The bus to Seattle stops too early. It dips and rocks for a moment, like a big ship entering a hurricane, then it stops. I am confused, then nervous. Buses don’t stop mid-journey without a reason. I know we are not at our destination; I am not home, not yet. I lurch into the fresh air, see the bathroom signs, and think I might as well.
I see, in between the bus and the bathroom, that it looks like we have not even left Portland at all. Against the deepening blue of the sky, skyscrapers and bridge turrets are visible.
Dusk is on the horizon. Night approaches.
The men’s bathroom is cacophony. The gurgle and scream of flushing toilets, the shush of water running, the ghostly howl of air dryers all descend upon my hearing aids. Voices and footsteps make me want to hunch in on myself. I lock a stall door instead. I void my bladder sitting down.
At a sink cratered with grime, I pull out my hearing aids. I want respite, if only a moment of it. Everything threads down to the slightest buzz when my hearing aids come out; my head pulses in this silent vacuum. My face looks puffed, bloodless, as if I haunt this bathroom instead of temporarily occupying it.
Behind me, stubbled men and cherubic boys weave around each other, through shadowy spots, through the sickly beams from fluorescent lights. One boy smirks at a bathroom corner. A man throws his head back, opening his mouth to the ceiling. Two men entwine fingers and go outside. All their reflections come blurry through the mirror, gray and incorporeal. They are indistinct from the concrete walls around us. I feel unease wrap its fingers around my intestines.
Something flickers at my elbow. I startle. But there is nothing on either side of me, no one washing their hands, and I shake my head. Probably someone toying with a flashlight. Or a laser pointer. A trickster come to play.
Nothing sits on the sink. I check the mottled gray floor. My hearing aids are nowhere to be found. My phone is nowhere to be found. An upswell of panic erupts into my sternum.
Behind me, men and boys enter and exit, enter and exit.
A boy dawdles at the far corner, feet away from the door. His height suggests middle school, his cheekbones already prominent. In the mirror, he seems to avoid my gaze. His hands are deep in his sweatshirt pouch.
I turn and approach the boy. He has no problem looking at me, but he shifts his weight from foot to foot.
I hold up my hands, showing the boy my palms. I want him to surrender. He can’t look me in the eye. He bites his lip.
Then something, someone, pulls at my shoulder. The man who was laughing at the ceiling moments before speaks to me. His mouth curves and thins with anger.
I don’t have my hearing aids, I say to the man. I cannot hear myself talk. I cannot hear anything—it all dips under my deafness, a sound barely breaking through. The air dryers sound far off, as if I stand in another room while they holler. I show my palms to the man, a classic case of begging for peace, surrendering yourself in hopes of bartering a solution.
The man doesn’t soften; his face hardens in anger, his brow lowering as he talks. He keeps talking to me and I can’t understand. He is too fast, too angry, and I cannot make out anything. I cannot say anything. The man steps past me and grabs the boy’s forearm. The man and the boy both look down as they step through the doorway to the outside.
I go back to the sink. As I look under the sink again, around neighboring sinks, I catch gazes from other visitors. They are gazes full of trepidation, of suspicion and surprise. I am acting oddly, out of the norm, and I am not to be trusted.
I check around the bathroom stalls as discreetly as possible (perhaps I kicked a hearing aid and it skittered to a toilet?) but I catch nothing but shoed and sandaled feet, ankles cocooned tight in socks of every color.
I leave the bathroom, trying to quash my growing panic with logic. I still have my bags, on the bus. I know how to get home, from the bus stop. I will be able to talk with my roommate, then. I do not need my hearing aids at all, then. I will be able to sign to my roommate; he is deaf, just like me, and we both know sign language.
I just need to get home to Seattle. Night is a dark blanket in front of me, the still March air creeping its way under my flannel. People stand under fluorescent lights, pale smoke curling like heaven’s string come from their mouths. Others walk to their cars. Cars pull out of parking slots and their rear lights shrink into the distance. Cars are present at this rest stop, but there is no bus.
There is no bus. My heart launches itself against my ribcage, heavy and hard. I spin on my heel and check the back lot too. There is car after car, person after person, and nothing else. Beyond the glow of headlights, there is only black.
The bus has already left. How long ago, I don’t know; I don’t know what time it is—the time now is only found on my phone, which is gone. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know when I am. I am stuck here in this space, in the dark, beyond Portland but not yet to Seattle. I am stuck in between the space I once was and the space I want to get to.
