The journey to the hypermarket for a cheap new computer printer had been a complete waste of time and I was fed up that I'd wasted an afternoon. Being mid evening now, the bus was crowded and I had to stand for a while. But as we went through one small town a lot of people got off and I finally managed to get an empty seat.
This was early spring in the outskirts of Buenos Aires in Argentina and it was warm in the bus. I wished that I could get a window seat so at least I'd get the breeze from the open window, but the girl I'd ended up sitting next to had the window seat. She was leaning against the window looking either bored or miserable.
I looked out of the window again and as I did so, I saw a tear roll down her cheek.
"What's the matter?" I asked, in the best Spanish I could manage.
"Nothing," she answered sullenly, then bit her lip trying desperately not to cry any more and failing as more tears followed the first down her cheek.
"You know. They say a problem shared is a problem halved." By the puzzled reaction, I gather they either don't have that saying here or my translation of it was wrong. She still didn't say anything, but gave up trying to wipe her tears away.
"You'll never see me again, so why not tell me what's wrong?"
I was having to raise my voice above the noise of the bus, but at that moment we stopped at a level crossing and the driver stalled the engine, so my last two words sounded like a shout.
In the sudden comparative quiet, I heard her tummy rumble. She looked embarrassed.
"Are you hungry?" I asked.
She cast her eyes down.
"Why don't I take you somewhere for some food? Then you can think about telling me what's wrong."
She replied simply, "No, thank you."
"I'm not going to rape you in a restaurant," I promised. "The owner wouldn't like it."
Almost a smile.
"Burger or pizza?" I asked her.
She thought for a long minute, then finally gave in. "Burger, please," she muttered.
By now we were getting into town and there were quite a few takeaways and restaurants.
"MacDonalds?" she asked, which I took as being encouraging as it was the first thing she'd said without me dragging it out of her.
If I live to be a hundred I shall never understand why so many Argentines love McDonalds. In a land where meat is king, (I'm sure that being vegetarian is probably against some law or other, ) there are so many parrilla restaurants serving fantastic steaks at a price you could only dream of in England, as well as others serving delicious home-made burgers, yet many crowd into their local McDonalds to eat their pre-packaged comparatively tasteless and often dried up version of a burger. But I didn't hold it against her. I'm sure she never knew what a sacrifice she was asking of me to eat at McDonalds.
She ate her burger so quickly that I insisted that she have another. She looked embarrassed, but finally picked it up and began to eat. (By the way if you're ever in a Spanish speaking country and hear the word embarazado, it doesn't mean a girl is embarrassed, although she might be, it means that she is pregnant. So if you're a guy and you're embarrassed don't say you're embarazado or they'll either piss themselves laughing at you or call the newspapers so you can sell your story.)
"How long is it since you last ate?" I asked her.
"Yesterday morning," she replied.
"Have you got a place to sleep tonight?"
She nodded. "I'm going to see my aunt in..." and she named a town not too far away.
When she'd finished her second burger, she got up to go. "Thank you," she said simply, then turned away looking like she was about to start crying again.
As she walked out of the door, I had the sudden impulse to call her back but I didn't even know her name, which shows how much we'd talked. I ran to the door, "Just a minute."
She looked panicky.
"It's okay. I just wanted to know your name."
"Oh." She actually smiled. "It's Dulcinea."
"Like you," I said. Dulcinea means sweet. Then I realised that I'd embarrassed her again.
She shook her head sadly and began to walk away.
"Dulcinea. I'm James. This is my number. Keep it. If you need help, please call me."
"I don't need help," she said, but all the same, she almost snatched it out of my hand and ran away. I didn't follow her.
I walked sadly to the bus station and caught my bus home. It felt even emptier than usual. I didn't even bother to check my emails, but read a book until my eyes hurt and then I went to sleep.
The next day passed like every other for the last year, that is slowly. I did the things I had to do, like get dressed, cook and eat and wished it was over. The morning had been hot, like most of the previous week, but in the afternoon there was a terrific thunderstorm and the temperature dropped a lot. By the evening it was actually quite cold.
