Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Day Three: Strangers On A Bus

Here's a little story about a stranger.

I was 22 and living in Boston, but riding the Peter Pan bus back from visiting friends in Northampton. It's less than 100 miles as the crow flies, but the trip often took three hours because of all the stops. On this particular evening, we were routed through Springfield, and we were there for some time. The bus was dark and a lot of people seemed to be asleep. During the stop, I could sense someone get on and take the empty seat next to me. I had been hoping to keep it empty the whole trip. The yellow lights of the station illuminated my reflection in the window, and I pursed my lips and put on some lipstick.

"No one's going to see that." came a low voice next to my shoulder. I didn't turn around immediately, because the impertinence annoyed me. But I was curious, so eventually I did. It was a surprise to me that he was so young, not much older than me, and very handsome. Blond, I remember. Nice smile. I was a little less annoyed suddenly.

"Well, good thing I'm not expecting anyone to see it," I snarked. "My lips are chapped, that's all. I forgot my Carmex."

"Sure," he smiled. "You don't want chapped lips on the bus."

For some reason, I didn't mind his sarcasm. Was it just because he was cute? No, I don't think so. His sarcasm made him seem smart, and his boldness made him seem interesting.

We started talking. But not the usual small-talk stuff. Somehow we skipped that. Sure, I heard that he lived in Springfield and was going to visit someone in Boston. I told him I lived in Boston and had been visiting someone in Northampton. I'll bet I told him that I worked in advertising, and maybe he told me what he did--I don't remember now. His name is also lost to history, though I knew it ten years ago. But in some uncanny way, we moved right over the preliminary stuff and spoke in a way that was intimately minimalist, reading each others' silences, saying only what was necessary.

I gestured to his book: Garrison Keillor's Leaving Home. "Prairie Home Companion on NPR, right?"

"Right," he said, "But his books are even better." Soon, with no awkward transition, we were slumped down, knees up on the seats in front of us, heads practically touching, reading aloud to each other. The bus was silent except for our soft recitations, during which the other listened with such casual alertness we might as well have been holding hands.

I told him I wanted to be a writer, and he said he hoped I would be. There was a whispered "hopes and dreams" portion to this unscheduled program. We never touched, but the couple of inches between us was electric. Can you believe me when I say that we were so completely, utterly comfortable that I never wondered, not for an instant, if we would see each other again? The idea was beyond the realm of the relevant because I was never disconnected enough from him for metaphysical speculations. I was completely in the moment. I never wondered what he was thinking, either, because I could tell he was having the same experience.

When we reached Boston, the station was bright and loud and urine-scented, which certainly changed the mood. He asked if he could carry my bag and--when he found out I also had to change trains at Park Street--if he could ride the Red Line with me that far. Out of our cocoon, I felt a bit shyer, and wondered how my hair looked under the fluorescent lights. We didn't talk much now, just stood in the aisle together, holding the pole, smiling at each other intermittently while the train rocked and shuttled.

Finally, I said: "How long will you be in Boston?" He didn't look at me when he said four or five days. "Can I look you up next time I'm in the Pioneer Valley?" I tried again. He muttered something that--in the end--sounded like no. We were silent for the last couple of stops.

As we were saying goodbye, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out Leaving Home. The expression on his face was complicated, but it looked like he wanted to say something that he was definitely not going to say. Instead, he blurted "I want you to have this."

"No, I couldn't..." I said, ever the responsible reader. "You haven't finished it."

"It doesn't matter. I'll get another one. Just keep it. To...remember me."

Why does this have to be goodbye? I wanted to say. We just met! Massachusetts is a small state! Take my number!

But I didn't say any of that, because I could tell--as easily as I could tell everything else--that he didn't want me to, because he had no plans to see me again.

"Thank you for the book." I said, and probably something banal like "It was nice meeting you." We smiled and waved to each other as we headed towards opposite trains.

That goodbye was the first insincere contact we'd had all night. I never saw him or talked to him after that. I kept the book, but I never opened it again. I'm looking at it right now.


Caroline said...

Gorgeous. Just gorgeous.

Stephanie said...

Nearly speechless, but the one word response I was thinking as I clicked over...Stunning.

Cheri @ Blog This Mom!® said...

That was the best story ever. You are such a gifted writer. Now open the book! Is his phone number in it? God, I know how to cheapen an otherwise perfectly brilliant ending, don't I?


The mad woman behind the blog said...

I'm tingling with excitement over here. That was so well written and yummy, I love making that kind of connection.

Jennifer said...

Wow! You are simply amazing. You draw me into your writing so easily.

Ha! I love Cheri's comment.

miss. chief said...

oooh! Beautiful!

Jen said...

OPEN IT!!!!!!

Sam said...

Hi Guys! So I opened it. Nothing in there that shouldn't be. The edges of the pages are yellowing. Eek. I don't know when he would have written something in there because he was never out of my sight until he was gone.

I have a feeling he was engaged or had a serious girlfriend. Any other theories?

Jen said...

That's what I think, too.

Thanks for opening it. I feel better now. ;-)

The Wades said...

Just started crying. That was a torture read. If I didn't think you were happily married now, I could be really upset by what could have been.

I read that to Max. It didn't stir the same emotions. ;) He just thought about your husband and how much he must LOVE reading that. (Max is such a caveman!)

Sam said...

@Michelle: Ah, sensitive Max. Luckily, David is thick-skinned from living with an ARTIST. ;)

The Wades said...

And when I say torture read, I mean absolutely beautiful and stirring. Gosh. One of your best ever. (And that's saying a lot!)