I could wait for another bus. I find a bench under fluorescents, and I sit. The wood is cold and unyielding under my thighs. There is no comfort here, but I could sit until daylight. I would grow tired, but I would persist.
I would grow tired and there could be another thief. I could wake up in the middle of the night, shoeless, naked, shivering. I need to stay alert. I pace and feel my limbs already twinging with exertion. I need to conserve my energy. I need to stay active, not fall asleep.
I go back and forth between the main parking lot and the back lot, hoping to be given a solution, hoping for something to materialize. Both lots come curtained in night. There is little difference to be found between the two spaces.
I sit down again, after rounds of pacing, after squinting and craning my neck. My head throbs, worse than before. Grim finality rests upon my shoulders this time. I don’t scan the parking lot. It seems to tilt and swim before my eyes, untethered from gravity. People still walk towards fluorescents or away, going to cars or elsewhere. There is no bus in sight—it doesn’t make sense to keep straining for the sight of one.
Under fluorescents, people shuffle from foot to foot. They all blow smoke into the dark. Everything comes pale, robbed of all distinction or life. A woman stares directly at me. I see no irises in her eyes.
Something gray and mothlike flutters in my peripheral vision. I startle from it.
It’s a hand. Someone is waving at me. A man waves at me. He wears a gray sweatshirt over worn jeans and, curiously, he has no eyebrows. No eyebrows give him a perpetual expression of surprise. He points at me, and then he touches his ear then the corner of his chin.
He is signing. He has asked me in sign, “Are you deaf?” I nod both with my hand and my fist, making the sign for “yes” two different ways.
The man smiles at me, not unkindly. He must be feeling curious too, but I can’t read his face. I only see his lack of eyebrows, the surprise that may not really be there.
“People were coming up to you,” he signs, “but you weren’t responding.”
“I lost my hearing aids and phone,” I reply. “I can’t hear anything. I missed my bus. I don’t know where to go.”
The man sits by me. I smell the chemical musk of Old Spice. The smell makes me think of betrayal. It makes me want to move away from him, instead of closer.
I fidget instead. “Are you deaf?” I ask the man.
He nods. “I live around here.”
“Where is here?”
“We’re just across the river. You should know that,” he doesn’t sign it condescendingly, but I still feel the prick of shame behind my breastbone.
“I’m only a visitor to Portland,” I say. It’s a half-lie of an excuse, and the man seems to know it—his brow furrows in disbelief. Truly, I have been to Portland many times, but never any surrounding areas. I’ve never felt the need to go anywhere else.
“Why were you visiting?”
I swallow saliva into my throat. “I love someone there.”
“If you love him, why do you leave him?”
I feel heat well in my chest. My lover’s face floats before me in the dark, in my mind’s eye; he smiles at me, his eyes gentle with patience. My hands feel like they’re cupping my heart as I sign. “He has to work. Sometimes I get tired. Sometimes I need to be alone, or with other deaf people. You understand.”
The man nods. He doesn’t look like he understands—his face is blank. “Were you getting on the bus to be with other deaf people?”
I nod. “My roommate is deaf.”
The man nods again. “Was that the only reason you decided to be roommates?”
Heat in my chest again. I don’t know if it’s shame or surprise at the truth being so easy to locate and pin down.
“It’s one of the reasons.”
The man’s hands remain in his lap, for a while. We both look away from each other, for a while—I dart glances at him. My headache has reduced to a dull pulse behind my temples, like a boat’s wake breaking upon a shore. There are crow’s feet at the man’s eyes. His hair is a bright red but doesn’t look dyed in any way. The stragglers around us thin out. Less smoke unfolds from mouths into the night. Headlights and red lights shrink towards the black beyond. The woman with indistinguishable irises glances over at me, twice, three times.
When I look over to the man, he is holding up his hands. He signs, “Where do you want to go?” He signs “go” with his fingers closing together. I briefly wish it was that easy to decide, to pull your destination out of thin air. I shrug. The man stares at me.
“We’re closer to Portland,” I sign. “But my home is in Seattle.”
The man smirks at me then. It is an imp’s gesture. “Where do you want to go?”
I feel the answer land in me, solid and sure. “Portland.”
The man stands up then. He holds out his hand. The palm gleams white under the light. I stare at it, then at his face half in shadow. His chin is strong, his jaw clean and sharp. He does not look as menacing and strange as he did at the beginning.
“I’m taking you there.”
