Underneath It All
I’ve always been a people-watcher, and today is no different. The movements, language, and behaviors of those around me fascinate me. Perhaps, in some other life, I was an anthropologist. I smile at this thought as I take my seat on the bus. Some of the riders around me are familiar. I don’t know them, but I see them every week when I ride to Towson each Tuesday and Thursday. There’s the senior lady who works at Franklin Square Hospital who never smiles. In fact, she makes a point not to make eye contact with others. Is it because she’s tired? She works all night, so maybe she is. She’s a large woman and I’ve often noted how her upper arms form a crescent-shaped hood over her elbows. I’ve looked in the mirror at home to see if mine look like that.
There’s a young woman, around twenty-five, who brings her baby on the bus each morning. The baby is absolutely adorable and smiles from her mother’s lap at anyone who catches her eye. Her mother looks tired. I note that she wears no rings, and imagine that she is raising the child alone. She wears tight shirts and tight jeans, and is what the clothing industry refers to as “full figured.” When she picks up the baby to leave the bus, her shirt rides up to reveal lined skin. Many would be put off by the stretch marks. I see them as I see my own, something to be proud of, the art of pregnancy painted on my skin. They don’t go away, so I’ve accepted them as old friends. I’ve stopped blaming the extra pounds on pregnancy. My son is twenty-one. Nobody falls for that excuse.
A young girl, high school age, boards the bus on Harford Road. She wears short shirts and low-rise, jeans and I am certain that, even in my thin high school days, I was never sculpted so perfectly that not even a millimeter of skin leaned on the top of my jeans. She is naturally beautiful and comfortable in her skin, and every man on the bus watches her. This bothers me, not because I am jealous, but because I know most men are creeps. They are not thinking of her as someone’s daughter, as a student, or as the older sister of the little brother she dutifully watches until he leaves the bus at his school corner. They are thinking of her in inappropriate ways. Despite her imagined maturity, she is too young for that. As a mother, this is particularly disturbing to me.
A woman boards the bus on Loch Raven Road. She works in a restaurant in Towson, and I am certain she is younger than she appears. Her long, straight hair is stringy, and she wears no makeup. Her face and eyes are lined, and her skin is pale, but blotchy. She is very thin, which adds to the gaunt and aged expression on her face. My mother would say, “She has gone a lot of miles.” Her hands and lips are chapped, and her voice has the rough sound of a smoker. She often talks on her cell phone to someone whom I imagine to be her daughter. She is often convincing this other person to get out of bed and get her day started. She wants her to look for a job. I picture the daughter as a younger version of the mother. Sometimes I see her as overly made up; spending the money her mother gives her on unnecessary frivolities to attract men. I imagine she considers men a way out of living with her mother. Sometimes I imagine that she has experienced some life changing event that makes her wish she didn’t have to get up…ever. I get this impression from the defeated sound of the mother’s voice when she hangs up.
On Joppa Road a woman quickly runs to the bus. Every day she runs to the bus. She hurries along in a strange, wobbly, skittering run because she wears heeled boots. She is very fashionable and thin, and has stars tattooed on her wrist. Another tattoo adorns her calf, just above the low boots, but not enough of it shows to determine what it is. I’ve seen her in places other than the bus. Just last week I saw her sitting on a bench outside the Cheesecake Factory. Does she eat cheesecake? If she does, she must skip dinner. Perhaps she’s one of those I envy who can eat just a bite or two of cheesecake and be done with it. If I order cheesecake, I finish it, even if I am already full. This is why I can no longer order cheesecake. Cheesecake and I have a love/hate relationship, and this is why my hips are thick and “fluffy.” We were friends when I was young, but it betrayed me. We had to break up.
We are nearing York Road and the bus is full. An older man boards the bus. He smiles at me, like he does every week. I once kept the bus waiting while he caught up, and that bound us as bus friends. Anyone who has ridden the MTA knows holding a bus is an Olympic level feat. The drivers never want to wait. He reminds me of James Earl Jones. He only rides on Tuesdays, when he goes to see his friend. Each time he gets on the bus, he says, “I’d better sit down before I fall down,” to whoever is sitting beside him. He is a large man and walks with a cane. His suspenders slide to the side when he sits, so they hover on the edges of his belly. This is the sort of thing that comedy writers love to use to portray southerners or old fat men. Somehow, though, it isn’t funny at all.
I think of how others on the bus see me. I imagine they say, “She wears jeans every day. She wears ordinary LL Bean clothes with no real style or fashion statement. She is overweight and always wears sneakers, carries a heavy book bag and always seems to be rushing. She doesn’t seem like a person who wouldn’t drive. Maybe she got a DUI.
I consider how we see others, and how society expects us to look. I think of how inaccurate a description others who only see me on bus days may make of me. I wear jeans on school days because I ride the bus, and bus seats are gross. I wear ordinary clothes because I like to blend in with the background. I’m overweight, but forty-two pounds lighter than two years ago. I wear sneakers because I rush to get the early bus after my classes, to get home to my dad and my son and my golden retriever. I drive, but the cost of parking at Towson isn’t worth the price. I’ve never had a drink then driven a car.
I, like almost everyone on this bus, am nothing like I seem. Under our clothes and our appearances, we have stories, dreams, and plans. Some of these plans are obtainable, and some have been washed away by the same circumstances and limitations that brought us on the bus this morning.
I reach and pull the wire. This is my stop.