2017 Theme Issue - Stranger(s)
I decided to take a city bus, something I rarely did. I used to ride buses. In my youth, plotzing around Boston and Cambridge, it made sense. In Lowell, though, most of the places I needed to go to I could walk, and besides, I had a car. But the place I wanted to get to today was sort of in-between and I didn’t know what parking would be like when I got there and, anyway, it was a muggy August day with the sky looking like rain. So I waited for a city bus.
The destination board read: PAWTUCKETVILLE. That’s a neighborhood on the other side of the river. Lowell has lots of neighborhoods: Ayers City, the Highlands, The Acre, Belvedere, even Spaghettiville, where the old Prince Pasta factory used to be. The bus was nearly full. Most of the passengers looked Hispanic, Portuguese, Cambodian, and West African. There were a few open seats in the rear. I made my way back and sat down next to a woman who was studying her smartphone.
I didn’t have a smartphone. I had what I thought of as a dumbphone clamped to my belt. It was handy when I wanted to make a phone call, but I couldn’t cook on it or tell the weather on the moons of Neptune. Ever since my army days I’d been in the habit of carrying a book wherever I went. Not the same book, of course; different books, but what I learned in the army was that when you had time on your hands with nothing to do, reading was a way to fill it. I took out a book now—a beat-up paperback collection of stories by Theodore Sturgeon called A Touch of Strange, published in 1958—and began reading.
Every once in a while I looked up to see where I was. The bus was passing old factories and mills, like brick cliffs, some bearing fading painted-on signs, like petroglyphs. Carling’s Beer. Raleigh Cigarettes. Beeman’s Chewing Gum. The sky was growing darker, like a chalkboard from elementary school days that hadn’t been erased in a long time. I half wished I’d brought an umbrella.
As I sat there I grew aware of a slight friction and realized it was the arm of the woman sitting beside me, brushing mine. With a sidelong glance I noted she had smooth café-au-lait skin, a sensuous sweep of lips with a light gloss of pink on them, and a dramatic straight nose. She was maybe twenty-five. Her phone held her attention.
The bus jostled; our bare arms brushed. She didn’t move her arm, and I didn’t move mine.
I went back to the story I was reading, something called “The Touch of Your Hand,” and I was in it, the way a good story will pull you there. Before long, however, in the rolling motion of the bus, I felt the merest touch of our arms, the pretty woman’s and my own. I didn’t move mine away, and she didn’t move hers.
She went on swiping her phone, and I returned to my book.
But I soon found myself reading the same sentence over and over. It was a good sentence, but a story is a smorgasbord, with more than a single sentence to sample. I discovered myself, too, aware of the ever-so-soft pressure of the woman’s right arm on my left arm, like the flicker of a fairy’s wings in a storybook.
The city, however, was unaware. It had no issue with going on and on, street after street, past tenement blocks, through neighborhoods, along branching avenues, and all the while the sky roiled with clouds like big boulders that can’t make up their minds whether to roll downhill or fly away. I hoped they’d leave. I was on schedule for my destination.
And her arm brushed mine, and mine brushed hers.
I got a little ripple of paranoia. Were other passengers aware? Thinking me a lecher, copping a secret thrill from an unsuspecting rider? But no, our fellow travelers were occupied with their own dreams.
For uncounted minutes the dance went on—for it was a dance, a kind of tantric tango. I didn’t move my arm and she didn’t move hers. It was like a Texas death standoff, but its opposite: a Texas love standoff. I was no longer reading—Sturgeon would wait; he’d waited since 1958—but I kept my eyes on the book just to do it, and while I held the book steady in my left hand, the sacred side of connection, I used my right hand to turn the occasional page.
Every so often I glanced out to see if the world was still there. It was: the sky a third grade blackboard still waiting for someone to come wash it.
The bus rolled on through the mysteries of the city, past stores and houses and gardens alive with high summer: hollyhocks, larkspur and cosmos. Past cemeteries and churches, the enigmas of lives. But whenever I shut my eyes and concentrated on that touch, I was someplace else. I didn’t know where it was, but it was good to be there, wandering over an unknown landscape, like sunlight across a tabletop in an out-of-the-way coffee bar where you’ve gone to meet a lover.
I didn’t move my arm, and she didn’t move hers.
On it went, block after block, through a whole city that I was somehow absolved of, floating free above parked cars and mailboxes, back-to-school sales and barrooms, and people walking dogs. And then, at some point, rain was falling. The bus slowed, its big windshield wipers moving jerkily across the glass like pterodactyl wings. Outside the landscape was a watercolor, traffic lights blurring red and green like dissolving sugar. I felt an incredible tender affection for the driver and all the other people on the bus and in the city and in the world.
Finally, when I thought this can’t go on, if it continues we might reach kindling point and combust, blazing right there on the city bus, reducing us both to pillars of ash, the woman slid her finger over the screen of her phone and turned it off. “Sorry please,” she said in a soft, slightly accented voice and said something more. She looked at me then, a shy, fleeting look, her brown eyes filigreed with gold, like delicate cloisonné orbs.
I blinked. “Pardon?”
“Ees my stop,” she murmured.
The bus was slowing.
“Oh.” I stood quickly, stepped into the aisle.
As she eased past me, with her phone and a mesh market bag, we exchanged a polite smile, brief as a blink. And she walked away to her destiny and I was left to mine.
Thirty-five blocks, maybe forty, more even, fifty, in the summer gloom, we’d shared an intimacy I had not known in a long time. It was no cross-town quickie. It was beautiful and complete. And now it was over, like a flower pressed between the pages of memory, its petals already starting to fade. The bus moved on.
When I arrived at my destination, I got off thinking vaguely that I might well have driven my car there. But I hadn’t, and I was glad. No umbrella needed. The shower was done. I shut my eyes and drew a slow breath. The air had the unmistakable tang that comes when rain has cooled hot streets.