People were always sitting beside Sarah on the bus. She found it annoying but had long ago decided to take it as a compliment – she obviously looked like someone who wouldn’t bother you and was hygienic. Sometimes, even when there were other seats available, seats without a passenger already, still, they opted to sit with her. Sarah had always attributed this to her big breasts, which were E cups at nineteen years of age. She had read somewhere that once you turned eighteen, they stopped growing, and really hoped that was true. When she was younger, she used them as a way of enticing male attention, as she wasn’t a particularly attractive girl otherwise, but now, most of the time, she covered them up with high neck tops and oversized jumpers. Today that hadn’t been an option. Sarah sat squished into her seat by the large man who had decided to sit beside her, so her shoulder was stuck beside the window like a starfish in a tank. The man’s arm shoved into hers, pushing her cleavage together even more, creating a deep vertical line down her chest, that anyone who got on the bus couldn’t help but gawk at before finding somewhere to perch for their journey.
Sarah had been sick of being conservative. She’d ordered a dress online that cut into a V-neck, and though she knew it was a risky option, she didn’t want to be the ugly one in the photos for once. The model on the website she ordered the dress from was “curvy” – meaning she had boobs bigger than A-cups and she had a big bum but likely only had a twenty-five-inch waist. It had showed off the model’s modest cleavage elegantly, whereas Sarah looked like she was about to star in a porno, and not a high end one either. Sarah considered wearing her round-neck t-shirt dress instead, but once she caught a glimpse of Charlotte’s outfit on her Instagram story, she changed her mind. Her mum dropped her to pre-drinks and Sarah had to use one of her thick winter scarves to cover up her exposed chest, to avoid her mum having a conniption. When she arrived at Charlotte’s house, she unwound the scarf slowly and carefully, soaking up the gasps of her friends, who were made to feel inadequate about their considerably smaller breasts. There was a not so subtle pulling down of dresses and tightening of bra straps. Sarah had spent years doing the exact opposite.
A stray bottle came clattering down the steps of the bus, rolling every time the bus took a corner, or moved in sharply to let passengers on or off. Everyone was slightly irritated by it, this was clear in the twitch of necks and shifting of eyes. Those with headphones couldn’t drown out the stark banging, like it was a bowling ball. Sarah gritted her teeth every time she heard the plastic bounce up and down on the floor. Every time it knocked from side to side, there was an inaudible groan of annoyance shared by everyone on the bus, but no one got up to take responsibility for it. Sarah felt it mocking her every time it hit against someone’s feet.
The large man sitting on the bus next to her might have been hammered the night before too. Maybe he had also been at Diceys. It was filled with older men, a fug of Hugo Boss aftershave following behind them, some avoiding going home to their nagging wives, some avoiding an empty apartment, or trying to make something for dinner out of some gone off vegetables and a frozen steak pie. The man smelt ripe with whiskey; the musky stench of it turned Sarah’s fragile stomach. When the bus took a violent turn, so did her innards, and she bit into her lips, creating a seal in case any vomit tried to leak out. She’d been sick four times, once just moments before the bus had arrived at the stop and had been sure there was nothing left. The last thing she needed was to be removed from the bus, especially in her sequin black dress and matching heels, at 10AM on a Tuesday morning. Her first lecture of the day had begun and finished, and there was no way she was getting to her proceeding three. Normally Sarah would be fretting about the lost 10% attendance marks, though her record was otherwise flawless, but today her mind was on other things.
A couple got on at Aungier’s Street, clutching bags of doughnuts, the brown paper going translucent. The girl had a pink cord hat, and the man had a beard that was balding. Sarah tried to avert her gaze, but she was compelled to keep watching. Their affection to one another was tangible and wet. The man planted a kiss on his girlfriend’s shoulder, of all places, leaving a bit of a damp patch that Sarah couldn’t take her eyes off then for the whole journey. The light kept reflecting off her pale skin in this area. It made Sarah want to grab a tissue and wipe it away; it reminded her of the wet patches between her legs this morning. Sarah sealed her lips once more.
