Friday, April 02, 2004

A Bus in Sydney, 1991

I'd arrived in Australia with a bad cold, and combined with jet lag that lingered longer than usual, I felt awful. So, although I'm a bit of a people-watcher, it wasn't surprising that I hardly noticed her when she boarded the bus. She moved past me in the aisle, and took a seat in the side-facing row opposite mine. She'd moved a couple of seats farther to the rear than my position, so we were fairly close to one another, but not directly opposite.

The bus was mostly empty, so I happened to be the closest fellow passenger. I glanced her way. She wore a long, tan linen skirt, a brown blouse, a tweed jacket, and white walking shoes. Her hair was chestnut-colored, with streaks of gray. She had a soft, plain, oval-shaped face, one that didn't clearly convey a certain age. She could have been thirty-five; she could have been fifty. She looked tired, and I guessed that she felt no desire to begin a conversation.

A busload of college guys might hardly have noticed her, but the more I glanced at her face (discreetly, I hoped), the more I felt drawn to it. She had an intelligent, but unassuming air about her, as well as a modest dignity. I noticed the crow's feet around her eyes, the laugh lines, the small scar on her right cheekbone, and the tiny mole below her left ear. Suddenly, I worried that I might be too obvious. ("Most women like to be noticed," my sister once informed me, "but not so much that they feel threatened.") Feeling self-conscious, I forced myself to look down at the floor. I closed my eyes, and soon began to spar with an unwanted nap. One of those strange half dream/half daydream bouts soon commenced, in which I saw myself sitting with her in a cafe, a newfound friend from half the world away. We shared coffee, and I listened to funny stories about her husband and children, her growing up years, her first love, her friends, her life. Then, someone on the bus went into a coughing fit, and I came out of my trance feeling vaguely unsettled, as if I'd invaded her privacy by conjuring up such a vision.

When I glanced at her again, I noticed that she had meanwhile closed her eyes. I now studied her face more intently, a face that promised the telling of so many stories, so many observations about life. I saw love and loss, laughter and sadness, joy and sorrow, all at once. I didn't feel attracted to her so much as fascinated by her, and strangely comforted by her presence. Still, as I gained a familiarity with her appearance, I grew aware of a subtle, graceful beauty that wasn't apparent at first, a beauty that seemed veiled in world-weariness. I yearned to talk to her, to learn of her loves and losses and triumphs and tragedies. But then, the bus began to slow, and her eyes suddenly opened. I failed to avert my gaze quickly enough, and she caught me studying her. "Oh great," I thought, "I've just entered the 'gawking geek' zone." Her expression betrayed no reaction whatsoever. I felt mildly relieved, but still embarrassed. She gathered her bag, then leaned forward in the seat, preparing to disembark.

Having been "caught," I again looked at the floor, although I very much wanted to look at her one last time. Her feet stopped in front of me. "Oh no," I thought, "Mr. Discreet is about to get a lecture." Prepared to offer a preemptive apology, I was instead startled when she gently bumped me on the shoulder with the back of her hand. I looked up, into her eyes. They had a twinkle to them, and she offered a smile that harbored no hint of reproach.

Saying nothing, but still smiling, she moved to the door of the bus. She then looked my way one last time. "Bye, Yank," she said. Startled anew, I couldn't seem to say anything in response, but I did manage to return a smile. Then she stepped down from the bus, and walked away from me, back to her life.

No comments: