Catherine scrunches in the seat avoiding the passengers entering the Greyhound. She makes herself small and inconspicuous praying no one will sit next to her. She absently reaches for her hair to lift it off her shoulders realizing with a start that she had chopped it off—her, blonde, perfectly-highlighted, thick gorgeous hair. All that is left is a short stubble covered in Clairol’s Mocha Brown #6W that she got at CVS two days ago. She closes her eyes and relives this morning— taking the sheers and cutting it in chunks, the awful feel of her hair falling to her shoulders then covering the ground. Like a robot, she snapped on blue kitchen gloves and went in the shower to do the dye job.
When she got out she was shivering so hard her teeth hurt. She cleared away the steam from the mirror, and a stranger was looking back at her —blue hollow eyes framed in a white face but with a triumphant grin that she didn’t recognize. She hadn’t felt good about herself for a long time and she knew at that very moment she was taking her life back. The rest of the morning was a blur—grabbing her carry-on out of the closet and tossing in only a few basic clothes she’d need for now until she could get on her feet. She was leaving her overstuffed walk-in closet with rows of shoes and designer labels.
She checked the bus schedule for the tenth time pulling out the worn paper she had downloaded and carried with her for the last two weeks. She was taking the 620 to Phoenix leaving at 2:30PM. She cleaned up the bathroom meticulously to not leave any trace of hair or dye. She took a last look at her beautiful apartment, each piece of furniture and accessory carefully selected from on line high end websites. She and Eric were going to live here until they bought a house. She slammed the door and ran out to the Uber she had called.
The driver left her at the bus station in a grungy part of Oakland she’d never ventured in to. She paid cash for her ticket. She had seen this on TV and knew not to leave a trail that could be easily tracked. Catherine found a seat in the drafty terminal idly watching people coming and going and waited until it was time to board. She found the correct line for her bus and took a seat in the middle next to the window. People are filing on holding paper shopping bags and worn valises; a man with no teeth who has a sour smell when he passes her, a burly tattooed teenager with a Mohawk and darting eyes, a young, sad-looking Hispanic woman with a diaper bag holding a sleeping baby covered in a pink blanket. No one wants to be on this bus, and she fits right in. She is one of them now.
A big African American woman with two tote bags and a huge purse comes lumbering up the steps barely squeezing down the aisle just as the door is closing. Oh please don’t sit here next to me. I don’t want to be squished for eighteen hours. The woman plops down breathing heavily, smelling like she just sprayed herself with cheap cologne.
“Afternoon ‘Darlin. “ She greets Catherine with a friendly smile but her eyes appraise her with surprisingly direct scrutiny. “On your way to Phoenix?” I’m going to visit my sister Cheryl, and I hate airplanes. If people were meant to fly, we’d have wings.” She chuckles and her whole body shakes. “My name is Margie.”
Catherine mumbles,” uh, hello” then goes back to pretending to read a worn Inquirer she found stuffed in the net seat pocket as though it is the most interesting literature she has ever read.
Margie doesn’t give up. “And you are…you know we are going to be roommates for the next eighteen hours.” She laughs again with her rumbling laugh and Catherine squirms. She doesn’t want to be rude, but she just wants to be left alone. She’s never been rude— not to anyone; maids, janitors, car attendants. She has lived her life being considerate and polite, never wanting to hurt anyone. She sighs; it was being too nice and sweet and weak that landed her on this bus.
“Uh my name is, uh, Tess. Catherine decides she isn’t going to be Catherine anymore. Catherine is her old pampered life of manis and pedis, designer clothes and every indulgence a spoiled only child could receive by adoring parents. That girl is finished. Yes, Tess, she likes the sound of it, simple, clean, unencumbered., one syllable. She is going to live a one-syllable life from now on.
“Well, nice to know you Ms. Tess. Would you like one of my DEE licious sugar cookies? The trick you know is sprinkling the sugar while they’re still warm when you take them out of the oven.”
“No thank you Ma-am, uh Margie. I’m going to rest.“ Tess closes her eyes tilting the seat back, but it only goes maybe an inch. This bus isn’t business class for sure she ruefully smirks. Her mind is a cyclone of careening thoughts. I can’t believe I got away. She puts her hand protectively on the $5,000 in cash she wears in the fanny pack strapped to her stomach. Wait till Eric finds out I cleaned out our wedding account. He’s going to be so pissed.
Then it hits her like a cold ocean wave washing over her body and she shudders. What have I done— oh God—run off four days before my wedding. My $6,000 Lazaro gown is at the dressmaker, the caterer is expecting final approval for the five course menu; the florist is getting in hundreds of imported roses and tulips. I insisted on yellow tulips which are out of season. I’m such a brat. Tonight is my bachlorette party. I’m nauseous. Everyone is going to be freaking out when they can’t find me and what about Mom and Dad. They’ll be calling the police by tonight.
