The Bus Stop
The streetlight that umbrellaed the bench at the bus stop on Dekalb and Vanderbilt burned out. There wasn’t a storm or a bullet that killed the soft white light bulb. It just flickered and made a noise like a plastic straw sliding through the lid hole. Then I faded into the darkness with the sound soda makes. It was a quiet, warm night, not so warm I could smell the garbage bags and old mattresses lining the gutter, but warm enough to not be too mad about missing the 6:12 bus. My focus fixes into the windows of the brownstones across the street. There’s a brunette on the ground floor, sitting on her floral couch reading a book.
Valarie is calmly vigorous.
She never kept up with trends but looked like a silver screen star in everything she wore. Red lips didn’t become a staple until she started taking pictures to send to Richard overseas. She knew she had to be show-off worthy, so she took the diet pills and skipped the meals. Valarie was pretty and curvy and got herself perfectly snug into polka-dotted swimsuits so she could seduce the camera. She winked in the mirror after turning her greasy chestnut frizz into silky almond waves and the hairdresser winked back.
Valarie had a lot of dolls growing up and she took care in combing their hair every morning and took care in changing them from dresses to pajamas every night. She had two dolls with hair cut down to the little holes in their rubber heads where plastic blonde grew. She hid those mangled beauties in shame. Valarie walked to the library in her mary janes, bookmarks in hand, and joined all the reading competitions. She won most, but waited until all the dejected boys walked away from the circulation desk with the second and third place prizes. She used to read princess books at the breakfast table and hide adventure books under her bed.
She puts down her book when an NYPD car parallel parks in front of the brownstone. It’s left open on the couch as if she’d just put it down for a short nap. I watch my Valarie come to the window a few minutes later. In my cloak of the dark, I focus on her lips and sad eyes.
Valarie waited for over five years for Richard to come back and his homecoming was all satin and fishnets and she won him all over again. He was her prize: A dusty sand-colored, good-hearted man with hair she wanted to watch grow salt-and-peppery. A man who really wanted to love her. He wanted to love her with or without makeup, with a cup of coffee or wine in her hand. He promised in their vows to always be better than good. He intended to keep that promise. And what she really wanted was a baby and that real kind of baby love. Valarie felt lucky when they got married and moved to Brooklyn. She put up new curtains and cooked in new pans for the first time.
Valarie made their bed in the morning, always put the right amount of cream in Richard’s coffee, baked the right cakes, and cleaned his razer sheddings from the sink without complaining. She would lie on his chest when he had panic attacks at night and hold his hand on the couch while he talked about his groundhog days. When Richard started patrolling on the graveyard shifts, she would walk to the bodega, with her stash of expiring diaper coupons stuffed into her purse, and buy cheap novels. She tossed the romance novels into the trash when she got home–still in the “THANK YOU” plastic bag. But the war machine books–the ones she explained to every cashier were for her husband–got dog-eared and then picked up again night after night as she sprawled across the floral sofa with curlers in her hair.
After the honeymoon phase, after the morning sex turned into scheduled temperature takes and headstands after he came, they began to fight. So, Valarie went to night school and started taking hormone pills. She read until her eyes were blurry and she took online tests at 3 am and she passed them all. She kept believing in her love for Richard. Complete with sunny side eggs and clean sinks, with creamed coffee and starched shirts.
She started teaching high school kids and helped them put all their memories in a big book every year. She watched freshmen become seniors and then watched them at the grocery store after graduation with wedding rings on their fingers and babies cooing in the little seat at the front of their shopping carts. Valarie smiled when she said, “Hello,” and touched those little chubby baby hands before saying “Goodbye.” She wiped her cheeks with the grocery receipts as she put away groceries. Ink and snot smears mixing with mascara.
Over the years, she felt like a ball of yarn after a cat had its way with it–chewed up and hacked out. So, she started picking real fights. With broken wine glasses and double locks on the front door, with broken skin and tear-stained pillows. He threw a chair then she threw the whole linen drawer. Once they got into it while she was cooking steak for dinner and the popping and sizzling sounds grew and they were crying from the screaming and the smoke. The flour Valarie tossed over the pan to ease the flames didn’t help, so Richard grabbed the pan and threw it through the window. The cast iron hit the stoop with the thud of a dead body. She said, “So, I’m the clicking sound in your head now?” And he said, “No, you’re the bullet.” That made her even more frizzy and frazzled.
The image of a former student–a senior named Andy–popped into her head and she realized what it meant to not want to remember a moment how it really was. It was then she let go of the idea of being a mom. She held her empty womb and thought about how maybe their child would have been the gun.
