A SMALL ACT OF SELFISHNESS
Jo is struggling not to think about what Emily has done, her latest terrible act. Their train is late. They sit on their bench in Station Sloterdijk, Jo trying to read, Emily watching other people, both munching on snacks.
"Do you think these have much fat?" Emily shakes her bag of pretzels in front of her.
"No." She leaves it at that, as she is officially done talking, or at least limiting conversation to no more than necessary. This trip to Europe... Probably a mistake. There are only a few days left before they fly home, a short enough time that Jo feels safe admitting the trip's failure to herself.
What Emily had done up until this point is irrelevant, though it has been pretty much across-the-board irritating. What she's done now, since their arrival in Amsterdam, tops everything.
They are both Americans, both secular Jews, both upper-middle-class suburban girls. And now Emily, right now, is sitting next to Jo wearing a white headscarf pinned beneath her chin and a modest button-down blouse in the heat of August. She's playing Muslim, like dress-up when they were kids, though she claims it's something more than that. Jo wants to tear the scarf off her head. An attractive mid-twenties Turkish woman, presumably an actual Muslim, is sitting across from them, reading a newspaper. Let Emily stay quiet, Jo thinks. Let her not draw attention, with her loud braying American voice. Let her olive complexion make her look like maybe she is really Muslim. This sounds slightly racist to Jo's conscience, but she lets the thought go. Before she assesses herself, she needs to get through the next four days. The next few hours. Minutes. Jo shifts a couple imperceptible centimeters away from Emily; after nearly a month of sharing close quarters in hostels, the touch of Emily's sleeve on her bare arm is almost unbearable.
Jo puts down her book -- which Emily had categorized, thinking herself witty, as neither intellectual enough nor trashy enough-- and stands up.
"I'll be right back," she murmurs, "I'm going to run to the bathroom."
"Oh, don't do that. The train could come any minute. And then what? We couldn't go to the beach." Jo wonders if the Turkish woman hears this, and if actual Muslim women go to the beach.
"The message said it was running 20 minutes behind. I'll be fine." She takes her purse with her, leaves her heavy backpack. As she steps away her chest relaxes, her breath comes easier. She is free, free, free, at least until she is done peeing and has to go back to the bench.
Jo went with Emily as a concession to her parents, despite being a sophomore in college and theoretically an adult. She would've preferred to travel alone, do her own thing, entertain herself, but that worried them. Since she and Emily had some fun together in grade school and high school, and since they haven't seen each other much since going to separate colleges, it seemed like Emily's company might be fun on a trip. So Jo invited her. And now she is stuck with her, has been stuck with her for weeks, will be stuck with her for four more days.
Why would she think wearing a headscarf is a good idea? Jo asked her this, of course, when Emily came out of the bathroom this morning wearing one. It wasn't that Emily had decided to convert to Islam, not that that wouldn't also be ridiculous and insane. It was because she was trying to be exotic and cool, or something.
"Just look at how cute all these Turkish Dutch girls are, Joie." She said, smiling, laughing. "Why not? It'll be funny. And maybe, you know, I'll learn something. See the world differently."
"You dumb bitch," Jo mutters, thinking of this now. Her skin itches, like she needs to scrub off Emily's personality. There is a short line for the bathroom. Jo digs through her purse for a 50 euro-cent coin, feeling the grit and bits of trash that have built up in it after so much travel.
It is not that she has a problem with Muslim women, or with their practice of covering their hair. Why would she? (Even thinking so activates the college-student-liberal-guilt that she knows she carries.) It is that she has a problem with Emily. Always there, always coming up with some pseudo-intellectual reasoning for every stupid thing she did ("sharing myself, my soul" with that Spanish boy, when really it was just a handjob), always nagging at Jo for being too stodgy or too boring or too American, as if she didn't broadcast her own tourist status with her pointing and clutching of Jo's arm and... Jo is grinding her teeth. The bathroom is free now. She shouldn't use her free time thinking about Emily, she should savor it.
She savors it while she pees and washes her hands, then heads slowly back towards the benches. There is a collection of shops on the way back, selling magazines and bags of chips and other travelers' fare. A gaggle of Dutch teenagers, on some school trip, comes parading up behind her and into the shop. Jo is temporarily lost in the swarm. If only they could absorb her, take her with them on their trip, away from Emily. Then they are past, all in the shop, chattering to each other in that loud, chaotic way that all teenagers seem to have. They are probably only three or four years younger than her, but they seem like children. Their trip will undoubtedly not consist of spending a month in dirty hostels with an idiot constantly chattering away, bugging them to drink more, walk faster, be more social, stop chewing their nails, start wearing makeup, think about the plight of others, skip the cafes in favor of the bars, skip the aimless walking for museums, or maybe skip the museums for aimless walking - Emily's nagging has not been based on one unifying vision, it's been motivated by whatever she felt like doing at the moment.
