Bus Ride, 1999
After our separation, after I’ve been back in South Beach for a few weeks, I land another dead-end job ringing up cough syrup and cigarettes for six bucks an hour. I take the Metrobus to and from work every day, sometimes running into people I knew in high school. I avoid them, stare out the window, pretend I’m lost in neon lights and art deco hotels, reluctant to give them the sordid details of my latest disappointments. Failed marriage, dropped out of college, living with parents. Yes, again.
Friday I get off work early, cash my paycheck at the bodega around the corner, then take the L headed to the beach. I sit in the back, keeping an eye on both exits as we approach the 79th Street Bridge. All this cash is making me paranoid. Everyone knows that in this neighborhood, a scutterhead will kill you for much less than $192.
A strange man sits across from me, insists that he knows me from El Barrio. He sips from a quart of malt liquor wrapped in a paper bag. Olde English 800 probably, judging from the way he smells. I clutch my purse. When I tell him, No, I never lived in the Bronx, he says, You sure?
I get up, move to the front of the bus, sit right behind the driver. Across the street, the regulars are lining up for the early show at The Fat Black Pussy Cat. Men in grimy t-shirts, faded jeans, and work boots. The kind of men you find on a city road crew, or driving a dump truck.
Two seats away, another stranger. He takes his eyes off his copy of Vibe, looks me up and down. You’ve got beautiful feet, he says. For a fat girl. He goes back to his magazine.
This one is sober.
Then she gets on, dirty-faced and scrawny, matted hair. Doesn’t pay her fare. She stumbles all the way to the back, asking if anyone can spare change so she can make it home to her kids. She was mugged, she says, they took everything. Most people ignore her—they’ve heard this line a thousand times, probably on this same route. Probably from this same woman. A few hand over their change just to get rid of her.
When she makes her way back to me, just as I’m about to deliver my line, Sorry, I don’t have any cash, I actually see her face and realize I know her. We went to school together. I ate lunch at her house a few times and we watched Dirty Dancing over cold slices of Dominoes Pizza, and we both swore one day, when one of us married Patrick Swayze, the other would be a bride’s maid. Later, we fought over a sixth grade boyfriend, I started a rumor that she was a lesbian, and she called my mom a bitch.
I know her.
Except she’s not like I remember. She looks twice her age, skinny, battered. Her nails are ragged, the white of her eyes a mix of bloodshot and yellow, her face covered in lesions. Lost most of her teeth. Probably meth mouth. And she doesn’t seem to know me.
She holds out her hand, says, Excuse me, miss, can you spare a quarter? Says it not like it’s a question, but like an apology. As if those twenty-five cents are worth more than she is. As if I wouldn’t give the $192 in my purse just to be back in her living room eating cardboard pizza and dreaming of a future in which we’re both movie stars. And happy.
I rifle through my pockets as she waits. The other passengers sit still, their faces all turned toward us. The bus stops at a red light. And then I remember: all my cash is in my purse, my entire paycheck in an envelope they handed me at the bodega. I can’t pull it out right here, on this bus, where anyone can see it, probably rob me before I even make it home from the bus stop.
I’m sorry, I say. I don’t have any cash.
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