Foreign Exchange
by Jenna Thompson

You leave out the part about the jeep.

Instead you tell him about the crowded bus winding up the narrow mountain road, the curtain of green outside the windows, how the driver stopped at every hairpin turn to let more bodies squeeze aboard while the wheels spun in the mud. You tell him about the old woman next to you, face like a walnut and no shoes, carrying a plastic bag full of mangoes. You mention the sloth hanging like dirty laundry from a tree limb. 

“Did you get a picture?” he asks, and you say yes, somewhere in the dozens of rolls of film there is a picture. You don’t tell him he’ll never see it. You don’t tell him you sent that particular roll home with someone else, stood at the departure gate and pressed it into another man’s hand. Something to remember you by. 

And while you rattle on about the ferns that glowed in the dark and the leafcutter ants, you are really thinking about how the bus rounded a turn and there it was, the jeep, tilted off the road with all four tires sinking into the mud. You remember the man with dark hair standing beside it, under a tree with leaves like umbrellas. 

“What about the birds?” he asks, so you chatter about quetzals and toucans and macaws, flame-red summer tanagers, and the small birds with puffed feathers whose names you can’t remember, yellow and red on a low branch, and you avoid looking at him directly while he listens and nods because in your mind you remember the driver slowing to let the man aboard, still see how he shook the rain from his dark hair and slung his backpack over his shoulder and dropped his coins into the coffee can strapped to the gear shift. 

“Tell me about the ants,” he says. “Can they really strip a tree overnight?” 

You tell him yes, just that fast – you snap your fingers - the leaves are gone. 

All of them?” 

“Totally bare,” you answer. “Naked branches with nothing left.” The words are sparks on your tongue as you remember the man moving down the aisle toward the back of the bus—past the old man with the cage of chickens, past the mother with a baby swaddled against her chest, past the sleeping dog and the two little boys playing with bottle caps. Rain and sweat trickled down his neck, disappeared below his unbuttoned shirt collar. 

Before he can ask about the flush in your cheeks, you rush to describe the nests, the colonies, the fungus that grows in the piles of leaves the ants harvest. You tell him they have jaws like tiny razor blades, sharp enough to slice human skin. Then you tell him about the translucent green moths the size of dinner plates, their shimmering wings veined in yellow, and the tiny slick brown lizards, and the torrents of rain bathing all those dizzying shades of green. You keep talking, forcing yourself to meet his eyes, hoping the tremor inside you hasn’t reached your voice. 

But you do not mention Blue Morpho butterflies. You still remember the man stopping beside you, the tattooed wings on his forearm as he held the back of the seat while the bus lurched up the mountain. You still feel him smiling down at you, feel the humid closeness of all those bodies pressed too close together and the damp heat through your clothes when you chose to forget home and the one waiting for you there. 

You do not tell him about the top of the mountain, about the photos the man took of butterflies rising from the ground like silk, fluttering around you, settling in your hair. You do not tell him about the room with bamboo ceilings, steamy sunlight filtering through the screened windows. Even then you understood the elusiveness of exposure, of light burning a single moment onto film. But you did not understand that the moments would keep passing, that your life would become an endless roll of things you’d lost. 

Years later, when the film camera sits unused in the hall closet and the trip has faded like an old photograph, you look out the front window at your daughter on her bike, your husband running beside her with his hand on the seat, the two of them as close as your next breath and as far away as another country. And you still remember the moment on the bus when you looked up and lost yourself in that dark smile, everything wild growing around you, vines and mushrooms and creatures with haunted eyes.

 

© Jenna Thompson, 2016
For more info on the author click here. This story was read by Deanna Wells.