Human Vignettes: A Bus Ride In Portland

There are these mornings, when the bus ride is like waking up third world or secondary planet or first fledgling nightmare. Backpack upon briefcase. Every configuration of facial hair and body musk—last night’s alcohol bleeding through perfume, students and corporate office warriors battling the commute and headache and weariness, armed with nothing but burnt coffee in a battered tumbler. A spritely and unsightly herd of sour, sweet, salty, savory, and unsavory all packed together on mass transit with instruments, animals, and luggage drawn up between legs. Grocery bags and lunch sacks are tucked under arm and pulled close against the chest like children to the nursing mothers who are also on board. Most are warming up for a long day of staring into large screens by staring into a set of smaller ones. Some are canceling the noise with their own headphones and radiant sounds.

Here, a dubious desperado in a budget costume duster and thrift store cowboy boots. A blue pheasant tail feather fascinator arcing from the band on his Stetson. Fine as a burghal bumpkin, he fiddle-winces at a broken, taped thumb. 

A Japanese woman stares blankly on behind a fringe of sable sleek bang, pursed lips the glimmering pink heart of a seashell. Neon green cords snake into her ears ending in buds shaped like ivy leaves. She catches her reflection in the window with the world streaking by. She detachedly imagines a bus crash, and thinks, “It would be okay to die now, while I’m still beautiful.” She wants to hear the silence of the forest again. She thinks of wandering the volcanic cliffs of Aokigahara, to drown in a black sea of trees.

The addict lovers lean into each other in sweatpants. Barely filling a pair of bucket seats, they huddle close, bone-limb tangled as overgrown children on a Summer porch swing. She opens her mouth with a gap-toothed smile. The dull glint in her eyes says, “I love you.” The uneasy crease in her crown says, “I fear you.” She dreams in red, white, and blue. Of crystal glass castles. Beakers and flasks. Of a grand explosion that would make everything clean again. Every day, day for night, they build and they smash. They camp and they move. He takes her thin arm to lead her off the same way he yanks the cord for the next stop.

Beside me, a cocoa-skinned prostitute with copper eyeshadow nods off. The leopard print skirt slinks up a muscular thigh as she slumps into a dream behind glittering eyelids. She jerks awake, blinks slowly, turns and tries on her bedroom eyes, batting little goldfish at me in seductive ripples. A practiced bait and catch. Her hair is the color of butterscotch frosting whipped into a towering frontal wave. I can’t tell if it’s hair furniture and Aqua Net or a well-coiffed wig. She blurts out confessionally to my gentle, weighty stare, “I ain’t going back to jail again.”

Across the way, a babushka in a red fur coat and brocade shawl threaded with silver, diverts her nose and mouth from the surround smell of humanity into the slope of her wilted breasts. She buries her senses internally, her Siberian heart soaked in Cuir de Russie. Beneath her cloaked body, she is a rose in bloom, warm jasmine, vanilla bean, and deeper still, tobacco and the dark animal low note of leather—a reminder of Mitya, who gave her two pearls nestled into a twist on her ring finger. Her body took his grain of sand, his broken bit of shell and cast layer upon layer of mother until they emerged like twin stars, shining and protected. Until he took them from her. Pearls for the two wolf children who paced hungrily around her, until they froze to death in a winter cabin he couldn’t keep wooded and warm. This, she turns in endless circles on her hand, in her mind.

A gnomish man with wild hair and eyebrows that won’t obey his face, rocks gently back and forth, muttering about cancer and Australia, working his manic monologue into a fevered pitch until he howls, “I was, like YOU! I was, liiiike YOUUU!” I begin hoping I am never like him, until he bursts into the rest of Olivia Newton-John’s song, “Have you never been mellow? Have you never tried to find a comfort from inside you? Have you never been happy just to hear your song? Have you never let someone else be strong?”

I always thank the bus driver for handling the human performances with stoic grace. Everyone is busy wringing out their hearts, running through their minds, revisiting past stories and chasing future selves. Some in silence, others in screams. The hush-close of the doors seals another set of observations, every seat a story chapter that could’ve been mine. Another day, another ride.

This story first appeared at PDXX Collective, "literary feminism for the working writer."

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