Ben was driving a bus when he first saw the girl.
She was like a ray of sunshine on a cold, rainy day. Ben being Ben, he tried to quantify his feelings with words. He observed, paying attention to the details of this person.
There was nothing really extraordinary about her. Chestnut hair… no, auburn, a hint of red in the brown. Slippery strands swept up into three sloppy buns, tied with yellow ribbon.
Was it the cheerful adornment that was affecting him? No… not quite.
Big, shining eyes in a delicate, elfin face. She was seated all the way at the back of the bus, so he couldn’t figure out the colour of that gaze. Long, sleek lashes. She was pretty, but he’d seen prettier if he was being brutally honest.
And he usually was honest. To a fault.
She was talking to the young man beside her, gesturing with thin fingers, her face expressive and bright. Her personality gleamed like a newly minted coin.
And then she laughed, white teeth emphasizing a pale honey tan, the smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose and cheekbones crinkling. Ben felt responsive joy bloom in the middle of his chest.
What was this emotional reaction? It wasn’t like him at all… not when it came to girls.
Ben believed in romance, he really did. His real self, his hidden soul, was that of a poet. But romance did not have to mean boy meets girl. In fact, his life almost exclusively excluded such things.
Exclusively excluded. Hmm.
His fingers itched, wanting to reach for his notebook.
To take his mind off the frustrating inability to write- his favourite thing in the world was to jot down words and phrases- he continued to study the girl. Woman?
She was younger than him, of that he was sure, but old enough to be wearing grey work overalls. The white stitching on her right breast read Plutt’s Service Centre. Her boyfriend… friend? colleague?... had on the same outfit. The overalls swallowed her small, slim form but his stretched tight over bulkier musculature.
He had skin the exact colour of Ben’s morning cup of coffee, his dark hair cropped short and his deep brown gaze steady. His smile was just as attractive as hers, but Ben found he lacked whatever magic the girl possessed. The couple were clearly enjoying each other, having a good afternoon.
They may not have been a couple, though Ben wasn’t sure why that mattered. His approval of the pretty girl, while wholly masculine, was platonic in nature. It had been his way since returning from his second tour in Afghanistan. Relationships were too much trouble with a mind as full as his.
Denying himself female companionship- apart from the occasional one night stand- was a lonely way to live, but there were far worse things than loneliness. He could deal with loneliness. What he didn’t want was a broken heart because he couldn’t hold up his end of the deal. Inevitably, he always seemed to disappoint the ones he loved.
It pained his family that he’d retreated into himself, living a life devoid of the legacy created by his grandfather. Ben returned from war with no interest in the family business. Why would he want to stay in a laboratory testing new drugs for Organa Pharmaceuticals when he could be doing almost anything else?
He hadn’t meant to hurt his mother, but it had happened anyway. Dad was usually more philosophical about such things, but this time he’d put his foot down and that was the end of that. Ben was banished until he could see reason.
He left Manhattan and now rented a tiny house near work in Paterson, New Jersey. It had been a conceit of his, picking a city with his own middle name. His grandmother, Padme, was the artistic soul in the family and insisted he be named after William Carlos Williams’ epic five volume masterpiece.
The funny thing was (not funny ha-ha, but funny isn’t that odd?) his new home of Paterson was the Paterson- the very place that had inspired the poet. A fragment of the poem floated back to him now, as he followed the bus route he’d long memorised:
Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
lies on his right side, head near the thunder
of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
his dreams walk about the city where he persists
incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear.
Ben sighed. Perhaps one day he would be able to transpose the thunder of waters filling his dreams. Certainly, he persisted in living his life incognito.
A voice within whispered that it might be nice to be seen by someone. Really seen.
He frowned. The girl on the bus was more than a pebble. She was a stone in the river of his thoughts, disrupting its flow.
She and her friend disembarked at the next stop. Ben was sorry to see her go.
Ben was driving a bus when the girl saw him again.
Rey studied the dark-haired man with the serious face, big hands gripping a steering wheel. She admired those hands, picturing long fingers in her hair, heat coiling in her belly as her imagination ran away with itself.
What was wrong with her? Was she seriously checking out her bus driver? It was all Finn’s fault.
She flushed recalling her friend’s comments.
“I think Mr Bus Driver likes you, peanut,” he’d smirked a week ago.
Even though it sometimes made her nauseous, Rey was glad they’d been forced to sit at the back of the bus since it was less likely the driver could hear her friend. They only had a couple of stops to go. She normally hitched a ride with Finn in his ancient wood panelled station wagon, but Rose had needed his car for the day.
“Don’t be an idiot,” she muttered, trying and failing to look away from the intense gaze watching her through the rear view mirror.
“You could do worse,” Finn said jokingly. “At least he has a job.”
“He’s older than us,” Rey said, casting an eye about to make sure none of the other passengers were listening in to their conversation.
“So? That didn’t stop Poe and Zorri from getting together. She’s seven years older than him.”
“They knew each other from the neighbourhood,” Rey protested.
“Yeah, and this guy’s clearly local. Not like the last douchebag you dated.”
Rey rolled her eyes at Finn. “Hux was English, just like us.”
“Didn’t stop him from being a tosser.”
Rey laughed. On that, she had to agree.
The conversation promptly degenerated into one of their more worthy ex-bashing sessions.
