[Dear Readers – There’s some strong language in this one. It’s not for the easily offended]
The bus is going round again.
Last night you wrote: Meet in person? After all this? Look for me on bus 38 tomorrow. C.
It’s 4.20 and I’ve been riding since noon. And the bus is going round again,
through the shopping centre, right down the ramp, left onto the feeder road, five suburban blocks then it’s freeway. Over the mountain’s shoulder and through the rural backblocks—one stop in the middle of a paddock, another at a roadhouse-wheat silo, across the railway and into the new town, cloned ochre houses all lined up. Along the high street, up to the station and then park. Wait twenty minutes—everyone off while the driver, (o my driver), reads the paper and has a smoke. At five to, we’re lined up noses against the glass jostling for position—me with my crumpled dayrider. Then the doors are open and we’re pushing and shoving up the steps.
This was your idea. Our first face-to-face—full of contradictions, eccentric, tentative and intimate—just like you. We’d been talking for months our regular Friday chat. Your profile and mine @ meetme.com. We had progressed through conversation (‘Did you see…?’) to flirtation (‘What are you wearing…? A smile…a frown?’) to disclosure, and then what? Intimacy? We marked points of intersection and discovery. Turns out we were exploring two sides of the same river, corresponding about the contours we had discovered. The width of the channel, our childhood plans: you the astronaut, chemist, marine biologist on the Great Barrier Reef; me, artist, therapist, novelist. Then the rapids and the dark pools: how your father had hurt you; how I grew up alone staring at the ceiling month after month wracked with fever, listening to the kids playing outside.
I love this time of day when the low light sweetens the landscape. The townhouses are as pretty and depressing as a Hopper painting, the blonde grasses bent down in all that sunshine. I’m riding with the last of the schoolkids and the early-finishing workers, briefcases on laps, fat novels, lunch-wrappers rolled into balls, everyone plugged into their phones.
Then like a big old bear, the drunk gets on and hand-over-hand climbs up the aisle to push in next to me.
‘You lookin sweet there in your jacket and them gabardine slacks,’ he says. ‘You lookin like you’re goin to meet someone, like you’ll be gettin some tonight.’
He grins and nudges me. His mouth is a jumble of brown teeth and sweet wine and his good humour is wafting the sharp stink from the disaster in his underpants.
‘Goin to get some of that sweet ole pussycat tonight. Fer sure.’
I glance up into the driver’s mirror but there’s only sunglasses and maybe a small wry smile as he leans down and pushes the bus into drive.
We jerk forward. ‘Whad? What was that?’ He looks about alarmed but then his eyes roll back to me. ‘Isss goan be okay and you,’ he says, ‘you’re awlright.’
Pretending it was my stop, I stood to get past him but he pushed me back down.
‘Got somethin for you.’ He reaches into the ruins of his coat and pulls out a mud-brown ball of paper. ‘You being a ladies man, you understan all them pussycats.’ He rolls the paper from his cupped hands into mine.
I peel the paper back, We are all someone’s single love.
He’s spluttering and giggling. ‘You know who wrote tha?’ he asks, the laughter bursting out.
‘Good ole Proooost. Thas righ, ole Marcello hisself. Now what would Prooost know about love and all them pussycats? Nuthin. Thas what. Nuthin….’
I’m sitting in a bath brimful of smelly oddness and I can’t think of a damn thing to say. Suddenly, like a disgusting version of Alice’s rabbit, he jumps to his feet, lunges for the stopcord and hurries up the aisle to get out right there in the middle of nowhere.
And there I was with the crumpled piece of romance in my hands next to a small pool of urine where he’d been sitting.
The light is gone along with the crush of the commuters. It’s dark and there’s just me, a woman in a coat up the front and a couple somewhere behind. Then this boy gets on and is heading my way.
When he hit me, I was busy watching my reflection growing in his black sunglasses—my big bubblehead, stupid-looking jacket.
There was nothing in his first punch, it was a glancing nudge across my cheek but then his left came across and smacked into my ear which stung and buzzed.
‘This my seat cunt,’ he snarled. I slid back and wedged my legs in. It was all slow and detailed — I turned and saw the woman in the coat lifting her hand up to her mouth, her eyes wide. I saw the driver in the mirror watching. Then the boy was above me, ‘always been my seat.’ I raised my arms and his right glanced off and smacked into the seat-rail.
‘Fuck,’ he said. He said it again and then reached down and grabbed one of my legs, pulling it straight out. I sank further down and hung on.
Now he’s kicking at me but mostly getting my arms and the edge of the seat. ‘cuntcuntcunt’. He’s breathing hard but in the cramped aisle there’s no room and he can’t get a good swing. He jumps over and tries with the other foot but that’s no good.
I’m groaning away, kind of in sync, ‘unnh unnh Huh unnh unnh.’
The bus is stopped and the waiting is all around. He lunges with his left again but it lands on my shoulder and glances up over my ear. His balance shifts and he ends up standing over me. He hacks and spits and it lands warm on my cheek. And then he dances down the aisle, down the steps and is gone.
The woman in the coat, hand still in her mouth, comes over and stares. She doesn’t offer anything, just stands there making blubbing sounds. I mumble something to reassure her and I scramble back onto the seat. I’m okay, I think but my ear is ringing like crazy.
The driver glances in his mirror and I gesture with a wave. The door hisses shut and we’re moving again.
And there you are at last, silent like a saint.
‘My stop,’ I slur and you take my elbow. I’m giddy and my legs are gone but you hold me up.
We’re down the steps and I turn back to the driver to say something but he’s already looking straight ahead at the road and the dark.
And there’s the wind and the smell of rain on the street.
I can’t manage my key into the door so you take it from me so gently.
We’re inside and I fall across the bed. You explore my face with your long fingers and where you touch me the numbness dissolves and it burns and stings. My jacket’s torn and my knees are ripped. You bend down and lick the boy’s spit from my cheek.
We don’t talk. We put ourselves aside, our long list of discoveries and our compatible histories. As we strip out of our clothes we take ourselves off as well, so finally there’s nothing in the bed, nothing in the lying down, nothing between us in the sex and the breathing and the sleep that lies across us at last like a sheet.
And in the morning I walk past the computer on my way back to bed and there’s your mail: I was too afraid to come. Forgive me? C.
Image – Edward Hopper – Road and Trees, 1962 (detail)