Mary breaths deeply each time the doors open to let new passengers on the bus, trying to mix a little of the frigid winter with the hot, stale air circulating through the bus.
It is an impossible task. Every time the doors hiss shut Mary’s mouth and nostrils fill with the same stifling air heated by overpowered generators.
She slumps back in her seat. Frozen slush peaks lay in street gutters, but the ice melts into dirty puddles on the bus floor. Mary’s scalp is sweating so badly under her wool cap that she can almost hear her carefully curled hair kink up into nappy balls crunching tightly against her head.
Breathing in short gasps now, Mary thinks she might hyperventilate from the effort. She imagines how the emergency would play out, thinking the white man in the cheap brown suit sitting across from her would call 911 on the cell phone he bought with last week’s check. Of course, the fifty-ish driver with a short gray afro and bored eyes would bring the bus to an abrupt stop. Riders would crowd around the ailing Mary, who would have a tan cashmere overcoat, leather high-heeled boots and long sandy-brown hair instead of an old cap covering pitifully short locks. One stranger, a lanky Jamaican man with a forbidden smile would-Hrumpph! Caack-umph!
Her reverie broken by the death-rattle of the gaunt man in the next seat, Mary frowns as she wipes the man’s spittle off her cheek. Now she’ll never know what could have happened with the Jamaican.
It is always like this on the No.12 bus, oppressive and crowded with the sickly, impoverished people who crowd around Mary like mosquitoes around a child’s legs. No one on the bus can move. Those fortunate enough to beat another to a seat, like Mary, are worse off at least the standing aren’t shoved about their heads and shoulders by the sweating bodies of people no one wants to look at, let alone touch.
Usually Mary likes to watch the people sharing her daily ride, fantasizing about their personalities and creating lives for them that far exceed the limits of her own. But today, too many faces are empty and seeking, and the game isn’t much fun. Mary hates days like this, when she can’t see the future in anyone’s eyes.
At 27th street, another man stuffs himself onto the bus. He is as unfamiliar as the rest, but Mary can’t take her eyes off him. He reminds Mary of wax statues she’s seen on junior high trips to the Chicago Museum of Science. Aged, dour Indians whose smiles were prematurely erased by years of being cheated, lied to and ultimately killed off by white men. Maybe this man has his own problems with white men who care only about their own. Mary watches as he impatiently lays his head against the torn seat and closes his eyes. From the disgusted flare of his nostrils and his furrowed brow, he is angry about something.
The eggplant sheen of his skin against pink lips makes him look like the Sambo characters Mary grew up watching on old cartoons and Tarzan movies. At 25 years old , Mary is not of the generation that was constantly inundated with these images, but she knows them well. Even now Mary giggles when she sees those bug-eyed, frightened Negro servants in an old Charlie Chan or Shirley Temple movie on her mother’s rabbit-eared television set. But this man isn’t at all funny.
He is fascinating, and as she looks at him, Mary’s insides feel gurgly like the time she ate 27 slices of processed cheese with her cousin Titi. When he yawns and licks his crusted lips, Mary catches a glimpse of his cigarette-stained teeth and cringes, wanting to vomit on the tacky red shoes of the fat lady next to her.
He is homely and ungainly, as if his own body is an uncomfortable Sunday suit, although Mary guesses he is at least 40. Mary thinks: This is a man who could have time for her, and would appreciate her few virtues. Who else would want him? Mary dreams he can provide what the others have not: companionship, money, reliability. She no longer asks for love, and he should be grateful for a woman who asks so little.
He hasn’t moved, and Mary wonders is he sleeping, and if so, how can he ignore that crying baby who has added his baby-shit stink to the fetid air?
For the first time since he got on the bus, Mary looks away and realizes the air is looser and some have reached their destinations and moved on. Looking back at the incredible man, she is embarrassed and pleased to find him looking right back at her.
She looks quickly away, watching him from the corner of her eye. When he doesn’t drop his gaze as well, Mary never suspects that he sees through her and she does not exist. He doesn’t see her bloated, ordinary face, the pug nose or the skimpy eyebrows depleted by obsessive plucking. He doesn’t know her coat is a threadbare hand-me-down hiding a body that never retained it’s hourglass shape after the second baby. The man couldn’t be less concerned with Mary; he attends to his own losses, phobias and obligations. For Mary, the bus ride is an escape from herself This man has a deeper connection with his thoughts that Mary ever wants with her own.
The bus jerks violently, and without warning he gets up to leave. Mary straightens her hat and tugs at her coat, so he might see more than a mother of four who looks 40 instead of 25. More than a frumpy black woman with little to offer a man besides imagination and love.
For a moment, their eyes meet. She holds her breath, praying for something without knowing what or why. But he quickly slides his eyes away, breaking Mary’s grasp before it takes hold.
This is his stop. Mary watches his back until her vision fails her and he is not even a dot in the distance. She keeps her head down the rest of the ride, and later, she gets off.