Finn was everything to Rey- her only family, foster brother and best friend. The decision to come to America was his. He wanted to get as far away as he could from memories of a neglected childhood.
Rey had followed because… well, why not? Truth was, she didn’t want to be alone. Without Finn, she had no one.
They decided to live in New York, but eventually ended up in Jersey working for a big slob of a man called Plutt. He was both racist and misogynist, but was willing to take on Finn and Rey since he knew they’d be dependent on him to maintain their work visas. Rey had stopped counting the amount of unpaid overtime they were owed.
Moving to the States had worked out, somewhat. At least, it had for Finn.
He’d become good friends with their next door neighbour, Poe, and met Rose through Poe’s girlfriend Zorri. Rey supposed her friendship circle had expanded as well, but she knew she was only a part of the group because of Finn.
After one particularly excruciating dinner where Rey had yet again been the wilted pickle in a couple sandwich, she’d finally crumbled and gone out with a guy she’d met at their local bar. Unfortunately, all Hux had done was remind her why dating could be such a minefield.
After Hux explained for the third time why he wouldn’t pay for her drink (she was an investment he wasn’t sure he wanted to make yet, declaring this as if his prudence was evidence of intelligence rather than a sign he was a tightwad), Rey had skilfully dodged his attempts to be invited back to her apartment, pleased to maintain her losing streak. If anything, the experience had made her even more distrustful than before.
She wasn’t looking for a man and would never have noticed the bus driver had Finn not pointed him out. In his blue uniform- shirt and slacks and jacket- he’d been as forgettable as the vehicle he drove. And then Finn opened his damn mouth and now all she could see was him.
The long, sensitive face was unusually handsome, with wide, prominent cheekbones, a dominant nose and full, mobile lips. His dark gaze was intense; he hadn’t smiled the several minutes she’d stared at him like some kind of weirdo stalker. Though, to be fair, she wasn’t sure if he had anything to smile about while driving.
She decided Finn was wrong and he wasn’t into her. Certainly today his mind seemed to be elsewhere.
All of a sudden the bus lurched, sending Rey and a dozen or so of her fellow passengers flying out of their seats. She caught a metal hand grip just in time, but a few people had to peel themselves off the floor. She heard the vehicle’s engine cough and sputter, her ears attuned to such things.
The driver responded with admirable aplomb, steering the big hunk of metal off the main street and close to the kerb. Those around her burst into conversation, the minor event making friends where before there were only strangers.
Rey watched the driver try to restart the bus. The engine turned over but didn’t catch. He reached for an ancient phone handle hooked onto the dashboard, but going by his expression she didn’t think it worked. He hung up again without speaking.
At last, he stood, unfolding himself from the driver’s seat. Mercy, he was tall.
“Looks like we have an issue with the bus, folks. I’m going to have to ask everyone to disembark.”
A thrill ran through Rey as she realised this was her chance to properly meet the bus driver.
Passengers around her began standing and shuffling down the aisle, most looking concerned, a few disgruntled. There was a group of five kids, not quite teenagers but old enough to travel alone, talking excitedly amongst themselves. She was glad someone was having fun.
The driver stood on the sidewalk by the door as people exited. An elderly lady in front of Rey paused on the last step, asking him in a querulous voice, “Is everything okay? I hope it’s not dangerous. We don’t want to blow up in a fireball.”
He blinked dark eyes- amber, not brown, Rey realised- and shook his head. “Oh no, ma’am. Nothing dangerous at all. It’s just an electrical fault.”
His voice was pitched low and calm, a smooth baritone that fitted his huge physique. Rey was touched when he held out his hand to help the older woman down the final step.
By the time Rey got to him, he was running that hand through his thick mop of raven black hair, appearing stressed. He had shoulders that could fill a door frame, and as she stepped onto the sidewalk, she realised the top of her head didn’t even reach them.
He waited until everyone was on the path before he spoke again. “I just need to call the office and they’ll send another bus to pick you up. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
He stopped talking to walk over to one of the kids, a young boy who’d ventured onto the quiet street and was gaping inquisitively at the back of the bus. The driver’s big hand swallowed up the boy’s skinny arm as he guided him back to his friends and the safety of the sidewalk. Rey was impressed by his sense of duty. And those hands.
People were still muttering amongst themselves as the driver paused, looking up and down the street, a frown on his face. He hadn’t reached into his pockets for a cell phone. Was he really looking for a public payphone?
Rey stepped forward. “Did you need to use my phone?” she asked, offering him the cloth tote bag that used to contain her lunch but now only held her smartphone.
He stared at the bag with its sequinned teddy bear motif and she flushed. She was such an idiot. How was he to know what it contained? Turning redder by the second, Rey started digging around its depths to fish out what he needed, but it was as if the inside of the bag had turned into a black hole.
The driver’s sensitive mouth quirked into a smile that made her heart stutter. He grabbed the tote bag, gently disentangling it from her arm since it was still held out to him.
“Um, thanks,” he said, reaching inside and finding her phone straight away.
Rey nodded, still blushing furiously.
Great. She was doing an amazing job making him think she was mental.
He called a number, walking a few feet away as he had the conversation before returning. “Thanks for that,” he said, handing back the bag.
“You- you don’t have a phone?” she asked, hoping he didn’t think she was asking for his number.
