We All Ride This Bus
June 29, 2010
It was the rent, the electric, the student loans, all those petty debts that forced Quentin onto the bus as usual on that cloudy Monday morning. It was those crushing and unyielding obligations that dragged him out of bed and into the shower, that dressed and shaved him with numb hands, that packed his lunch and picked up his briefcase on the way out the door. If Quentin had listened to his heart, he would still be in bed trying to sleep away the fact that Laurie was gone.
He sat in his usual seat, one of the side benches facing east on the northbound Orange Line. As the bus hissed away from the curb, it occurred to Quentin that he wasn’t going to live through this heartache.
Someone sat beside him. He barely noticed and, in fact, could have ridden the fourteen blocks to work without acknowledging the woman beside him if she hadn’t reached over and poked his thigh.
Startled, Quentin flinched away from her.
She was middle-aged. Her hair was dyed a shade of red that one didn’t often encounter outside of rose gardens. She smiled at him without showing teeth.
“You’re very sad,” she said.
Quentin frowned. The woman was too far into his personal space. He scooted northward.
She scooted with him, closing the distance between them. “You think you’re the only one.”
Quentin looked around for another empty seat. He spied one and half-rose, but the woman’s hand came down on his knee. He plopped back down and glared at her.
“You’re not the only one, you know,” she whispered.
“Excuse me?” Quentin snapped.
“You’re not the only one who’s had a broken heart.”
Quentin stared at the woman. She looked like an average commuter in her polyester skirt and sneakers, a bag at her feet with sensible heels poking out of it. On her way to a secretarial job, no doubt. He moved his leg out from under her grasp and turned his shoulders towards the front of the bus.
“Oh, I know,” she continued. “No one has ever, will ever, could ever love the way you love. That’s what you’re thinking.” She poked his thigh again. “But you’re wrong. Do you see that old woman over there?”
Quentin glanced in the direction the woman nodded. A doughy woman of seventy or so was sitting in a forward-facing seat, a little boy beside her. She was talking softly to child and from the glow on both of their faces Quentin could imagine she was whispering nonsense. Grammy loves you, all of that crap.
“Let’s make up her story,” the woman beside him said. “When she was young, she was in love with a man whose eyes were on fire and she thought she couldn’t live without him. But her parents wanted her to marry the green grocer down the street. So she married the grocer and sometimes she cried at night for the ‘true love’ she gave up, but she was faithful to the grocer. They had children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her husband is dead now and when she cries alone in her bed at night, who do you think she cries for? She cries for her husband, not for the young man whose name she forgot forty years ago.”
The woman gestured toward the bus driver. “See him? Once there was a woman with chocolate skin that he would have died for. She left him for bass player and he thought he was going to die, it hurt so bad. But here he is, driving this bus and rushing home every night to another woman with chocolate skin who washes his clothes and makes him go to church on Sunday.”
Quentin stared at the driver as if he hadn’t seen him every weekday for the past three years. The man looked tired, but he looked content, too. As if he had something special waiting at the end of each day.
The woman gestured again. “See her?”
Fascinated now, Quentin looked at the fragile girl with the wheat colored hair and the amazing cheekbones. “Yes,” he breathed.
“Watch her closely,” the woman told him. “See how wet her eyes are? She’s still suffering. Let’s say there was a man in college who romanced her in the back room of a frat house party. She thought she meant something to him, but he’s on the west coast now and she’s in an accounting department cubicle with no view, and what would she see if she had one? This gray, dirty city that’s nowhere near a beach.”
Quentin watched the blonde girl as she stared out the window. He saw moisture fill her eyes and saw how she wiped away the spillage with her fingertips.
“Even I have a love story,” the woman beside Quentin sighed. “He promised he’d leave his wife for me, but of course he didn’t.”
She poked Quentin’s thigh again. This time he didn’t move away. “We’ve all ridden this bus,” she said. “We ride it together.”
Quentin clutched his briefcase as the bus jerked to a stop at Twenty-Fourth and Penn. He stood up and looked down at the middle-aged woman as he waited for the door to wheeze open. She smiled at him as Quentin went down the stairs into the fresh air.
He stopped on the sidewalk and looked around. A tentative sun had come out and he thought he felt warmth on his face.