From the moment Sarah and her friends had entered the club, it was already unlike any other night. Instead of awkwardly shuffling, pretending to be drunker than she was, while Charlotte and Annie flirted outrageously with the boys from Commerce or BESS, Sarah was the one being flirted with, and the more she drank, the easier this became. She wondered why she never had more than two drinks normally – the light and numbing tingle in her veins was far more pleasant than the hummingbird of anxiety that normally beat inside her. She stumbled over her first responses, but it didn’t seem to matter. The boys laughed heartily and made sure her hand was never without a glass bottle of Smirnoff. Charlotte tried to butt in a few times, shamelessly waving around her high pony-tail like a horse, but only the gawky skinny lad in the group paid her any attention, and though she indulged him with a quick shift, she left for Coppers without saying goodbye to Sarah.
Sarah checked her phone, careful not to unlock it; she was only on 5% battery. She was still thirty minutes from home, not including the twelve-minute walk from the bus stop. There were no messages from Charlotte or Annie. She’d gotten one of her new lad friends to type out a “get home safe? x” message last night, but neither responded, or enquired to whether she had gotten home safe too. Later that night they had both uploaded Instagram stories from Toni’s Diner, and Annie had one up at about 5AM of Charlotte conked out on her sofa.
Sarah knew she should be flattered. Girls only act that petty when they are jealous, and Sarah had never been the kind of girl who ever had anything to be jealous about. She’d spent much of her own life being jealous of girls like Charlotte and Annie, or even the less cool girls in her history classes, but the ones who were smarter and more independent than her, who could keep up difficult and intriguing conversations about Home Rule in Ireland or The Korean War. Jealousy was a feeling she knew all too well.
As much as Sarah loathed the PDA the couple in front of her were displaying, she was jealous of them too. She wondered where they were going, maybe into Dundrum, although they didn’t strike her as the shopping type. They looked more like people who went hunting in charity shops for hidden treasures; the mustier the clothes smelled, the better. Sarah then felt guilty for assuming – she hated the assumptions people made about her. Though they were normally correct. She was quite sure any assumption made about her on the 14 bus that morning would be completely accurate. Out drinking the night before? Check. Wore a tight dress for attention? Check. Probably had a one-night stand? Sarah felt bile roll around in her stomach, like someone was churning butter in her intestines.
The large man got off in Rathmines and Sarah felt herself sag to the side. She tried not to be obvious about stretching her limbs as her former companion jollily sauntered off the bus, lifting his face into the fresh morning air, and literally began whistling on his merry way. A cold breeze rushed in before the bus doors closed, creating a cluster of goose-bumps all up and down Sarah’s arms and legs. She hadn’t been able to feel her toes for about an hour now; she peeked down at them and saw her big toe was completely white, plain against her red nail polish. Her baby toe she could not see, and could not feel, but she knew it was crushed against the inside of her shoe in a way it shouldn’t be. Sarah only got two stops of freedom before a girl fell into the seat beside her, but at least she wasn’t taking up half of her seat like her other companion.
The girl was thin and pale with choppy orange hair and eyes that darted like a paranoid deer. A message pinged on her phone, and she unlocked it with the swipe of an unmanicured bitten thumb, and tried to lock it again just as fast, but not before Sarah saw the words in the message. It was a short message, with a very direct request.
Romance, indeed, was not dead.
Only the previous night Sarah had been asked by not one, but two separate men, for the very same thing, though she had turned them both down, gently. She was walking with one of the boys from Commerce, or was it Sports Science? He might’ve been in DCU, at this stage she wasn’t sure. She had kind of flitted between groups of boys, enjoying the initial flirtation but then quickly feeling the awkwardness of chatting with someone she knew nothing about, and being reminded by a joke not landed that she was not as cool as she thought, or as her dress might have suggested. Eventually she’d ended up in a group of lads who were about to leave, and one of the quieter ones, the “Sarah” of the group, she liked to imagine, suggested she get in the taxi too. It didn’t occur to Sarah that they were going in the opposite direction of her house, and that it was 3AM by this stage, and it would have made more sense to just go home, but she needed water. She felt like no one had ever been as thirsty as her in their whole life, and in the moment, she’d near enough done anything for a bottle of water. She’d meekly asked the quiet boy if he had water in his house, and he laughed, lacing his fingers with hers, and said he would get her some water. His name was Phil, though he didn’t offer his second name.
