooms through water. As she leans forward towards the tank I can see her brastrap winking out. It’s black. To believe that this is one of the happiest moments of my life is to also imagine that the only place to go is down. But I’m not thinking that now. How could I?
It’s over too fast. We are being led toward twin school buses— the yellow kind with no seatbelts and split benchseat leatherette. I’m still warm from the humid aquarium air, and throw my coat over my shoulder like a fireman’s carry, thinking it makes me look nonchalant. The choir, around fifty of us, divide between the buses unevenly. My bus is only half-full.
The girl I like sits near the back. This is where the cool kids sit. I am not one of the cool kids. But, we’re all in the play together and have rehearsal tomorrow. Caucasian Chalk Circle. It’s by Bertolt Brecht. We cut the prologue—apparently that’s common. At the back of the bus the girl who plays Grusha laughs and others join in chorus. Don't be afraid of death so much as an inadequate life, Brecht says. We can’t understand. Who among us is afraid?
My friend, also uncool, sits next to me and the bus lurches its way out of the city and onto the Interstate. While we riff on video games and chiptunes and Pokemon, many of my peers sleep, their faces mushed against the cold, thin glass. A boy my age, a bass, pops up from underneath our seat. He tells us that there aren’t any dividers, and that he could wriggle his way from front to back just going under the seats. He slides beneath them, a mechanic looking at imaginary axles, before disappearing under the seat in front of us. The bus floors are filthy with everything anyone’s brought in off their shoes.
Aircraft warning lights blink red far beyond the surrounding wheat fields. There are few cars on the road, and a half moon wobbles with the bus bounce. Those also strung out from the high are awake and chatty. The girl I like is listening to Grusha talk about The Residents. My friend and I talk about books we’re reading. I have to tell you about House of Leaves. The bus’ long hollow body is a military aircraft, and we are men and women, boys and girls with parachutes primed to jump out of over enemy territory. I fantasize about being able to kick open the emergency door, real cinematic.
At the aquarium, many chose to be social and schmooze, adult things, but I instead furrowed myself away amidst the labyrinthine exhibits. The fake rock walls that enclose so many of the tanks are filled up with the artificial fossils of ancient fish. They are a proxy for age— painted on tree rings or dyed hair. A let my fingers trace along them as I walk, except for when I run into the girl I like looking at the otters, and then my hands inhabit my pockets in the old awkward ways.
Our bus runs over the rumble strip, the kind dug into the asphalt like soldier’s trenches, and the whole thing rattles like bolts in a tin can. Some kids scream. I don’t. I know it’s no big deal. We ride them for what feels like an eternity before pitching in the opposite direction, energized and riding the wake up lines on the far side of the road. Now, I think, is when the bus will right itself. It veers back the way it came and this is enough to send it onto two wheels.
There is a point before misfortune where you think, it can’t possibly be like this.
Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.
I have infinite time to think. I’m gazing through a foggy window, thinking about not the impending crash or the potential for death, but rather my jacket, and how I wish I had put it on instead of stuffing it under the seat. Everything is resting in the gauzy ballistics of powerlessness. The windows are laced by it, the sheet metal roof begrimed. I have not yet encountered this feeling, and I am surprised at how little I can think about anything except the machine of my body as it enters the unknown. I am about to be so cold.
I grab onto the back of my seat and the seat in front of me like how Indiana Jones might hold onto an enemy plane. But I don’t feel like an action hero, because I know I’m going to fall. So I let it happen.
At this point we’re over and skidding and my mind and body are slammed together. My shoulder collides with a web-strewn window and road gravel shoots through a curtain of sparks. A thousand unique skirls. Somehow, I am able to keep my eyes open until the bus comes to a stop on the side of the road facing the center median.
For a while nobody speaks. I’m not hurt, but I can’t get up. Perhaps it is because I don’t want to. When I would go sledding, after bombing the big hill and faced with the task of trudging back up the snowy slope, I would often instead lie in the fluffy white and absorb my own tiredness. I would think about going to sleep, but then I would worry about being slowly entombed, and what a way to go that would be. In this moment, on the wrong side of the bus, I encounter a similar want to lie still and close my eyes, to sleep, to stay on this bus forever and feel its thin steel settle around my bones.
