It’s always loud on the bus.
The protective bellows encasing the pivoting joint rattle like a screen door in a tornado. The airbag suspension system hisses like a nest of angry snakes. The loudspeaker announces the upcoming stop in blaring robotic monotone. A man with long brown hair wearing a stained Slipknot t-shirt talks to an obese woman in an electric scooter about local Eugene churches. The woman’s husband stares uninterested out the window at the passing sights. His white tank-top reveals thick arms coated with gray hair. He occasionally paws at a patch of fur on his shoulder and interjects an unsolicited comment into the conversation that goes unheeded. A man in the back of the bus sporadically makes primitive howling noises.
At first, the cacophony is overwhelming. During their first couple rides on the bus, a person sits ramrod straight in their seat and desperately checks their phone to confirm how many stops until they need to get off. Humans are adaptable though, and soon they too get accustomed to the chaos. Confident they won’t miss their stop anymore, they decide to call someone on the phone during their ride home. The person on the other end of the line remarks how loud it is there. The bus rider has forgotten they have a front row seat at the symphony of life. With the act of remembering, their previous trepidation is replaced with a morbid curiosity. Instead of keeping their eyes locked to the front, they find them wandering towards the other passengers. It’s just a brief glance, mind you; they don’t want to be rude. But, for the judgmental, it only takes a brief glance to glean a whole life story.
This evolution of thought and feeling took place in me as well. My daily commute no longer looms as a dreadful ride into the abyss, but instead a welcome reprieve to reflect or get needed work done. Today, I’m pretending to read a law book on the bus. Well, “pretending” might be disingenuous. I’m “trying” to read because the book is open and my eyes are fixated on the words decorating the pages. However, to my chagrin, none of the words are making an indentation on my brain. There’s a vital link between visual perception and memory retention that appears to be missing anytime I step on the bus. This is more tragic than it first sounds because I have a habit of factoring in my bus ride as available (aka only) time to read my homework assignments. I’m obviously too busy at home writing, reading, staring at walls, musing over a cup of coffee, laying on the sofa, thinking about cleaning, and a myriad of other essential tasks to be bothered by homework, so I save them for the bus ride. Then, I don’t read them on the bus, but that’s alright because I’ve subconsciously factored this in by always leaving my house early enough to arrive at class with a nice 5-to-10-minute window before the professor begins their lecture. This system has proven to be foolproof because I haven’t suffered through a notorious “cold call” or had to stare despairingly at midterm questions yet. Give it time. Everyone learns at their own pace.
What I’m actually doing on the bus while trying to read my law book is listening, and you can’t truly listen and truly look at the same time. I can hear you protesting, “But I look at someone when I listen to them speak!” But are you really listening or really looking? If you’re really listening, you also have to look at the words they’re saying. If you’re too distracted looking at the shifting of their eyes or their uncomfortably long nose hairs, you miss the shape of the words being spoken. Maybe you “heard” the words they said, but you didn’t listen to them. Makes sense, right? Anyways, I’m listening to the riveting stories around me instead of reading the drab horror novel about civil procedure. There’s bright, intoxicating life in the passengers’ tales while the book in my hands is like a run-down cemetery with unmarked headstones.
Time passes quickly listening and in a blink the bus pulls into Eugene Station, the beating heart of the public transit system in the city. Marked terminals host a myriad of numbered buses and the Emerald Express line. Most of the passengers disembark to catch a transfer and a whole new cast takes their place. The seats fill quickly, less a testament to an overwhelming amount of passengers and more a commentary on American rudeness as we all (yes, me too) place our belongings in the seat next to us to discourage anyone sitting too close.
A young woman with black unruly hair steps onto the bus shortly before we take off. Due to her tardiness, she missed the opportunity to grab a seat since everyone has promptly placed their belongings next to them. She’s wearing a bulging backpack and is carrying a stuffed reusable shopping bag. The bag is white and orange and it says in a cheerful font, “Good people bring out the good in people.” With black bags drooping beneath her eyes, she looks despondently at the occupied seats.
I grab my backpack and offer her my seat. And they say chivalry is dead.
The woman quickly acquiesces and sits down with a long sigh. Shockingly, she doesn’t immediately dump her items onto the seat next to her.
“Would you like to sit down too? I won’t bite,” she says with a half-hearted, tired smile.
The law textbooks in my backpack are heavy . . . I accept her offer and take a seat next to her.