Jo is doing it again, spending her free moments growling to herself about Emily. She had saved for a year for this trip; she had been so excited about it. It was all she could think about for months. And now she is in Amsterdam, in a satellite station, finally away from downtown tourist traps (which Emily had insisted they visit that morning, presumably seeking a bigger audience for her Muslim costume), in real Amsterdam, just what she wanted, and all she can do is be cranky.
She recalls her mom's surprise when she heard it was Emily going with her and not a more recent college friend. "I didn't realize you two were still close."
They weren't. But Emily could afford it, unlike Jo's college friends, and she had seemed all right in their emails discussing the trip. Like she'd mellowed since high school. Ha.
As she walks by another convenience shop, her eye is caught by a British music magazine with a picture of Roisin Murphy on the cover -- one of Jo's favorite musicians. She pauses to page through it, skimming the article, reading about her new album. When she puts it back down, she recognizes an unfamiliar sensation. That had been fun. She'd had fun right then, reading that.
Jo has always come to decisions slowly, with careful thought and planning. But now, it as if a switch has been flipped. Or maybe the last puzzle piece has finally fallen into place and allowed her to see the real picture. She strides back to the bench, real steps, big and powerful and empowered ones. She has a credit card for emergencies, and what is this if not an emergency, after all? Screw this. She is starting to smile, feeling wild.
"There you are, missy." Emily says when she comes back, smiling at her like Jo is a dear younger cousin who has been slightly naughty. "I was thinking, should we just go back to the hostel for tonight and take the train tomorrow? I'm bored of waiting."
The train will be there in less than ten minutes, most likely, and they have a room reserved at a hostel in Zandvoort, a town on the North Sea. It would be absurd to delay their train trip till tomorrow. This reply is ready, fully formed, ready to be spoken, but Jo stops herself and remembers her resolve.
She grabs her backpack and hefts it over her shoulder. "I can't."
"You can't what?"
"Go back to the hostel. Or to Zandvoort. To the beach. With you. I'm sorry. I'm a bitch. I know I am. A selfish bitch." She is fighting a smile. It's not that she is enjoying upsetting Emily - it's just that the incredible relief of knowing she'll be ALONE is seeping through her now, and showing on her face. "You have the address of our hostel there. You'll meet people. You'll have fun. I won't weigh you down."
"You can't do this!"
Oh, she can't, she probably shouldn't, what if Emily is killed or raped or something? But - it's Holland, it's safe, Emily's not stupid enough to take drinks from strange men, she makes friends, she - all these justifications. Jo is just being selfish. "I'm being selfish. I know. I just want time alone. Alone." Alone!
Emily opens her mouth, like she is about to shout, but then she shuts it. The train is roaring up. "That wasn't twenty minutes. You could've missed it. You almost did."
Jo doesn't bother to respond. She is mentally crossing her fingers, waiting for Emily to stand and board, to leave her alone.
Emily stands. She waits. Jo is quiet. "Well. Fine. I guess I'll see you on the plane." She pushes past, her backpack knocking into Jo's. Does she whisper "you bitch" as she passes, or is that Jo's guilty conscience speaking? It's probably Emily.
"Be careful!" Jo calls after her. If Emily is murdered or raped in Zandvoort, it will, of course, ruin Jo's life. But the odds are so miniscule that Jo thinks they are worth playing.
A minute later the train is gone, taking Emily with it. Jo already knows what she'll do with her afternoon. Go back towards downtown and find a fine, proper hotel for the next three days, go a little crazy with the spending just for the luxury of having her own little beautiful space. Buy some magazines and maybe another book. Eat dinner at a cozy bruincafe. See a Dutch movie in the theater and try to understand the plot. After that, who knows? Jo settles back on the bench, smiles at the Turkish woman across from her, and opens her book.
Elizabeth Holden is a physics instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.Ê She's had previous short stories published in Midwest Literary Magazine, Tryst Literary Magazine and The Blinking Cursor.Ê She lives in Madison, WI with her boyfriend and two adorable retired racing greyhounds.