Every day I take the bus to work. Public transportation is a godsend, and an interesting context in which to gauge human interaction. Little things happen all the time — a crossed gaze here, a side-eye there. They stick with you. (Title inspired by this Vox Magazine story in which several of my friends participated.)
When he boards the bus, I am already seated. He walks with a limp and his eyes are ever-so-slightly out of focus. The front of his orange striped polo is dusty. So is the back. He peers through rectangular glasses and under the brim of a close-fitting baseball cap. I’m not sure, but I hypothesize that the backpack he totes holds all his worldly possessions.
I’m sitting at the front of the bus in one of the three seats that face each other opposite the aisle. He is diagonally to my left in a front-facing seat. When I look up from my book, I find him staring at me. Our eyes meet. I look down again, but not before I see him nudge the man next to him. He whispers something. I look up again and find he is pointing at me.
Eyes locked on mine, he makes a circle in the air with his index finger — a motion that traces the circumference of my face from five feet away. Then he winks and gives a thumbs-up. He thumbs-up’ed my face, I think, shocked and a little pleased. Whatever traces then gene pool has left there, he approves of them.
I smile back at him, blush, look down again.
Now I’m in the front-facing seat and he’s in a sideways one. The little boy, that is. And he isn’t in the seat precisely. He’s squatting in his mother’s lap facing her and fiddling with the beads on her necklace. She’s talking to him, stroking his hair (done up in tiny braids) and doing her best to keep him entertained. Her own hair is in a slick knot on the top of her head. She looks tired.
I watch the two of them together, my eyes drifting in and out of focus. It’s early. Then, all at once, he’s looking back at me. Huge, calf-brown eyes stare into mine, scrutinizing me in the honest, open way of which only children are capable.
After a few seconds he remembers himself — remembers that, in our world run by social norms he is only beginning to learn, it is rude to stare.
He looks abashed and buries his little head deep in his mother’s sternum. For the rest of the ride I only see little braids.
While we were stopped on Congress and 11th, the ladybug flies in. It darts around the cabin for a bit and comes to rest on our windowpane. The man next to me jerks so sharply away from it that I’m afraid he’ll land in my lap.
I have the aisle seat; his seat is closest to the offending window. The insect appears to terrify him, although I’m not sure why.
“They don’t bite,” I tell him. He looks at me mistrustfully. “No, really,” I say, “watch.”
I reach up and deftly sweep the bug from the window into my open palm. The man shivers. “Be careful,” he says in heavily-accented English.
“It’s okay,” I say, “they’re completely harmless. They’re a type of beetle I think. I know they’re insects. They come in all colors: orange, red, yellow with black spots…”
He looks at me uncomprehendingly. Then his eyes fix on the cocoon I’ve made with my hands so the bug can’t escape. I’m planning to let it out when the doors opened at the next stop. From his attitude I am an insanely brave medieval knight taking on a full-fledged dragon without a sword.
The bus comes to a halt. I step lightly down the set of stairs separating the front of the bus from the back, hold my cupped hands out the open door and blow the ladybug into the air. When I return to my seat the man is slumped against the now-safe window, beads of sweat evident at his temple. He’s been watching me the entire time.
I feel positively heroic.