The Pilgrim

By Andrew Wilson

On the crowded city bus in Rome, Hilary is clinging to a strap and looking out at the apartment buildings jolting past, a slice of blue sky, a tree ringed by wire, a fountain spurting up bright streams from the mouth of a sea-serpent. All these fragmentary sights are cloaked in a haze of brown fumes from the hooting, sputtering and roaring traffic. The profound heat has her sweating at the armpits and down the front of her thin, pale yellow silk blouse. Her brother Albert is in front of her. As the bus stops and starts with brutal lurches, the weight of the crowd crushes her against her brother's spine -- this happens as rhythmically and as predictably as the surging, inevitable motion of waves hitting a beach. Each time, she choses to let herself fall forward a little, so that she is embracing Albert, rather than allowing herself to be thrown backwards against the granite-like body of a man standing behind her holding a blue suit jacket in one arm.

At first, she tries to make a joke of it, shouting hoarse curses in Albert's ear each time it occurs. Finally, however, the endless rocking wears her out, and she stops speaking. She shuts her eyes tightly each time the force of the bus causes the front of her body to adhere to her brother's back, arching a little to keep at least her breasts away.

Then Hilary feels something slip between her legs. The skin there thrills to it. Something has slid up under her skirt and it is now simply there, between her thighs, just a few inches below her thin cotton underpants. A man's big hand.

The hand is commanding, delicate, self assured -- yet, it is also oddly dignified in its reserve. It does nothing, at first, and by this nothing seems to assert its simple right to be exactly where it is. But after a few moments, as if emboldened by Hilary's weird lack of response (where is the shout that should have risen to her throat by now? why isn't she writhing away from the hand as if scorched by it?) the fingers spread, begin to explore. Hilary senses a flash of coolness and thinks, Wedding ring. And she resists, with all the willpower in her, the impulse to clamp her legs together. No, that would be a passionate, womanly act -- an act of assent, even of welcome.

A life, a palpable will animates the hand, which seems to Hilary by turns cool and hot, restrained and imperious, masculine and feminine. The sights passing outside the bus window turn flat as the hand, caressing Hilary's soft skin in circles, inches to her groin and presses there -- just the knuckles gouging her lightly, in a place where she has never before been touched by anyone except the wise-cracking, bearded family doctor. The rough knuckles begin to rub her welling sex in a slow, almost contemplatively sad, circular motion. The effort of keeping her legs apart is so intense that Hilary lets out a small moan. Bolts of sensation are winging through her body. In a spasm of anguish, she rests her forehead on her brother's back, just below his neck. God, she thinks, and that name seems so out of place it makes her dizzy.

Again, this time in a thick-tongued murmur: God. (St. Peter's Square, brown in clear sunlight. The Pope leaning out a balcony window flanked by blood red banners -- )

The bus screeches like an animal, its metal parts rattling, and Hilary draws in a deep breath as a finger, slipping aside the crotch of her panties, penetrates her slickly, probing inside her vagina. Hilary feels the coolness of the wedding band on her labia and it seems to her as if it is her orgasm, not the bus braking, that throws her on her brother's back, her breasts crushed flat.

When Hilary turns her head slightly, the man's face is suddenly very close to hers -- gaunt and tanned, with dark beard bristles, his breath smelling of garlic as he grins. She writhes free of the hand, her face scorching. She feels him methodically wiping the wet finger dry on her panties, precisely where the fabric clings to her anus. The hand remains under her skirt, holding her buttocks lightly, as the bus jolts and jerks, coughing exhaust.

Albert has turned to look, and the Italian man grins at him. Albert grins. The Italian man says something, and Albert grins more, not understanding. By this time, Hilary is looking out the window again. She sees a skeletal orange cat crawling over some crates tumbled in an alley. The man's fingertips are tracing circles on the bare, feverish skin of her buttocks under the skirt. The bus stops with a crazy lurch. As the Italian man squeezes past her to get out, he brushes his fingertips lightly, lightly on the backs of her knees, so that a shiver rushes up her body, and whispers in her ear, his breath hot and thunderous, Ciao, bella.