He shook his head, hands in his pockets. “No. A cell phone is like a leash.”
Rey was at a loss over how to respond to that. Fortunately, the replacement bus was just pulling up. He turned his back to her, waving a hand at the dark-skinned man behind the wheel of the bus.
Rey so badly wanted to ask the driver his name, but she wasn’t brave enough. Besides, how to do so without finishing her earlier fine work and appearing utterly unhinged? She had no reason to request his personal information. He could have turned her smartphone assistance into something more, but he didn’t seem inclined to do so.
“That was quick,” she said, trying one last time.
The bus driver shrugged. “Donny’s route is close by and he was just about to head back to the depot. He’ll be able to get everyone where they need to go.”
“Aren’t you coming?”
He still wasn’t looking at her directly. “Oh, no, I’ll have to wait for the towing company.”
Feeling dejected, Rey clambered onto the newly arrived bus with her fellow passengers. It had been a perfect opportunity to introduce herself, but somehow she’d managed to mess it up.
“You know what your problem is?” Finn asked later, wiping away tears of hilarity as Rey recounted her story over a spaghetti dinner.
Rose frowned, trying to get him to show a little more compassion, but Rey was used to Finn’s bluntness.
“Please, tell me my faults, I’m begging you,” she said dully, playing with her last mouthful of pasta. That was how she knew she was upset- when not even food was able to tempt her.
“You’ve got no game,” Finn said, grinning cheerfully. “You gotta put yourself out there, peanut. Open yourself up to new experiences.”
“Maybe the whole process of looking for a place to stay is a good thing,” Rose said, clearing dirty dishes off their collapsible dining table. “It’ll force you to meet new people. I’m still good friends with all my former housemates.”
Rey stared at Rose’s serene expression, the thick cluster of dark curls framing her round face making her appear cherubic. “What- what are you talking about?”
Rose stiffened at the kitchen sink, turning to glare at Finn. “You said you’d told her,” she snapped.
Rey felt the food in her stomach curdle. She should have seen this coming, really.
Finn’s dark eyes were imploring. “Bloody hell, Rey, I’m sorry. I never meant to spring it on you like this. It’s just… Rose and I were thinking of moving in together, and her apartment has three other tenants, so it’s easier if she just comes here and we thought you wouldn’t want to stick around…”
Rey had heard enough. She left the tiny kitchen for the sanctuary of her equally tiny bedroom. Shutting the door and locking it, she sank onto her single bed.
It wasn’t the end of the world, she told herself. She’d always known at some point she wouldn’t be able to live with Finn anymore. She just never thought that point in time was now.
Rey could hear Rose yelling at Finn. Ugh. She shook her head, wanting to disappear.
She reached for her teddy bear tote bag to rescue her phone and froze when her fingers closed around something else. Rey pulled out a worn notebook.
She flipped it open and saw sprawling handwriting across unlined white paper.
I have plenty of matches in my house.
I keep them on hand, always.
Currently my favorite brand is Ohio Blue Tip,
though I used to prefer Diamond brand
That was before I discovered Ohio Blue Tip matches.
They are excellently packaged, sturdy
little boxes with dark and light blue and white labels
with words lettered in the shape of a megaphone,
as if to say even louder to the world,
“Here is the most beautiful match in the world,
its one-and-a-half-inch soft pine stem capped
by a grainy dark purple head, so sober and furious
and stubbornly ready to burst into flame,
lighting, perhaps, the cigarette of the woman you love,
for the first time, and it was never really the same
All this we will give you.”
That is what you gave me, I
become the cigarette and you the match, or I
the match and you the cigarette, blazing
with kisses that smoulder toward heaven.
Rey stopped breathing. The words were both ordinary and somehow revelatory.
She quickly flipped through the notebook and realised it was half full. The very first page had a name on it, underlined once. Ben Solo.
And Rey knew she had discovered her bus driver’s name.
Ben was driving a bus when Rey found him.
He parked his vehicle in a New Jersey Transit depot alongside a fleet of others. As he grabbed his jacket in preparation to disembark, he saw her. The girl from last week, the same one from yesterday. All day he’d been in a funk, but her appearance chased away some of the clouds.
She wasn’t in her work overalls, instead wearing a dress with a scattering of tiny red berries across a white ground. Her hair was loose, a dark red ripple down her back. She looked nervous, as if she was waiting for someone.
He’d been rattled by yesterday’s breakdown. It was a perfect opportunity to talk to her, but he couldn’t find it in him to do much more than say thank you for the use of her phone.
He’d arrived home an hour later than usual due to the incident paperwork he had to fill out and discovered his notebook missing from his jacket pocket. That was the end of any good thing in his day and all thought of the girl had vanished from his mind.
Ben had turned right around, returning to the scene of the breakdown, hoping to find the notebook dirty but whole on the sidewalk, but there was nothing there. He then tracked down the bus to where it was towed, but his notebook wasn’t there either. His heart imploded inside his chest.
His notebook was probably gone forever, several months’ worth of thoughts and cadences at the bottom of some slimy gutter. It was devastating.
But here she stood, the girl who kept stealing his focus, as if life was throwing him a bone. He wondered who she was waiting for.
“Hey, do you need any help?” he asked.
