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Bus Driver

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.

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my s h o e s

My shoes have a distinct heel-toe heel-toe noise

like the pitter-patter of rain,

like the click-clack of a keyboard,

like the swing-clang of a gate,

like the good-bye of a voice. Can you hear it? I’m

walking away from you.

SUMMER

 

wp-1528869276670..jpg

 

a ragtag army of kids, fingers intertwined and mouths gleefully thrown open

CRASH! outdoors

free

Free

FREE!

all summer

school is ancient history

experience the  w o n d e r

of summer

(and enjoy summer break)

t?a?s?t?e?

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, you wake up with your tongue clogging your throat like a fish stuck in a pipe and you wonder, what does a cranberry taste like? You can’t remember. You can’t remember! That’s somehow terrifying. You try to call up words from your reservoir that you hold for times like these– tart, bitter, sour, sweet. But your fish-tongue has dammed and damned you, you can’t remember what those words mean, how they relate to sensation or that strange wiggling pink fish attached by the tail to the back of your mouth and how saliva, that strange ocean, pools at the bottom of your jaw when you think of it and your teeth begin to gnash at the soft flesh inside your cheeks with fear. What does a cranberry taste like?? This sudden panic seizes you, you caught in a big tide, and you are swept away. So you get up from your rumpled bed and scrabble through the cabinets and pantry for cranberries, as quietly as you can manage. As you can’t find the cranberries, the panic swells, a rising flood, up your throat canal and into your mouth and plugs your nose and rushes through your head so loudly you can’t do anything but cry because you can’t remember what cranberries taste like. This is how 2am finds you, on the green stone of your entryway (that is the best place to hold your knees and rock, because it doesn’t creak like the rest of your house) crying because you can’t remember what a cranberry tastes like.

This sort of thing seizes you all the time. Suddenly, in the middle of your job tip-tap-typing, your mouth will begin to fill with saliva and you realize with sinking dread, oh, it’s happening again— this time it will be cheese. Or ground beef. Or something more complicated, like butter. What does butter taste like?? That’s how you describe things, ‘butter-y’– but what does butter taste like? Words like silky, rich, golden, do nothing to stem the rising panic. It’s not until you get a pad to melt in your mouth that your pink fish-tongue stops wriggling, that your saliva stops producing so much you have to swallow every five seconds, and you are calm again.

“Don’t eat fries,” your Mom says. She has seen the greasy bag you’ve tried to hide by your bed. Her face is concerned and a little strange, an expression you can’t describe. It reminds you of how someone might examine a wild animal. You want to scream, crumple up the bag and throw it, yell but what do potatoes taste like? I can’t remember any flavor from minute to minute! It’s gone! Why am I like this? But instead you convulse a little on your bed, stifling the urge to writhe and scream, and roll your eyes. “Okay,” you say. But are you really? Is this normal? You used to be able to function from meal to meal, without these strange frightening panics. Right now, sated with fries, you are okay. You’ll manage to hang on.

At least until the next strange craving.

What your trouble is, and what you can’t seem to explain to anybody, is that you’re not trying to be irresponsible with your eating habits. You don’t sit down to a meal thinking, I’m going to be a glutton and have four servings. You don’t intend to spend so much of your money on food. You’re not so lazy that you ‘forget’ to pack a lunch and so go out to eat, either. That’s just your excuse. Because how can you explain your true reasoning?

 


This story is based on ideas from real struggles people go through. If you are struggling with any food-related mental illness, here are some hotlines that may help, provided by this website:

https://www.bulimia.com/topics/eating-disorder-hotline/

 

Penelope’s Box

The box had been there for as long as Penelope could remember. At first it was on the mantle in the fancy sitting room, where Penelope wasn’t allowed to go, because there were too many ‘collectibles.’ This Penelope knew to mean ‘expensive but sort of ugly.’ Then for a while it was down in the sewing room, up on a high shelf tucked behind all the fabric scraps that Grandma never used but refused to throw away. Penelope’s Grandma was like that– she kept everything, but never used it. Now, after Grandma had gotten too old to stay in her big dusty house, she and the box (along with all the fabric scraps and such) had been moved to Appledale Retirement Home. Penelope had come to visit for a week.

“Penny,” said her Grandma (and it was only her Grandma that Penelope would allow to call her ‘Penny’). “You’re here for a week, but I’ve got a whole lifetime’s worth of junk here that needs to be organized and put away. So be a good girl, and help me out. All this needs a new home by the time you leave.” She waved a hand over the seemingly endless boxes, stacked nearly as tall as Penelope, with trails only wide enough to allow Grandma’s wheelchair through.

“But Grandma,” said Penelope. “You don’t hardly use any of this stuff, anyway.”

“It’s ‘hardly ever,’ Penny,” replied Grandma. “And you don’t know that. Why, just the other day I pulled out that old alarm clock I’ve had for years, and set it up there on my bedside table.” She pointed with a crooked finger at an ancient boxy alarm clock, the kind with numbers on cards that flipped over rather than a digital display. It read 6:15am.