He was good on his word. Sarah didn’t know where they were, she’d been focusing on not being sick and hadn’t once looked out the window, but they ended up in a cul-de-sac with small but neat semi-detached houses. The grass was slightly over-grown, but there were an array of daisies peeping through that made it look quite beautiful. There was no car in the drive-way to Phil’s house.
“My mum works nights,” he said, by way of explanation, and Sarah was relieved that the introductions of the night were over. Her head had begun to pound, and when Phil presented her with a sweating glass of water, complete with ice-cubes, she downed it so quickly that the pounding turned to freezing.
“Shall we go upstairs?” Phil asked shyly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Sarah wasn’t sure what else there was to do, so she agreed, removing her heels first. She’d been sitting on top of the kitchen counter and had noticed the calendar pinned up by the fridge. April had a series of snapshots of Phil and a woman Sarah presumed to be his mother, and another boy. She was curious about him, but didn’t ask, and followed Phil up the stairs. His room was tidy besides a few t-shirts that looked like they had been vomited out of his press.
“Couldn’t decide what to wear,” he said, and Sarah laughed breathlessly at the thought of boys worrying about that kind of thing.
She sat at the edge of his bed as he made a half-assed attempt to organise the clutter, which meant piling up all his clothes and shoving them into an over-flowing hamper. She considered offering to help but thought it would be strange. She let herself fall back onto the mattress, exhaustion taking over.
Sarah was still exhausted as they passed through Churchtown. The girl sitting beside her was furiously tapping at her phone and looked irritated. “Blow me” boy wasn’t getting anywhere, Sarah decided, as she forced herself to look away and face the window, her eyes straining to take in the blur of coloured houses and cars, almost fluorescent to her. The couple who had been sitting in front of her had got off at the next stop and were walking towards a housing estate – so her assumption about their thrift-shopping had been incorrect. The girl in the cord hat pulled aggressively on her partner’s arm until their lips, and then their tongues, collided in a flurry of uncooperative, squelching motions. On their seat they had left the doughnuts, presumably by accident, and there was about a ten second window where Sarah could have alerted them to this. The bag was still full. Sarah was glad when the bus pulled away and forewarned the next stop. She was only five stops away from her own now. The bottle struck the wall with the force of a pinball, and Sarah looked at the remaining six passengers on the bus with crossness. Her body was shaking terribly with shivers now – she didn’t know why the windows were always cracked open on the bus, even when it was cold outside. It seemed whenever the weather was good the windows were fastened shut so tight you’d need a crow-bar to jimmy them open.
Phil’s window had been open when Sarah had first sat down but closed when she came to. At least she thought so; she was extremely hot. It took her a few moments to realise he was on top of her, kissing her. She tried to shove him off – she was far too warm – but he didn’t seem to notice, and he didn’t shift his weight aside.
“What’s that?” he said between kissing her neck. Sarah had mumbled something, she wasn’t sure what now, but he hadn’t heard her, and by this stage he was into her thong. It wasn’t unpleasant, Sarah decided, and she thought it was better to just go with it. She was a guest in this house and she didn’t have enough money to get a taxi home – she would need to wait for the buses to start running.
By the time he’d finished, Sarah was close to finishing too, though he climbed off her before she could tell him this. He pulled off the condom – at least he’d thought of that – and gone to have a shower, while Sarah lay there, a wet patch beneath her, her dress rolled up past her belly button. She didn’t pull up her thong right away. It was uncomfortable. She considered taking it off entirely, but she felt sticky and wrong between her legs, and upon further inspection there was a bit of blood too. She looked around Phil’s room for tissue but couldn’t find any. She’d have to wait for him to come back.
When he did come back he had tea; Sarah’s was milky and without sugar, which was the exact opposite of how she liked it, but she didn’t say so. Phil threw a whole toilet roll her way, and she tried at first to gently dab at the blood, only to find there was too much for such tenderness. She wiped with big motions and tried not to look appalled at the darkness coming out of her body. Phil pretended not to notice and turned on Netflix. They both watched an episode or two of the newest sitcom, which was cheesy and not nearly funny enough to dispense the awkwardness that had descended clumpy and fast, like dust floating down from a high surface, over them both.
