I’m here to buy shoes, not to confront one of my greatest childhood nemeses. But there she is anyway, plopped like mashed potatoes in the doorway, that same woman whose heavy frame and drooping jowls inspired such anxiety during my highschool years.
It’s my bus driver, the self-same woman who waved as she rumbled past me countless mornings when she decided not to bother to stop for me. The same woman who shouted until I cried when I asked, Is this the right bus? when the numbers and routes had been changed. This was the same woman who skipped entirely the stop of the mentally delayed kid, called him stupid to his face and retarded behind his back. Here she is. Right here, in this shoe store. I am stooped, caught in the middle of wedging my foot into a sneaker, blindsided.
Lank blonde hair falls to her drooping jowls, the color of slathery butter. Her mouth, always producing too much saliva, is wet as I remember, and turned down into a frown.
I am in my classy-casual work clothes, at a shoe store, and I am suddenly aware that I am staring, and breathing a little too shallowly. I notice, with a peculiar feeling as though I am far away on a boat looking at myself on a shore, that I might cry. Internally, I rush the boat away from myself on the shore. Too much saltwater. What I feel is too big to be caught in a net on a dinghy.
Try to be kind, I think, and then immediately follow that thought with: her pants are so saggy it looks like she’s wearing a diaper. Like a deck of cards being shuffled, my thoughts flit through every injury she has ever done me. Though it is a balmy day, just this side of uncomfortably hot, I am thrown back to a cold January when I am ankle-deep in slush the color of disappointment.
She had pulled up to my stop 20 minutes late. I had been in that snow for years and years, freezing to death inside and out. Going to school was never a good thing, and the bus ride made it worse.
Cold yet? She had laughed. Laughed, like it was the funniest thing in the world that I was stuck waiting for her in the cold cold snow.
Yeah, freezing, I had snarled, vicious as I could make it. Her face had hardened immediately and I wondered if she was going to hit me. She didn’t. I must have shivered my way to the back of the bus and sat down, because that’s what you do on buses. I don’t remember though. All I remember was cold melting snow outside, and cold congealing dread inside.
Her nephew, a lumbering boy with shoulders always rounded like a rainbow over his bright phone screen, was crass and slow. He thought he was very clever, because 5 minutes after something happened, he could stumble through a witty comment; if ‘witty’ constitutes several expletives with an insult thrown in. While if I were not at my bus stop early enough to suit her (and by suit her, I mean if I were not standing still enough at my stop to make it look like I had been waiting several minutes, and had not just run up to the stop), she would bring the bus to a grudging, screeching halt– directly in front of a mud puddle or a snow drift, depending on the season– and shout insults as I boarded; for her nephew she would wait ten or more minutes until he ambled out of his apartment building and shambled onto the bus. It was infuriating. This time, she skipped three stops to make it to his on time.
You kept me waiting, he complained as he lumbered up the steps. I’m cold.
Sorry, she said, and jerked a thumb back at me. This one made me late.
I seethed. My sense of fairness was bruised twice a day, poked at and throbbing when I entered the bus to get to school or go home.
Now, in this shoe store, I remember again the time she made me cry. For all that I try to forget it, any event so rare always creates a scar in my mind: The Time I Cried. I never cry.
In a haze of purposeful obscurement, my own shoddy protection from the painful memory, I remember feeling small outside the steps preceding the bus, on the curb, outside looking in.
Is this still my bus? Timid. Reproachable.
There was a roaring, like waves over cutting rocks, like a lion, like the engine of a bus spewing smoke, and I realized it was her, yelling. Screaming. Shouting. I don’t remember, don’t know what she said. I remember stumbling back, my face twisting clockwise with embarrassment and grief. I am there, again, years ago and on the stairs to go inside, sobbing.
I cry on the staircase. I am small, adrift, and now stranded on this gritty tread hung at the edge of the step; teetering. I hate to cry. I am covering my face. I do not, will not, can not, admit that this is happening. I never cry.
