Women’s Travel—Bronze: Greyhound Bound

by Megan Lyles

This past summer I decided to take Greyhound again. A nice long trip, all the way from San Francisco, where I’d attended my ten-year high school reunion, to New York, where I was born and where I live now. I missed riding the bus. I missed wondering whether the driver would be an easy-going jokester or a maniacal control freak. I missed the feeling of stumbling off the bus in the cool, damp dawn, tripping over my untied shoelaces and wandering to the weedy roadside to check out the view while my fellow passengers sucked at long-denied cigarettes or trudged into McDonald’s for coffee and fried things. I missed America, those towns I’d slipped through, breathing their air, yet never seeing them. Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Wells. Cheyenne, Ogallala, Omaha. I missed my fellow passengers and their stories.

In Salt Lake City a young guy asked me if I would take his four-year-old daughter to the bathroom. I supposed he chose me because I was a woman, and standing near the ladies’ room, and perhaps because I was brown like them. But I had no idea how one goes about taking a child to the bathroom. The idea made me so nervous that I almost said no. Luckily Arianna knew what to do.

“Put a piece there.” she directed. “And another piece right there.” After I had arranged half a roll of toilet paper on the seat to her precise specifications, I waited outside the stall for her to finish. As I scooped a generous amount of industrial pink

Greyhound soap into her tiny hand and instructed her to rinse well, I felt a sense of accomplishment. She hadn’t fallen into the toilet or been kidnapped. I had succeeded.

Afterwards we all sat on the bus station’s mesh-metal seats that were ostensibly curved for comfort but which bit painfully into the backs of my thighs. We talked. Aaron was twenty-five and just out of jail. “I didn’t want to leave her again.” he said, “so I took her with me to Oakland and now we’re going back home to Akron.” He was impressed that at twenty-seven I had no children of my own. “You’re doing all right for yourself.” he said.

Later, after another rest stop, he dropped something in my seat as he walked past me to his own seat further back. It was a pink nylon travel pillow, bought in the gift shop. It was just like the one Arianna had. By the time I realized what it was, he was too far away to hear my stammered thanks. I considered myself to be a Greyhound purist, needing nothing but my Walkman, a book, and a journal, but it was nice to have something to keep my head from rattling against the window as I watched the highway blur and scroll.

Gradually, suddenly, we were traveling together, the father and daughter and I. I had no siblings or young cousins, no experience with children at all, and had never thought of myself as being particularly good with them. But for some reason Arianna liked me. She insisted on sitting next to me on the bus and she invited me to color with her while she chattered about her life. I looked past the trendy new colors in the 64-pack and found my old favorites, and when she wasn’t looking I held Midnight Blue to my face to breathe in the sweet, waxy scent. I gave her dried apples and dried cranberries. She was skeptical of the cranberries until I told her they were just like raisins and then she ate them and said she liked them. She formed some of my hair into two skinny, crooked braids that hung right down in front of my forehead, an imitation of the dozens of tiny braids that sprouted from her own head.

“Did she do that to your hair?” her father Aaron asked me, three cities later. As though I would have done that to my hair myself. It looked ridiculous, but I liked it because it was a sign of affection. An emotional glimpse of the macaroni- and glitter-covered paper plates that will someday decorate my refrigerator.

Arianna and I took many, many trips to the bathroom on the bus. Sometimes to fetch more of the free wet-wipes that she loved and sometimes to actually use it.

“I have to boo-boo.” she informed me once. As I steadied myself inside the stinking cell that passes for a restroom on the bus, watching to make sure she didn’t fall into the tank of sloshing blue water, she asked me, “Do you boo-boo?”

“Everybody boo-boos.” I hedged.

“But do you boo-boo?”

I cleared my throat. “Yes… I boo-boo.”

She was satisfied.

I eventually got tired of the frequent “one last time” trips to fetch “just a few more” wet-wipes but when she asked if this time she could go alone, I said no. She insisted. Her father, who seemed perfectly content to leave her in my care, was asleep. Finally I decided it would be okay. I mean, she’d be right there on the bus, wouldn’t she?

I regretted my decision as soon as she was gone, and listened nervously, glancing back at the closed door every few seconds. Soon enough I heard plaintive wails from the back of the bus. When I ran back there, the door was locked.

“Arianna, don’t cry, it’s okay. Do you know how to unlock the door?”