She swung around, and the smile that lit up her face stole his breath away. Ben reconsidered his previous assessment of her. How had he thought her ordinary? She was beautiful… radiant.
“Are you Ben Solo?”
The English accent he’d noticed yesterday seemed more pronounced as she spoke his name. “Yes,” he said, startled.
The smile widened. She reached inside her bag and pulled out a blue notebook. Ben felt a warm wave of relief sweep over him.
“How… Is that… Why…” He couldn’t seem to form a sentence.
“I think it fell into my bag after you used my phone,” she said sweetly.
Ben clutched the notebook, unable to express his gratitude. Instead, he heard himself ask, “Did you read any of it?”
Her smile faltered and he wished he’d bitten off his tongue instead.
“I- I read one poem,” she admitted. “I’m sorry if it was private. When I realised what the book contained, I stopped. Your name was on the first page and I suspected it might be yours.”
“Thank you,” Ben said, clearing his throat. “I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. It’s just… no one’s ever read my poetry.”
Her full lower lip fell open. “Seriously? But you should try to get published. What I saw was brilliant.”
He felt a spark of joy but tried to stamp it out. “I write for myself,” he said.
“So it’s a secret notebook?” she teased.
He shrugged, wondering how this little woman was making him tongue-tied. And she was little; small and slim and delicate. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Rey,” she told him.
“Pleased to meet you, Rey. May I buy you a cup of coffee?”
He was rewarded by another glimpse of her smile.
He took her to the local café two streets away. They found a booth with cherry red vinyl seats and he watched her pour sugar into her cup.
“You intend on having any coffee with that sugar?”
“I prefer tea,” Rey said sheepishly.
He laughed, feeling bemused. “You could have said no to the coffee.”
“But I wanted to get to know you.”
Ben stared at her, taken aback by her candour. Her hazel eyes were as clear as glass, more green than brown, watching him shyly in contradiction to her plain speaking.
He decided he’d never met anyone quite like Rey.
“Do you ever drive one of those accordion busses?” she asked, filling the silence with words.
He laughed. “Articulated.”
“Articulated,” she repeated, blushing.
“Why not call them accordions?” he said. “That makes as much sense. And no, I just drive the regular ones.”
“Have you always been interested in poetry?”
“It’s a new thing,” he heard himself admit. “A way for me to express my emotions after serving overseas.”
He nodded and, as he was wont to do with civilians, changed the subject. “Do you like poetry?”
“Actually, I do.”
“I write too, but I keep it all on my phone.”
“I suppose. I wish I had a secret notebook like yours.”
He sipped his coffee. “It doesn’t matter where you write. I prefer pen to paper, but it doesn’t mean I’ll never use a computer.”
“Would you really?” she asked, looking doubtful.
He laughed again. “No, probably not.”
Rey seemed pleased by his laugh and Ben wondered what he was doing. Was this a quick thank you to a kind stranger, or new beginnings for two people now inextricably linked? He told himself to remain cautious. He didn’t actually know the girl.
“Would you like to hear one of mine?” She was looking down at the scarred tabletop rather than at him as she asked the question.
“It doesn’t really rhyme, though.”
“That’s okay, I kinda like ‘em better when they don’t.”
“Yeah, me too.” She tapped her phone, pulling up an app. “Okay- this one’s called Water Falls. Two words.” She looked at him and he nodded encouragingly, already formulating some kind of neutral response to what he hoped wouldn’t be too terrible.
Rey cleared her throat.
“Water falls from the bright air.
It falls like hair.
Falling across a young girl’s shoulders.
Making pools in the asphalt.
Dirty mirrors with clouds and buildings inside.
It falls on the roof of my house,
It falls on my brother, and on my hair.
Most people call it rain.”
Ben felt her words saturate his mind. He bowed his head, burning verses into his memory.
“Was- was that okay?”
He looked up and saw her big eyes had grown bigger, waiting on his response. “That was beautiful,” he said quickly. “Thank you for sharing it with me.”
“It doesn’t rhyme,” she mumbled, repeating herself, still anxious for his approval.
“Yeah, but the first two lines do, and there are some nice internal rhythms.”
Rey took a sip of her sludgy coffee, grimacing. “Do you think I could hear more of your stuff?”
“Do you want to?”
Ben smiled, slow and charming. He had a feeling he’d received more today than just his notebook.
Ben was driving a bus when he saw Rey waiting for him by the depot’s front entrance. He waved to her from his seat and she beamed, waving back.
It was his lunch break, and Rey had agreed to meet him on her day off. She’d slipped out of her apartment before she could have an awkward conversation with Finn about living arrangements, aware it was only her date with Ben that was making her happy.
Was it a date? Rey wasn’t so sure. Ben said he wanted to show her something. That was enough for her to say yes.
They took a walk through the streets of Paterson, Ben slowing his loping stride so Rey didn’t have to scurry along to keep pace. He took her to an open air viewing area, metal benches and a poured concrete ground overlooking the Great Falls of the Passaic River.
He chose a bench and they sat down together, the thunder of the waters a hypnotising backdrop.
“This is wonderful,” Rey whispered. Her heart swelled inside her chest, fed by the beauty around them. “Gorgeous.”
Ben smiled. “I come here for my lunch breaks,” he told her.
“Seeing this every day would make a lot of things better,” she murmured.