I expect him to guide me to a car. He lets me pull my way out of his grasp, drifting down the row of cars, staring at him expectantly. He never meets my gaze when I am hoping for us to stop at one car, then the next car, then the next. He only looks back at me when he stands at the mouth of the parking lot, and he waits until I slowly come to him. The fluorescents cast light upon us, even from afar. A sullen rush and roar follows me, the sound of leaving. Streetlights on the freeway beam and throb. We are stuck in between darkness and light, carless.
“How are you going to get me there?”
He waves a hand forward, the universal gesture for “come on.” He walks forward, and I follow him. I follow him onto the shoulder of the freeway—even as I feel ice inside me. I slap at his shoulder, but he doesn’t turn around. I turn back by myself, but I already can’t find the opening of the rest stop. I already can’t see anything except highway asphalt and car lights.
The man walks slowly, as if he expects me to cower and dawdle. But he never stops. He never turns back. He keeps moving forward.
The cars come relentless. I feel their engines’ groan and growl in my knees. My feet slide along asphalt, I never lift them to take proper steps; every time I inhale, the heat of sulfur stings the roof of my mouth. I look down more than forward, and I realize every time I try to look up, I have to squint. The headlights are all bright. It is all too much. It is all too much, and I want it all to stop.
I slap the man’s shoulder again, several times. He doesn’t seem to feel my hand, or my presence. He just continues walking. I continue to follow him. I have no other direction I could take. I can’t find my way back to where I was.
On one side, cars zip past me. On the other side, there is only the glitter of city lights, little fires piercing the dark. As my eyes adjust, I see the point where road becomes bridge. We are approaching Columbia River, the point where Washington becomes Oregon. There will be one bridge, then another, and then I will be in Portland.
The man squeezes my shoulder—we are shoulder-to-shoulder now, and I am walking faster, faster and with more certainty than I thought I would.
“You’ll be home soon enough,” he signs. His face is pale with headlights one moment, dusky with shadow the next.
I correct him, “I’ll be back where I started.”
He stares at me. I feel his gaze persist as I look away from him, as we press forward. We walk onto the bridge.
“I don’t know where home is,” I tell the man. A corkscrew of an exit yawns before us. Tension seeps out of me as we descend off the freeway, descend into shadow and engines’ growl to go under it, then come back up to light again. The beginning of understanding taps at my nape. My disorientation lifts and there is fresh cold clarity to take its place.
The man looks at me, waiting for me to elaborate.
A waterway, not quite a river, shimmers with refracted light as we walk over it. When we were crossing the river, walking the bridge, the guttural whine of engine became more of a hum, one I felt in my bones, a low frequency urging my body onward. My body reverberates with urgency in this stillness.
“Sometimes I come home, where home is supposed to be, and it takes a minute,” I sign. “I’ll wonder if I entered someone else’s apartment, by accident.”
“You don’t have your furniture in the apartment?”
I shake my head—then I shrug. “I have a couch. My coffee maker is in the kitchen. Everything else I own is in my bedroom.”
In my mind’s eye, I’m back in the apartment. I see pale light through the window, streaming over my roommate’s desk. I see my couch. I see the picture frame I’d hung up above it.
There are holes in the walls, damage neither one of us had caused, damage the landlord couldn’t bother to inspect, let alone fix. The dining table, the television, the bookshelf in the corner—none of it is ours, all of it is left behind from previous tenants, and I wanted it out but the roommate wanted it to stay. The roommate said he wouldn’t help me move it. The landlord said the furniture was now technically ours; we might as well use it, the roommate reasoned. I had conceded, unease prickling in my gut. But, the apartment, try as we might to cleanse it and rearrange it, has too much of the previous tenants to feel like it is ours. The apartment remains haunted by the scars the previous tenants had inflicted upon it.
“I wonder if that’s why I haven’t slept well in that apartment,” I continue. “I always wake up in the middle of the night, gasping, sweating. I watch television on someone else’s television, on their media stand. I prepare food and it feels like I’m using someone’s else kitchen. I can never relax because I always feel like I’m meant to do more to make the apartment mine. I’m supposed to repair holes. I’m supposed to clean and get rid of stains. But I don’t know where to begin. I don’t know where to stop. I don’t know where the boundaries are. I don’t know what to do. I feel like a guest in my own fucking apartment, and I shouldn’t. I know I shouldn’t.”
Before us is another bridge, an overpass over train tracks. The streetlights around us shine brighter here. Beyond the tracks, the city looms like an animal lying in wait. Office lights, streetlights, headlights, houselights seem to leer at us instead of twinkling in invitation. For the first time, Portland appears impenetrable. The man walks beside me, his hands don’t move, and I can’t see his face; I can’t tell if he was looking at me while I was signing. I don’t know if there is enough light from anywhere to see me at all.
