Life on a Bus

June 8, 2013
She was used to the smell. It had been years since she’d boarded a bus, but now as she stepped on and breathed in, it almost felt like home. She sat down in an empty window seat, and put her purse down on the floor on top of a heating vent.
Mary had hoped that it would be an empty bus--that maybe since it was an all-night ride, nobody would be making the long trek from Lakewood to Stanhope. Well, of course nobody was. The bus was Cleveland to New York, and she knew that nobody else would plan a twelve hour bus ride, followed by another forty-five minutes travel time to Hell. Nobody else wanted to end up in Stanhope.
But it wasn’t empty. The bus filled quickly, and soon a young black man with broad shoulders was motioning to the seat next to her. She nodded. He smiled and sat down. She smiled back. He had nice eyes.
It was dark out, but she could see the lights of the station. They were orange and unpleasant. Mary watched them, transfixed, as the bus started to move. It was strange to her that as they drew away from the terminal, the lights didn’t get smaller or anything. They were just there for a while and then suddenly gone. She turned to her purse and pulled out the burger she’d made herself at work that afternoon.
The man next to her had put his headphones on, and drew slightly away as she began to eat. She hoped he wasn’t a vegetarian. She didn’t have a lot of patience for vegetarians. They were always asking for things to be cooked in separate pans. She’d learned quickly that as long as you promised that their spinach omelette hadn’t touched a bit of bacon grease, you could fry however you wanted and they’d never notice
Still, she was careful to keep her burger closer to the window than to him, just in case. After all, she was going to be pretty cozy with him for twelve hours, no getting around that. There was no point inciting a hostile neighbor so early on.
The glass of the window was cold, and the heater on the floor beneath her did little to remedy the November air fighting its way in. It was nearly Thanksgiving. She hoped she wouldn’t have to stay long--Thanksgiving was a busy time at the diner, and there were never enough hands serving. She made time and a half.
Mary counted the headlights on the black highway. Twenty-seven cars driving towards Cleveland. The man next to her shifted in position, and she again noticed his eyes. It wasn’t just that they were dark, or attractive. They were, but there was something else captivating about them, something Mary couldn’t put her finger on. He glanced at her, and she looked away, back out the window.
One hundred forty-six cars driving towards Cleveland. It was getting later. People were starting to go to sleep. Mary was not going to sleep tonight, or at least she didn’t plan to. She smiled ruefully. It had been a long time since she’d pulled an all-nighter. Years. But here she was.
It was quiet. She liked it. It was calm, though of course her mother would say it was dead. Mary smiled wryly at the thought. She closed her eyes and recalled precisely Deirdre Rhiannon Guerrette’s voice saying the words that had haunted Mary’s childhood.

“No one’s alive on a bus.”
Marion looked down at her hands to avoid her mother’s eyes in the rearview mirror, and fidgeted in her booster seat. Even at six, she knew better than to question any of Deirdre Rhiannon Guerette’s sweeping statements about the requirements of being properly alive.
It was the fifth day of first grade, and she had made the mistake of asking why she couldn’t ride the bus with the other kids. There was no lecture, no fuss. Just the one sentence, and Marion knew she had no chance. She realized now that she would probably be driven to school every day for the rest of the year, maybe even the rest of her life. She leaned back and reached her little fingers to the window button.
“Marion, are you rolling down the window?”
Her mother’s eyes were back on her. She met their gaze in the mirror and nodded.
“Sweetheart, you know Mummy doesn’t like the windows open in the morning.”
The window went up. Marion pressed her face to the glass.
“Yes, mama.”
When they arrived at school, Deirdre insisted on coming in, holding her daughter’s hand down the long hallways until they reached the classroom. She held Marion’s face between her ring-bedecked hands and kissed her forehead.
“Have a wonderful day, my Marion,” she said, and swept off down the hall, her moss-green skirt brushing her daughter’s arm as she went. Marion was left with the strong scent of Chanel No. 5 and a wine-dark lip print on her forehead. The bell rang. She rubbed the print with her hand as she walked into the classroom, hoping it would come off without a trip to the bathroom. But she only succeeded in getting her hand greasy and red.
She put her head down walking to her desk. Maybe nobody would notice.