“It’s four in the evening, Grandma,” pointed out Penelope.

“Well,” said Grandma, “It doesn’t tell time. Yet. It needs a new battery.”

Penelope rolled her eyes but set to helping Grandma organize the junk. That was when she rediscovered the box. It was wooden, ornately carved; and only about two of Penelope’s small palms wide and one palm tall. A small metal latch locked it shut.

“Hey!” Penelope said, holding it aloft. “This box! I’ve always wondered what was in it, ever since I was little.” She turned the box over in her hands, scrutinizing it and rattling it a little. No sound came from inside the box.

“Put that down,” commanded Grandma sharply. “Put it down, Penny!”

“What?” asked Penelope belligerently, still holding the box.

“I said put it down,” said Grandma, again. “Give it here.” One gnarled, shaky hand was help palm-up to Penelope. Grudgingly, Penelope set the box in her Grandma’s hand. Grandma looked at it for a long moment, distrustfully, then tucked it behind her afgan on her lap.

“What’s that?” asked Penelope.

“What’s what?” said Grandma. “Hand me that next box dear, the one labeled ‘miscellaneous.’”

“No,” said Penelope. “What’s that?” she pointed at the conspicuous lump under the afgan. “What’s in the box?”

“Nothing,” scowled Grandma, hunching a little and curling one knobby-knuckled hand over the box under the afgan. Penelope set her face in that stubborn expression that made her Mom throw up her hands, and her Daddy just growl and give up. Grandma recognized it, and sighed.

“It’s Pandora’s Box,” she admitted.

“Pandora’s Box?” repeated Penelope. “Pandora’s Box? Like in Greek Mythology? Like with all the bad stuff inside?”

Grandma nodded, solemnly. Penelope’s jaw dropped.

“WOW! Like the real Pandora’s Box? What’s in there? How did you get it?”

Penelope’s Grandma let out a big sigh, her wrinkled lips pursing to a distracted line, her lined cheeks inflating to smooth anxiety. She settled back in her wheelchair, plucked the box from its hiding place, and set it on her lap.

“It was like this,” Grandma began (Penelope’s Grandma was like that, she prefaced everything with ‘it was like this’ and then told it how it was. It had started many family fights, because Grandma’s ways of remembering things rarely matched anyone else’s recollections). “Your Grandpa and I were in Greece. It was in ‘97, or was it in ‘98? No, it was in 2001, because little Henry had just been born. That’s right, 2001.”

Penelope stirred impatiently at Grandma’s feet.

“Grandpa and I were in Greece, browsing through a market. It was very hot, and Harold was getting sunsick. We ducked into a tent filled with books to cool down. Dusty, it was, very dusty. Anyhow, I found a book, an ancient manuscript, and in it were drawings of my box! The box that had been passed down to me through generations! The box that came from my great-grandmother to my grandmother, from mother to me. The box I had been told never to open, never to unlock– ‘just keep it hidden, and safe,’ my mother told me. But here it was! In an old manuscript, smack in the middle of Greece. Well, I showed Harold, and he recognized the box too. So we bought the manuscript and took it home with us.

Harold verified that it was indeed the same box the manuscript spoke of, not just a copy– the authentic Pandora’s Box. We translated together the strange writing on the manuscript; ancient words of warning: ‘DO NOT OPEN, DEATH AWAITS,’ that sort of thing. It scared the life out of me. So I put it away, promised myself I’d never open it… never.”

Penelope’s left leg was going numb, she shifted and the limb exploded with pins and needles. Grimacing, she tried to massage them away. Grandma was still staring at the box without really seeing it.

“So what’s in it?” asked Penelope.

Grandma started, her loose neck and soft jaw quivering as she looked at Penelope.

“Penny, weren’t you listening? I promised myself I’d never open it.”

“Well, sure,” said Penelope. “But you must have once, right? Just to see what was inside?”

“No!” shuddered Grandma. “Just think of all the terrible things that came of opening the box the first time! You know the story, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“Inside was plague! Greed! Jealousy, deceit, hunger, fear! All the terrible things that curse mankind.” Grandma shivered, her drooping eyes pulling shut with a pained expression as she tugged the afgan closer about her waist. “Nothing good came from this box. I will never open it.”

“Let’s just see it–” Penelope reached for the box and Grandma yanked it away.

“No, Penelope!”

“But Grandma! What’s in it??”

“We will never find out. Curiosity killed the cat, you know.”

“But satisfaction brought it back,” mumbled Penelope.