“Rey… are you okay?”
She looked away from the falls and at him, startled. Dark amber eyes were watching her with concern. Here was a man who’d turned attentiveness into a finely tuned skill. She should have known he’d pick up on her blues.
She bit her lip, formulating an answer that was both honest but not too revealing. Ben didn’t need to know all the boring details of her insipid life.
“I just found out I need to look for a new place to live.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he responded.
She shrugged. “No, it’s fine. The timing was unexpected.” She looked up at him through dark lashes. He was tall even sitting down. “I’ve never actually lived on my own before. It’s funny, really.”
“Oh… because I’m an orphan. I have no family.”
And just like that, she saw the expression on his face shift. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking; he was remarkably cagy for one so sensitive to the world around him. It was a probably a combination of pity and regret. Pity for her lack of familial bonds, and regret he’d signed up for her sob story.
What was she doing, exposing her truth so soon? Rey still hadn’t spoken to Poe or Zorri about her childhood, and even Rose barely had a peek inside. No doubt Finn had filled them in somewhat.
“Please don’t feel sorry for me,” Rey said quickly, forcing her lips into a brittle smile. “Like I said, I was never alone. The foster system practically ensures you’re surrounded by people in overcrowded lodgings. Coming to America was the first time I had my own bedroom.”
“You can be surrounded by people and still be alone,” Ben said quietly.
He didn’t push for any more information, instead popping open his lunch box and pulling out two cupcakes with dark chocolate frosting. He offered her one and she gladly took it.
Food. It brought her joy. Was there anything better than being fed by a man you liked?
They munched companionably, staring into the frothing waterfall. Rey noticed Ben’s large hand twitch and she suppressed a grin, unsure how many of her teeth were covered by gooey icing.
“Go ahead and write if you want to,” she said as soon as she’d swallowed her first bite.
“I don’t want to offend you,” he said uncertainly.
She laughed. “It’s not as if you’re picking up a call and ignoring me in favour of another conversation. Except you can’t, can you? It must be peaceful not having a mobile.”
Ben reached inside his blue New Jersey Transport jacket for his notebook and pen. He started to write and Rey continued to demolish her cupcake. She wondered if he intended to finish his.
At last he was done. He looked at her pensively. “Would you like to hear it?”
She nodded, pleased. This private, self-effacing man was not given to sharing his craft. She felt privileged, even if she’d opened the door to his poetry by bumbling head first through it.
“I was working on a poem this morning. On my first run.”
Rey dared not say anything, afraid she’d spoil the moment and he’d recant his offer.
When the words finally came, he spoke slowly, almost reluctantly, his deep voice calm and measured.
“I go through
trillions of molecules
that move aside
to make way for me
while on both sides
stay where they are.
The windshield wiper blade
starts to squeak.
The rain has stopped.
On the corner
in a yellow raincoat
holding his mother’s hand.”
Rey sighed. “That’s pretty. I like the bit about molecules.”
He put away the notebook without reacting, though she thought he looked pleased.
“Ben, may I ask you something?”
He looked at her, picking up his half-eaten cupcake. “You can certainly try.”
“The love poem I read in your secret notebook, the one about the matches… who was it for?”
Ben hesitated. “No one, really.”
“Sometimes the things I write about are dreams… wishes.”
Did that mean he didn’t have a girlfriend? Rey certainly hoped so. Was she a bad person wanting him to be as lonely as herself?
They talked some more, him about the quiet rhythm of driving a bus, the small life that he lived, its smallness deliberate after the gunpowder and smoke of being a marine. She told him about the things she missed in London, the vibrant green of grass and foliage, the beauty of five-hundred-year-old villages. And how she still felt like an alien in America even after all this time.
“So you’re really a mechanic?” Ben asked as they walked back to the bus depot together.
Rey arched a brow in his direction. “What are you implying?”
He raised his hands in mock surrender. “I’d never be so sexist as to comment about women and cars, I assure you.”
“I’m surprisingly good at it,” she said with a giggle. “I have a knack for fixing things.”
A strange look crossed his sculpted face. “I’m sure you do.”
Abruptly, Ben stopped walking and she ran into his unyielding frame. Rey couldn’t help the little thrill that shimmied down her spine as her face brushed the muscles of his deep chest, warm and firm. He must go to the gym when he wasn’t writing poetry or driving busses.
She looked up at him, all six feet three inches (she’d asked) and realised that strange light was still in his gaze.
“What is it, Ben?”
“Rey… what if the broken thing you’re dealing with is a person and not a car?”
Her mouth dropped open, her eyes fluttering wide. The steel casing around her heart cracked open.
Emotion flooded her brain with hundreds, no thousands of words.
She wanted to tell him how much she liked him, how perfect she thought he was for her. That their meeting was fated, written across the night sky with shooting stars. That she’d never believed in love at first sight until him.
She would try to explain, without sounding too nuts, that he was all she’d thought about the last week. That she’d given up on ever meeting someone like him; a good, kind man who wanted to pay for her coffee and also brought her cupcakes.
And then she would assure him that she too was broken. A lost and hungry soul. Too lost to be found by most guys, too hungry to be in a stable relationship. But here he was, Ben Solo, and she finally believed in love again. She who had been rejected so often that she considered love a construct created by Hollywood to sell t-shirts and posters wanted to be in love. With him.
