It happens quite often that I must sit on the bus stop bench and watch several busses come and go before mine arrives. I always have an irrational thought that the people who arrive first should have their bus come first, and that my bus should come now because I’ve been here longer than anyone else! Everybody seems to feel that way: they get impatient, and finally conclude that they are ‘owed’ a bus because they’ve waited so long!
Yesterday, I happened to share the bench with a woman who waited as several busses came and went, but she didn’t even look up to check the bus numbers! That struck me as odd. She was dressed like an executive of some sort, and clutched a handsome leather briefcase instead of a purse… but if her face were a house, the tenants moved out long ago and shut the utilities off.
“Excuse me ma’am,” I ventured, poking her gently on the shoulder to get her attention.
She turned and stared at me almost indignantly, as if I had disrupted some profound contemplation. “What do you want?” she hissed.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, but you seem to have dozed off,” I explained. “I was afraid you might miss your bus!”
“Oh,” she said quietly, and began to frown. “That was very thoughtful of you.” She sighed and volunteered the information that she really didn’t care whether she missed the bus at all. Of course, she doesn’t normally ride busses; just today while her car is in the shop.
“Your car must have been very badly damaged to give you such a fatalistic view of life!” I sympathized.
She cracked an involuntary smile, and suppressed it quickly. “No, it’s only in the shop for routine maintenance,” she sighed, “but for some reason it has to take all day.” She examined her watch and pulled the briefcase onto her lap. “So many things have been happening to me lately, and all of them are bad,” she confided suddenly.
“I hope you aren’t having business problems!” I said.
“Heavens no, that’s the best part! I’m an absolute success at my job, and I’m paid very well for it, too.” Her tone was sad, as if her triumphs were hollow and empty. “It’s the personal stuff that’s all gone wrong,” she added in a near whisper.
“May I ask…” I began.
“I know what you’re going to say,” she interrupted, “sometimes it helps to just talk it out with someone.”
That wasn’t what I was going to say, but I played along.
She looked around to see who was in hearing range. “I don’t see any harm in telling you,” she said, “and maybe it will help after all.”
There was an awkward pause. “Telling me what?” I asked.
“My husband left me yesterday!” she answered with considerable effort. Behind her face, a battle raged for control; her eyes puddled up and she clenched her fists. “I’m not going to let this get to me!” she resolved to herself.
“That’s terrible!” I commiserated, “If something like that happened to me, I’m not sure I would handle it as well as you do!”
My bus arrived, but I pretended not to notice.
“Thank you, you’re very kind,” she smiled. “I’m not sure I’m taking it as well as it appears.”
Of that I was certain. “Why did he do that?” I asked gently. I watched as the passengers finished boarding my bus.
“He must feel threatened by my business success—I don’t know.” Her voice began to crack, “He was just gone; all his things were gone, the only piece of him I have left is a note.”
“What did it say?” I pried. My bus departed without me.
“He said that our marriage had gone from a love affair to a contest, and that he couldn’t bring himself to kiss a business associate.” She fought tears again. “But it wasn’t that way! He must have misunderstood something!”
I simply sat and listened as this woman poured out all the intimate details of her life to me, a total stranger.
“Well, what do you think?” she demanded flatly.
“I’ve only known you for ten minutes, and I have never met your husband,” I pointed out, “I don’t think that qualifies me to judge your marriage!”
“You do have a good point,” she sighed in despair.
“However, I do have a crackpot opinion,” I said.
“Go on,” she encouraged.
“I don’t want to raise false hopes,” I cautioned, “but it could be that your husband has been trying to talk to you about your relationship all along, but hasn’t been able to do it.”
“Nothing has been stopping him,” she emphasized, “he could have talked to me any time he liked.”
“I’m sure that’s objectively true,” I conceded, “however, it is possible that in his own perception, he tried and failed many times. If that’s the case, he may have left you to force you to negotiate with him.”
“You mean he could have left me in order to get closer to me,” she said thoughtfully. “That is a possibility. It is a good last-ditch bargaining strategy. I’ve used that tack in business many times.” Her face clouded up again. “That can’t be it,” she moaned.
“Like I said, I don’t know enough about your relationship to say.” This was awkward; after all, I am not a marriage counselor. “All I know is that relationships are like roads. They all have potholes and dangerous curves, and they all need regular maintenance. Trouble comes when you fall asleep at the wheel.”
“It hurts so bad,” she sobbed, rocking herself in the bus stop bench. “I feel so lonely. All of a sudden everything is strange; all the people are strangers, and there’s no reason to do anything at all. Why go to work? Why clean the house? Why eat? Why get on a bus at all?”
I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what.
“I think I’ll wait for a later bus,” she decided. “I can just sit here and think. It’s safe here, it’s well lit. After rush hour I could even stretch out on this bench and really think things over.” She cast longing glances over the bench. “It’s a nice cool evening, and I’ll bet this bench isn’t all that uncomfortable!”
“Oh no, don’t do that!” I exclaimed in panic. This is how bag ladies get started; at least some of them! I asked her what bus she took, and she told me. “What a coincidence!” I lied, “that’s the same bus that I take. Why don’t we sit together, and we can talk some more?”
The woman reluctantly agreed, and rose effortfully to her feet.
At the end of the ride, we went to an all-night restaurant and chatted over coffee and cheesecake, until I was satisfied that she had regained her emotional equilibrium.
“You’re such a nice person,” she said fondly as I left, “It’s a pity everybody isn’t as nice to strangers as you are!”
“You just caught me on a good day,” I replied. With that one remark she hit upon the single major difference between Homelanders and Humans, and that made me unexpectedly nostalgic. At a time like this, it is hard for me to imagine how I came to ply a trade that takes me away so far away from civilization.
It was very late when I left the restaurant, so late in fact that the busses weren’t running any more. I had to indulge in the expensive luxury of a taxi to get home at all, and all that coffee kept me up even later.
As a result, I had a bad day at work today, but it was worth it.