They were somewhere in Pennsylvania when she finally pulled out the notebook. An hour later, she opened it. The last thing she’d written was a school paper on The Scarlet Letter before she’d left Stanhope. Unless you counted bills at the diner, or her phone number for those customers in flannel. But even that hadn’t happened for several years now. The longer she’d worked at John’s, the better the corned beef hash had tasted. Coincidentally, the better it tasted, the fewer the men winking at her over their coffee refill.
So she hadn’t been doing a lot of writing. This wasn’t exactly the way she’d wanted to start, but it had to be done by the time Robert picked her up tomorrow morning, so she uncapped her pen and set to work.

Marion shut the door and stepped out onto the lawn. She walked parallel to the paved walkway, stepping hard on the grass in her pink and white sneakers. Almost to the mailbox…almost…she heard a click behind her. Almost there…
The door was open and Deirdre Rhiannon Guerrette had poked her head out. Mary kept walking.
“Marion, sweetheart, are you leaving without saying goodbye to your mother?”
“I don’t want to be late, Mom.”
Finally she hit the mailbox. Off the property. But Deirdre kept talking. Marion had thought the mailbox was home free, but apparently not.
“Don’t you have to wait for Christopher?” There was a definite threat in Deirdre’s voice.
Marion stopped, back to her mother, and took a deep breath.
“Marion, I made this very clear to you. You will not be walking to school alone. Now you come back inside and wait for Christopher or I will get my keys and drive you.”
Marion stood, frozen, working up the will to say something. She had to be careful, she knew. It had been months until Deirdre even agreed to let her walk to school, and she knew that one word could shatter that tenuous agreement. Still, though. It was hard to be careful with Deirdre Rhiannon Guerrette.
“Marion!” Deirdre’s voice had turned razor-sharp.
“Mom, I am waiting for Christopher. He said he’d meet me at the mailbox.”
Deirdre stormed out the door and down the walkway to meet her daughter, pulling her silk robe tighter around her.
“I’ll wait with you.”
Marion looked at her mother. She had rollers in her hair (because a hair curler simply destroys your coloring). She was wearing her nightshirt and a filmy grey skirt, and her makeup was half done. Exactly what she wanted Christopher to see.
“No question, Marion. You wanted to walk to school. You will say a proper goodbye to your mother.”
Marion closed her eyes and waited.

Deirdre Rhiannon Guerrette was the kind of woman who demanded. She demanded three full names, the finest vintage, and the most meticulous flower arrangements. But none of those demands matched what she demanded of her daughter. No, scratch that. That wasn’t appropriate. Mary leaned back against her seat.
Deirdre Rhiannon Guerrette was the kind of woman who demanded. She demanded three full names, the finest vintage, and the most meticulous flower arrangements. But above all else, she demanded respect. Respect that nineteen year-olds fresh off the bus from Chicago don’t usually get in Brentwood. But Deirdre, in her Chanel No. 5 and her flowy skirts, would not take no for an answer. She never took no for an answer. Not when it came from a landlord, not when it came from an employer, and not when it came from her daughter who didn’t want to go to the prom. No, that wouldn’t do either. Mary sighed. She was getting nowhere. The man with the nice eyes smiled in his sleep.
Deirdre Rhiannon Guerrette was the kind of woman who demanded…

Deirdre all but sprinted down the steps of the bus. She breathed in deeply. New place, new life. She coughed. Funny. She’d expected the air to be clearer than home. Then again, this was New Jersey. But still. New place, new life, New Jersey. Now it was just a matter of catching a cab. After all, she wasn’t going to stay in Newark. If she’d wanted a city, she would have stayed in New York, where the last bus had dropped her half an hour ago.
Well, only a little ways left to Stanhope. Stanhope. Just the name was appealing. So...suburban. She couldn’t wait for her white picket fence and stint on the PTA. Well, eventually at least. Right now she needed a place to stay, a job, and maybe soon a good-looking gentleman caller. And a pay phone. Yes. First a pay phone. She had to tell her parents not to look for her. And call a cab, because apparently the Newark Greyhound station wasn’t a hotspot for them.
Still. Positive thinking. New place, new life. Stanhope. Hope. She was not going to be her mother. She was going to be successful and accomplished. She was going to be on museum boards and learn to cook Asian food and have lovers, not boyfriends. She was going to own a house and drive a cute little hatchback and she was going to raise her children better.

