By: Martin Groff
All of this wouldn’t have been so bad if Margaret hadn’t just found out about her father. Ten years he had cheated on her mother. Ten years their family had been nothing but a lie.
So she was not very receptive to the car that wouldn’t start, and having to take the bus into work with three transfers along the way, in the bitter November drizzle. She could feel herself on the verge of something—some sort of blowup, into what she did not know. It was a physical feeling, rising from a mixture of anger, shock, and disappointment, and though she felt it gathering pressure in the core of her body, she was uncertain whether it would manifest itself in tears or tirade.
There were no seats on the bus. She couldn’t even stand near a railing; instead she grasped awkwardly and somewhat painfully onto the plastic rim of the door as the bus heaved to and fro, between lanes, jerking to stop and lurching to start.
Before the day had even started, she was ready for it to be over. She was ready to forget the quivering voice of her mother on the phone the night before, even as she replayed the conversation in her mind, longing for some more insight.
“Margaret, I don’t know how to say this. I’m staying with Aunt Beth. I’ve left your father.”
“What are you talking about? Are you insane?”
“I don’t know what to think. Margaret, he was cheating on me. For ten years. With Carrie Watson. I don’t know what to do, but I can’t stay with him.” Sobbing.
“Are you okay?” It was the proper response, Margaret had believed, even though the answer was obviously no.
Her mother replied, also with a proper response, “I’ll be alright.” And that was where they left it. No closure, no answers—she couldn’t even think of the questions. What does one ask when one finds out everything is a lie? What does she need to know, other than that it’s over, and that the past has been tainted in the bargain?
In her pocket the phone vibrated with a sharp buzz, and she didn’t need to look at it to know it was her father. She wasn’t ready to talk to him. Yet, even in the ring of the phone, she sensed she could perceive his desperation, his begging for her to pick up, to let him explain his side of things. To hear that she still loved him.
She wasn’t sure she was ready to give that. Never had she imagined that she could be a person who would come to hate another—she didn’t think she had it in her, and she felt a pang of terrible guilt just considering it—but somehow, something burned within her against that man, and she could not control it.
The rain seemed to be getting heavier. The tiny, misty particles had turned into small but well-formed droplets that now fell gently all around the bus. A slight patter on the aluminum roof could even be heard through the noise of the engine and road. Margaret dreaded going back out in it. She hadn’t even remembered to grab her umbrella out of the car.
Amid the chaos of people pushing by at their stops, as if panicked the bus would leave before they had the time to get out, Margaret caught sight of a seat that had opened up, and as fast as she could she began to edge her way towards it. She had been standing for several blocks and she felt entitled to this respite, particularly due to all the things that had gone wrong for her over the past twenty-four hours.
“Hey, watch it!” a voice broke out as she got closer to the seat. Her window of visibility closed for a moment as two people shifted in the aisle in front of her and the bus began to move. When the crowd parted again, her seat was gone, taken. Stolen, she thought. A well dressed man now sat there, about her age, looking smug and oblivious to everyone around him. It was not only her, she now realized, that he had stolen the seat from. Margaret noticed an older woman who was also standing, and thought about how rude it was that the young man had not offered his seat to her.
Instead he just sat there, staring ahead, catching her glance for a moment and looking away. He knew it. He saw her looking at him, and he realized he had taken her seat, that which she—and perhaps more so the old woman—rightfully deserved, yet he did nothing. Margaret wondered angrily, as she examined his expensive-looking suit, why he hadn’t driven his Mercedes into work that day, why he had chosen to come on this bus and steal that seat from her, to go to his undoubtedly high-class job in the city.
Her stop was still several blocks away, and she could barely stand the anger she felt. It made her feel warm in her jacket, and if so many people weren’t crowded around her, she certainly would have taken it off.
“Some people are just so inconsiderate,” she said vaguely to a middle-aged woman beside her.
The woman looked back somewhat uncomfortably. “I guess so.”
“I mean, look at that lady who has to stand against the railing,” she said a little louder, so the selfish seat-thief would hear her. “She shouldn’t have to stand. Yet nobody gives up their seat. Sometimes I wonder if all politeness is dead.”
Now the woman next to her looked really uncomfortable. Her eyes searched the crowd for someone who felt the same way, and a gentleman standing further down the aisle seemed to look back with the same expression.
“It’s a crazy world,” the woman finally said, and Margaret nodded her head enthusiastically. She realized this was likely all the agreement she would get from her neighbor, so she decided she better make as much use of it as she could.
“Totally crazy. And the worst offenders don’t even realize it,” she replied, looking towards the man. She wasn’t sure he could hear her; he looked out the foggy window intently, probably trying to ignore her. She didn’t want him to get away with it. She wanted him to get off the bus so she could trip him on his way out or something. Maybe that would be a little too much, but it satisfied her to imagine the arrogance wiped of his face by something, anything.
