I stare into the fleeting reflections, wondering what the passing faces think of mine. My eyes slide left, realizing that she’s still lingering in the edges of my vision. She’d come in from the crosswalk, with an unexpected inquiry of when the bus would be in. Incredulously, she disregarded my headphones’ silent broadcast of “stay away.” I contemplate lying to force open a conversation; instead I simply let out a genuinely emotionless, “no.” Her pale green velour jacket, didn’t mesh well with her starkly blue jeans, teal candy-bar phone, and brown nondescript shoes. Instead, they formed a distinct clash that curiously ground along the boundaries my peripherals.
I retrain my focus onto the cars waiting at intersection. A middle-aged Hispanic couple sits impatiently in a black car. How did they meet; what random circumstance caused this moment? Class-seating, blind date, apple martini, accidental pregnancy? Or was it all just an illustrious promise that he’d make it big, she’d always be beautiful, and they’d reproduce, en masse, better versions of themselves? Their children, budding elementary scholars, struggle violently in a back-seat turf war. The father shoots a spiked eyebrow into the rear view mirror. The mother turns back, yelling rather animatedly. The kids, caught up in battle, refuse to value her anger. I bet they didn’t envision this when they hooked up. The wife’s anger turns against her husband, exasperated at his lack of effort. He slumps further into his seat, not wanting to launch yet another argument. However, this further enrages his wife. Of course, I don’t understand Spanish; but I know this story, an ode to the savagely broken dreams which form reality. What we once planned isn’t what we now have. Life’s the only casino where everyone’s dumb enough to go for broke. The light turns green, yanking my troubled cinema away from me.
In the mean time, her green velour slid away from my peripherals and I now wish she’d come back with another pointless question to kill my boredom. I look left and right, but she must be long gone. Maybe if I’d been more responsive to the first inquiry? I then reconsider what our conversation could’ve amounted to and I quietly murder the prior thought. An odd power compels me to turn around; she’s leaning against a signpost. Great…. I take off my headphones, just in case. She walks over to read the bus schedule. I contemplate my eager stupidity and the pathetic aura surrounding the moment. “How close are the fires to here?” She fails to disappoint the mood. My mind begins to shuts off, but not before responding, “Probably about twenty miles north of here.” She pauses before continuing, “Doesn’t it seem a bit smoggy out here?” I sit dumbfounded. Of all possible ways to strike conversation, you pick an insipid non-topic? Just leave now. Please leave me far away from your nonsense, woman. “No, seems pretty normal for downtown,” I respond with surprising civility. She doesn’t persist. Sadly, I still can’t decide whether or not that’s a good thing. The bus pulls in, preventing us from falling back into our incessant cycle. She walks in before I can even get off the bench. Scraping my pockets, I find a single quarter to cover the fare. She sits down in front. The open seats by her side beckon me to stay near her. Instead, I stalk past the other passengers to sit in the elevated rear section, making sure that she’s visible from my perch. The bus scuttles along, digging deeper into the city.
My eyes peer out the window hoping to find some shred of inspiration. This city is massive, a testament to the phenomenon of urban sprawl. It lingers infinitely in all directions, choking us slowly with its transparent smog. It’s the kind of city that could claim, “Opportunity was born here.” And yet, I find it hollow. I’ve yet to encounter anyone with a dream on these streets. A real dream, not the misguided, conformist life path they feed you at every turn. It’s diverse, but never daring. We forgot our character from the moment we drowned under the city lights. Rich personas are reduced to commonality in this system. I know this because I’m next, somewhere along the line, I’ve stagnated. I recessed into my shell at the first sign of danger and I don’t know how to cope. Perhaps if I just spoke to her, she’d be the one. The character I thought I’d meet with wild thoughts, a touch of brilliance, and the pure greed to maximize their potential. Someone I could bow to, shamelessly…infinitely. But, she’s not, definitely not. I’ve seen what this city does and I know she’s been here too long. The rules of engagement were corrupted out here, long before I touched down. By the time I reach her core character, I’ll be looking back incredulous as to how I wasted so many months on her. There’s no point. I turn my eyes back inside the bus as new passengers funnel inside.
A Chinese couple makes their way to the back of the bus. Their silence paints a neutral portrait of the two. There’s no anger between them, but there’s no joy either. Every offhand observation has already been shared, every ounce of humor already drained. The fuzzy emotions that paired these two have become unhinged, leaving only the bitter core of their personalities. The bus makes a stop at 23rd, they sit tightly. Obviously, they’re headed downtown. An amalgam of expressions, posture, and dress add some color to my portrait. They’ve been together, for nearly a year. It was great in the beginning, but the glow’s worn off. She’s passively looking for someone better, but is too cowardly to be alone. He noticed the lack of energy weeks ago yet he can’t muster up the courage to confront this fact. Invariably, today’s outing will be a failure. She gives him a look to pull the string, he obliges. The bus clanks to an uneasy halt at Olympic Boulevard. The couple finally gets off, neither looks amused.
There’s nothing left between here and Seventh Street. As the bus prattles along, I calmly witness the repetitive city sights: roaming students, prancing couples, and feigned amusement. No one’s breaking out. No one’s truly daring. We’re all just falling back into the conglomerated identity. Disgustedly, my mind surges back to her and I witness a beauty unnoticed. Perhaps, she was different. Perhaps, she dared to be great. I weigh her unknown potential against the threat of banal small talk. For a moment, I even want her to come back here and say something. This lingering need for human contact swells to the limit only to be crushed silently. There’s nothing beyond misery on that path. The rules of exchange are broken in this game, from beginning to end. I won’t step across the boundary, knowing full well that success means pointless gifts, expensive dinners, and incessant confusion. I pull the string as I see no other attempt to do so. The bus wobbles to a halt as I drag myself upwards. She exits from the front; but briskly heads south, towards the back door. We walk pace-for-pace, side-by-side. I linger on the thought of a final question, the possible launch of another stupid love story; but I can’t speak and she won’t blab. She turns down the sidewalk heading east into the Jewelry district, decidedly away from me. I stop at the crosswalk looking back to her as I await my turn to leave us behind. The light turns green and I head west.