The cop opens his cruiser door. The bus rolls to a stop and I wave it along mouthing, “Sorry.” After it picks up speed past the green light, my Richard is walking up the steps. Valarie goes back to her book when he unlocks their door.
Richard is prudently reliable.
His crew cut was sandy-colored, it matched the moon dust that settled around his combat outpost. Umar, his platoon buddy, tried getting the nickname “Sandbox” to stick during their second tour together but the POGs got even more muddled and twitchy when Umar corrected them so Richard’s nickname became “Dusty.” Every time he came home, he got more tattoos of flags, eagles, dog tags, medals, and banners. After five tours, Richard’s arms were covered in colored and shaded ink. His girlfriend, Valarie, asked, “Are you done?” And he said, “I’m home.” And she said, “I want a baby.” And he said, “I’ll give you the sun and all other stars in the sky.”
They were high school sweethearts and her patience was glass–she wouldn’t break as long as she could see Richard clearly. She nearly shattered a few times. So, he proposed on Christmas Eve. He emptied a bag of M&M’s into a stocking and dropped the ring in. She was mad about the colored chocolate candies scattered across the floor until she spotted the diamond on the shag carpet. They got married on New Year’s Eve–the year everyone feared the world would reset itself as the clocks switched to a new millennium. They kissed at midnight then took their love to Brooklyn. They rented a small first-floor apartment in a tall brownstone and made love on their bed without sheets for the first week. They took too long to unpack all their boxes, enjoying pizza on packing paper instead of plates.
They started to grow their life, still only the two of them. Richard graduated from the NYPD Academy and grew used to hearing “black male” calls over the radio instead of “hajii.” He wasn’t supposed to, but he rolled up his uniform sleeves when he wanted a veteran to know he understood when he had to move them off the sidewalk in front of a city or state-building. Richard’s glances lingered for a few seconds on their faces as he helped roll their sleeping bags. He looked for Umar’s eyes.
He always put his dirty clothes in the laundry basket, fried up sunny-side eggs for two every morning, and washed up all the dishes after dinner. He picked up the pregnancy tests every month for Valarie. He would knock quietly on the bathroom door when he could hear her crying, then he would go buy her another small box of tampons. It seemed like every day he took another neglected child into CPS. Then, at night when he got home, he idled the cruiser in front of their brownstone, hands frozen on the ignition, his mind running through every facial expression his deserving wife would have if only he could hand her one of those children.
Richard kept in touch with a couple of buddies from Iraq, mostly Umar. He listened to his rambling stories get more mumbled over the years. Two marbles in the mouth was a 12 pack of beer, four marbles was whiskey, and eventually it was six marbles rolling around chipping Umar’s teeth and gargling slobber as Umar told him that his wife left him and took his son with her. Richard said, “You’ve got hope on fire.” And Umar said, “I’m trying to make glass over here.” And Richard said, “Don’t hold whiskey over the flame and call it sand.” And Umar said, “I’ve just lost my head.” And R. said, “You’ve lost your spine.” Richard hung up and shook like a Fitty.
He sat and focused hard on the clicking in his head, the deep ringing click that was always there. Valarie came to lie on him but his misery needed company, not love. He wanted a fight. They didn’t fight often but when they did, words shot like bullets from fighter jets. He was the dust that hung in the air after they missed their mark. He knew that Valarie was a hand grenade. He fizzled and fell into the fetal position. She curled around him and they slept there on the floor, shivering in the air that grasps on to the night.
I ignore the cabs and another bus. My attention moves to a window on the second floor as it lights up and an older woman in nurse scrubs empties coffee grounds into her sink. With tired care she fills another filter and puts fresh water in the coffee pot.
Mary is decisively melancholy.
She had the kind of hair that looked like steel wool but was soft like a sheep, so she let her patients touch it. They always said, “It is so soft,” and then they smiled because her hair became their metaphor. Cancer looked rough at first but sometimes turned out soft. She was also aware that the world could end up bald before she died. Mary watched their eyes go from fear to tired. Just tired, no pain…she plugged in their drips to ensure that. And then all the doctors arrived.
Mary never wanted to be a nurse in the Cancer Unit but she couldn’t handle Labor & Delivery anymore either. Maybe she shouldn’t even be a nurse, but she was told she had a lot of love to give. No one ever realized she was already giving too much at home. She began to resent birth. Life became her burden to bear. She was given every baby–wet, bloody, and slippery–for their Apgar test and whispered questions into their ears while she took their vitals. “Why are you here?” And they never answered. Mary became worn out by the new mothers and how they were always the two extremes of living: They either left their own existence behind when a new life emerged from their body or they removed themselves entirely from the new human. Every day she got farther and farther from remembering how the middle of motherhood was the most fun. The time between diapers and dorm rooms.