Rey reached for him, the tips of her fingers brushing his. Ben leaned down closer, and for a moment she wondered if he would kiss her.
The blast of a car horn made them both jump, their bodies separating in shock and adrenaline.
“Rey, where the hell have you been?”
Rey stared at Finn’s face hanging out the driver’s side window of his ancient station wagon, her brain so overloaded it was short circuiting. “What?” But she didn’t actually speak the word, merely mouthing it.
He didn’t even see Ben, so consumed was he by his own thoughts. “I’ve been calling you all day! We need to talk about what happened last night.”
She shook her head, Finn’s voice like a buzzing in her ears. “I- I turned off my phone.”
“Why the bloody hell would you do that?” Finn exclaimed.
But Rey was turning back to Ben, reaching for him once more.
His handsome face had returned to the implacable seriousness of his expression when driving a bus, the hand she’d touched now tucked into a pocket. Somewhere in the last five seconds since Finn’s arrival he’d stepped even further away from her.
Oh, God, no. The tiny flame that had kindled inside of Rey stuttered, as if deprived of oxygen.
“I should go,” Ben said woodenly, before she could speak. “I have to get back to work.”
He walked away and the light flickered out, leaving her feeling strangely cold.
“Rey, get in the car,” Finn said impatiently. “Traffic’s about to move.”
Numbly, she got into the station wagon, unsure how her perfect afternoon had ended so horribly wrong.
The next time Ben saw Rey was the first time he did so when not driving a bus.
Over a week had gone by since he’d taken her to his special lunch spot. He’d felt like such a fool when her friend showed up in his car, yelling at Rey that they needed to talk, making it clear how intimate they were. After all, he’d been with her ‘last night’.
Ben had gone home after work that day and taken a long, hard look at himself in the mirror. That was what he got for opening up to someone.
When would he learn that a solitary life was best? All he needed were his poems and bus route. Anything else was a complication.
The very next day he arrived at work and was presented with a letter. Donny handed over the sealed white envelope as if it were made of gold. Ben’s name was written across it in emerald green ink.
He knew straight away it was her. Rey. Who else could it be?
He’d hesitated to open it, tucking the envelope away until his lunch break. Then, with the music of the falling waters all around him, he’d carefully torn it open.
The paper inside was folded in half, palest lavender with a ghostly imprint of a blue butterfly in one corner. In that same green ink, Rey had written:
This is one of the first poems I ever wrote. I am the only one who has read it, and now you will too.
From childhood I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not awaken
All I loved, I loved alone.
I’m sorry our afternoon was interrupted.
May I please see you again?
Beneath her name was a phone number. Ben did not call it.
He knew he was being a coward, but he’d made a choice. Ben asked himself whether he could be nothing more than a friend to Rey with her shining hazel eyes and blinding bright smile, and he knew the answer was no.
So this was best thing to do, avoid the young woman with the British boyfriend she’d clearly brought with her when she’d migrated from London, pretend as if the blip in the beating of his heart had never happened, and go on with his serene life. Except his soothing routine was now a mind-numbing bore.
In desperation, Ben called his cousin before he was tempted to call Rey, because of course he’d kept her sweet note, tucked inside the pages of his own notebook like an interloper.
Kaydel suggested he come with her to the local flea market where she had a booth selling cupcakes. Ben had surprised them both by agreeing.
Of all his headstrong relatives, Kaydel was the one he got along with best. Probably because she was too hipster to pretend to care about Ben’s life choices.
She was a pretty girl, five years younger than himself, her honey blonde hair worn in myriad thin braids, her body in a hot pink bikini top and baggy pink and green cotton harem pants drawing many an admiring glance from passers-by. Since he’d last seen her, the half a dozen piercings in her ears had been joined by a belly button ring, a hoop through her right eyebrow and a jewelled stud in her nose.
“Do you leak when you drink?” he asked blandly as they unloaded multiple trays of vegan cupcakes from the back of her sky blue Volkswagen Beetle.
“Ha-ha, dad,” she snapped, nonetheless grateful for his assistance. Her ‘business partner’ had failed to show up yet again.
“You should consider getting rid of Bazine,” Ben said, picking a peanut butter and chocolate concoction as payment. “What has she contributed except really good quality weed?”
“I think you answered your own question,” Kaydel grinned. “And stop eating my inventory.”
“These look amazing!” a new voice squealed.
Kaydel straightened up at once, turning so fast her braids clocked Ben in the face. He hoped there was peanut butter frosting on them now.
“Thank you so much!” his cousin replied, her voice pitched several degrees higher, her salesperson persona coming to the fore.
The almond-eyed girl perusing the baked goods had already taken advantage of the fruit vendors, her arms laden with bags of apples and bananas. “I have to have some,” she murmured. “Let me get my friend to help me carry them… Rey!”
Ben froze before he could bite into the cupcake again.
What was he thinking, coming to the flea market? It was the most popular thing to do in Paterson on a Saturday morning. Of course, she was here.
Rey wandered over from the booth next door, her expression mildly annoyed. She wore a yellow She-Ra t-shirt that must have been made for a child since it was skintight against her ribs and high, firm little breasts, her denim skirt even shorter than it should have been thanks to a fraying white hem. Her auburn hair was in a wispy ballerina top knot, her pink lips shiny with balm.
