I WAS GETTING OFF the bus when a man stopped me to ask if I’d lost my wallet. He’d found one on the seat I’d just vacated and was now offering it to me. The wallet was smooth and pale and shocking like something private that had been bared without its owner’s consent. I told the man no, the wallet wasn’t mine, it couldn’t be—I didn’t own one. He looked at me sadly and said nothing more.
When I arrived at my office, I saw that the small exterior pocket of my green backpack, the one that would have held a wallet if I had owned one, was unzipped and hanging open. This was the part of my backpack that would have been visible to the man as I walked before him down the aisle. He must have felt certain that the wallet was mine, given both the state of my pocket and the fact that he’d found it on my seat, which would account for his confusion. I decided then that his expression had not communicated disappointment, but something more primitive, like fear.
As I thought about the man and his impression of me, I began to wonder if it was true that I didn’t own a wallet. It seemed possible that I might, at some point, have purchased one. It was an object people did tend to own, and I was a person who tended to do what others did, with just a few meaningful exceptions.
And a person needed money to survive. It was an essential accessory. I was a living, breathing person so far as I could tell, and though I felt strongly that I was not someone who needed things, I was sitting in my place of work, which meant I did have a job, which meant that I must have or have had money, and, having had money, I would have needed a place to keep it.
On the interior of my office door, someone had hung a poster depicting the phases of the moon. But who? Who liked the moon? Not me, who had most definitely been on the bus, of that I was sure, but, if it was true that I had no money, why had I been allowed to board?
I tried to remember the face of the bus driver. Had I walked right by? Had I seemed to be refusing to pay? And had I earned, by this refusal, some sort of protected status? Was I allowed, now, to do exactly as I pleased? And, if so, what would I do next?
At my desk, before the dark computer, I shivered with pleasure. It was so easy to encounter someone who was out of touch, who was not entirely with it. It could happen anywhere, even on the bus.
On my way to the office bathroom, I ran into a colleague. She had just returned from a vacation to an island where there were many monasteries, mostly inactive.
“I’m going to need your help this week,” she said. “I was injured on vacation, and I can’t lift anything over ten pounds. I have to move some boxes. Of reports.”
“Sure,” I said.
She was standing in the middle of the hallway, her right leg thrust forward. Her long skirt, on that side, was hiked up. She had tucked it, tenuously, under the elastic of her loose beige underwear so that a sizable section of her upper thigh was showing.
I looked at the triangle of skin and wondered if what I was looking at was in fact obscene. “What happened to your leg?”
She looked pityingly at herself but made no adjustments to her skirt. She seemed entirely comfortable with the baring of that high privacy. “Vacation didn’t go like I thought. But it never does, does it?”
I recalled my last vacation during which I’d traveled alone to a coastal city. A few days in I’d seen a child’s head squeezed unto death by the sliding panels of the entrance to an underground metro. I remembered the child’s face—mask-like—and the color of the mother’s skin—lunar. Vacation, as far as I knew, was not something you thought about in advance of its happening. It was more like a surprise assault. “You didn’t enjoy yourself?”
“I’m glad you asked,” she said. “I did enjoy myself, in a way. I’d planned to visit all the monasteries, but the island turned out to be a much bigger place than the internet said. There was only one monastery within walking distance of my hotel. It took me two and a half hours to get there. The first two times I went, the gates were closed, and nobody answered the bell. The third time, I brought an LP by my favorite singer, the one I’ve so far made sure not to tell anyone about, the ecstatic who lost all that weight. She just said no thanks to food. That’s all you have to do these days. Nobody cares if you waste away. Nobody acknowledges a disappearance, so long as you keep it sacred.
“Anyway, on my third visit the gate was closed like before, but this time there was a pile of spiralized orange peels on the ground outside, so I knew someone was inside. I walked all the way around the building, sticking close to the exterior wall. Sometimes I thought I could hear laughing. Not a person. Just laughing.”
She itched herself along the edge of her bandage. The skin, wherever she touched it, turned red and rose slightly. “When I’d gone all the way around and arrived back at the front of the monastery, the gate was open.”
Up and down the office hallway, doors began to close. I leaned against the wall and closed my eyes. “Oh yeah?”
She lowered her voice. “I don’t know if you’ve ever stood at the entrance to a monastery, but I can tell you that it is not a comfortable feeling. It’s like: Do you even want to know? Like, do you even want to think about it? But I’d walked for hours to get there, and my feet ached. In a way, I felt like I deserved it. I was on vacation. Plus, I’d brought a gift, for the monks. An album that was secretly spiritual, just like me.
