Chariot of the Eastern Seaboard
My tongue fluttered over my left canine and scraped away a piece of fruit flesh. Then I chugged the rest of the juice and whipped out a straw to suck the remaining meat bits. Even after crushing the can, I felt no relief from the sun or my sweat. The sidewalk burned the soles of my shoes. My hair, though worn up, still managed to stick to my neck. I tightened my jaw and peered down the street. The bus was already two hours late.
My goal was simple: to get from NYC to DC in under five hours outside of rush hour. I had accomplished said goal many times before. I'd pop up to Allen Street half an hour early with a book, my knapsack, and maybe munchies. Then I'd tap dance on the sidewalk out of restlessness until the bus arrived. Either I'd pass out in my seat or read. A couple of leg cramps later, I'd find myself on H Street.
One confused bus driver shattered my routine. It was like Snow White not finding the dwarves at home one day. I needed a chorus of whistling short men to whisk me away from the sharks, but they'd abandoned me for a stag theater. And I couldn't compete with Vixen Vag.
Fifteen minutes after the bus was scheduled to come, I pulled myself off the street and into the urban shack more formally known as the “bus station.” My eyes skipped over the vermin, the cracked seats, and the empty water cooler. Then I shoved my way through some people, excusing myself like a Southern Belle. I could move like a shark, but I had Flippers' charm.
The thickly-accented guys behind the counter ignored me when I first asked why the bus was late. I tried again. And again. And again. I thought the youngest man there would speak decent English and take pity on the frazzled American customers. No such luck. When I asked him to fill the water cooler, he murmured that he would, but it never happened. I instantly regretted never having taken Mandarin.
Eventually the station employees admitted that the driver was new and had gotten lost. The little mob huddled before their bullet-proof window scoffed. “Aren't bus drivers supposed to know where to go?” “Didn't they train this guy?” “Whatever happened to GPS?”
He probably did know where to go...when he wasn't seriously sleep-deprived or stoned. They probably had trained him...for about ten minutes during his lunch break. And if this dump was too miserly to keep their water cooler full, why would they shell out for a GPS?
Okay, stay positive, I told myself. When the counter fellas finally revealed that they were sending someone to replace the driver and that the bus would arrive in an hour and a half, I zipped on over to Forsyth Street to scan the shop windows. Chinese dollar stores always cheer me up. My trained eye appreciates counterfeit My Little Ponies and obsolete Sailor Moon calendars. I couldn't help but chuckle at the cross-eyed Pokémon characters on the cardboard pencil boxes, either.
Because the dollar store only accepted cash, I walked away with far less than I wanted: two rolls of double-sided tape, a porcelain doll clock, and three packages of plastic glow-in-the-dark stars and dinosaurs. I needed that glow-in-the-dark T-Rex more than I did sustenance, I reasoned. You can find salted seaweed snacks and koala-shaped yogurt crackers anywhere. There were probably even stale moon cakes under the seat that I could paw at later. I had scored true treasures for cheap.
The bus came as predicted--four hours later than the time printed on my ticket. And by ticket, I mean the shred of paper I had used to write my name and confirmation number.
When I'd taken the bus from Richmond on the way to NYC, I had thought I could show the driver my e-ticket by pulling it up on my phone. No, the station manager said, I had to print it. Well, at that point, I wasn't going to go home to print my ticket (I didn't have ink, anyway), so I paid the required $2.
I waited impatiently in the manager's office while he tried to decipher my e-ticket. The room stank of piss and moth balls. Then, flustered, the manager ripped out a sheet from his notebook and barked, “You. Write furr name. And numba. Whole numba.”
So I did.
“Dere,” he said. “Good.” That meant, Done. Go away now.
My jaw almost hit the floor (but not quite because of sanitation concerns.) I told him that I had paid for a printed ticket. I pointed at the printer sitting on his desk. He pretended not to understand and shooed me away. Dejected, I returned to my filthy spot in the waiting room until the bus pulled off of Parham Road.
This time, I was going to hold onto my $2. Of course, when I got up to the bus, the driver sneered at my scrap of paper.
“Dis no good. Where ticket?”
“They told me this was fine,” I lied.
“Who tord you?”
“The guys in there.” I pointed at the bus station and fluttered my eyelashes.
The driver looked at me suspiciously and then hesitantly waved me onto the bus. There was a long line of angry New Yorkers, Baltimoreans, and Washingtonians behind me. Clearly, the driver did not want a scene.
I sprinted onto the bus, only to get stuck in aisle traffic. As the people ahead of me tried to wiggle into their seats, I halted next to a couple in the third row.
“This is the bus to Boston,” the red-faced man said to me. He was sitting next to a plump, fair-haired woman with Disney eyes and a cardigan sweater. She must have been his wife.
“Just kidding!” He and his wife laughed as they ribbed each other.
I rolled my eyes and laughed, too. I took the seat behind them since it was the closest open one. After folding myself into my corner, I pulled out my eye mask and rested it on my thigh. I'd get my final glimpses of the city before going to sleep.
