Our plane had landed promptly at nine and outside the window, the world was black, but you could still see the mountain shadows, a nice reminder that there was dark and then there was dark. I sat in one of the sideways seats on the shuttle bus ride from Bozeman airport to the Holiday Inn. In the morning, I would rent a car and drive from Bozeman to Gardiner, Montana, a town with a population of less than one thousand, just outside Yellowstone.
The only other people on the bus were flight crew members. The pilot sat directly opposite me and was about the same age, late thirties at most, but he looked like a grown-up version of the boys I’d gone to high school with, the type who wore backward baseball caps and memorized LFO lyrics.
“You look familiar,” the pilot said.
“Small airport,” I replied. “Thanks for the ride.”
The two flight attendants sitting closest to me were both women. From where I was sitting, it looked like the redhead was interrogating the brunette in what must’ve been the friendliest shakedown in history.
“You’re from Tucson, right?” said the redhead, leaning close to the brunette like this was life or death information.
“How long have you been traveling?” I asked the pilot.
“A few months.”
“Huh,” I said.
“We travel so much,” said the redhead. “It doesn’t even feel special anymore, you know? It’s like our sky cubicle.”
I nodded. The pilot picked at his chapped lips. The buttons on his jacket were polished, his eyebrows bushy and authoritative. He looked happy, and I wondered if he’d ever write a self-help book titled something cheesy like, “I Believe I Can Fly!” that I could purchase and then promptly throw out.
“Well, this weekend, my wife learned that there are some perks to having a pilot for a husband.” The pilot raised a thick eyebrow in my direction.
“There’s a reason they call it the cockpit, huh?” I said, trying to play along.
“No,” he said. “I got her a free flight from Chicago to DC to visit her sister. She’s pregnant. A girl, we think.”
“Congratulations,” I said.
Before I bought a one-way ticket to the American West, I’d been working as a nanny for my ex-boyfriend, Hwan. When he called me up three months ago to ask if I’d watch his kids, it was the first time he’d spoken to me in years. It was a product of a series of freak coincidences: his wife was at a conference in Houston and his normal sitter canceled and he couldn’t afford to miss an audition for some procedural CSI spinoff, and he knew I still lived in the same apartment, only a block away.
Hwan was an aspiring actor, and a few months after we broke up, he got booked as a contestant on a reality dating show called Make Me a Match! but the producers tricked him into playing the Asian nerd and he was kicked off during the second week, a rookie mistake.
“You need to be hot, weird, or evil,” his agent would tell him later. “Nothing about you was memorable.”
He was still mildly Insta-famous, had a couple thousand followers, and posted pictures of himself at the gym with sweaty biceps, wearing contact lenses rather than glasses.
“Thirst trap,” he captioned one photo where his gym shorts rode dangerously low on his hips.
When we were together, I used to pretend to be jealous when he flirted with other girls, but now I favorited every photo. When I couldn’t sleep, I’d hold my phone to my face and scroll through the comments left by strange women saying, “hotttt!” and “fuk me plz.”
“I wouldn’t ask you if I had anyone else,” he told me over the phone.
I’d attended his wedding tequila drunk and almost ruined the reception—my vomit abstract art under the flashing lights of the dance floor.
“I believe you,” I said.
“What’s wrong with your voice?” Amy asked me on my first night as a babysitter.
“Why are you wearing a scarf? It’s summer,” Amy’s twin sister Julianna asked. She was twirling a fidget spinner between her fingers, disinterestedly.
“In case I need to hang myself,” I said and pantomimed the action, let my tongue hang loose and my eyes cross. The girls cried laughing. No one else appreciates gallows humor like eight-year-olds.
By the end of the first day, they were jumping on and off beanbag chairs while making fun of me for speaking only English.
“You’re half-Taiwanese and don’t even know nǐ hǎo?” Julianna laughed wildly. Both the girls were fluent in Korean, English, and Mandarin.
I stuck my tongue out, still blue from the Blue Raspberry Jolly Rancher that Amy had given me. I hadn’t had one since I was a kid, and the taste was so sweet I’d had to spit it out.
“It’s okay,” she said solemnly and packed three more in my purse for later.
The girls bugged Hwan until he let me come watch them again. Maybe they loved me because I could never bring myself to yell at them even when they threw notecards all over the room or put marbles in my shoe or screamed, “SHUT UP,” at the top of their lungs. I understood the impulses.
“Why are you going to Montana?” Amy asked me on my last day of babysitting.
“There doesn’t always need to be a reason,” I told her, and she seemed to believe it.
The truth was I dreamt up the trip after a 3 a.m. viewing of a documentary titled Westward Ho! that had been full of baby bear cubs, bison, and grasses so tall they grazed your hips. Montana looked like a painting that my grandma might hang above the toilet.
“What wonder!” the narrator cried in a fake enthusiastic voice. I picked up the remote control to change the channel, but I didn’t. I kept watching until I finished an entire bottle of a generic red wine blend and moved on to the two Bud Light Lime-A-Ritas left over from a potluck I’d hosted four months ago.
