…Choika sits like a statue. Her bag in her lap, her legs crossed official-like. She hardly jostles when we hit the potholes. I am more and more disappointed that she has not blown us all up yet. I contemplate peeing into an empty beer bottle, then set it on the floor and one of the babushkas snatches it up.
“It is definitely not,” one babushka says to the other one.
“Nightmare,” the other one says.
“This is not the road to Novgorod,” one babushka shouts at the driver. “Where are you taking us?”
“I am down here searching for a place to allow you all to use the bathroom comfortably.”
“We used the toilet once already. We should be there by now,” she says.
Andre touches her arm and she yanks her hand back. “Relax, babushka,” he says. “He is going to drop me and Vadim on the way.”
Both babushkas stand up and shout at the driver: “Why are we taking them somewhere? Who are they? Why not drop us off at our doorsteps?”
“They risk their lives fighting in Chechnya,” the driver says. “What do you do for us?”
I am happy for the bathroom break. When he pulls the bus into the driveway of some old storage building, I am the first one on the ground, whizzing behind a mailbox, and I’m climbing back aboard before everyone else is even off. Choika steps around me and I hurry back to my seat to watch her. She goes across the street and chooses a thin birch. She plants her feet a few feet in front of the tree, then squats, staring at her knees. I wonder if I’m becoming weird.
The driver is at the back of the aisle talking with Andre and Vadim. A man comes out of the storage building and steps aboard. He counts out some money for the driver. The driver unlocks the bathroom and when the door is opened a wall of shoeboxes collapses onto him. The entire bathroom is packed floor to ceiling with these boxes.
The soldiers round the shoeboxes into stacks of five, stacks that tower over their heads so they have to look around them as they walk. Andre stops at our aisle and drops a box onto his seat next to me.
“Vadim,” he says. “Which size are you?”
“Forty-three,” Vadim says. Andre checks the size of the boxes in his stack and drops another one onto the seat. I lift the lid off one of the boxes. They’re Nike sneakers. I pull the tongue on one. The shape is far too oval. The bottoms are painted foam. I close the box.
“Only one pair each,” the driver says to the soldiers. “That’s the deal.”
Choika is standing again, tugging down the hem of her skirt. A ball of toilet paper is left by the thin birch. She doesn’t even look when she steps onto the highway. She stands there in the middle of the asphalt. She lifts up one heel, cleaning the mud off of it with toilet paper. The she lifts up the other heel and wipes it.
The driver stands at the front of the bus shouting again. “We have good news, ladies and gentleman,” he says. “Novgorod is our next stop. And, by the way, I’m happy to inform you that the bathroom is now operational.”
“A cunt to your mouth,” someone in back says. “You unscrupulous shit-ass,” another.
“What?” the driver says. “Five minutes ago you didn’t even want to stop. Now you’re all put out.”
Andre and Vadim grab the sneakers and their empty duffles.
“You want to hang out with us?” Andre asks me. “There’s a kiosk nearby.”
No thanks, I say. They turn and Choika is staring them in the face. “Sionara, madam,” Andre says, saluting her. She slides into the seat next to me, and looking out the window toward the thin birch, thinking, maybe, that I just watched her pee.
As the engine fires, I gaze at the back of Choika’s head wanting to meet her eyes when she turns. “Shoe smugglers,” I say. “Counterfeit shoe smugglers deserve whatever they get.” It is useless. There is a chip of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of her heel. I sit with my spine straight against the seatback trying to watch the toilet paper on her heel with an intensity equal to her stare out the window. I am staring and waiting for something, anything, to blow.