I stepped onto the bus and noted the stale dead air trapped within it. None of the windows were open and the dense smell of all walks of life permeated the mobile chamber. I maneuvered myself through the gauntlet of fat legs, canes, backpacks, and grocery bags, making my way to the back of the bus where it was more open. Touching just one of those obstacles would be like sounding a gong in psychological space and require a ritual apology for disturbing the peaceful reverie of being absorbed in your own thoughts. One touch and the moods of two people would be changed irreversibly.
I made it through unchanged, taking special care to tred softly while passing an older man who looked like he was ready to bite someone's head off. His cheeks sagged off the sides of his face making him look like a bull dog and his jaw clenched periodically from the tensions that surrounded his eyes and scalp. I always tried to pay attention to other people, especially their facial features and their attitudes. Lines etch themselves permanently betraying a history of prolonged happiness, pain, anger, or loneliness.
The population of this bus was about par for most bus rides. A few old ladies in the front spoke in a language I didn't understand, most likely polish. Lots of students chatting amongst themselves and the occasional one or two who dress for attention, spikes, chains, dyes, polka dots, leather, hot pink, lunch pails, and more. Towards the back were the working class and families. I took up residence in the aisle a few seats back from a mother and her 6 year old boy. They were wearing their Sunday best, though it was Tuesday. She had a face set with grim determination, but the boy was yet untainted by society. His eyes still had the look of awe and wonder in them. The boy's mother opened a bottle of juice and handed it to him.
As the bus lurched into motion I grabbed onto the railings above my head and hung mostly from my arms, feeling my shoulders stretch under the tension. The path of the bus was fairly simple. We would go straight for a few blocks, picking up passengers where there were bus signs, and then curve off to the right as Forbes began to descend from this squirrelly hill. At the bottom of the hill I would get off and walk the rest of the way to my chemistry class. At least I would have that time to clear my nose of the smell inside the bus.
As the bus rolled on, the boy slurped noisily from his bottle of juice, trying to make a loud gurgling sound by sucking air over his lip, into the bottle and then into his mouth. Of course that which amuses 6 year old boys tends to grate on the nerves of parents and other adults. The grim mother chastised her boy and he began to sip gingerly from his bottle.
Inertial frames shifted as the bus turned to follow Forbes, now heading downwards. My body swung out from the turn and my arms shifted to pull me back into alignment with the bus’s momentum. The boy almost lost his bottle of juice and let out an exclamation of surprise. “Don’t spill your juice, Jeremy. That’s the only pair of nice clothes you got.”
As the bus continued its downward descent, I continued to hang from my arms on the railings near the ceiling and Jeremy continued to be a 6 year old boy. Juice would enter the boy’s mouth, but not immediately go down his throat. Jeremy lapped his tongue in a standing pool of liquid in the bottom of his mouth, making clicking sounds. He would also lower his tongue into this pool to see if he could make the juice rise to the edge of his lips without flowing over. Jeremy looked around the bus to see if anyone was looking at him, and I returned an amused and knowing smile. He grinned at me and almost lost his mouthful of juice before he swallowed it. “Turn around and face forward.” The boy’s mother looked around trying to see if anyone was paying attention to them and I acted like I wasn’t aware of anything.
“Forbes at Margaret Morrison” the bus driver called over the loud speaker. That was my stop. I pulled myself out of the gravity well created by my dangling and called out to the driver the request not to have to face the gauntlet to get off the bus: “Back Door Please???” The bus driver glanced up and our eyes touched glances and quickly rolled away, having exchanged a superficial recognition between driver and passenger. I began to walk forward and resorted to stomping to slow my momentum down as the bus began to brake under me.
As I passed Jeremy, he lifted his bottle of juice to take a drink. At that moment I knew what would happen. No juice came to his lips because the bus was breaking. He tilted the bottle higher to try to make the fluid flow down hill despite its momentum pushing it into the base of the bottle. The bus came to a stop and lurched back throwing a river of juice out the mouth of the bottle and spraying into Jeremy’s gaping maw. Gagging and coughing, Jeremy sprayed juice over himself and his mother.
“Jesus Christ! I told you not to spill your juice.” I watched as Jeremy’s mother went into a tirade about how clumsy he was and irresponsible, that he couldn’t even manage a bottle of juice without spilling it. The back door opened. Tears began to well in the boy’s eyes and fear as he raised his hands almost expecting to be hit. I wanted to interject and say that it wasn’t the boys fault. He was just 6 and the bus lurched. But whatever it was that she had dressed them up for had now been ruined. I didn’t know how she would react if I stepped in, and the last thing I wanted was to get Jeremy beat from making a scene and bringing unwanted attention on him and his mother. I decided there wasn’t really anything I could do and got off the bus.
I walked to class reflecting on my desire to act and the inaction that proceeded from it. I had experienced this conflict before. Wanting to interject in the heat of an exchange but knowing that my interjection would cause ripples which I could not control and that I could make the situation worse and not better. Am I doomed to live out a life of inaction? Of not being able to help because whether or not I am actually helping or harming isn’t clear? It’s almost as if I could feel the boundaries of people’s perceptions and pushing into their awareness and crossing that boundary causes ripples of effect beyond my ability to predict and control. Am I doomed to live forever outside of the bubbles the people wrap themselves in? Can I pierce through that bubble without it popping or blowing up in my face? I can’t control how other people perceive me.
I sat in class but didn’t really pay attention. What does chemistry matter when it comes to people hurting each other? Class went on and I started to pay attention when the professor began talking about electron shells and quantum probabilities. I didn’t see a solution to the problem then, and I don’t see much of one now. Except now I sometimes act when I feel like there isn’t much harm that can come of my actions. People are going to see what they want to see.