Sarah wondered how they did it – the couple, weird as they were, who were so comfortable with one another. For most of the bus journey they had sat in silence, occasionally, without uttering a word, gesturing at something that made them both laugh irrepressibly. The girl beside Sarah now was still typing, but more slowly, and to the same boy, a boy called Dom with a black heart emoji beside his name. Her shoulders were relaxed, and there was the whisper of a smile on the corners of her lips, though she refused to give into it. There was an ease, an ease Sarah did not feel in the company of other boys, or of other people in general. When she stood next to someone, or got too close, she felt like her body was inside out, her nervous system exposed, every feeling of anxiety and nervousness amplified. She thought this must be what dogs feel like, when they’re too close to something loud, or an over-zealous child with clunky movements and wandering hands.
The bus, at last, came to her spot. Sarah tried to not notice the stares as she pulled the back of her dress down as far as it would go, which was just an inch away from her bum, and walked, with as much dignity has her high heels would allow, to the front of the bus. She tripped over her words thanking the driver, and the whole twelve-minute walk home, which was nearly eighteen minutes given her footwear, Sarah had his face imprinted in her mind, the smirk, the sarcastic “you’re welcome.”
“You sure you don’t want me to phone you a taxi? I’ve got an app on my phone here,” Phil had said courteously, but quietly. His mother had returned home from work at dawn, though Phil hadn’t disclosed her occupation, and he was going to sneak her out. Sarah would have liked to borrow a pair of tracksuit bottoms, or some flat shoes, but by the way Phil was talking, in such hushed tones, she realised she was hardly going to see him again. She didn’t know his last name, and by this stage could not remember what college course he was doing, and in what college. She theorised that his name might not even have been Phil, but thought she was probably overthinking things now. Sarah told him she would be fine, and tip-toed down the steps and out into the morning air, four hours after she had first stepped into the house. Neither of them had slept, besides Sarah’s nap at the beginning, and she wasn’t sure where the rest of that time had gone.
Sarah arrived home to an empty house although the alarm hadn’t been set – her parents had presumed she’d come home last night and was still sleeping. By now it was just after 11AM, and Sarah put her phone in to charge before shedding her clothes onto the bathroom floor and sitting down to wee while the water in the shower heated up. She felt like she was sweating alcohol.
A photo from the night before hadn’t uploaded due to her 4G failing. She had only noticed this morning, when her phone charged enough that she could click into Instagram, and there was a red exclamation point alerting her to this. She clicked into it and stared blankly at the caption. BEST NIGHT WITH THE BEST BITCHES. It showed herself, Charlotte, Annie and Mary in the Diceys bathrooms, before they had even stowed away their coats. Sarah could admit to herself she looked good in this photo, and she knew others would think so as well. She tapped it again, and it reuploaded, this time successfully. As Sarah weed, very much aware of the stinging she could feel as the pee was emptied from her bladder, she wondered how many people had seen it now, and would anyone have messaged her directly. She knew Charlotte would demand it be taken down – she was facing the camera full on and not pulling a proper pose, but before she inevitably had to remove it, Sarah hoped to get some attention from it.
She wiped and looked into the toilet bowl, where bright red blood was spooling around in the water. The pain hadn’t subsided. Sarah didn’t flush right away, worried it would affect the temperature of the shower, and hopped in, furiously scrubbing her face to remove all the leftover foundations and glittery eyeshadow, and tore at her skin with an exfoliating glove to take off the false tan she’d plastered onto her luminously pale body the day before. She hiked up the temperature of the water until she was steaming and when she finally got out of the cuboid prison, her skin the colour of blushed cheeks. Sarah’s beady, naked eyes were small, once more, and utterly basic, her mouth decreased in size with no lipliner, and Sarah wrapped herself in a towel, thinking maybe next time she would wear the conservative t-shirt dress, wincing at the stinging she could feel spreading between her legs, as she inserted a tampon that she had thought she would not need for another two weeks.
KATY THORNTON recently graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from University College Dublin. She has been published with Headstuff, Cold Coffee Stand and JCS Press and is currently working on her debut novel. She spent last year as the Fiction Editor of The HCE Review, a quarterly literary journal.
Image via Pixabay