THE BUS SPEEDS PAST Rachel as she’s still walking towards her stop, prompting her to sprint after it down the street. The chase gives her a strange sense of excitement. The soles of her shoes clap against the sidewalk.
The gap between her and the bus continues to grow, making it feel like she’s moving in the opposite direction. It seems impossible that she can make it at first, but there’s a stop sign which gives Rachel valuable time to catch up as the bus is forced to come to a pause – and still more as it slowly starts accelerating again: it’s enough. People are still shuffling on board by the time she arrives, panting at the back of the line. She fantasizes about dropping to the ground and letting the bus leave without her.
She gets on, disoriented, and takes long strides towards the back. There aren’t many open seats, but she spots two near the back, at the beginning of the raised platform. Each one is beside a man sitting at the window spot.
It’s a decision that’s made within a split second, without much thought, but it ends up so that Rachel sits next to the less attractive one; probably because it’s easier. She sinks into the seat – out of breath – absent mindedly wipes her nose with her hand, wipes her hand on the inside of her pocket and feels as though her lungs are too small to take in enough air.
She turns her head and can tell that he’s short despite the fact that he’s sitting down. He has wide set eyes, vaguely brown cropped hair, a brown backwards cap, an unshaven face.
She manages a short “yeah,” before turning back and continuing to focus on catching her breath. It’s starting to get better.
Silhouettes of trees pass by against the blue evening light. It would be easy to imagine the bus sitting completely still, she thinks, with the world outside moving around it.
“It was a pretty long run you had,” he says.
Her response this time is just a short chuckle; the idea of talking seems exhausting. But after a pause, she finds herself thinking out loud: “It kind of reminds me of Zeno’s paradox.”
“Chasing the bus I mean. It’s sort of like that thing Zeno came up with… You know the one where Achilles chases the tortoise, but since they’re both in motion–” she tries to illustrate with her hands as she speaks, but soon gives up. “Actually never mind; it doesn’t even fit anyways.”
“Tortoise and the hare,” he says.
“Oh, yeah… that makes much more sense. Wow,” she laughs at herself, but tries to let the conversation drop there. She’s content with the idea of ignoring him and just sitting there, breathing. She checks the time: 7:20. She would be late.
“So where are you headed?”
“I’m kind of out of breath.”
It occurs to Rachel that he has a strange face, an abstract look that doesn’t match the voice he has; he looks like the type of person who would slur his words. She feels guilty for having the thought.
“Me, I’ll either go to Mckibbins or Foufs,” he continues.
“You don’t know which one?”
He shrugs, “I’ll decide when I get to the metro.”
“You’re not meeting anyone?”
“Nothing planned. I just felt like going out… end of the March break and everything. Amazing that it’s still so blue out eh?”
“Yeah…” It was true. She checks the time: 7:21.
“So, are you meeting anyone?” It’s brought up again.
“It’s hard to explain.”
She’s hesitant to talk about it because she has trouble explaining it even to herself. Meeting up with Vihaan had made sense when she planned it last Wednesday: as an experiment to better understand the people who approached her, her relationship with the external world. What did it mean to be approached? How was her perception of herself affected by it? Maybe something towards those questions could be learned from a brief interaction.
That had been her reasoning at least, but it doesn’t make as much sense to her anymore. Now she finds herself just following the motions that have been set up for her, not really having much faith in them. She stares blankly at her phone: 7:23.
“So I guess you don’t want to talk about it then.”
“Kind of, yeah. Sorry.” She laughs to ease tension.
“It’s alright. I’m Brian by the way.” He extends his right hand, obliging her to shake it with the one she had recently wiped her nose with. She notices that her nose is running again.
“Rachel. Nice to meet you.”
This time she takes napkins from her backpack. She turns her head, clears her nose, and finds herself stuck with the used tissues. While she tries to decide between putting them back in her backpack or fitting them into her pocket, Brian has continued to speak:
“I guess I’m going downtown because I like it more there. I need a change of scenery; kind of tired of where I’ve been lately.”
“I work at a really shitty bar. Do you know Marlowe?”
“I might have heard of it. Never been though.”
“It’s a bar and restaurant. I work in the kitchen at the back with a bunch of morons.”
“Look at my hand,” he raises his palm to show her a large red welt. “I got fucking hot spooned yesterday.”
She just stares at him.
“Not even the good kind of hot spoon either.”
“What the fuck.”
He makes an awkward attempt to laugh, then, prompted by her silence, takes a serious tone again. “Someone put a spoon in the deep fryer and then left it on a counter, so when I picked it up…yeah. They pull shit like this all the time. They just fuck around all day.”
“Shit…they’re really always like that?
“It’s a fucking crackhouse there. The managers, the kitchen staff – everyone. Literally. It’s tense all the fucking time, and the people in the kitchen are so lazy. I’m the only one who puts any effort in my fucking job. But when shit hits the fan I always end up taking the heat, even though nobody listens to me.” He lets out a groan. Rachel just sits there.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I guess you can tell I’m pretty frustrated.”
“A little. Sorry to hear.”
“It’s just hard. And I mean I did have this friend who used to work in the same kitchen as me. He’s the kind of guy who’s popular with everyone, but he would have my back at least. When he would tell the other guys to stop fucking around and get their shit together they would actually listen – when I try to tell them they always just shit all over me – so it was nice to have him around. But he got fired recently.”
“This guy – Danny – worked as a waiter, and since he is who he is, people would always give him free drinks and shit like that. Well, the manager caught him pissing on the side of the building one night. Apparently beat the shit out of him right there, while he was still pissing and everything. Yeah. They’re fucking cracked over there. Now shit’s just worse because at least fucking Danny would stand up for me sometimes – when he felt like it at least.”
“But you know, I actually stay over at Danny’s place pretty often. He has people over all the time and…well shit’s been a bit rough for me at home lately, so he lets me crash on his couch.”
“Well, that’s nice, isn’t it?”
“Kind of. It’s a trap house over there. Everybody’s taking drugs and having sex all the time. I don’t get into any of it, as you can imagine,” awkward laugh. “Just adds to my loneliness, really.”
“I don’t really know what to tell you right now.”
“There’s something that makes it nice talking to you. I have no idea what it is. It’s definitely not your conversation skills.”
“It’s a fucking curse is what it is.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nevermind.” She checks her phone again: 7:30. Who cares. Vihaan definitely won’t be bothered if she’s late. She wouldn’t care if he cared either. She doesn’t even want to go.
“Rachel Laffer is that you?!” comes a voice from her right. She looks up in a jolt. Intense green eyes stare back at her.
“Oh Julia! Hey!”
Julia is standing tall and confident, her long blonde hair tied into a bun. She’s with a friend of hers – a girl with light brown hair, a tan coat, freckles – evidentially they just got onto the bus. A line of people can be seen slowly moving behind them, making their way outside.
“Been a while hasn’t it?”
“Yeah, a while and a half.”
She looks at Brian and smiles. “Hi!”
He gives a muffled hello in return. Rachel secretly becomes embarrassed by the impression Julia must have of him being a friend of hers.
She turns back to Rachel. “I don’t think I’ve told you this before, Rachel, but I really love your curly black hair.”
“My hair’s brown actually.”
“Oh, is it? I’m sorry!” She leans in, smelling of sweat and bland deodorant. “Yeah when I look more closely I can see it now. Still though, really nice!”
“Thanks,” she smiles.
Julia smiles back, blinks once, then leans back.”Well, we’re going to go grab a seat – take care,” and off she walks towards the back of the bus with her friend.
“Friend of yours?” Brian asks.
“Yeah, we go to the same school.”