“Marion, sweetheart!”
Marion put her pen down on the desk and closed her eyes.
She picked her pen up again. “What?” she yelled.
“I have something for you!”
Marion sighed. Nothing good ever came after that announcement. She stood up and walked downstairs. Deirdre was waiting just inside the front door with a garment bag. Marion forced the corners of her mouth upward.
“Marion, darling, what’s that on your forehead?”
Marion picked self-consciously at the zit and didn’t answer.
“Sweetheart, aren’t you using the new face wash Mummy bought you?”
Marion glared at her mother. “Yes.”
“Well, what about the concealer? It’s in the top drawer next to the sink. You need to take care of yourself.”
Marion nodded.
“All right then. Now, do you want to see what I bought you?”
Without waiting for an answer, Deirdre unzipped the bag and pulled the thick plastic from the hanger. She held the hanger up over her head, shielding herself from view with the dress. The dress. It was black, it was straight, it was long. It was strapless, dotted in blue sequins and silver beads. It was sophisticated and tailored, and crisp. Deirdre poked her head out from behind it.
“Isn’t it just ravishing?” she asked, grinning expectantly.
Marion swallowed. “What for?”
“The prom, silly!” Her mother held the dress to her body and twirled. Her copper colored skirt blew out with her. “Oh, Marion, you’re going to look so beautiful!”
“Um…Mom?” Marion swallowed again, trying to get a little moisture back into her mouth. “I don’t really have a date or anything.”
“You will, sweetheart!” Deirdre handed Marion the dress. “Who wouldn’t want to go with you?”
“Well…” Marion took the dress hesitantly. “Any boy at all?”
“Marion.” Deirdre took Marion by the hand and led her into the kitchen. “You need to put yourself out there if you expect a date for the prom.”
She pointed Marion towards a stool and went to the fridge.
“Now, you can’t expect boys to just know you’re available. You have to make it clear to them that you are open to their invitations.” As she spoke, she bustled around the kitchen, pulling out vegetables like there was no tomorrow. Marion was relieved when soy sauce was added to the counter.
“Of course, you don’t want to be too forward, but you don’t seem to have a problem with that. Step one is just making it clear that you even want to go to prom.”
Marion folded the dress into her lap. “Mom?”
Deirdre kept talking. “Maybe Christopher would take you! All you have to do is mention that your mother picked you up the perfect dress in the city and he’ll want to take you just like that. Of course, put on that concealer before you talk to him.”
Marion tried again. “Mom!”
Deirdre whirled around to face her daughter. “Yes?”
“I don’t want to go to the prom.”
Deirdre opened the bottom drawer and pulled out a wok. She did not look at Marion. “Yes you do, sweetheart, of course you do. We’ll find you a date, don’t worry.”
Mary folded the dress in half again.
“I mean, just look at that dress, sweetheart! I found it in the cutest little boutique in the city. I saw it and I just knew it was the dress. Look at it. It screams ‘sophisticated.’”
Marion unfolded the dress and held it critically in front of her.
“But, mom…is it really…me?”
Deirdre laughed. “Of course it is!”
Marion sighed. “Mom, I don’t want to go.”
“Of course you do, darling.” Deirdre turned back to the stove and continued cooking. “Now go try on your dress.”
Marion stood, and walked quietly back up to her bedroom.

Mary sighed. There was still very little on the page. Maybe she needed to start somewhere more positive. But whenever she put her pen to the page, she only got Deirdre Rhiannon Guerette was the kind of woman who demanded. There was probably no hope for it. She didn’t know why she was being asked to speak anyway. She hadn’t seen her mother in over twenty years. Hadn’t been back to Stanhope. Hadn’t so much as looked at New Jersey on a map. She didn’t know what she was supposed to say. How does a runaway daughter bury her mother?

Mary had packed her bags in an empty house, called a cab to take her to the bus station. She sat, waiting for the Greyhound in a near-empty terminal. It was a Tuesday afternoon in June. Her mother was in the city, probably shopping for Mary’s graduation dress. She was armed with her suitcase and all her babysitting money, and she was finally getting out.
She had left the note folded on the kitchen counter.
Mom – I’m sorry, but I need to get away. You of all people should understand that. I don’t think I’ll ever be what you want me to be. Maybe no one’s alive on a bus, but maybe that’s where I belong. I’ll call you when I’m settled. - M

It was quiet. Serene. Everyone was asleep. Mary stretched and wiped her palms on her jeans. The man next to her stirred. He opened his eyes and looked around, panicked. As it sank in where he was, he settled back into his seat and closed his eyes again. Youth. That was it. That was what Mary had seen in his eyes that had enchanted her so. He was young. She turned back to the window.
It was very dark outside, and it had started to rain or snow or something. Small flecks bulleted across Mary’s field of view, giving the highway outside the effect of a poorly tuned television. She smiled, watching the dust fly past the red emergency handle. She hadn’t felt this alive in years.

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