“Mommy… Mommy… I want my Mommy…”

“Arianna, just pull the little latch…”

More wails. Careful, grownup style directions were clearly not going to work. She was panicking. I was terrified. People were starting to turn and stare. There was nothing to do but wake up her father. Aaron had no better luck than I had in trying to coax her to unlock the door. By then the whole back of the bus was involved.

“How old is she?”

“Did you try pushing the door?”

“Why did she lock herself in?”

A Mexican man leaned toward me from a window seat, his arm protectively around his own little boy. “Is that your daughter?” he asked me.

No, but I was pretending she was.

Wiping my crooked braids out of my eyes, I ran to the front of the bus to consult the driver. “There’s a little girl who’s locked herself in the bathroom.” I told him. I couldn’t remember if he was one of those drivers who requested that we not under any circumstances approach him with questions but shout them from our seats, or one of those who requested that we not under any circumstances shout at him but approach him like people. “Is there some kind of emergency switch to open the door?”

“Nope.” he said. “You’ll just have to wait. There’s a rest stop in about twenty minutes.”

“Twenty minutes? But she’s only four and she’s really scared. Isn’t there anything you can do?”

“Not without stopping.”

I imagined Arianna flinging herself around in a panic and falling into the septic tank while this driver waited twenty more minutes to stop at his designated McDonald’s. He never even looked at me. A driving cog in the Greyhound machine. Rest stop in twenty minutes.

I ran back down the aisle to the bathroom. Aaron was flinging himself against the door, trying to force it open. It wasn’t working, and it wasn’t calming Arianna down either. Then the PA system crackled on. “Will the person with the child locked in the bathroom please come to the front of the bus?”

The last few people who hadn’t been aware of the drama were now aware. Bodies shifted, heads popped up over seatbacks like prairie dogs, murmuring and tsking. The entire bus watched me trot back up the aisle, a trip just long enough for it to occur to me that I’d never before been able to answer to “the person with the child locked in the bathroom.”

Silently, eyes on the road, the driver handed back a key with a big, neon-green plastic holder. I took it to Aaron and he… there was no keyhole in the door, or anywhere around the door. Arianna screeched from within, and Aaron jammed the plastic keyholder into the crack between door and frame, trying to pry the door open. It wasn’t working.

Suddenly the little indicator on the latch went from red to green. Arianna had unlocked the door herself. Then it was red again. Then green. Then red. “Look.” I said. The next time the lock showed green, Aaron grabbed the door and pushed it open before it could lock again. Arianna stopped crying immediately. She emerged from the restroom and stalked back up the aisle silently, tearstained and painfully dignified, Aaron and me following. I thought she’d blame me and want nothing to do with me – I certainly blamed myself – but she didn’t go to her father’s seat, she sat back down in the seat next to mine, her tiny legs sticking straight out in front of her, her arms crossed against her chest.

“You’re famous now.” Aaron said to her. “The whole bus knows you’re the one who got locked in the bathroom.” I exhaled violently, realizing I’d been holding my breath for his reaction, and managed with a choke at the last second to keep it from turning to hysterical laughter. I sat back down in my seat, and Aaron disappeared behind the seatback in front of us to continue his nap. I’d thought he at least would realize how badly I’d messed up, even if Arianna didn’t, but he wasn’t angry at all.

Later we talked about our dreams. Aaron wanted to be a rapper. He fished a demo tape out of his backpack and let me listen to it on his Walkman. It sounded much better than I expected. Arianna clamored for the headphones and I gave them to her.

I said I wanted to be a writer. “Oh yeah? Like Eric Jerome Dickey?”

“No, like Steinbeck.” I said, suddenly embarrassed.

At an Arby’s in Iowa, Aaron left Arianna with me in line. He gave me some money and told me to order curly fries and a shake for her and whatever I wanted for myself. He said he didn’t want anything. I had originally planned to order something substantial but at Aaron’s insistence that he pay, I changed my mind. I used his money to pay for two orders of curly fries, a Jamocha shake for myself and a “pink” shake for Arianna. We sat down at a plastic table to eat, or in Arianna’s case, to uncurl the fries and push them around her tray. Aaron left us alone for so long that it crossed my mind that he’d abandoned her with me. He wouldn’t, I knew. He obviously cared about her and anyway, she had a mother in Akron. But it was there in my mind and so I thought about it. How would my mothering skills hold up if she were suddenly mine, sitcom style?

