By Claire Rychlewski
I don’t realize he is masturbating until I see the top of his penis: pink, glistening, like a baby mouse or a cartoon intestine. He is sitting opposite me on the 50 bus toward 35th and Archer, his eyes rolling back into his head and then coming back into focus, locking with mine. I stare back at him. I can’t help it. He looks completely normal, aside from the fact that he is masturbating on a city bus. He looks like he hosts barbecues in the summer and invites his neighbors. There is nothing overgrown or dirty about him. I imagine him home on the weekends, watching a baseball game or playing with his children. I try to get a sense of how old he is—anywhere between 30 and 70.
He’s close to coming. I politely avert my eyes but I feel him looking at me straight on.
“Excuse me,” he says. He snaps his fingers to get my attention.
“Do you have a tissue?”
I look in my purse. I do. I nod and reach over to hand it to him.
“Thanks,” he says. He wipes himself off, primly placing his now limp penis back into his pants. He seems disquieted. My stop is next, but I can’t get off the bus now, because when people involve you in this kind of conspiracy—even if you didn’t agree to be involved—they feel an unrequited kinship with you and they do things like follow you home and put a knife against your throat.
When I left my house this morning, I saw a flattened pigeon outside my door. Utterly squashed— a pancake of feathers. It was hard to believe the pigeon had ever been alive. I nearly stepped on it. Dead pigeons don’t smell. Sometimes you need that warning.
I settle into my seat and try to guess what stop the man will get off at. We stream through Pilsen, McKinley Park and the fluorescents kick on, ghoulish against the final imprint of the sun.
He stays put.
His eyes are closed now and I try to memorize his face. What will he eat for dinner and who will make it for him? Who will rub his shoulders at night? Who will trace her hands up and down his chest, lock the hair around her finger, like a real lover would? Who will soothe him? I taste salt and rust in the flesh of my cheek. The feel of my own mouth against my tongue is slick. The sensation makes me want to gag.
His hands, so busy before, lay placidly on his stomach as if they just woke up from a nap. There’s hair on his knuckles. I’ve seen a lot of hands in my life. They do things like build a fence around the backyard, or tug the skin of a penis up and down. Some hands don’t work at all. Some work really well—they can clamp your mouth shut, for instance, or grab both your wrists and hold them together. I guess it’s all about the body they’re attached to.
The bus pulls into 35th. I watch as everyone gets off, even the bus driver. The man doesn’t look at me, just ambles away. I think I’ll float above him, follow him like a pigeon would. Find out where he goes and if he’s having a barbecue. And if he’s having a barbecue, I’ll go to that too, and I’ll yank people’s hair, pull it between my fleshy, webbed toes. I’ll make them scared.
The ceiling is good for hiding. Through the crook of my wing I’ll watch him watch baseball. I’ll leave him to shower alone.
At night I’ll sleep between him and his wife. I’ll go into his children’s rooms and tell them not to forget to triple-check the closet. I’ll tell them something bad lives underneath the house but they’ll never be able to see it. I will make it hard to forget me.
Claire Rychlewski is a journalist and writer living in Chicago. She has been published in Heather Press and the Portland Review.