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I thought I saw Julia Roberts at the bus stop this afternoon. I was waiting towards the center of the long stretch of pavement that curves around Laguna Honda Hospital and continues passed the little stagnant lake bordering the road, finishing all the way beyond the Christmas tree lot. I stood directly in the narrow shadow of the telephone pole, the only refuge from the sun apart from the humble pointed-roofed shelter that stinks with the accumulated scent of all the thousands of dirty people that have sought its alleged sanctuary.
It wasn’t too warm, though there were few clouds and the sun shone mercilessly along the entire stretch of pavement. It had been freezing earlier in the morning when I’d woken up, admittedly because I refuse to close my bedroom window at night. The cold makes the concave in the mattress where I have slept for the last five years seem all the more cozy.
I had spent the last two hours bent over a desk trying to ignore the petite blonde girl sitting across from me, staring shamelessly as I finished my French final. Towards the end of the test, as I got used to the odd blotches the fluorescent bulbs brought out on the skin of my hands, I felt the girl’s foot as it swung beneath the table and made painful contact with my leg again and again. I scooted my chair back and expertly ignored her existence. I skimmed over my test hurriedly, eager to escape her gaze and her sharp, intermittent kick.
I finished my final a half hour early, remembering at the last moment to add my name to the completed test. The blonde girl smiled at my absentmindedness, her French AP test sitting completed in front of her. I wondered why she didn’t leave. I guessed she was grateful for the opportunity to people-watch unnoticed.
One of the counselors met me as I walked up to the long, plastic tables at the front of the gym. He was a cheerful man who reminded me inexplicably of Will Farrell.
“FranÃ§ais deux?” he inquired, pointing to a pile of completed tests. I wondered who had finished their tests before me. I take a quiet pride in completing work first and best. I hoped my test might still be best.
“Merci,” I whispered. I didn’t make eye contact with the over-friendly counselor, which was not unusual. I can’t ever bring myself to make eye contact with people when we’re having such a structured exchange. As soon as I know that my interaction with someone is likely to continue beyond thirty seconds, on the other hand, I’m incapable of removing my gaze from theirs. I like to watch people talk. If you don’t watch them, you don’t catch half of what they’re not saying. I thought fleetingly of the tiny blonde girl.
I left school in a hurry, hoping to run across some other freshman eager to go over the test blow by blow. Everyone I passed on the way out of the school was preoccupied, however, and I made as unobtrusive an exit as I always do. I have a tendency to get places early and to leave in a rush. I don’t like to bother people.
I caught my first bus and didn’t notice the brilliance of the sun as I sat beneath a window towards the back. I prayed at every stop that no S------- High kids would get on. Their voices are loud and they enjoy verifying every high school stereotype there is. They brag about sex, they run away from home, they stab their friends in the back, and they avoid any attempt to be discreet about drug transactions. This I learned all in one bus ride a few weeks ago -- and not just me: the entire bus was subjected to several long, loud, and vulgar cell-phone conversations that left us with very distinctive opinions of S------ High School.
When I got off of the bus across from Forest Hill Station and had firmly established my place in the shadow of the telephone poll, I took my paperback out from the bag I had strapped across my right shoulder. I thumbed through it to the page I had folded down a few days earlier. I had progressed about three paragraphs in my book in the last four days, having been almost tirelessly cramming for finals. I read a few sentences then lifted my gaze from the page. Waiting for things makes me nervous and I can’t concentrate on any one thing for fear of missing whatever it is I’m waiting for. I peered up in anticipation of a bus that was not there then glanced back at the page, having lost my place. My attempts to read continued for several long minutes, occasionally interrupted by a vain expectation of the bus, until a voice drew me easily away from the page.
“Excuse me.” I looked up and to my left, following the voice which was slightly raised to accommodate the distance. A woman in a black, broad-rimmed hat stood ten feet away with one hand on a stroller, the other hanging at her side. She was entirely dressed in black, but I did not yet care to make a full inspection of the entirety of her ensemble. Her eyes were almost completely covered by the shadow her hat cast on her face. Her jaw bone was striking. It moved smoothly to accommodate the movement of her lips as she continued to speak. She had a distinctively normal voice, given character by the hint of an accent.