“I just got out of the hospital after three weeks,” she sighs. The smell of new paper sifts past my nostrils. A book, fresh from the printing press, opens to its first page. She offers the novel up like a worm on a hook. Despite the warnings from my fish friends, the metal immediately stabs the soft flesh inside my mouth as I clamp down on it.
“Now you’re here on the bus?”
The question was all she needed. She rips at the fishing pole and begins furiously reeling.
“I’m actually looking for a bus driver, so I can let him know I’m not dead. His name is Raymond. He’s always friendly and willing to listen to me; he’s my mentor, you know? I called the bus station and left them THREE messages, but they never got back to me, so I showed up in person, and I talked to the woman at the front counter, but she can’t give out personal information. You wouldn’t believe what these bus drivers put up with. One time I was on the bus and a man with no shirt or shoes came on, and the bus driver asked him to put a shirt and shoes on because bus policy says you need to wear a shirt and shoes. You know what this crazy guy did? He ran up to the front of the bus and tried to get under the protective shield to attack the bus driver. He was screaming and yelling, and the poor bus driver was just doing his job.”
“Wow, that’s crazy.” My voice comes out muffled and distorted as my tongue tries to work around the deeply lodged hook.
“People don’t respect bus drivers; people don’t respect each other. My grandmother doesn’t respect ME. My grandmother is a bitch. That’s why I was in the hospital. She got me off my medication and then I started having suicidal ideations. I’m having a hard time because I’ve been on my medication for years without a problem, and suddenly my grandma thinks it’s best for me to stop taking my pills. To top it off, she won’t let me have my dog because she says she’s the one that adopted her, which is crazy because she doesn’t do anything for my dog. I take care of her, walk her, and feed her, but suddenly SHE owns the dog because the dog lives in HER house.”
“Can she do—”
“Her name is on the adoption papers and that’s what they look at when deciding who the dog belongs to. It doesn’t matter that it’s MY dog.” Her tone doesn’t welcome argument as she raises a wooden club from the boat floor. “That’s why I want to see Raymond first thing, so I can let him know I’m alive and see what he suggests about this whole situation. I want to take my dog and move out because my grandmother is driving me crazy.”
“You don’t have the bus driver’s number or social media?”
“I’m Noelani by the way,” she says. She turns to look at me and gives me another tired smile.
Noelani is probably in her early twenties. The smile I’ve seen twice now doesn’t reveal any teeth or crease her eyes. Her green eyes glisten with the emotion conjured by the telling of her story; the story is a fresh wound that hasn’t begun to scab. The dark circles under her green eyes look like bruises against her pale skin. My judgmental brain assumes the “bitch” grandmother is likely a surrogate for missing parents. Maybe it’s an impolite and hurried conclusion on my part, but it feels real for this story.
Her hair is a mess of black curls. She’s wearing a pair of athletic shorts that ride up her thighs. One of her pale legs sports lines of pink scars that are partially covered with a tattoo of black cursive writing. I don’t stare long enough to gleam what the words are, but I hope they relay a positive message that discourages any new pink lines.
“That’s a unique name.”
“It’s Hawaiian. I’m not Hawaiian and I've never been to Hawaii, but I guess my mother thought it was a good name.”
The bus speakers announce my stop at Agate Station. I get to my feet as we come to a grinding halt.
“I hope you find Raymond,” I said. It feels like a pathetic sendoff, but the bus doesn’t allow for long, heartfelt goodbyes.
“Thank you,” Noelani says to my back as I head towards the door.
The bus doors slide open and I’m flung back into the water with a gaping hole in my mouth and a disorienting pounding in my head from a club strike. The world sways and the words of Noelani’s story float like bloated corpses in my mind. The only physical remnant of her existence is a putrid cloud of exhaust. There’s a pang of sadness knowing I’ll likely never know the conclusion of her adventure, but it begins to dissipate like the smog. I decide to swim forward with the students crossing the street towards the campus.
For a moment, as the group of us stands there expectantly for permission to cross over into campus, and the crosswalk automation repeatedly tells us to “wait,” we’re close enough to reach out and touch another. There’s a sense of community—we’re all being driven by parallel wants and pressures. The walk signal turns on and our different cadences quickly create distance between us. The sense of unity is lost and it’s like I’m trudging upstream. I wonder what insight Raymond is going to provide Noelani. What could he tell me?