I thought I might sleep on the bus, but I couldn't.
I was tired, but the landscape whooshing by was too new, too important to lull me to sleep. It was hard to believe this place. Rolling green hills, wooden fences rising and falling in gentle undulation as the bus glided by them. Red farmhouses, silver silos, brown cows.
In the bus's air-conditioned climate, I could look out and enjoy the beauty, but knowing the heavy humidity that hung just outside the huge glass windows made me nervous. The landscape looked so civilized and tame, it was hard to reconcile it with the exotic, nearly tropical humidity in the air. I never felt anything like that lethargy that settled over me when I stepped outside the airport with my bags. I couldn't breathe; the air was as thick as soup.
Slouched in my seat, I rubbed the heel of my palm between my eyebrows, where a headache had been growing since the plane crossed over Greenland. A green sign flashed by and I reminded myself that the distance was measured in miles, not kilometers. It had been years since I studied miles, feet, and Fahrenheit temperatures. I only had a faint grasp of what they actually meant. It made me feel like a child again. Are we there yet? Are we there yet?
I tried to find a comfortable place to lean my head and resolutely closed my eyes. It was going to be a long day once I reached Charlottesville; I hadn't slept in over thirty hours and had a seven-hour jet lag to reconcile. Any sleep I could get would be useful. But sleep never worked like that for me. Unlike Dov, who could fall asleep anywhere, under any condition. He claimed it was a skill, not a God-given talent, but I never learned how to turn a switch and sleep.
I hadn't learned how to turn a switch and stop thinking about Dov either.
I spent the rest of the ride pretending to sleep, hoping to trick my overtired mind and let go of memories best left behind.
The bus pulled up to the terminal in Charlottesville with a relieved whoosh and I disembarked, feeling even more lost and homesick in this tiny abandoned station.
Homesick. That's a funny word. Especially since I came here because I was sick of home. Still, on arriving at the bus station, so tired I swayed on my feet, I had a bone-deep feeling that I shouldn't have come.
The bus driver hauled out my three bags from under the bus and shook his head at the folly of packing so heavy. He climbed back into his silver bus, which shuddered, beeped, and lurched as he reversed and drove away.
I studied my bags. One army-issue green duffel. My mother's gray suitcase with four tiny wheels. One red-and-black canvas suitcase. It went against my grain to bring along more bags than I had arms to carry. Then again, this was all I had owned for the past two years and all I planned to own for the next four. Not much when you think of it that way.
The station, with its dusty gray linoleum floor, ancient vending machines, and a sleepy-looking woman watching television, looked forgotten. It was too quiet. It was nothing like the hustle and bustle of the Haifa station, with its huge timetable of buses arriving and leaving, soldiers coming home or returning to base, tourists with backpacks, businessmen with briefcases, the smell of falafel drifting everywhere, and kiosks packed in every corner selling candy, soft drinks, and newspapers. This station was deserted and silent except for the clapping from the game show on television.
The other two passengers who got off in Charlottesville picked up their small bags and walked away.
"Excuse me," I called out. The fat woman turned, the pregnant one kept walking. "How do I get to the university campus?"
"Wail," said the woman slowly, revealing a missing canine. "'S not too far if yuh wanna walk. 'S that a-way bout a mile or so. There maht be a taxi round here somewhere."
She started shuffling away, then turned and said, "Wail, come on now."
I understood almost nothing she said.
I followed her, not sure what else to do, heaving my army-green duffel bag across my back, gritting my teeth as I dragged the two suitcases, whose wheels seemed to want to roll in different directions. Outside, by the curb, were two yellow cabs. On the back of one was printed: it's nice to be important, but it's important to be nice.
I felt hysterical laughter bubbling up.
"Well, lookie here," the woman said. "Here yuh go, sugah. Two. Jus' tek yur pick. Yuh tek care now."
A driver got out of the first cab and loaded my bags. Getting in, he looked at me from the rearview mirror.
"To the University of Virginia," I said.
"Where at th' university?"
Nothing these people said made any sense. My English teacher in high school was from England. Either she taught me the wrong language or I had forgotten more English than I thought.
"Do you want to go to old dorms, new dorms, the library, to the Rotunda, where?" He spoke slightly louder and with exaggerated patience. Like he had to deal with idiotic passengers all the time.
I felt queasy. Too tired, too much bad coffee on the plane.
"I don't know where I need to go. I just need to get to the student dormitories."
"Didn't they give you an address?"
"Yes. Wait." I rubbed my gritty eyes, trying to think. I dug through my backpack and found a large manila envelope containing the welcome packet.
"Is this it?" I handed him a sheet of paper.
"Now we're getting somewhere."
We pulled away. I thought I'd feel excited by now. Nervous, edgy, alert. Instead, I just felt slow and stupid. It was hard to remember to speak in English. Everyone here seemed to speak through a mouthful of syrup.
He pulled up beside a three-story building, one of several that all looked alike. The street was nearly empty.
"Guess you're here a little early," he said. "Let me tell you, that's a good thing. This place is a zoo on moving day. You wouldn't believe what some people bring with them to college."
I couldn't think of anything to say to that. I had three bags.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Light Years by Tammar Stein. Copyright © 2005 by Tammar Stein. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.