She only heard the beginning of the end of conversations. They stopped being about centimeters dilated and started being about dialysis. She learned to decipher who was holding death’s hand. She twirled and spun her hair tight around her index finger as she tried to root for those who are near recovery. She watched her finger turn the same blue as the color of her fellow fighters just after they died and she remembered no one is ever far enough from the closeness of death. Mary pointed to her own head when she entered the rooms of her favorite patients and she saw hope shine in their eyes.
Mary spent her life telling people to “get it the hell out.” Get the sickness out, the pain, the growth. Not without the irony of cancer in her own body, or her own child who held perpetual sadness in his palms, or her own hopes gone away with the hazmat-needle-filled-bucket. She carried her own failures to keep her marriage together, her own, own, own….she always resists the idea of herself and she resented her family for never taking notice of her fluctuating weight or hair loss. The weight of her husband was heavy but she did love him.
Umar always found room in the fridge for another six-pack but not enough room in his life for the family he built. She took long baths and breathed in the Eucalyptus steam and in the time she used to take shaving her legs, she became okay with losing what she wanted for herself. She never sacrificed their son, Andy, for his Dad’s alcohol but Mary held Umar’s hand so hard she thought her own would fall off. She said, “Get the hell out if you can’t pick yourself up.” Then Umar let go.
Mary sat a couple of times a month in the same chair as her patients and she sipped her orange juice. She imagined this was how it felt when someone had to bring drinks and appetizers to the tables of customers who were also their fellow servers at a restaurant. She found the predictability of cancer treatment enjoyable but she felt heavy in the chairs she shared with the same patients she lost. Of course, not every patient recovers and Mary plucked a few strands of remaining hair from her head and put them in the deceased file before it was moved to its permanent home in the locked cabinet. Even when she lost all of her own hair, it was certainly easier than grappling with the inability to give up. Begging please on their knees. When an alcoholic says, “Baby, I give up,” it’s different than when a cancer patient says it. And Mary left her husband on the floor begging because she couldn’t take another “Please.”
She gained her energy back and transferred to the ER when she went into remission. She preferred the night shifts and loved living with the trauma, right up to the point of fear. Fear that dripped from her pores like morphine off a needle.
Another M44 bus’s brakes release a hot hizz on my face and my legs decide to get up and onto the bus. I shuffle down the aisle and take a seat catty-corner from a millennial with fuzzy hair and a camera hanging from his neck. My Andy shifts his eyes from me to the empty seat next to me.
Andy is lamentably absolute.
His brown hair was curly when wet, fluffy when dry. His eyes, almond-shaped with no particular sparkle. In seventh grade, Andy had to take D.A.R.E classes and he asked, “Is an alcoholic always an alcoholic? Even if he’s on a deserted island without a liquor store in sight? There for years with lips as bone dry as rocks under the midday sun?” And his teacher said, “Yes.” That day, Andy accepted his mother, Mary’s lack of hope.
He used to have acne but took a medicine that caused depression in some. He felt the same without pimples. Andy had kissed three girls by that time. Well, one was more like CPR, that one summer night he was swept under the current. And one was a “double-dog dare,” but Leslie, she kissed him behind Burger King when he was 17. Her hair smelled like fries and his fingers were greasy from the all-beef patties. After that, the only words she spoke to him were orders.
Andy’s mother, Mary, left his father, Umar, because he could never finish anything but a case of beer or a bottle of whiskey. Andy put marshmallows in his ears that day and he figured the world was much better off muffled. During high school, he was asked to join the yearbook staff. He said, “No, I don’t want to make a book of memories about this place.” And his teacher, Valarie said, “That’s terrible.” And he said, “No, it’s a lie. “And she said, “Oh good.” And he said, “Because if that book were filled with real memories, people wouldn’t read it.” And she said, “Oh, that’s terrible.” And he said, “Everyone wants to forget.” So, he graduated high school without having joined a single club, without having played a single sport, without dancing or holding hands.
Andy went to state college and his roommate, Derek, had dusty blond hair and a pointy nose. This roommate’s left arm had a deep dimple in it. He’s had it since birth and Andy wished he had been stabbed during his amino too. Derek said, “Why?” And Andy said, “Conversation starter.” Andy turned toward the microwave. His favorite food was hot pockets. Every time he burned his mouth he couldn’t wait to relieve the pain with the frozen center. He thought, “I can feel myself growing back.”
