from the bus

One-Way Ticket

When I was nineteen years old my parents offered to pay $70 for a Greyhound bus ticket so I could come visit them. I would go from Knoxville, TN to Detroit, MI; a trip of about 500 miles that normally might take about 8 hours. By Greyhound it took just under 16 hours, thus negating any implications of speed the name might have suggested. I took a small army duffel bag and — to complete the cliché — a battered guitar that my grandfather had given me in high school.

Getting my college friend Michael to drive me to the bus station was an event in itself. Michael was deaf, and loved to talk. The amount of time when his hands actually touched the steering wheel of his ancient compact car was far exceeded by the amount of time they flew expressively through the air, ever animating his declarations or calling for my own. He watched me closely for comments while I watched the road, signing tersely with my right hand, and keeping my left hand on his steering wheel. He loved to play the radio loud enough so that he could feel the bass thumping.

Most of our road trips were marked for me by consistent minor anxiety relieved by intermittent panic attacks. When we arrived safely at the Greyhound station, I was exhausted.

The two of us sat in the station on the orange plastic and chrome chairs, Michael looking like an impoverished angel with his long curls, pink flip-flops, and skinny ragged jeans. In those days I was experimenting with bleached-out crew cuts, and mostly wore rock shirts, camouflage, and unlaced high-tops, an image that now makes me wince. Michael’s hands floated through the air like magician’s scarves, while my own mimicked a two-year-old’s scribble, hardly recognizable. I kept a sharp lookout for creepy old men and wondered how long I could avoid the restroom.

Once I had successfully forded the hot, lazy waves of diesel exhaust and entered the cool gloom of the bus I realized I had one great desire that I had not previously considered. I really, really did not want a seatmate. Growing up riding in the backseat of our Volkswagen Rabbit with my little sister was nothing compared to this. My sister and I practically had acres of seat space in which to squabble, compared to the Greyhound’s tall, thin seats with their armrests poking out like sharp black hyphens. I clutched my guitar tightly and slid into the first seat in the right-hand row, closest to the aisle. Anyone wishing to sit with me would have to climb over me and my guitar to sit in the twelve-inch-wide luxury accommodations next to the window.

What I didn’t realize was that my bus station conversations with Michael had convinced my travel mates that, despite my guitar, I was deaf. Nobody offered to sit with me; I got a few pitying smiles from older black women, and most everyone else pretended I was invisible. Until our first stop, this worked out nicely for everyone.

The reason it takes so much longer to get where you’re going on a bus is that if a town has a stoplight, Greyhound makes a detour to get there. My eyes had barely adjusted to the gloom of our narrow sanctuary when the driver pulled over in a cloud of dust and heat and yanked open the accordion doors so that everyone could file out to buy Slurpees and make use of the local gas station’s facilities while new travelers joined us. I remained jealously in my seat for at least five of these pit stops until I feared a bladder rupture, then gave in and exited the tomb, guitar in hand, like a demented Lazarus.

As we made our way north the heat relented, the night swelled, and the characters on the bus came to life. Mothers spoke inappropriately to children and heard lectures or stories about childraising arise magically from a few seats behind. People spoke of homes, rehab, and relatives. Old women snored and men spat tobacco into Orange Crush cans. Nobody was fooled by my deaf act anymore, they’d all heard me respond to the cashier when I purchased my Nabs, and several times I’d had to holler “Just a minute” when someone rattled the restroom door. Seatmates came and went, leaving sour or flowery odors behind. I nodded off between stops and sometimes only pretended to sleep. Daylight arrived again, and the drive became an infinite hall of mirrors, every view looking and feeling the same.

I arrived in Detroit in the magic time; the day was done, businesses had closed, and bars were waiting. Crisply uniformed wait staff strode toward back alley entrances, and neon flickered on across twilit windows. I was pale and buzzing, like a television screen after programming has gone off the air for the night.

When I saw my clean suburban parents I knew myself to be just a bit more alien than I had been before; less carefully formed, more dislocated, and somewhat unraveled by more than the miles.

Image by Arlo Bates

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