Throughout all these memories, I have stomped myself into the shoes, walked them around, and am now purchasing them. She is there, behind me, a malevolent presence, a waiting shipwreck.
I pivot. I face her. I am as tall as she is, now that I am full grown and she is not in a springed seat up high, hunched over the steering wheel. Somehow she was bigger inside my head. She looks at me. Her eyes behind their thick glasses seem like two separate entities, two different features as unaligned and unconnected from human emotion as a bug’s compound eyes. Her blinks are odd– it’s more as thought she’s winking independently, simultaneously.
“Were you a bus driver for the school district?” I ask.
“I still am,” suspiciously. “Why?”
“You were my bus driver, once,” I say. I try very hard to smooth the anger from the curl of my eyebrows, to lift the corners of my mouth from the frown I can feel tugging at my lips.
“Oh yeah?” Her eyes behind their lenses, magnified like a bug’s, widen. Wet pink rims wobble with every wink. I think she looks pleased, but I distrust this.
“Yes,” I say. “Throughout high school.”
“Oh yeah?” she repeats. “What school did you go to?”
“***,” I say. My eyebrow is beyond my control now, I can feel it like a satellite, hovering disconnected from my authority, creating its own jurisdiction in a high frown over my eye. I stretch my lips over my teeth like a hammock pulled taut. Far away, over my shoulder and a million miles away, the cashier asks if I’d like my receipt in the bag or with me. In the bag, I say, but keep my eyes on the bus driver.
“Oh, yeah,” she says, and this time it sounds like an agreement rather than a confrontation.
It is here that my actions could take me one of two ways, one a gentle surf on a soft shore; if I say goodbye and walk away. Would the anger roiling in the deeper waters within me rebel, or be calmed, if I did that? Or, I could fall upon her with all the fury of a storm: descend like an anvil, filled with righteous fury.
“Do you remember that time you called the mentally delayed kid ‘retarded?’” I’d hiss, tall as Alice in the Red Queen’s courtroom. “Do you remember that time you made me cry? Because I do.” Perhaps I will mix both, be saccharine sweet to her face now, but then write a letter to her superior later, detailing all the miserable injustices she ever committed.
The letter, I decide, will strike just the right tone in between reluctant disappointment and wounded outrage. I imagine a man in a suit reading the letter, his eyes flicking back and forth as they slowly narrow. He will slam his closed fist on the desk. Where is this bus driver? He will yell. I want her sacked, now! The people surrounding his ornate desk, each with a clipboard and nervous, pinched expression, will scurry off to ‘make it so.’ Slumping in his chair, the suited man will raise the letter in his hand. I’m so glad she wrote this, he will say. Now justice can be carried out. Truly, the author of this letter is destined for great things.
Instead, suddenly, the wind and rain lashing me, driving me forward, peter out as quickly as they came. What is the point? What would it do to be cruel? She wouldn’t change her behaviour. Here she is, in this shoe outlet; and so am I. I am going to college, at a full-time job– she’s here but still there, too, in the past. She’s still in the cold bus rumbling through disappointment-colored snow, still skipping stops, still shouting. She’s never moved. Her bus, always traveling, always growling forward and eating up asphalt, holds a stationary woman inside, congealed and cold as old mashed potatoes.
There was no change of heart I could inflict through any amount of wounded protestations for some sort of reparation for damage long past. I slump. I sigh. She stands, two blinking winking bug eyes, drooping and stooped. This woman has no further hold on me, not if I let her out of the lobster traps deep under my ocean. With a sigh, I release her.
“Good seeing you again,” I lie, but only because polite conversation demands it. Here is the truth, washed up like debris on my mental shore. There is no point to this. Me, remaining hurt, and her, just being. “Goodbye,” I say instead, instead of all the other things I might say.
What I might have said is withdrawn, tumbled smooth by the surf until it’s jagged edges don’t hurt anymore. I left that shoe store, uncertain that I said the right thing.
Now, though, I think I’d say: I hope your life is in a better place that you don’t have to shout at children anymore.