In his early 20’s, he began taking pictures and drinking whiskey. His mother told him to make sure he can always feel the future on his skin. He worried about his bad breath and his virginity often, but his hands were always soft. One day, he waited for a bus under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and he focused the lens of his camera while squinting from the glare of the sun. Suddenly, a shadow was falling and he clicked. Shame came over him as he heard her hit the ground, real as…real. Cars stopped and cars honked. People cried and she took a breath. And took his away.
Your Andy reaches his long constellation-freckled arm up and pulls the request stop string. I follow him off the bus and past the homeless man making his bed over the subway grate. The bus turns the corner as his sleeping bag hovers a couple inches off the ground. Magic brought to me by the air from a passing subway train under him.
Umar is righteously umbrageous.
He had pin-straight black hair. The kind that looked perpetually charged with static when it was short and like it had been flattened by a Greek or Roman helmet if he grew it out. It wasn’t just the debate Umar had in his head over which box to check under “ethnicity” on paperwork, it was the real not knowing. If he was asked, “What are you?” he would flip through blank pages in his mind. He really had no idea if he were anything everyone said: Thai, Sri Lanken, Puerto Rican, Vietnamese, half-breed.
It wasn’t until he got to the military, people finally stopped asking what he was. Except for a couple of times. Once he entered the house of a suspected boyfriend of a cousin of a suspect, another time in an alley on the perimeter of the Outpost after hours. And since he didn’t really know what he was, all he could always say was, “Not It,” when they had a gun pointed to his head.
Umar signed up for the Army the day his Dad, Steve, beat the shit out of Zach, his brother’s boyfriend. Umar couldn’t listen to any of it anymore. The creaking of his brother’s bed, the sobs from his Dad’s room. All his Dad said when he dropped Umar off at the airport was “At-ah Boy.” Umar felt proud all the way through boot camp. A couple of tours later and a couple of hundred times telling that story to new recruits–the “can’t-believe-I’m-here, shit-for-brains-new recruits,” Umar changed “At-ah Boy” to “I’ve never been more proud of you.” Soon enough the story he told became real to him. As if the pages of his life got written over and he enjoyed living in his new plot. He started doing it with everyone. Trying to rename them, trying to recreate a new ending every time he had another trip to the desert in camo. He was obsessed with the rewrite. One day he came home and decided to pick up the life his Dad told him he should. His Dad said, “Don’t you be a Franky.” And Umar said, “I’m not my brother.” And Steve said, “Your brother doesn’t have a wife either.” And Umar said, “I did just meet a girl…” And his Dad said, “You better not Frank it up.”
So, Umar called up that pretty nurse, Mary, the one with hair nothing like his own. He met her through a friend of a friend–at the VA medical center. He was clean from dope but still enjoyed a good view of the bottom of a bottle. He learned to stir her cups of tea just right, he did his best to woo her into bed, he even convinced her to walk down the aisle. It wasn’t more than a month and Mary was already growing Andy. He started picking up two six-packs instead of one on the night she told him he would be a Dad.
He didn’t know how to be anything but a soldier and storyteller. The only thing Steve taught him was how to fill a garbage bag with TV dinners and how to hang a couple of purple hearts in the kitchen. He wanted that to be his Dad’s story, not his. But he figured, with or without beer, it was probably his story too. So, he kept drinking. And begging God to help him stop. And then drinking. And begging his wife to not go. And then drinking more. And begging for his son to grow up and not feel the need to rewrite his own story. And even more drinking. Then just begging in order to drink.
One particular shit night of being kicked around on the side streets and stepped over on the main streets, Umar found a spot between a laundry vent and a New York News Stand. He slept okay for a few hours, just before the sun began peeping through the skyscrapers. He watched the back of his eyelids until the light became red–that’s when he knew the sun was high enough to shoot warm spots across the sidewalk and he could chase them down 5th Avenue as the day took long breaths into the evening. One day, Umar stood up, rubbed his ass–numb from the Subway rumblings vibrating up through the cement–and he squinted and focused his warm eyes at The New Yorker. A photo of a silhouette sailing off the B.Q.E graced the cover. The shadow of a girl outlined in a golden glow with her head shooting beams of light. The cover article read, “The Last Word or A Thousand Words? A Tragedy Turned Love Story.” Umar picked it up and opened to the credit page. He smiled. His son, Andy, didn’t need to rewrite his story because he learned how to capture it through a lens.
I miss my stop so I take the long way home, hoping to meet the silhouette from the photo some day.
Marissa Isch is an artist, mother, teacher, writer. She graduated from Pratt Institute in 2008, with a creative writing degree. While living in Brooklyn, she wrote and directed three Off-Broadway plays; published a handful of poems and short stories in online and print literary journals, and co-founded an arts and charity collective. She currently teaches art and works in the nonprofit sector in Denver Colorado while she’s writing her second fiction manuscript.