“What bus are you waiting for?” She inquired in a melodic tone that glided gently into my ears.
“The 44,” I answered, feeling keenly my moronic lack of grace as I stood, flushed from the sun, in my enormous IOWA sweatshirt, (a souvenir from my father’s business trip to Des Moines) my hair messy from vigorous test taking.
“Thank you,” and she turned away, moving the stroller closer to the grimy shelter. I returned to my book -- in theory. I saw the woman out of the corner of my eye as she bent down beside the baby carriage and began, delightedly, to tell a story to its occupant. I listened to what snatches of her fairy tale I could catch. I wondered why the woman seemed so familiar to me.
Maybe it was the wide brimmed hat and the black dress and jacket she was wearing, all of which I now studied in greater detail. Maybe it was her calming, indistinct accent or the charmingly bittersweet way she recounted “The Three Little Pigs” to her child. She did not seem to belong to this world -- to my world. It didn’t seem that she could be aware of reality, of suffering, of sidewalks or of bus stops. What if she was Julia Roberts?
That was the logical, if tentative, conclusion I came to. Each familiar detail, from her hat to her voice, reminded me forcibly of the actress, and I was led to wonder what it would be like if this mysterious woman to whom I had just spoken two words (three if you count “forty-four” as two words) was Julia Roberts. I wished I had gotten a better look at her face. Why didn’t I know more about Julia? I knew she’d been pregnant because I’d seen Ocean’s Twelve at least five times (being able to justify the stroller made me feel a great deal more confident in my assertion). But how could I be sure it was her? She didn’t seem as tall as she did on the screen…or as accessible. Perhaps I could catch a better glimpse of her on the bus.
I had to move away from Julia a few minutes after I’d identified her; a large, bald man with a number of green tattoos had lit an exceptionally fragrant cigarette. I knew he wouldn’t have smoked had he realized that he was poisoning Julia Roberts’s baby. I hoped Julia would talk some sense into him. I imagined her approaching him in the calmest of ways and smiling peaceably. She would ask him if he would put his cigarette out until the bus came -- for her baby’s sake. Of course he would.
Of course he would. But what would I do? What was I to do once I had boarded the bus and ascertained that this woman really was Julia Roberts? Would I play it safe and jokingly ask her if anyone had ever told her that she looked just like Julia? Or would I act the stupid fan and too-eagerly inquire “Julia Roberts?” Or (and this was my preferred course of action) would I say nothing? Be the respectful, if rather unkempt girl who had helped Julia Roberts catch the right bus?
The 44 pulled up as I was mulling over my various options, and I moved to the back and took a seat with a good view of the entirety of the vehicle. After we had been moving just shy of two minutes, I was able to get a long and unobstructed look at Julia. Except that, as I’m sure I had known all along, she wasn’t Julia at all. The woman beneath the broad-rimmed hat remained unreal and untouchable, her hair the appropriate reddish-brown color, frizzy as it stuck out beneath her hat. But her voice. Her voice was still strangely enchanting as she finished her story, but her accent became more pronounced. She was Irish.
The woman remained as much a fairy tale as the one she had been recounting to the indistinct creature in the stroller. She looked so singular amidst the other clumsy, chattering commuters. Balancing on the moving bus with her stroller was, perhaps, the difference between Europe and America. But perhaps I was seeing more. If more existed, this woman was totally and completely aware of it, I was sure. I stared. I fidgeted, my legs swinging weightlessly back and forth just above the floor.
When I got off the bus at Clement Street I wasn’t thinking about the Irishwoman any longer. I tried to flatten my bangs subtly as I watched my reflection in the store windows I passed. I hurried by a row of newspaper stands atop which a tall, dreadlocked black man in a Santa Claus suit was sitting comfortably. I made sure to avoid eye contact. As far as I was concerned, he didn’t exist.