“Check out the cupcakes,” her friend was saying. “Won’t the guys love them?”
Rey frowned at the selection before her, spying the triple chocolate cakes Kaydel had imaginatively labelled ‘Deadly Sins’.
Ben bit back a sigh. He had nowhere to run and so decided to announce himself. “If those look familiar it’s because they are,” he said, drawing the astonished attention of all three girls.
Rey’s jaw dropped open. “Ben!”
“Hi,” he said awkwardly, peanut butter frosting beginning to melt on his fingers.
“You’re wearing clothes,” she said, making the other two girls goggle.
“What?” he responded, confused.
Rey turned bright red. “I mean… I’ve never seen you in anything but your uniform… Oh, damnit.”
Ben looked down at himself, his red Jordans, dark blue jeans and black Henley shirt. “I guess,” he mumbled.
Kaydel stepped into the breach. “I keep telling him how hot he looks in black but he never listens.”
Ben glared at her and she gave him a mischievous smile.
Rey’s hazel eyes took in Kaydel piece by piece, from her piercings to her magenta lipstick and the bikini top revealing a claw mark tattoo on the curve of her right breast. Her face fell.
Kaydel stuck out her hand. “Hi, I’m Ben’s cousin Kaydel.”
Rey recovered quickly, taking her hand. “Hi, I’m Rey, Ben’s... friend.” She glanced at him apologetically, acknowledging the fact that theirs was a relationship as yet undefined. “And this is Rose, she’s Finn’s girlfriend,” Rey added.
“Who?” Ben asked blankly.
“The guy who picked me up on the street the other day? My house mate.”
Realisation hit him. So the good looking British guy in the car had a girlfriend who wasn’t Rey.
Rey walked away from Rose and Kaydel, and Ben ducked under a piece of plywood to join her.
“How are you?” he asked, figuring he owed her that much.
“Good,” she said, anxious eyes making her answer a lie. And then in a rush of words she continued, “I made a mistake, Ben. I left a letter for you at your work, but it must have been misplaced because I never heard from you...”
“Rey, I got the letter.”
“Oh.” She blinked at him. Seconds ticked by, and the implication of his words hit her. “Oh.” Her cheeks flamed red once more, and then drained of colour. “I’ll just… I’ll just leave you alone then.”
He felt as if his feet were rooted to the ground, mired in hardening concrete. Ben told himself to go after Rey, to say something. To tell her that he liked her too.
But that would take vulnerability and courage he did not have.
He watched as Rose tried to speak to Rey, but she merely shook her head and grabbed the big box of cupcakes from Kaydel. Rose followed Rey as she quickly cut through the crowd, heading for the parking lot. Almond eyes shot him a singular glare before they both disappeared.
Kaydel called him over, looking perturbed as he cleaned his hand of the ruined remnants of her cupcake.
“What was that about?” she demanded.
He said nothing.
His cousin took a deep breath, her blue eyes sad. “Ben, you need to let someone in some time.”
“I’m not ready,” he admitted.
“No one ever is,” Kaydel responded. “But without love, what reason is there for anything?”
Ben shook his head, bemused. “You’re right.” He'd felt worse watching Rey walk away than he had the day he lost his notebook.
“Damn straight, I am,” Kaydel laughed. “Don’t sound so surprised.”
"What should I do?" he wondered out loud. "I've hurt her."
“Grovel," his cousin replied. "And do me a favour? Call your parents. It’s killing me pretending I don’t know where you are at every family function.”
Ben nodded, making up his mind.
Rey was daydreaming of Ben behind the wheel of a bus.
She looked up from her work desk, annoyed by the interruption. “Yeah?” she hollered back at her manager.
Plutt scowled. “Come here!”
Exchanging glances with Finn, Rey rolled back her chair and walked over to the sweaty man.
She and Finn were doing better now that they’d talked through their situation. Finn had begged her forgiveness, and then told her she could stay for as long as she wanted so long as she didn’t mind Rose moving in as well. But Rey’s mind was made up. She was already looking at places to rent, though she was grateful she didn’t have the pressure of a deadline.
Meeting Ben reminded her there was more to life than clinging to one person. Finn didn’t need the burden of being her everything, and she needed to spread her wings.
Rey thought of Ben all the time. Realising he'd rejected her had stung like hell, but she also knew his decision had little to do with her. She wished he wasn’t so closed off, that he’d realise it was okay to be broken and in need of repair. Most things were, like Rey herself.
“What?” she asked Plutt, giving the big industrial wall clock behind him a pointed look. It was almost five.
He indicated with his wobbly chin and she turned.
Rey bit back a gasp, not wanting to give Plutt the satisfaction of her reaction. He already knew she was a fan of American muscle.
“Is that a 1970 Charger?” she asked.
Her boss shook his head, smirking. “Close. It’s a 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona.”
“Look at it,” she breathed. “It’s in almost mint condition. Stabiliser wings on the rear deck, a sheet metal nose cone instead of a front grill. Where did you find it?”
“Some guy brought it in,” Plutt grunted. “Insisted the vehicle had to be serviced by you.”
Rey frowned. “What did this guy look like?”
Her boss shrugged, already walking away. “Do I look like a painter to you?”