“Ever since the Pilgrims first set foot in North America, the frontier lands have grasped hold of us and refused to let go,” stated the announcer, as the camera panned slowly to show a wide shot of green hills and white-capped mountains.
I opened my laptop as the documentary played in the background and saw that my browser tabs were full of tongue twisters for kids, reading comprehension worksheets on the mongoose, a how-to-make-slime video tutorial.
“The beauty of these lands remains an endless source of fascination. It was Frederick Jackson Turner who first said that the frontier represented everything that made America great: democracy, individualism, unbridled freedom.”
I closed all my tabs, opened a new window, and googled the cheapest plane ticket to Bozeman, Montana, and the cheapest Airbnb near Yellowstone.
The shuttle bus jerked over train tracks, but the bus driver didn’t slow down. If he heard us grumble and laugh nervously, he gave no indication.
“John Mayer has a house right on this river,” called out the bus driver to no one in particular.
“Who?” I asked.
It was a bad habit of mine to pretend to not know anything. I’d found it easier to go through life that way: in a loop of staged confusion and false epiphanies.
“Singer,” the bus driver replied without turning back to look at me.
“Look,” the pilot said, pointing to the buffalos grazing behind my shoulder. They were penned in an enclosure belonging to a ranch by the side of the road, and the barn to the left of them was well lit, so I could make out their big shaggy heads and horns. They stared straight at the shuttle.
“Buffalo,” I said. They were much bigger than on television.
“Actually, they’re called bison,” the pilot said.
He smiled again and cracked his knuckles on the blue vinyl seat to the right of him.
The bus driver stopped at a stoplight, and a knocking came from the shuttle doors. I looked out my window, and there was a boy standing on the side of the road who looked about sixteen. He was dirty—twigs tangled in his curly blond hair and mud streaked up and down his ripped tan cargo shorts.
“Where you heading?” asked the bus driver through the door crack.
“Anywhere,” said the kid.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the pilot muttered, and I didn’t disagree.
The Holiday Inn in Bozeman had taken on a mythic quality in my imagination—I was dreaming of scalding my body under the showerhead, swaddling myself in towels, and falling asleep with the television on.
Before the bus driver could respond, the boy slipped his slim body through the crack in the rubber door and ran up the stairs.
“Is there a problem?” called the pilot, halfway out of his seat. I imagined him throwing the kid off the bus, all white teeth and flexing muscles.
“Let him stay,” I said, to be contrary. Anything the pilot was for, I was against. “He’s just a kid.”
The pilot sat back down in his seat. He stretched his arms behind his head and smirked at me.
“Your funeral,” he said, garnering a few chuckles from the other flight staff.
“I won’t cause trouble, I promise,” said the boy. His hair was wet from the rain, and his sneakers squeaked on the bus floor. He sat next to me, the seat nearest to the door.
“You’re cute,” I said. “Where are you from?”
The boy’s name was Jacob, and he was from Denver, “a city boy with a country heart.” He’d been hitching his way farther west for a few months, was planning on going back to school, but it would be a hard adjustment.
“I don’t know if I want to go back, but I can’t let my mom down,” he said.
As he talked, he bit his knuckles with his teeth, and I could just make out the scabs and hangnails all over his fingers. He was too skinny, and I could tell he was lying about school, about his mom. I nodded anyway.
“Want to grab a drink?” I asked when the shuttle bus finally reached the Holiday Inn.
“Sure,” he said, brushing his curly hair behind his ear.
We ended up at the hotel bar, a room with neon blue and green furniture where they charged five bucks for a bowl of Chex Party Mix.
“Two Bud Lights,” I said to the middle-aged woman behind the bar.
“Coming right up,” she said without looking Jacob in the eye.
My desire for a shower had disappeared—I was past the point of travel-weariness and had entered into a slap-happy haze. This Holiday Inn was holy, a church for us frontier travelers, and my pint glass was a canteen.
“You’re so young,” I said to Jacob, staring at his unlined face.
“I guess,” he said. He drank his beer quickly and hiccupped after each gulp.
In my backpack were Amy and Julianna’s goodbye letters, unread and painfully handwritten, stickers unraveling on the back. I had to stop myself from taking them out and showing them to him.
“What do you want to do with your life? After school?”
“I don’t know,” Jacob said. He looked down at the table. He tapped his leg to some phantom music. “It’s hard to figure out, you know?
“Yeah,” I said.
We sat at the table closest to the window, and a few tables down, I could see the flight crew taking shots of slippery nipples. I watched as the pilot slung his arm around the redhead and swayed back and forth.
I put my hand on Jacob’s because it felt natural to touch him. I wanted to lay his head on my lap so I could stroke his greasy blond hair. To tell him stories, scary stories about the things the world does to you when you’re not looking, the various ways it can fuck you over without buying you dinner first, but I would tell him these awful things in a warm voice and it would make them less horrible, maybe make them almost okay.
“Get your chink hand off me,” Jacob said, so quiet that I almost didn’t hear him.
I took my hand away and glanced at what lay beneath: his own small, clenched fist.