A hand, his hand, clasps my shoulder. We stop below a streetlight, on a street corner. On the other side, an orange building proclaims, in silver lettering, it is a Catholic school. Behind us, on our side of the street, there are dark houses, windows revealing only shadow upon shadow. Those windows are the first indicator that we are journeying through the dead of night, venturing at the time where most human beings are asleep.
“We might want to take a break,” the man signs. “We’ve still got a way to go. We’ll be turning left at this corner, then turning left again.”
He takes my hand and guides me to cross the street. His palm is warm, as if he’d recently stuck his hands under an air dryer. A blue bench squats behind a bus stop pole. The street signs say we will turn left onto Rosa Parks Way. My legs shake before I sit. I grab on to the man to steady myself.
“Does your roommate try to make you feel welcome?” the man signs.
“He did,” I respond. “Something changed,” that answer feels wrong in my fingers and I change it, “I demanded too much. I wanted too many changes. And he had time to get comfortable. He moved in a month before I did. Month and a half.”
“He had a responsibility to make space for you,” the man smiles at me. “Do you know how ghosts are made?”
I laugh—it must be a joke, some odd metaphor, but I see the man’s face while in mid-laugh. He looks entirely serious, almost stern. My laugh dies, I shake my head.
“Ghosts are made when they’re not welcome or they’re not invited to any place they want to go. They drift, between place to place to place, forever in search of that place where they belong. They’re neither here nor there. They only wander around barriers, they wander between realities, and they grasp at whatever holds promise.”
I look down at my hand, clutching the man’s arm. His sweatshirt sleeve is warm, thick to the point where I barely feel his arm. I deliberately lift my fingers from his sweatshirt, and I clasp my hands together.
“There have been other exiles, like you,” the man signs. “There was once a woman who was so traumatized by the Deaf community, growing up, that she would shake and be unable to communicate anything. She said she couldn’t breathe. No one helped her breathe.
“There was a man who loved someone he wasn’t supposed to. He was a leader in the Deaf community, but he was driven out by gossip and fearmongering. He was the devil, the community said. But he only meant to love someone.”
I shake my head, “Trauma and love aren’t reasons to exile anyone. My community’s better than that.” I take in a breath, a deep breath, and my chest feels tight.
The man shrugs, “Can you really trust anyone who claims to be part of a community that fails to account for mistakes or fails to account for fear. Community should be better than that.” He makes the sign for “that” on his open palm, and the slap only registers in my open eyes.
“I have a place to go to, tonight. I have community I can go to,” I sign. I sign slowly so my hands don’t shake. Behind the man, the light turns green. His smile is sardonic, almost cruel.
“What about when you go back to Seattle?”
A car zips past us and further into the night, its rear lights two red eyes. I imagine getting back to Seattle and being unable to enter my place, our apartment, whether by door lock or line of salt. I see myself calling out, banging on doors and windows, and getting no response. I see myself ignored. I see myself pacing in front of the building, the life and warmth in me slowly replaced by cold, gray nothingness. I cannot ignore the possibility of being abandoned, now that it has been brought up, but I don’t want to bring that thought into being.
I blow into my hands. I stand up, vibrating with new energy, with mania, or with desperation. Before us, the street stretches into horizon. Park grounds are visible as green patches sprouting out of gray. The streetlights come soft, muffled by the beginnings of fog.
Just after a community college’s campus, its flat-topped brick buildings, the street becomes quieter, residential. There is a curve in the road, and I know automatically what is after that curve. Recognition alights in me, a butterfly landing delicate upon a branch. I am close to familiarity. There are only a few blocks more, then a turn right, and then I will stare at my lover’s house as it draws closer; it is a two-story house with a front porch and stone steps, and the cracks and swells in the stone and wood will be more visible the closer I get. I am closer to a safe place, to a person I trust, closer than I would be if I had made it safely on the bus to Seattle.
For the first time all night, I wonder if my roommate will worry if I do not come home. My gut twists in resistance at the thought. Even as I imagine the roommate’s worried face, I know he won’t care. I taste the salt of derision on the back of my tongue. I do not know if it is my derision or his.
Ahead of me, a woman hurries out of a building. Her hair is dark, as are her clothes. She points her face to the night sky, in a motion that looks eerily familiar. I feel my pace slow. Someone behind me, the man probably, brushes up against me. Another person walks around me, crossing their arms and leaning forward, looking harried.