But her stop came first, and she had to leave her chances behind. Still angry, and relieved from her sadness temporarily by that anger, she marched through the rain and into her office. The anger sustained her for a few minutes, but answering calls soon broke her concentration. Soon the selfish jerk on the bus was but a shadow in her mind. She started to forget what his face had looked like; she hadn’t seen much of it anyway, since he had been pretty far off.
Eventually all that remained on her mind was the sadness.
Mark’s fingers tapped on his desk. He picked up the pen again and started to write, but after only tracing out the columns of a chart, he already didn’t know how to continue, and so the pen twirled in his fingers as he tried to think.
The office was hot and uncomfortable. He had already draped his suit jacket across the chair, and now he found himself rolling up his sleeves in a quick jerking motion that felt somewhat uncontrolled. He tried to focus on the chart: pros on one side, cons on the other. The potential effects of new software for the office, to help them keep their expenses in line. He had always relied on the administration for such decisions, but for some reason the responsibility had fallen on him this time. It was an important task, but much more important because he sensed his job depended on the decision. And he couldn’t lose his job. Not with his wife in the hospital so frequently, and so exhausted from chemotherapy. He couldn’t let any of the stress in his life seep through to her. He had to make the right decision, and he had to make it by tomorrow morning.
His mind jumped back and forth, from his wife to the different accounting software options, and back to a room filled with white-coated doctors. He was losing faith in them. Every time he saw his wife she looked more tired, more worn.
“Madison,” he had whispered to her that morning, “you don’t have to get up. Your appointment isn’t for another few hours.”
“Don’t you want me to make you coffee?” she asked, as if forgetting how much strain that would be on her weary body.
“No, don’t worry, I’ll make some. And I’ll leave the rest of the pot for you.”
He had left her, pale in the dark room, to rest until her appointment. Until she would have to get up and walk to the subway station, to take a noisy, public train downtown, when what she really needed was privacy. Privacy to prepare herself. He could imagine she wouldn’t be able to get much meditation done on that busy train, with so many eyes watching her, wondering why she looked so pale, so ghostly.
All he had wanted to do was buy her a car. He was almost there, almost able to afford a small compact sedan one of his neighbors was selling. But it would have been futile. Someone would need to pick her up after treatment anyway, when she would be too tired to drive herself. And he couldn’t miss any more work—they had already cut his bonus for the year, and he knew he had no more leeway with his boss.
Lunch was his only reprieve. He would be able to eat in the coffee shop he liked, and enjoy its beautiful view of the wide courtyard. When the hour came, he gathered his paperwork, which he knew he couldn’t afford to stop looking at, and carried it precariously from his office to the shop, covering with his jacket to protect it from the rain.
A young woman came out of the glass door just as he was ready to enter, but she did not hold it. It slammed on his knee, causing him to drop one of his binders into a puddle. He had sensed her glance, and noticed she had seen him and done nothing. She offered no apology—neither with any word or facial expression, and he felt himself filling with a sudden bitterness towards her.
Probably she had just been hanging out with her friends. He could imagine them sitting together laughing, or texting and not even talking, totally unaware of the responsibilities and the needs of other people around them. He pictured the other people in the restaurant looking toward them awkwardly, startled by their annoying laughter. He saw a frail old couple standing behind them with no place to sit, while she and her friends obliviously chatted about quaint nothings long after they had finished eating.
Part of him envied the carefree world she must have, but all of him resented it. He wanted her to be shocked into the real world. He wanted a pick-pocket to take her precious cell phone so her daddy would have to buy her a new one. Anything to give her a pang of worry, to snap her into the world of suffering he inhabited.
He turned back to look at her, as she hurried across the courtyard in the quickening rain, when he was struck with a sense of uneasiness. He had seen her before.
That morning. On the bus. He had accidentally taken her seat. He had even debated getting up and giving it to her, but it was too awkward. So instead he had stared gloomily out the window, thinking about his wife, and how she would get to her next treatment. He had heard the young woman chatting with someone shortly thereafter—a friend probably, although he couldn’t hear what they were saying. He assumed he would never see her again, so he didn’t think much of the encounter. But now he felt different. Remorseful. He wanted to apologize.
Suddenly, stopping dead in the middle of the courtyard, she turned around and met his gaze. There was pain written in her eyes—anger, perhaps, melting quickly into great loneliness and sadness. For the first time Mark wondered about her story—her true story. What was happening in her life? Who was she really?
Her eyes seemed to be asking the same questions about him. He realized that he probably looked much more disheveled now than he had appeared to be on the bus that morning—more like a real person, especially now that the rain was pouring down on him. The weather had the same effect on her, as the collected exterior she had radiated earlier was washed away.
And as the rain continued, these two people looked at each other and wondered about each other. But frozen by guilt and perhaps fear, neither of them made any move, and the moment eventually faded.