It’s mid morning. I’m riding on the city bus on my way to school. I’m studying drugs. At least I’m trying to study.
My mind is distracted by the surroundings. My ear is sucked in by the squeaking suspension of the old bus that sounds like a well-used, metal bed frame. My eye is drawn out indomitably like spider’s silk dangling from the flittering fingers of the man across the aisle. My nose is suffused with the odor of waning inebriation and stale cigarette smoke.
There’s an intricate microcosm laid out before me like an elaborate cheese platter to be savored. I salivate a little and spread the napkin over my lap. There’s a brief pang of guilt for admiring the scene as a delicacy for my private enjoyment. As the pang subsides, I cajole myself into taking that first bite because it’s sustenance for my psyche.
The brakes on the bus interject the occasional jerking motion. It doesn’t help that this driver seems to have a particularly heavy foot. Of course, the screeching brakes and unpredictable motion add to the detail.
There’s a woman in the only single seat. The seat faces the aisle right next to the back door. She always sits there. Her dark, wet hair hangs around her face like overcooked spaghetti and sways with the inertia. She clamps her legs around the big, weighty bag at her feet as if someone’s plotting to snatch it away. She looks haggard, and she hunches over a stack of paper. She never looks at anyone, but sometimes stares through them to the passing scenery outside. Now and then she yawns and is quick to cover her gaping mouth. She puts the papers down in her lap and bends over to retrieve something from her bag. She carefully unzips a pocket, and her hand emerges with a black case. She pulls out a pair of sunglasses, returns the case to its place, and zips up the pocket. She slips on the sunglasses and focuses on her papers. I know she’s not.
The man across the aisle sits by the window with his messenger bag in the seat next to him. He’s subtly rocking back and forth. Each time the bus lurches, he starts, and the rocking becomes more intentional and directed. He catches himself holding his hands up and together, with fingers moving like the legs of a centipede, and almost as a self-inflicted punishment, he presses them to his thighs where he rubs them forcefully up and down over the calming ridges of corduroy. He repeats these behaviors cyclically. I think he has some degree of autism, and every second brings a battle to control another urge. That’s what we teach him on the outside. Don’t act weird. Conform. Duck under the radar. I want to reach out somehow, maybe a hand on the shoulder, and tell him it’s all right. That he’s all right. I don’t, because it would probably frighten and stress him further, and I’d like to keep my hand.
There’s an older man with graying hair sleeping. His head leans on the window fusing with the greasy smears left by others who came before him. An aura of cigarette smoke and alcohol wafts over to me when he shifts his position. He’s wearing a black fedora, and all that shows from beneath is his scruffy beard. A powerful jerk as the bus stops, briefly awakens him, and his head lifts slightly to expose his eyes and nose. His eyes find the man across the aisle that wavers and rocks and flicks his fingers. He stares at this unusual dance for a moment until his chin slowly drifts downward, and his eyes once again retreat under his hat.
A young man in a track suit, gripping the Bible, gets on the bus and mumbles to himself. He sits across from the woman with the wet hair. His mumbles become whimpers, and he repeats, “Glory be to God…mmm…oh, Lord…praise be to God.” He’s constantly moving like the man that rocks back and forth, but his dance is different. There’s a wild rhythm in it. “Everywhere I look…I can’t look…I see it…glory to God.” He shakes his head loosely with his chin grazing his shoulders and rubs his hands together like he’s trying to wipe something off. “It’s all in the Psalms,” he chants. His knees flap together. “I know my destination…it’s swift and sure…I know where I’m going…glory be to God…oh, Lord.” He chuckles softly.
My thoughts drift to the nurse that called me recently to check on my drug therapy and ask if I’d had any symptoms or experienced any depression. I said, “No. Well, do you mean other than the just-got-diagnosed-with-a-chronic-debilitating-illness kind of depression? I don’t think so.” I was half joking and half serious. Though she feigned amusement and understanding, I could tell she didn’t get it. I know my strange companions on the bus would. I may look out of place in my loden, ruched scoopneck, but on the inside, I fit right in. I’m every bit as injured and conflicted as my fellow travelers. Their energy courses up through the floor into the soles of my feet, and my heart beats right along with theirs. A pack of stray dogs hunting and being hunted.
I’m at home on the bus, in spite of the high concentration of aerosolized pathogens. As dirty and gritty as it is. As much as I want to scrub down my hands when I get to my destination. There’s a quiet acceptance of imperfection and abnormality that turns the hard bucket seat into a plush, soothing nest where I can snuggle into my outlandish character, my melancholy, my difference, and absorb the healing, sensual warmth. My struggles are equalized. My contentment is fortified. My depression is fleeting. My elevation is erratic. My laughter is sincere. My empathy is profound. My connection to humanity is confirmed.
Then I remove my sunglasses and push the oily tape and listen as the pedantic robot voice abruptly announces, “Stop requested.”
I tuck away my notes, bundle up my idiosyncrasies, and thank the driver on my way out for much more than a ride. It’s a new age symphony, and if Ludwig were here with me, I know we’d share a communing glance as we reluctantly stepped outside and lowered our veils.