Tess swallows so she won’t retch, sniffles but tears keep rolling down her pale cheeks like a hot river. As hard as she tries, she can’t stifle them and the sobs and hiccups start. This goes on for a good hour, and Margie doesn’t say a word but keeps pulling tissues out of her shopping bag and handing them to her. When she cries herself out and is quietly at the hiccupping stage, she falls into a fitful sleep leaning on Margie’s shoulder.
Tess wakes up and for a few seconds doesn’t know where she is then remembers the worst dream of her life. With a sickening awareness filling her, she knows it isn’t a dream. Margie holds her hand.
“Darlin, you feeling better? Sometimes you just got to get it all out. Here have a cookie.”
Tess takes the sugar cookie even managing a half smile.
“You feel like talking? By the way, you missed a spot on the top of your hair. You should’a stayed blonde. The brown is a little dark for your skin tone.”
Tess stares at her surprised that this stranger has pegged her so easily. She nibbles a few more bites of the delicious cookie, wipes crumbs off her lips and starts in. “I’m supposed to be married this Sunday,… huge church wedding, designer gown, fancy hotel reception, eight bridesmaids, the whole nine yards. My parents have been planning this extravaganza since I was in diapers.
You’re probably wondering about where my fiancé fits into this pretty picture. He is perfect— very good looking, smart, rich, great personality, a doctor no less. Just one little thing I left out. He…uh, raped me more than once. You see, uh…he has a vicious controlling side and a terrible temper, and he knew how to hurt me so it wouldn’t show.”
She lets out a relieved breath that she got those words out and told someone, even this kind stranger. Margie asks in a quiet voice, “Now what dear?”
“I’m not sure. Phoenix is where I went to college, and I have contacts there. I’ll find a job and start over.”
“What about your parents?”
Her eyes well up and she clenches her hands. “I, uh was going to call them in a day or two. I just can’t face them yet.”
Margie is quiet then looks Tess directly in the eyes. “Tess, you’re one brave lady and it’s clear you’ve made the right decision to call off the wedding, but you have to contact your parents. They are probably crazy with worry. Our next stop is Barstow and I’ll be with you when you call them.”
Tess nods and grips Margie’s hand and won’t let go. She stares out the window lost in her thoughts. At around 9pm when the bus stops, they head in to the terminal. While the other passengers buy snacks and head to the restrooms, they find a bench off to the side. Margie hands her cell phone to her.
Tess punches in each number slowly, “Mom?” she chokes up. Margie puts her hand on her shoulder . “Yes, Mom it’s me. I’m ok. I’m really ok. I wasn’t in a car accident. No, I haven’t been kidnapped. No, I don’t have amnesia. Yes, call off the police and tell them they don’t need to look for me.” Margie mouths the words, go on.
“Mom, please stop crying. Ok, I’ll talk to daddy. Daddy, I’m ok. I’m not sick or hurt.” Tess gives a short desperate laugh and Margie gives her another squeeze.”
“Dad, let me explain. Uh…this is hard to talk about, but for the last six months I’ve known I shouldn’t stay with Eric. He has a violent temper and has abused me on several occasions. Remember that bad bruise I had on my leg? I told you I got hit with a tennis ball. I lied. He kicked me with his pointed boot. Dad, take a seat. I don’t want you getting a heart attack. Yes, you can put me on the speaker phone.
All the special “gifts” that you and mom thought were so sweet and romantic; the fancy diamond bracelet, the sapphire ring, and my sports car—hell, that was my present the day after he raped me. Yes, your future son-in-law, that perfect man, the doctor, has a brutal side. I begged him to go to counseling but each time he swore he’d never hurt me again and that he loved me with all his heart. He also said that if I ever tried to get away from him, he’d find me and really hurt me or say I was crazy, and everyone would believe him.
I’m so sorry I let it get this far. I was swept up in the wedding frenzy too, and I wanted to go through with it for your sake. When he raped me again last week I knew I had to get away. I’m going into hiding for a while until I can unravel this mess and straighten out my life.
Call Susan. Yes, Susan our wedding planner. She can be our wedding un-planner and notify the vendors. You’re going to call who, your attorney? I suppose that’s a good idea. Seymour can put a restraining order put on Eric. I’m not going to tell you where I’ll be, but I promise to call you every day. I love you both so much and will regret that I’ve hurt you every day I live on this earth. I’ve got to go. I love you.”
Tess sits quietly on the bench for a minute relieved that maybe the worst is over. She didn’t notice Margie leave her assuming she went to the bathroom or to buy food. Everyone is getting back on the bus. Tess climbs on board and figures Margie might be in the seat already but she isn’t there. When they start to pull out and Margie doesn’t get on, Tess panics thinking something has happened to her. She glances down at the empty seat and sees a folded piece of paper. She opens it: ‘Tess, contact my “sister” Cheryl Schwartz at the Women’s Shelter of Phoenix. Tell her your one of Margie’s girls. She will help you get situated.’
The bus starts to roll and Tess is stunned. Margie has vanished like she never existed. She begins to think maybe she is an angel sent to help her. She leans back in her seat and falls into a sound sleep.