Someone implores that we all need to got off the bus.
Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.
I don’t move until someone reminds me it’s even an option. Up against the bus window I’m oddly calm, unaware of how far unbalanced I was on the tightrope of mortality. It doesn’t seem important now, but at the same time I can’t think of anything with more importance. It all seems to live on a flat plane. The feeling and the body separate instruments.
I’m not sure how many of us exit the bus, and as we do we splinter off into the same little cliques that were present before the crash. Cool and uncool stills means something. I find my friend and we can only say one word obscenities to each other. Shit. Yeah, shit. This is our way of letting the other know that we are happy they’re alive. A truck blurs by on the road, oblivious. I feel oblivious. We’re collectively oblivious. I can feel my still damp sleeve in the crook of my elbow and for a moment I can’t remember how it got wet to being with. Oh, yeah. I can’t stop thinking about my jacket
Firemen come, along with EMTs and some police. They begin to unload things from the bus out into the median, which is a grassy trough bordered by wire fencing, a portion of which has been sheared off by the fallen bus. There’s nothing to do, so I hug my peers who need hugs. I walk over to the pile and dig around for my coat in the dark, pawing through a heap of other people’s belongings. I pick up a plastic bag slick with blood and throw it in shock. I walk away quickly, drying my hands over my jeans. The group has spread itself out across the grass on wool fire department blankets like spectators at an outdoor concert.
The other school bus has circled back, but the students aren’t allowed out. All they can do is poke their heads out the open windows like dogs. The aquarium seems to exist in another universe and at no point am I grateful not to have been hurt or dead. It’s not that I’m not grateful. In this moment I am simply plain, a white wall. Mainly, I’m thinking about how cold I am. There is a strip mall in the distance. A letter has gone out in the illuminated sign of a liquor store.
They cops say that if we can’t get our parents to come pick us up that another bus will come and drop us off at the school. I borrow someone’s cell phone and scream into my parent’s answering machine with the hope that they will hear it a floor up. I give the phone back, unsure if it worked. My friend has gotten a ride and I am one of the few still standing in the median. A police officer takes my statement then leaves me alone. It is unclear if it has been minutes or hours since I was lying against the broken glass of the bus window. I decide that how long ago it was doesn’t matter.
A wave of tiredness envelops me and I stifle the urge to sit down. If I sit down I might lie down, and if I lie down I might sleep and if I sleep than what’s to stop someone from thinking I’m a corpse?
My father’s truck skids to a stop along the frontage road, and he runs across the empty highway. He hugs me hard. Is there a coat in the car? On the trip home we don’t talk. The stoplights flash yellow and my father drives through them cautiously, for my benefit, I assume. He is protecting me, as if I’m fragile, as if the crash chipped me and I am now trailing sand. He hits the rumble strip along a county road near our house and doesn’t understand why I flinch. As randomness has broken into my life it has dislodged trust in a way that I can’t yet articulate.
When I get home I don’t go to sleep, even though it’s nearly four in the morning. Instead, I sit on my haunches and eat dry cereal and watch late night television, the violent cartoons that I feel guilty about watching in front of my parents, but I shouldn’t. I’m not a child. Was I ever even at the aquarium? And what of the girl I like and her red nails? I don’t remember seeing her, but I don’t remember not seeing her either. Did she catch a ride home with Grusha? Did she see the person who kicked out the back door? Who comforted her? I turn the volume up.
I have permission from my parents to stay home from school tomorrow. As if I need permission. At rehearsal we’re running through scenes I’m not in anyway.
It feels unnatural to have to face such adult situations. Perhaps the skills to interact with them haven’t manifested in myself yet. Maybe this is what precludes heroism.
I have always had a habit of writing my name on things absentmindedly, practicing my signature. I’m close enough to the screen that I can feel the static on my clothes, and I hover my palm over the scanlines. With one finger, I trace my full name in big cursive letters through the little shocks, an emulation of the ray tank. I repeat the motion until the electricity is spent and the whorls of my fingers are full of dust.