Points in my favor: Encouraged an interest in new and healthy foods. Delayed the inevitable shame of natural bodily functions. Points against: Almost drowned her in a septic tank. Possibly engendered a lifelong claustrophobia.

When he finally did come back, Aaron was upset that I had only ordered fries for myself. If he’d been sending me a message by trying to buy me food, to provide for me while I looked after his child, then perhaps he’d gotten the return message that I did not want to be provided for, by him. I didn’t know. I hoped so. We looked like a family, but we weren’t a family. We were strangers on a bus.

I wandered off to the adjoining convenience store for some alone time, picking up and putting down tchotchkes and bags of chips. When I stepped back out into the parking lot, Aaron was looking for me. “The bus almost left.” he said. “I told them to wait for you.” I felt slightly startled. By almost getting stranded, by being rescued.

San Francisco to New York is a long trip, and it’s almost non-stop. Drivers change, busses change, but except for the obligatory three-hour stop in Omaha, and the occasional meal stop or smoke break, the passenger keeps moving. The trip requires two and half nights of sleep on the bus. Every time I’ve done it, it’s the same. Time becomes surreal. I board the bus fresh and enthusiastic. Clean. I ride, night falls. This is lovely from a bus window, the progression from pinks and oranges through deeper and colder blues all the way to Crayola Midnight Blue. I imagine myself in a country song, a long distance trucker. I play Reba McEntire on my Walkman, “We’re on a Greyhound bound for West Virginia, and he’s in Dallas, without us, tonight… .” I feel a fondness for the other human beings sleeping around me, nestled together like bunnies in a petshop window.

Morning comes. Light grows. I’m sore and not much in the mood for McDonald’s for breakfast, but this is the Greyhound life. The bus wakes up. Soft snores and sighs turn to chatter. Sunlight streams through the windows and out again and I realize the purpose and power of night and day. It seems like the most profound of revelations. I feel like the first person who’s ever seen a sunrise. Most people aren’t going as far as I am, so my busmates change. This is the time for conversation and exchange. Stories. The afternoon is golden and endless.

Darkness comes again while I watch, wistful. The world outside the window is all mine, and yet not mine at all. I imagine this is what it will be like to watch my child fall asleep. Only the die-hard smokers take advantage of the nighttime rest stops, trooping silently up the aisle and huddling close to the bus. Nighttime stops are short. I barely wake when the door whooshes open and the blue light comes on. Sometimes I don’t even notice when the bus crunches over gravel and eases back onto smooth highway.

Morning again. I feel lucky if we stop at Burger King instead of McDonalds. I have hardly moved, have not broken a sweat, and yet I smell musty. There is hair in the sink at the fast food restaurant. On either side of me, women brush teeth, spray on perfume. They let the water run, wasting it. I finish a book, start a new one.

It grows dark again. I feel lonely. I’m disgusted by the fact that I’m breathing air that has been expelled from the lungs of the shifting mass of strangers around me. My ears are sore from the earphones and I’m tired of all my tapes. My feet are swollen, my legs heavy. I feel like I’m getting scurvy. I’m ready to go home. This is what people imagine when they ask me why the hell I would sit on a Greyhound bus for three and a half days when I could fly home in five hours. This is the point when I forget all my answers. Why did I want to do this?

Arianna became cranky. She lost interest in making wet-wipe clothes for her bear, in coloring. I tried to imagine what two days on the bus would feel like for a four-year-old. She probably felt like she was going to live on the bus for the rest of her life.

I said goodbye to them in Cleveland at two a.m. Aaron and I exchanged phone numbers, though I had no expectation that we would ever meet again. When prompted, Arianna opened and closed her small palm at me in farewell, looking sleepy and lost. Her father looked sleepy and lost too. I was sleepy, but not lost. My new bus was labeled NEW YORK CITY in big white letters over the windshield. It was the first one that had been labeled this way. This bus, dark inside and smelling faintly of sickly sweet blue toilet water, would take me all the way home and I was grateful to climb on board and curl up across two seats, resting my head on my now dingy pink pillow.

Aaron called me a couple of months later. I felt sad when I heard his voice on the answering machine, but I didn’t call him back. We had nothing in common. Arianna was not my daughter. It was better to let it go. But we’d all shared something for a moment, the fleeting intimacy, finite in length but infinite in depth, that grows and binds from sharing the same road to different destinations.

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