“I stood on the threshold forever, like for the length of this conversation we’re having, just staring inside. There wasn’t much there. A sunny courtyard of white stone, with a little chapel in the middle. The chapel had no windows and no door. No laughing, not that I could hear. Not anymore. A great loneliness overwhelmed me. I thought of a child I’d never met, a child who had died but failed to realize it and so had gone on living. How I hated that child! How I wished he’d never been born! And then a mule appeared in the courtyard. It clomped slowly out from behind the chapel, wearing a beautiful beaded harness, its reins dragging on the ground. In its mouth, it held an orange, which by some magic was slowly spinning. The lips were moving the orange and the peel was being removed, in an intact spiral, by the mule’s teeth. It was delicate work, requiring a patience I hadn’t known animals could have. Which is when I realized that the mule was not an animal. It was an infertile, like God is. Like God has become.”
Here she paused for effect, but before the effect could take hold—I was on a delay—she continued.
“Then I had a vision,” she said. “It was of myself. I was in the courtyard, and I was a man. I could tell I was a man because I didn’t marvel anymore. I didn’t wonder. I just circled the mule, wearing a pair of white jeans in the style of a decade during which I’d not been alive. They were much too big for me, the jeans, so I’d cinched them tight with the rope that my older brother used to hang himself. To an outsider, I might have seemed to be assessing the mule, or maybe coveting its harness. But I wasn’t. I was just looking. I didn’t care about it, or anything. I was truly alive.
“After I’d circled the mule three or four times, I stopped directly behind it. The mule’s tale swished. My penis twitched in response. The orange peel dropped whole onto the courtyard floor, and just then I extended my hand and patted the mule’s butt.
“In that moment, I was so close to myself—you can’t imagine, being two-in-one—that when the mule kicked, it kicked us both. We received it to our groins. We were very badly injured, maybe permanently. What if we had been crushed? Perhaps, I thought, if I could see it, I would know more. So, I straddled me. I untied the familiar rope. I unbuttoned our pants. I was hairless, just like my brother. And then I saw it.”
My colleague paused. Her eyes flashed with unreasonable excitement, as she framed, with her hands, the exposed skin of her leg.
“It’s not what you’re thinking,” she said. “I saw the thigh. I was not supposed to see it—God had not consented. But I saw the thigh of God as the man in me died. And it was no surprise. In fact, I’d seen it many times before—because it was my own.
“On my way out, I heard the ecstatic’s singing. The monks had got their hands on the record, probably while I was visioning. It was a theft, when you think about it. By the monks. I didn’t give it to them, even though I’d intended to. But I don’t blame them. You have to steal revelation. That’s what I’ve learned. It’s the only way to get it.”
“Wow,” I said. I wasn’t against the story, or theft, but I did have to pee, so I tried to wrap things up. “You know I’m here if you need help. All you have to do is ask. I can lift whatever.”
“I know that,” she said, her out-thrust leg making it difficult for me to pass. “But it’s still nice to hear, from someone, that they are who you think they are.”
On the way back from the bathroom, I popped my head into her office.
“By the way,” I said. “I’ve lost my wallet. If you see it, let me know.”
She was sitting awkwardly at her desk, her leg stiff and extended, staring at her computer, at a map that was showing on the screen. A bright blue dot was moving slowly along the curving line that was the road.
“How awful,” she said, her eyes glassy. “Did you know you can watch the bus in real time?” She tracked the bright blue dot with her finger, leaving an oily smear on the screen.
“Well, you can,” she said. “I don’t know what this is supposed to add to my life. The bus isn’t more of a bus if I know where it is when it’s not with me. In fact, in a way, it’s less of one. You should never know where the bus is. You should never know when, exactly, the bus is going to arrive. Don’t you agree? It has so far been in the nature of a bus to arrive around the time you expect it to, but it’s important to preserve the possibility of its never coming. The bus should not be a given. It should feel, every time, like the miraculous return of something useful—even necessary—that you’d worried might be gone for good.”
I peered firmly past the screen, and in the depths of the bright blue dot, I saw the doors of the bus sliding open, the smiling mask behind the wheel. I waved myself on, refusing the fare.
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, what’s next? No driver?”
KRISTEN GLEASON’s fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, BOMB, A Public Space, The White Review, and elsewhere.