About eight-thirty my phone rang. I picked it up, expecting another automated reminder to pay my phone bill, but instead I heard, "James?"
"Yes?" There was silence at the other end. "Dulcinea?"
"Yes." She sounded hesitant.
Then I realised she was crying.
"Where are you?"
She told me she was at a service station not far from where we'd eaten the night before.
"I'll be there as soon as I can. Please stay where you are. I have to take a bus, so I may be an hour or two. Promise me you'll wait."
I had to wait ages for the bus and not for the first time I cursed the fact that I didn't have a car. Of course if I had a car, I wouldn't have met her yesterday anyway.
Finally it came and it seemed to take forever to get to the nearest stop to the service station. I jumped off and ran across the road. I couldn't see her anywhere. I checked in the toilets and everywhere. "Dulcinea?"
"James?" Her voice sounded weak.
I found her sitting behind the rubbish bins, shivering with the cold. I reached to pull her up and she shrank away from me.
"Dulcinea. It's me. What's happened?"
She struggled to her feet and I saw the top she was wearing was torn. She saw me looking and held it together with her hands. I took off my jacket and put it around her.
"Where's your bag?" I asked.
"They took it," she answered.
"The boys who tried to..." then she burst out crying.
"No." She shook her head. "They heard people coming so they left me, but they stole my bag."
"You've been here since then? Why didn't you call me?"
"I didn't have any money. I didn't know what to do, so I hid here all night and all day. But when it turned cold I started begging. Nobody wanted to give me anything. Finally I went into the service station and asked if I could make a phone call. A man gave the cashier a peso to let me call you." She giggled. That sounded so good and I felt my heart twist. "I said you were my uncle."
"You must be starving. Let's get you something to eat."
We walked to a pizza libre, where, for a fixed price, you can eat as much pizza as you can handle. Both of us did pretty well. Of course they make their money on the drinks, so we shared a big bottle of coke.
I wanted her to relax and eat and feel better so it wasn't until we finished that I asked, "Why didn't you go to your aunt?"
She looked down at her plate. "I wasn't going to my aunt. I just said that."
She couldn't meet my eyes and I guessed.
"You thought I was trying to... ?" I didn't finish the question.
"So why call me now?"
"I didn't know who else to call."
I looked at the time. "Come on. We have to hurry or we'll miss the last bus."
"Where are we going?" she asked in a worried tone of voice.
"To my house." I could see her hesitate and tense up. "You got anywhere better to go tonight?"
"Come on then."
Of course we had to stand most of the way on the crowded last bus, but finally we stepped off and I held her hand as we walked to my house.
When we got into the light of my house I could see that even standing all that way had worn her out again.
"You're exhausted," I told her. "You need the bed."
She slipped off my jacket and her top hung open. I didn't want to look but I couldn't help seeing one of her boobs before she pulled the top to cover herself.
"I'll find you something to wear."
I found a bag with all my wife's nightwear in it and told her, "Choose what you like. You can change in the toilet, there."
I started working on the computer and didn't hear her return until she tapped me on the shoulder. "This okay?" she asked.
She'd chosen a little top and shorts pyjama set which made her look even younger. I didn't trust myself to answer so I nodded.
"Where do I sleep?"
I pointed to the bed and she suddenly looked even younger and frightened.
"Hey. It's okay. I'll sleep on the floor."
I turned off the computer and dragged a few spare pillows and a blanket onto the floor and lay down. "Good night, Dulcinea."
I couldn't get comfortable and I thought it's going to be a long night, when I hear her say, "James. I feel bad. I should be on the floor. It's your bed."
"No. It's okay."
"Get into bed. It's big enough for two."
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"I trust you," she said simply.
I wasn't sure that getting to sleep with her laying beside me was going to be much easier, but I was wrong.
I was woken by Dulcinea trying to climb over me to get out of bed.
.... There is more of this story ...