They pass the woman, who starts. She looks down from the sky, in my direction. She looks at me, then squints. I feel another stab of familiarity.
Then the woman signs, and I know her.
“I thought you were gone,” Vanessa signs to me. She strides to me, embraces me tightly, and then pulls back to stare at me. Her gaze seems to cut through something. I feel myself squirming even as she holds me by the shoulders.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
I feel my face splinter as I nod. Vanessa shakes her head; I do not know whether it is out of disbelief, denial, or something else.
“You miss Portland, don’t you?” she signs. “Your heart is here. It always will be here.”
I am the one to shake my head now. Heat stings my eyes. “I have an apartment in Seattle. I know more deaf people in Seattle.”
Vanessa shakes her head again. “Do you feel welcomed by the deaf people there? I know people are quick to judge, and they don’t always understand.” Her index finger stays in the air. She marks this moment, this exchange between us, in the night. I want to defend my reasoning to her, but nothing comes to mind. I cannot answer her question either, or her point will be proven.
“I appreciate you checking in,” I sign. I try to mean it in the smile I give her.
Vanessa stares again, “If there is anything I can do, please reach out.”
“I’ll be alright,” I tell her.
She takes my face in her hands, and I feel something in me shudder and split apart, some raw truth exposed that had been cocooned away. My smile fades. I have no place where I belong. Tonight, I am a visitor. Tomorrow, I will try to get to a place where I remain unwelcome. I feel the urge to weep and I bite my lip against it. Vanessa keeps staring at me.
“Get to your sanctuary soon. If you can’t, then make one,” she signs. She releases me then—I feel something in me loosen, as if Vanessa was also grasping deep within me as she looked at me, queried me, cradled me.
The man waits for me at the end of the street. His face is that blank mask again, carefully placid like the times before. He doesn’t ask about Vanessa. He only walks shoulder-to-shoulder with me as we approach the curve in the street, and then we walk through it and beyond it, drawing ever closer to my destination.
“I have a place to go to, tonight,” I sign. We are getting close to my lover’s place. I recognize the bakery we frequent, the park where we take walks. My fingers are getting colder and stiffer. I sign again and again, hoping to catch warmth. “I have a place. I have a place.”
The man doesn’t respond. His presence beside me is a silent one.
“I have a place, I will go home tomorrow, and I will talk with my roommate once I get home,” I sign. Hope pierces me, a skein of warmth. “There will be a new agreement made, there will be new rules to follow, and we will move forward and find our sanctuary. I will not be forgotten. Before, the apartment was haunted. Now, it will become something for both of us.”
The streets are entirely vacant of moving cars. If there are stirring, barking dogs, alarms going off, I do not hear them. Fog wraps itself around streetlights now, and the neighborhood that I know seems to be an alien planet. Houses are hulks. Cars hunch low to the ground. There is only stillness and unfamiliarity, now.
“You cannot build a home and a community without compromise,” I sign.
The man still doesn’t respond. I look beside me and he is no longer there. I look behind me and there is nothing. In the distance, there seems to be a flicker of shadow. Perhaps it is the man, headed back where he came.
My lover’s house looms out of the night to meet me. I climb the wooden steps. The windows are black.
I knock. I wait. I look up and down the street. The streetlights shine pale, the windows in neighboring houses wide like eyes, and the streets curve away over the horizon. There is no sign of life anywhere, in any direction.
I knock again, three raps. I can feel the noise made from under my knuckles. There must be sound for my lover to hear. My lover must be in his house. I’d left him only hours ago.
Weight starts to build in my chest. The taste of copper begins in my mouth. I knock again, quickly, five raps. Or six. I don’t know, or care.
Hello? I call. I feel my tongue move, from behind my teeth downward. I know I am making noise. I don’t know if my knocks, my calls, are heard by anyone. I wish suddenly that the man with no eyebrows was here. I wonder when he left me. I wonder why he left.
I walk up and down the porch. The windows are uncovered, without curtains. I find myself cupping my hands around my eyes, peering into pitch darkness. Heat stings my eyes, and I try to blink it away. It persists, and I feel my vision blur. All I see is darkness now, no furniture, no sign of my lover’s belongings. I slam one palm against the glass; vibrations skitter across my forehead, the tip of my nose. But in the darkness, in the night, nothing happens. No one comes.
Ross Showalter’s stories, essays, and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Electric Literature, The Hopkins Review, CRAFT, Bright Wall/Dark Room, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing in UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and lives in Seattle.