Sleep never came. There was no air-conditioning. It was at least 90ºF outside, meaning it was even hotter on the bus. I glanced around. I not only learned that nobody else was sleeping, but that sharks could pant. So I opened my book. Unfortunately my brain was too mushy to concentrate.
Alright, I told myself, enjoy the view. I stared out the window. It offered monotonous scenery. To put it kindly, there are far more beautiful sights than the Jersey Turnpike.
A little more than an hour after we left Chinatown, I heard a huge cat cough up a hairball. But there were no felines on board. It was the lady in front of me.
The lady retched again. Her husband jumped up and looked at her in horror. His ruddy skin was now blanched. Though I could not see his wife's face, I imagined her stiff grimace and the whites of her eyes gleaming like eggs.
“No, God! No, please don't take my wife away...please don't.” He said the words while stroking her forehead, and much more softly than I would've expected. When the lady began to vomit, he grabbed a bag. The other passengers turned away in embarrassment, but I was transfixed. I had never been a victim of my own body.
Now the man was standing. The man kept asking God to keep his wife alive. Not for show, but sincerely. They were soul mates and he couldn't live without her. They must have been childhood sweethearts.
She was too pudgy for the other boys' taste—and far too weird. Though she was only eleven years old, her mother let her walk out of the house with the hint of a beehive swelling from the crown of her head. Some days she even smeared on pin-up girl style lipstick. The starched collar of her black dress clung too tightly around her neck and the sleeves were too short. Yet she owned five identical copies and never wore anything else. Because her shoes were a size too big, her feet sometimes slipped out of them when she walked. She sang a little too loudly in the church choir and adored girl groups. In English class, she related everything to her favorite songs, mainly ones by The Crystals.
He always wore a cross on his forehead, like everyday was Ash Wednesday. He dissected roadkill and collected postcards of cemeteries in England and the American Southeast. Save for his wristwatch—a gift from his godfather—he wore his brother's hand-me-downs. None of his features was particularly memorable because of his overwhelming poindexter glasses. When he spoke, his lips automatically pouted, no matter what he said, or how. History was his best subject, but only because his parents had forbidden him from taking an art class. One day, he would be an attorney or a politician or a respectable businessman, they said. He would have no need to draw.
Decades later, when the couple first saw a story about Amy Winehouse in the newspaper, they knew they had found the daughter they had never had. Neither one uttered a word. Man and Woman simply exchanged a look and read each other's thoughts.
The poor lady's hacking had been reduced to a steady gurgling. Nobody said or did anything for a solid thirty seconds. Even the bus driver seemed fixed in another world.
Eventually I stammered, “D-d-do you n-need another bag?” The lady's husband paused before saying, “Yeah, that'd be good.” I dumped my dollar store things into my backpack and gave him the shopping bag. The lady promptly threw up in it.
“Could you get her to a hospital or something?” The husband cried to the driver.
“What da matter?”
“She's...having...a...seizure.” Then, to himself, the man muttered, “She hasn't had one in fifteen years.”
The driver spat, “No hospitar! I purr over at rest stop. Amburance come dere.”
The sharks moaned and eyed the gagging lady with the lust of hunger. Now we'd get to DC even later.
A beat after that, the man in front of the couple dialed 911. He very discreetly explained what was happening and hung up his phone. Meanwhile, the bus driver was speed-talking to himself. If I could've written subtitles for him, they would've said, “Screw this. Boss man's going to fry my dumpling now.” I issued a low growl as I squinted at the back of his head.
I kept shifting in my seat, expecting my dwarves to stumble out of the stag theater and come harpoon the sharks. Alas, they never came. They should've, though. Apart from the man who had called 911, none of the other passengers had offered any help.
When we got to the rest stop, the bus driver instructed everyone to get off the bus. We poured into the fast food land before us. The scent of fried chicken made me crave lychee and I suddenly remembered I was hungry.
I marched to one of the condiment stations and pocketed a fistful of napkins. Then I soaked them in the drinking fountain and scurried back to the bus. Two other passengers (both male) were handing the hysterical husband water bottles. When it was my turn, I dropped the soggy napkins into the husband's palms and waited out in the parking lot. It hit me then that I was the only woman who seemed to care.
A firetruck, not an ambulance, had come to rescue the lady. The emergency workers raced onto the bus and brought the lady out to the gurney by the door. As they started to roll it back to the firetruck, one of the wheels popped off. I half-grinned. One of the workers scooped up the wheel and tried to push it back into place, but failed. He shrugged his shoulders, hauled up his end of the gurney, signaled for his partner to do the same, and helped carry the lady to the firetruck.
After that, the evening melted into silence, even placidity, as we continued our journey to our nation's capital. I almost forgot that the air-conditioning was broken and that there was no moon cake underneath my seat. It became just another ride on the chariot of the Eastern seaboard.