After two steps, a driver and forty passengers lie in wait. A familiar pain: sharp, but also heavy, as if someone is kneeling on my chest while slowly inserting a knife, upwards. I drop coins into the fare box. I have counted them twenty or thirty times, enough to shine the coins with sweat, and the proper amount registers on the screen, but the driver does not give me a transfer. I ask for one, but he does not hear me, and, afraid to ask again, I remain at the fare box and hope that he will figure out what I want. The other passengers are already on to me, thinking, What is he doing? Why doesn’t he sit down? which forces me to repeat myself, louder, so everyone can hear. “Can I get a transfer?” The driver looks put out, as if to say, Why didn’t you tell me this before? Without looking at me, he hands me the transfer and seems to shake his head slightly to communicate my worthlessness, right in front of everyone.
The bus jerks away, and I am flung forward; only the grab-bar keeps me from falling on an old woman. My backpack swings and nearly hits another passenger in the face; she is beautiful, and she gives me a dirty look. Once again, panic collects, flows, and fans, reminding me of the thick, noiseless movement of spilled paint: toxic, inedible, unnatural. As I search for a seat, I realize the creaking pain beneath the hollow of my chest is layered. The base is formed by the walk to the bus stop, the getting closer and closer. The initial anxiety of boarding the bus forms another level, while the negative adrenalin of stumbling in full view of forty people creates a third tier. The weight of these strata has made me sore. Every time I breathe I feel like something inside is cracking, and thus, despite the elaborate stratification, my chest now feels brittle, like someone could put a hand through it, shatter it.
There are no empty seats! Moving down the aisle, passing up more rows, getting closer to the back, I grow jealous of the version of myself two seconds in the past, when I first began to explore the seating possibilities. But I have just passed another row, and I am running out of options. Forty passengers roll their eyes over me, scrubbing me, searching for flaws in the contours of my face. Look at how ugly that guy is! What a dork! Where do people like this come from? Hey, there’s your future husband! Oh my God, shut up! Can you imagine? They know that I am pathetic, but there is no pity: I annoy them, anger them. Again, the bus jerks, this time more furiously than the last, and I am flung toward a seat, and decide in mid-being-flung that I might as well just sit here. I try sinking in my seat, but I am too tall for that, and thus remain unprotected. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up in fear. I am the prey; something is rushing towards me ready to tear apart my neck with its huge jaws. It will not be a quick death.
I share a seat with another person, someone who will be thinking about me the entire ride. He is short, stocky, a Latino teen. Later he will go home and tell his friends about the dork he sat next to on the bus.
My lunch falls out of my bag. Grapes scatter. The last thing I ever want to do is to draw attention to myself, but now I have went and done it. I can hear the passengers laughing mentally. Again, that hateful laugh: Retard. Freak. Can’t that idiot keep his lunch off the floor? The stocky teen next to me fantasizes about violently attacking me. He is thinking so loudly that others can hear him, too: Couldn’t this faggot have sat somewhere else? I wanted a seat to myself. The last thing I wanted was some geek getting in my space. I’m better than him, though. Sucks to be him. And he’s right: He is clearly better than me. He is also tougher, and is probably a real, authentic person. People like him. When he deals with others—say, when he is paying a bill late, or clearing up a financial aid mistake—they are happy to help, and they understand him right away. When he walks down the street, people smile at him. I wish I was him—just for a year. There would be so much I would do.
The bus groans as we start to climb the overpass on 75th Street. It’s an unpleasant sound, and it makes my seatmate angry. He keeps thinking about how nice it would be to elbow me in the face, to smash my face, drive it inwards. Now he is studying my face. This guy’s face is, like, the acne capital of the world, man. Look at what he’s wearing—you look real cool, man, real cool. Bet this guy gets all the chicks.
I think: what if it had been different? What if I were athletic? If I had a muscular physique? If I were good looking? Had I any of those things, I would not be sitting on this bus now. I would be in school with my friends. But I am nineteen and stuck working in a warehouse. What if I were a superstar? A baseball player. Who hit seventy home runs one season and was loved by the fans. At the All-Star game, I received the loudest ovation—and not just because of my talent. “This fella gave his entire $7 million salary to charity this year,” the folksy announcer on tv said. “He’s a real American hero,” the color man added in his gravely voice. “An athlete, makes the ladies swoon, fun-lovin’ and cares about his community: This is the real deal. Americans appreciate that today.” I hit two home runs in that All-Star game, and on the bench with me was a child who was terminally ill. All throughout my life, I enjoyed achievement on the field, but I remained humble and caring. Though I was nationally known (they loved me in Japan, too), I was a hometown hero. I frequently toured schools and hospitals. Life was secure. Effortless.
Embarrassed at what the other passengers would say if they knew what I was thinking about, I try to hide myself more, looking downwards, pretending to read, and placing a hand thoughtfully over my chin.
My stop is approaching. One more mile. How restful it was when I first got on, and had eight or so miles to wait! But now I will have to pull the cord and then, in plain view of everyone, get up and get off the bus. Pulling the cord—I know what people think when I pull it. Is that that ugly guy again? What a fucking mess. Then I have to get up, providing them with a close-up: Yeah, what sports did this guy ever play? My stop is next. Please, someone, please pull the buzzer. Please. No one does. The light is green, and the bus accelerates past my stop. We whiz by the next stop, and the next, before an old lady wearing a babushka pulls the cord. I am in luck; she is not only getting off in the front of the bus, but also making a little commotion. The driver, she says, needs to help her down. Most everyone looks at her, and I sneak out the back door. Success! I do not mind walking the extra half mile; I’ve survived, and am a little giddy. But I catch the faces of the remaining passengers—the regulars, especially—who are well aware that I did not get off at my regular stop. They are even talking about it now, as I am walking down the street. Why would Nerdboy get off here today? Why doesn’t he get off where he works? That’s weird.
It is summer and so people can see how skinny my arms are. I’m not tough. Each person I walk by has something to say about me. Not out loud, but I can read body language, I can read facial expressions. I’m better than him, they think. They don’t even address me: They say that they are better than “him,” not “you.” To avoid the people on the sidewalk I walk in the street, against traffic, constantly looking back, manifestly searching for a bus, latently keeping my face out of sight. Hidden behind parked cars and out of style sunglasses, they can’t see me as well.
I am a block away from work, and sweating; I just need to go one more block. A semi forces me onto the sidewalk, but it is empty, gloriously empty, and I smile, and pleasure threatens to take over. A few more feet of freedom. A half cigarette. One or two more drags—yeah I can get two more drags. Two more drags worth of freedom.
You know, this world ain’t so bad. It really isn’t. Look at it.
About the Author:
T. Kilian Francis is a writer and former teacher. He lives in Chicago with his family