For the next few days, Penelope and her Grandma sorted, arranged, and organized all the various knick-knacks Grandma had brought with her to Appledale Retirement Home. In Grandma’s old house, all this stuff had been overwhelming and cluttered. Here, in the much smaller apartment in Appledale, it was a chaotic safety hazard. The nurses had insisted that much of the curios and broken appliances be thrown out, in spite of much protesting and finger-shaking from Grandma. In the end, Penelope had sided with the nurses, and they had hauled away many boxes worth of broken things and creepy dolls. Grandma muttered the whole while about ‘uppity nurses’ and ‘ungrateful granddaughters;’ however once she had more room to wheel around, and some glass cases with track lighting had been brought in; Penelope polished and displayed the favored brick-a-brack and Grandma was much happier. She seemed looser and easier than she had in many years, like a great weight had been taken from her frail thin shoulders. Penelope was happy for her, but all the time her mind strayed back to that box Grandma had insisted the nurses put out of reach on top of a cupboard.

While Penelope hauled heavy boxes, she wondered what was in the box. While she sorted miscellaneous trinkets into the ‘keep, donate, trash’ piles, her heart burned with curiosity. When she lay down at night on the small blow-up-mattress alongside her Grandma’s bed, listening to her soft snores and the hiss of her sleep machine, Penelope’s eyes looked in the dark to that vague outline of the cupboard where she knew the box was.

“What’s in the box?” Penelope brought up casually over breakfast.

“Are you still thinking about that?” snapped Grandma. “Just forget about it! We are not opening that box!”

“Not even for just a tiny peek?” whined Penelope. “We’ll slam the lid shut if anything bad happens, I promise!”

“NO!” shouted Grandma. “Absolutely not! By that time it would be too late! You put it out of your mind, missy.” Grandma pointed her fork at Penelope accusingly. “I mean it, Penny!”

Penelope slumped back in her seat, her bacon tasteless and chewy.

At night, lying awake, Penelope heard her Grandma’s sleep machine stutter and stop as Grandma pulled it from her face. It hissed with oxygen, like a snake shooting venom, dissipating into the dark apartment air.

“What’s in the box?” Penelope whispered.

“I don’t know, Penny,” Grandma whispered back. It was many long minutes before Grandma slung her sleep machine’s mask back over her face, and drifted off. Penelope lay with her arms folded behind her head, staring at the top of the cupboard, wondering.

What’s in the box? Penelope thought to herself, in the shower, in the dining hall with her cheek being pinched by other old ladies, while she took the trash out to the hall, when she played with the finches through the bars of their cage in the reception area. What’s in the box?

Penelope brought it up again one evening, while they were watching a black and white movie on the television. “But Grandma,” said Penelope, “You don’t know what’s in there is bad!! It could have nothing in it at all! It could have something great! Isn’t hope the last thing to come out of the box, anyway? That wasn’t bad!”

“NO.”

“But I feel like I’ll DIE if I don’t know! I feel like I’ve waited a million years to know what’s in this box, I’ve wondered about it ever since I was little!”

“And you’ll wait a million more if I have anything to say about it!” Grandma only said ‘if I have anything to say about it’ when she did, in fact, have a great deal to say about it; and planned to repeat it until she got her way. Penelope felt like her skin was shrinking too tight over her bones, her head swelling like a bee sting, because of curiosity. She just knew she would explode if she didn’t know what was in that box.

The morning of the day Penelope’s mom was to come pick up Penelope from Appledale, Penelope waited for Grandma to be wheeled away for her paint class, feigning a stomach ache.  She waited a few minutes to be sure Grandma wasn’t coming back for anything she had forgotten, then waited longer in case she hadn’t waited long enough. Then she furtively got up from her inflatable mattress, rising like the tide. She pulled with stuttering creaks the chair from beside the table over to the cupboard, walking like she was in a solemn procession. She slowly, as in a dream, mounted the chair and stretched on her very tippy-toes, reaching for the box. Her fingernails caught the edge of the box, turned it, and her fingers grasped it. She pulled it, shakily, feeling a little sick, from the cupboard top and into her hands. She swallowed. Suddenly worried that she had taken to long, that Grandma would be back any minute, she looked to the clock on Grandma’s bedside table. It read 6:15am. Quivering with anticipation, she unhooked the latch from it’s metal catch, and pulled the lid open.

It was empty. The bottom of the box was lined with dust, but that was all.

“What’s in it?” came a soft quavering voice from the doorway. Penelope whirled on her chair, looking down into the shadowed doorway at Grandma in her wheelchair.

Penelope wondered how long Grandma had been there.

“Nothing,” said Penelope.
“Nothing?” Grandma sounded disappointed.

“Nothing,” said Penelope again. Her shoulders slumped forward with dissatisfaction, her eyes burned a little with frustration. “There’s nothing in this dumb box, bad or good.”

Behind her, Penelope heard Grandma let out a long sigh of relief. “Well,” said Grandma, “At least nothing bad happened. Let me tell you, that’s a load off my mind!”

“Well, there was one bad thing left in the box,” said Penelope, regretfully.

“What?” asked Grandma.
“Disappointment.”