Rey rolled her eyes, jumping off the platform to where the car sat in the new arrivals bay. It looked state of the art even though it was a classic, its body painted high gloss grey. A pair of golden dice hung from the rear view mirror, glinting in the fluorescent lights of the shop.
She couldn’t imagine Ben the poet with this kind of a car- loud, brash and distinctly unsubtle. But who else could have asked for her?
Rey popped the hood to take a closer look. Of course it had the optional seven litre Hemi V8 engine. There were only seventy cars in existence with these specifications. Amazing.
Rey frowned, seeing a speck of white amongst all the black and chrome. She leaned forward and picked up a thick white card in her greasy fingers. She turned it around and her heart thumped loudly in her chest. Written on the card was a poem.
I could be enough for Her, I knew—
She could be enough for Me—
Our hesitating halves both
looked at the future.
"If only I were Whole," I said—
Withdrawing to the furthest star, the largest galaxy
Before a decision
Rey’s lower lip trembled. The poem was about them. Quickly she tucked it away into a pocket, wishing she hadn’t seen it.
She supposed it was an apology of sorts, except that wasn’t explicit. If it was Ben who’d brought in the car, why hadn’t he stopped to speak to her?
The clock struck five and Rey left the arrival bay to pack up her things.
That night, she slept poorly. Every time she rolled over in bed, she would pull out the poem and read it again. Around three am, it occurred to Rey that perhaps there were other notes stuck in different parts of the car.
Despite her insomnia, Rey was ready to go a full hour before her usual time in the morning. Finn grumbled through his Fruit Loops as she hurried him along. When they arrived at work, she headed straight for the Charger.
Rey opened the driver’s side door and slipped into a leather seat. Sure enough, tucked into the steering wheel was another card.
I take a chance and stare at you,
amazed in love and afraid
that you might open your eyes and have
the daylights scared out of you.
But maybe with the daylights gone
you’d see how much my chest and head
implode for you, their voices trapped
inside like unborn children fearing
they will never see the light of day.
It’s rainy blue and gray. I tie my shoes
and go downstairs to put the coffee on.
Rey chewed on her lower lip so hard she tasted the copper of her own blood. Was this for her? Really and truly?
She kept looking, combing through the car’s well-maintained crevices, her heart hungry for more. There was one more card, sitting neat and obvious inside the glove box.
My ray of sunshine,
I like to think about other girls sometimes,
but the truth is
if you ever left me
I’d tear my heart out
and never put it back.
There’ll never be anyone like you.
Rey went looking for Finn, tears streaming down her face.
“Peanut, what’s happened?” he asked, going from sleepy to alarmed.
“I have to leave,” she said, her voice hoarse with emotion.
“When are you coming back?”
“I don’t know.” Rey turned around then paused. “Oh, and no one touches the Charger but me.”
Ben was driving a bus, pulling the vehicle slowly out of a parking bay.
He didn’t see the lithe figure dart across the floor of the depot, catching up to the side of the lumbering vehicle, leaping up to bang on the glass door.
Ben brought the bus to a screeching halt, staring at a figure in grey overalls.
He opened the door and she scrambled inside, launching herself at him. She landed in his lap, slim arms around his neck.
Rey kissed Ben, the poetry of his words fuelling her actions.
For a moment he sat frozen in place. And then he responded, hard-muscled arms wrapping around her back, drawing her into the warmth of his embrace. Her lips parted and his tongue dived in, drinking her like a thirsty man at a water spout.
Rey… she was everything. Everything he dared not hope to want.
“You’re everything,” she mumbled around his wet lips.
Ben grinned, breaking contact. He must have spoken out loud.
Rey whined, tightening her grip around his neck, thin fingers sliding into his hair.
“More, please,” she begged.
And his dormant libido burst into life, setting his blood on fire, turning his loins as hard as rock. He tipped his head and continued to kiss her, desperate, breathtaking kisses that removed thought and logic.
One day he would write about this so that his words howled like wolves at a full moon.
A banging at the bus door broke them apart. Ben turned his head to find Donny staring at him, arms in the air as if to say, “What the hell, man?”
He laughed out loud, a sound so joyous Rey giggled as well. He hadn’t laughed like that in ages.
“I gotta go,” he said, looking at the girl in his arms, stifling a groan as she pouted lips reddened by his own mouth.
He intended to kiss her for hours, until their tongues ached and there wasn’t enough water to rehydrate their horny bodies.
“When will I see you?” she asked sharply, a flicker of vulnerability in her gaze.
“This evening,” he replied at once, making her beam. “I’ll come to your work to pick up the car. We can leave together.”
She disentangled herself from his grasp, getting up off his lap to his disappointment. “That car… Where did it come from?”
“My dad,” he admitted with a lazy grin that was all male and quite unlike him. “He assured me the Falcon was a babe magnet. No woman would be able to resist.”
Rey blushed. “You- you told your dad about me?”
“And my mom too,” he said, shaking his head as if he didn’t quite believe it himself. “I think they want to meet you.”
She looked at him in wonder.
Ben started the engine and watched Rey turn around to go, but his hand shot out at the last minute, long fingers circling her wrist. She turned back to look at him.
“Rey… you have to be patient with me. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Silly Ben,” she said, bending over to give him another quick kiss on the mouth. “Don’t you know by now, it’s the empty pages that present the most possibilities?”