We are strangers. She messages her boyfriend and hands the phone back to me, saying, Thanks for letting me borrow it.
At least he knows where you are now, I sigh.
She smells of alcohol, and is wearing a very short dress that rides up on her thighs. Beige heels. Then she asks, Can I talk to you for a while? Just small talk. Don’t feel obligated to say yes. You can say no, if you want to do your own thing.
It is very late at night, I think. But I close my book, agreeing, because I always do—because I always have to—with the people on the bus.
Three minutes in and I am her confidant. She is a half-Dominican, half-Quebecois mix who admits that she can speak neither her mother’s Spanish, nor her father’s French. Her parents are separated and she lives with her older sister in a basement apartment. She’s going to McDonalds to exist, drunkenly, with her boyfriend and to bother the employees. What could be better?
Her smile falters. She knows it is strange, and says so.
At least she knows.
Ten minutes in and I am an unlikely friend, made privy to the hazy world of the sad, pretty drunk girl. The pleading gaze. The alcohol-induced charisma: arm slung coolly over the back of the seat, swaying with the rhythm of the bus. Uneasiness bubbling somewhere underneath. A flicker of self-consciousness every time I look away, out the window, away from her.
Look at me, she screams silently, hazel eyes wide with childlike ferocity. Like I have all the answers.
Twenty minutes in and we are adversaries.
What’s your background?
Jamaican, I say.
Oh, cool. Her eyes light up, the thrill at the duality of my citizenship. The way I am suspended perpetually between two lifestyles,
Two modes of being.
You’re pure, though, she says, and my ears buzz, as though clogged with radio static. I ask what she means.
Other black girls stand in groups and stare at me; they ask what I am. I’m just a person. But you’re not like them. You’re pure, you know?
Thirty minutes in and my stop is here, and we are strangers once again. It’s a shame; I was just starting to get used to the smell of the alcohol, the way she leans forward as if to absorb my words before they dissipate into the air, her story, the subtle storm that bubbles beneath her skin.
Once off the bus, I weigh the encounter in my hand, like a stone with heft. The desperate, heavy way she stares at me; the way she measured my movements, my discomfort.
I stand at the corner and look up as the bus drives away, expecting her to wave, but she does not see me. She is moving breathlessly through the aisle toward another waiting pair of ears, as though our small words are her sustenance, and she is starving.