When I was nineteen, our only car had to be sold, and there was no one but me to show my younger brother how to take the bus. My mother refused to get on one—always waiting for rides from friends—and my father left Ecuador, left us, to support us from thousands of miles away. On the day Jr. accompanied me for the first time, I told him why wearing his school uniform was the safest thing to do while we stood—he a head taller than me—on the corner of our street, flagging down a taxi. People take pity on kids, I said. The early morning sun was already burning the backs of our necks. Around us men in tricycles circled up and down the street, selling everything from lupini beans, fritada, to phone cases. The streets had a sheet of dust, almost as if throughout the night a warm wind had blown while we slept to shroud everything with the town’s loose soil. There was a perennial humidity that didn’t go away after it rained, puffing out my hair, its hands holding my neck tight until I felt queasy, then letting go once I ventured close to the dizziness of fainting.
As we rode the one-dollar taxi, I said no one should ever charge him more than a buck to get to our town’s bus stop. I shared how someone I knew carried two cellphones with them, one broken and one working. If the bus was ever stopped by thieves he would hand them the one with no battery, the reason his real phone always remained on mute. People placed their money in their shoes, and only singles in their pocket so they gave up the least amount of money when told to hand it over. Either way, the bus attendant would never take anything bigger than a ten-dollar bill, and in that case he’d look at you, roll his eyes, and tell you hopefully there would be enough change by the time you got off. I didn’t have to tell my brother never to wear skirts or shorts, but I mentioned that he should always place his backpack on his stomach—pretend he was pregnant with it. Never on your back, or your side, but right in front where you can see the zippers.
I mentioned the most important aspect once we were out of the taxi and waiting for the electric-blue bus: never fall asleep. The ride’s purpose was not to get comfortable or distracted. Ponte pilas, I said. You can have on earphones but there mustn’t be any music, and if there is, one earphone should be inserted and the other should not, just so your senses can be focused on your surroundings. He looked at me as if I had overthought it, exaggerating, making out worst-case scenarios built on news stories and anecdotes from friends. I ignored him as he stood with eyes of a cocky teenager, as if nothing and no one could ever touch him. I went on, explaining how buses stop for anyone on the streets, but not really stop, but hover to five miles per hour and the attendee sticks out his arm and lifts whoever is on the sidewalk into the bus. I do this when running late. Pretend I’m in that scene from Speed where they’re jumping from the bus to that other car, ya know? Instead of jumping off, jumping on. A little adrenaline to start the day.
Our bus arrived and made a full stop, and we found a row of empty navy seats, the temperature difference stark from the humidity outside to the cool of the inside. The ride took about forty-five minutes—the view mostly consisting of fields of crops. I’d instinctively grab my brother’s arm whenever the bus driver dared to pass a slow car, not knowing if it was better or worse that I couldn’t see if a car was speeding towards us. The easy part is over, I said when we arrived to the midpoint. He looked at me and nodded, his big brown eyes just like mine. Once we touched the pavement, we felt the sun’s intensity come from the ground, the latent heat baked into the cement and rising to warm our legs.
We were no longer in Milagro, but in Durán, closer to our schools in Guayaquil. The scenery changed from stalks of green to grey buildings, vendors with mangoes in plastic baggies, or others with greasy empanadas that might have been leftovers from yesterday, men drilling a block away, people going in and out of the stores that lined the street behind the bus stop. The noise seemed set up to alter our focus. A large group of people was waiting for the next bus, a baby blue one, which didn’t go as far as the one we had just gotten off of, which meant that there were no navy cloth seats, but rows made of metal or plastic, windows that might or might not open in the heat, engravings of initials of ex-lovers who were most likely no longer together.
A man with a jersey and sports hat paced around near the bus stop, and I hit my arm with my brother’s, aimed my chin at the stranger so Jr. could see without anyone else noticing. The man didn’t touch anyone, didn’t pull a knife, he just opened zippers fast, pulled whatever was inside into his pockets. A cellphone from a woman’s purse. A wallet from a backpack. Quarters from a side pocket. He didn’t even look at his hands, a quickness residing in his fingers. The people he stole from were all looking ahead, eyes wandering to see if the bus was near, their faces aching with a need to sit. You were right. I just. How do they not feel him? he asked. Dunno. But when you get mugged like this all you feel is disappointed afterwards. Not afraid for your life, I said. We ended up standing on the crowded bus, the stranger never getting on but waiting for the next group of people he could mug.
We were the only ones who got off at our last stop, a few blocks from my university and his school. Anything else I need to know, Ñaña? I held my palm as a visor while checking the traffic before us. I don’t think so. If you were my sister I’d have to teach you a lot more. Like how to use a bra as a cellphone holder or money holder. To always sit in the aisle seat so a man won’t trap you between himself and the window. How it’s better to sit in the sole seat behind the driver so no one sits next you. How to train your eyes to wander into the ether so they never lock eyes with a man. To stand with your butt touching an electric pole when waiting for the bus so a man won’t have the ability to grasp it with his hands. My brother didn’t know how lucky he had it. We waited to cross lanes of zipping traffic, and with no one around us, he slid his bag away from his stomach to place it on his back, right where it was supposed to be.
Victoria Buitron is an award-winning writer who hails from Ecuador and resides in Connecticut. She received an MFA in creative writing from Fairfield University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Normal School, the 2021 Connecticut Literary Anthology, The Acentos Review, and others. She has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes and had a flash fiction story selected for 2022’s Best Small Fictions. Her debut memoir-in-essays, A Body Across Two Hemispheres, is the 2021 Fairfield Book Prize winner.
Roi J. Tamkin is a writer and photographer living in Atlanta, GA. He writes articles and reviews for Skipping Stones Magazine and Ink 19, a web zine. He also writes comedy scripts for Sketchworks, a local theatrical company. His photographs have appeared in such literary journals as New Letter, Nimrod, and The Fourth River. They have also been exhibited in galleries across the country.
If you purchase a book through the above Bookshop.org affiliate links, we receive a small percentage of the cost