I sat in the back. That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? Common courtesy. The front of a bus is for all the folks who can’t climb the toecruncher steps to the back, old folks whose asses can’t stand the unpadded plastic buckets of the seats. I climbed to the back and then I sat with my bag in the seat beside me.
Right after McClellan, I got that feeling. You know, when someone standing nearby is looking very intently at you. Me, I don’t react. If you can’t be bothered to grab my attention overtly, you don’t get it.
Through the reflection in the back of my sunglasses, I could see there was a girl standing beside my seat. She was holding one of the bars and had her backpack down by her feet. Her face scrunched under the weight of her irritation, I could even see she was a little red. The next time the bus stopped, she accidentally-on-purpose let her free hand swing forward and hit me.
I do my best not to react in these situations. Years of public transit had dampened my enthusiasm for interacting with complete strangers. I brushed off my shoulder and pretended to read my paper.
The girl yelled a loud “a-hem!”
I looked up, plucking out an earbud. “Can I help you?”
“I wanna sit here.” Not can I sit here, not is anyone sitting here, I wanna sit here.
I looked across the aisle. “There’s an empty seat right over there.”
She was red in the face, and her eyes were narrowed into little gleaming slits.
“You gotta let me sit here,” she said, “it’s rude.”
“Ah,” I said, “so.”
Neither of us made a move.
“Why can’t I sit here?”
“Because I don’t want you to,” I said plainly. She thumped the plastic seat with her foot.
“It’s a free county!”
“What does that even mean?” I asked, “listen, there’s a free seat right there. Just go sit somewhere else.”
“Why don’t you wanna sit next to me?”
“You’re giving me a couple of reasons as we speak,” I said.
“You don’t have any good reasons.”
“Not wanting to is enough,” I said, “I just don’t want to share a seat this morning, is that so hard to understand?”
But she was nodding angrily, making the stray frizzles of orange hair bounce up and down on her forehead.
“I knew it,” she proclaimed, “I’m not good enough to sit next to you.”
I looked at her, palms spread open. “You lost me.”
“You’re just like those assholes on the school bus,” she hissed, “you don’t wanna sit next to me because I’m too fat, or smelly, or I’m not popular.”
“You don’t think you’re projecting, just a touch?”
“It’s common decency to share a seat!” she sounded near tears.
“And? It’s not like you need this seat,” I said, “it could be any seat. In fact, it could be that very seat I’m pointing to right now.”
She stomped away, leaving her bag. I was afraid she was going to start something with the driver, but she stomped right back.
“You’re being weird.”
“I’m being weird?”
“Why don’t you just share the seat? I’d leave you alone if you share the seat.”
“I don’t negotiate with terrorists,” I said, and furled my newspaper. She hit it down with her palm.
“Don’t ignore me,” she practically screeched, “I’m a human being!”
“And I’m not?”
“I see you.” She was fuming now. “I’ve seen you on this route before. You share with people all the time, what’s different about me?”
“Besides this?” I indicated her with my palm. She narrowed her eyes even more, whites disappearing in bulges of skin.
“I knew it,” she hissed, “you are ignoring me just because it’s me. You’re just like those assholes at my school.”
“Hey,” I said, “I’m not like them. I am part of a completely different set of assholes.”
“You’re just like the guy who used to push my backpack off the seat. Every time. And all my pencils would spill out and my water bottle would uncap and get everything wet.” She seemed genuinely near tears. “Or the girl who would put her legs up on the seat. No matter when I got on, it was only those two choices, and I always rode with that asshole. No matter how I begged her, she wouldn’t put her legs down.”
“Sorry,” I said, “but this isn’t high school and you can sit somewhere else.”
She made fists. “Give me a good reason why.”
“Stephanie,” I said. Her face fell.
“Stephanie,” I insisted, “the café I go to every morning always has one barista working the till, one working the machine. I always get Stephanie. Stephanie won’t take no for an answer, and she never gives me what I really want.” I pointed. “You’re Stephanie. You’re that bitch who gives me 2% instead of soy in my latte.”
She stammered, “So?”
“I’m lactose-intolerant, asshole.”
She said, “Sorry,” and then shut up.
I said, “Yeah, well,” and ducked my head behind my paper.
After a moment, she said, “That’s pretty bad. I know food allergies can be pretty heinous.”
“It’s not an allergy,” I said, “but thanks. It’s just an extra discomfort. I’ll live.”
She was twiddling the straps of her backpack, which was now hiked over one shoulder. “I have a cousin who’s gluten-intolerant. He says sometimes even the gluten-free stuff gives him trouble.”
“Sucks,” says I, “it’s always rough in the beginning. We didn’t always have soy milk. My mom would crush up calcium pills in my orange juice.”
Her nose wrinkled. “Ugh.”
“And even now, it’s kind of exorbitant. I mean, you can always make your own, but I don’t see why I should have to every time I want a drink.” I folded the paper. “Listen, it’s not a big deal. If you want to sit—”
“Actually,” she said sheepishly, “this is my stop.”
“Oh,” I said. “Never mind then.”
She nodded. Her cheeks had faded to pink, her eyes kept flickering to the floor. I pulled the cord for her and the driver obediently pulled up beside a bank of apartment blocks.
She rocked back and forth a little, looking at her shoes. Finally, she grabbed the next bar, brachiating to the back door.
“Well–bye,” she said.
“So long, Stephanie,” I called.
The doors shut after her. No one else had gotten off at the stop. I watched her as long as I could, until the back of the bus cut me off. The city bus has no rear windows. I think this is why.