Em opened our bus’s emergency hatch and climbed onto the roof. Her limbs are long and bendy like coat hangers, and she had no problem balancing on a seat we’d ripped from the floor and pulling herself out the two-foot-wide opening onto the roof.
“Ready?” Em asked. It was dark outside, and her face glowed in our bus’s interior lights as she poked her head over the hatch.
“No,” I said. I was standing on a second ripped-up bus seat, and it wobbled under my bare feet.
“Hand me the paint first, and then I’ll help you up.”
We had to wait until the sun was low before we could start painting our bus. The smarter thing would have been to wait for a cooler day, but our bus had been at the mechanic’s for two weeks now, and it didn’t look like it would be ready anytime soon.
While the bus was at the mechanic’s, we’d ripped out the seats and had taken out the floor and walls, but we were running out of things we could do without access to saws, drills and all the other power tools that scared the shit out of me. And so we were painting.
Painting made sense when we started, but now it was black like a vacuum outside. We had the bus’s interior lights, the high beams on Em’s car and the flashlight on Em’s phone, but the mechanic’s shop was in the middle of the country, and we were a small circle of dim light like a little planet all to ourselves. We were floating further and further away from ten-thousand-million stars like two pebbles dropped into a bottomless pit.
I handed Em the paint containers and brushes, then climbed back onto the wobbly seat and felt my body disintegrating, the darkness and the pinpricks of stars, and me and Em all alone in the nothingness.
“You’re sure you want to finish this tonight?” I asked, and the seat shuddered under my weight.
I poked my head outside and watched the night spread in every direction. I was sure I was going to die or I was already dead, the white of the paint going onto the bus, and the darkness calling me into it.
“It’s supposed to rain starting tomorrow night,” Em said. “And we’re running out of time.”
She was right. We only had four weeks to finish our bus now, and as well as painting, we had to put in insulation, new floors and walls, and build a bed, couch, desk, coffee table, toilet and an entire kitchen unit.
I held onto the edges of the hatch and curled my bare toes over the edge of the wobbly seat. I breathed in the night air and I heaved myself up and out the hatch, landing in a wet spot of white paint on the roof.
Em handed me a roller, and I squinted into the darkness, trying to keep track of the edge of the roof so that I didn’t stumble off into the thick blanket of the night.
Em started at the front of the bus and I started at the back. The metal was cold and slippery under my bare knees, and I drew the roller back and forth, straining my eyes as the paint left streaky lines on the yellow roof.
“Is the roof wet?” I asked.
We’d sanded the old paint and had washed the bus down earlier that evening, but it was already getting dark by the time we washed the roof. While the rest of the bus had dried quite quickly, I couldn’t tell now in the dark whether the roof was still wet or dew-covered or just cold.
Em put her fingers to the roof and then to her cheek. She thought for a moment, kneeling on the bus and looking like some ethereal creature that had just been beamed down from a place I didn’t believe in, and then she touched the roof again.
“I can’t tell,” she said.
I checked the time on my phone. We’d been there for six hours already, and we were getting to the point of exhaustion where it’s easy for accidents to happen. I imagined our mechanic coming the next morning and finding us as two broken dolls beside our bus with our eyes and mouths wide open and the life sucked out of us.
I looked down at the bus with the paint smudged across it, then up at Em, still kneeling with paint on her forehead and the night like a cloak around her. She was waiting for me to say that this was stupid and dangerous and we’d better go in. I was the sensible one, and it was my job to pull us from the edge of the abyss again and again, and yet for some reason I didn’t want to now.
It was the cool night after a hot day, the empty fields, the stars, and Em, kneeling with her eyes picking up the light of the headlights on her car or else shining on their own accord.
“Here,” I said into the darkness and emptiness and into her beautiful shining face. I pulled my shirt off and started using it to dry the roof of the bus.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
I looked down at my shirt and then up at her, and in the middle of everything, I smiled and something enormous broke open inside of me.
Em started laughing, and I started laughing, too. It was that giddy kind of laughter born from exhaustion, stress, paint fumes, and the innate truth that the entire earth is a strange and beautiful place, the truth that every single one of us is lucky to be here, to breathe and touch and experience, to have great joys and enormous sorrows and everything, everything, everything in between.
“We’re bus people now,” I told her as I crawled to the edge of the bus. “We have to be resourceful.”
She looked around, but it was her and I and no one for miles and miles. We were protected by the darkness and the nighttime and our own determination to build this bus no matter what it took, and so she pulled her shirt off, too, the two of us topless on top of a bus in the middle of the night.
I laughed again, and almost fell, but it didn’t matter anymore. Nothing, not even death was serious. I was alive and I was here and Em was here and we were painting the roof of a bus in the dark.
Em shuffled backwards and put her foot into her paint container, and I crawled through a patch of fresh paint and dragged white lines across the roof with my knees.
“It’s so dark, I can’t even tell which parts are painted,” I told Em.
“Try your best and forget the rest,” she said. It was my line. I’d said it almost every day for the almost four years we’d been dating, and I loved that she was saying it back to me now.
She was laughing and magnificent with her white body in the darkness and the paint all over her bare feet. She dipped her brush into the paint, and I dipped my roller into the paint, and we were sure that we would live forever.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Em said. She had paint on her stomach and more in her hair. Two months before, we’d gotten engaged, but I still couldn’t believe that this wild, ambitious, creative, and stunningly beautiful woman was the person I would get to marry.
“Painting in the dark?” I asked.
“That, and everything. I can’t believe this is what our lives get to be.” She slapped on more paint, and I slapped on more paint, and I knew exactly what she meant. The stars blinked above us, and the wind was cool and fresh coming across the fields, and it was her and I painting a bus without shirts on in the middle of the night.
When we went to see our bus the next day, we laughed. Our shirts hadn’t done enough to sop up the water on top of the bus, and the paint had run in long white lines down the roof and over the windows.
It took a few hours of scraping and scrubbing to get all the paint off the windows, and we had to paint the entire roof again, but at that point we didn’t care.
While we were building that bus, there were some moments when we were so stressed and so overwhelmed, we couldn’t even look at each other, and there were others when we were so happy it felt like nothing bad would ever happen to anyone ever again.