Penny had a thing for bus drivers. Each morning as she dropped her quarters into the metal box, hearing that click-slide, her heart flittered soft, then hard. She loved their strongly spread feet, their hands circling the life-sized steering wheel. These were men she trusted.
“Good morning,” she said, fumbling in her coat pocket for change.
“Good morning,” said the handsome bus driver, the quiet bus driver, the bus driver with all the piercings. She memorized each of their faces, each of their routes.
“Yep, yep.” Smile.
Her affairs were simple things, like coasters to protect the coffee table, like two-in-one shampoo. Penny believed, for instance, in one bus driver at a time. The last guy, Chuck, had always let her on the bus free. She liked that. He was a quiet man, with thick, serious shoulders. Plus, she had liked the way he looked at her in the big rearview mirror, with so much desire, with so much hesitation. She had been the forward one, had stopped at his big black accordion chair before getting off, had bent down from the waist and asked him out for coffee with her wide eyes, with her hair falling. Their affair lasted almost three weeks, until Chuck switched routes. He was an excellent lover and she saved $19.00 in bus fare.
And Chuck’s replacement was irresistible.
“You’re new,” she said, as she slid her change down the shoot on their first ride together. She smiled and sat in the bus’s front seat, legs crossed. The new driver was tall, towering, so that the steering wheel in his hands seemed ordinary, seemed small. She was on her way home from work and he was on his way to nowhere, circling the city over and over again.
“This is my first day,” he said, taking his eyes off the road and winking at her. He winked! It felt like a sign.
“I noticed,” she said and winked back. She wanted to give him a sign, too.
“I like it pretty well so far.”
“Uh, huh,” she said, pulling a hand through her hair. “This is a nice route, going by the river.”
“Yeah,” he said, opening his hand wide around the wheel.
The thing about Chuck was that he had no self-confidence. Penny didn’t mind getting things started, but then she needed a man who could make a decision now and then, who could really move her, inspire her, someone who could break out of the routine.
“I guess you’re taking over for Chuck?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Was he the last guy?” the bus driver asked.
Penny knew it was dangerous to reveal her connections to the others. Still, she gloated. She wanted one them to figure it all out, to piece together the unique puzzle that was Penny. She had fantasies about it.
“Where are you headed?” he asked.
“Home.” Penny uncrossed her legs, then crossed them again, swish-glide, a thing the men loved. She moved forward in her seat, attentive.
Before Chuck, Penny had fallen for a 25-year old college student, Dylan, who drove the bus to save money for tuition. He worked the route that went past the grocery store and the park. Penny had adored Dylan for his passionate love of algebra, of geometry, of all the exact numbers that made up his world.
“Yes,” he said when she asked him out the first time. “Let’s make our diameter a radius. As the distance between us gets shorter, the distance between us and the rest of the world grows, proportionally.”
He was a precise driver, measuring his turns, his angles, constantly aware of the bus’s placement on the street and its relation to oncoming traffic. The city to him was a giant graph, he put everything on the x/y. Penny loved his equation for beauty, his simpleness when it came to the world’s ordering, to loving her, but a grocery store went up in her neighborhood, a quick minute walk. She left Dylan and his bus, her goodbye a big 2-1.
The new bus driver, Penny could tell, was unconcerned with the how many ninety degree angles could be found in the sky, how many triangles it took to build a cube or a romance. She watched the bus driver closely as he talked to her and she noticed, happily: he hardly ever looked at the road. His big brown eyes were welcoming, were
both deliberate and warm. And as the bus took its sweeping turns, its quick stops, Penny’s desire urged her forward.
By the time they reached downtown, Penny wanted to know more. “What did you do before driving?” she asked at one of the stop lights, when she didn’t have to yell anymore.
“Oooh, like houses?” Penny gave her best impressed Oooh.
“Like pictures, like portraits,” he said, smiling, letting her get away with everything.
This time Penny’s enthusiasm was real. “An artist!” She loved the possibilities, the natural poetry of an artist’s passion, and desperation, and inventiveness.
“I love artists,” she said, and suddenly it was true. “I love artists who drive buses,” she said, accurate as a ball point.
When the bus finally rounded Eighth and Hamilton, Penny fell into routine, lifted her hand upward and opened it like a poppy. She was ready to tug on the rope, ring the stop bell, ready to do that walk she did off the bus, with her hips shift-shifting, with her single glance back, when the bus driver turned to face her and said, confident and knowing, like a secret lover, like a soul-mate, like the best bus driver in the world: “Stay on.”
Penny’s heart flip-fluttered, flip-fluttered, and she lowered her hand into her lap.
The bus driver turned back to his big windshield and Penny re-crossed her legs, swish-glide, thrilled.
“I bet you have a woman on every route,” she said.
“I bet you have a man behind every wheel,” he said.
This went on for quite some time.
As they made giant circles around the city, Penny did think of her husband waiting at home. Usually when she did these sorts of things, eventually meeting up with her drivers, she planned it more carefully. There was the lunch hour, for instance. Also, Tuesday and Thursday nights when her husband thought she had yoga. She thought about him waiting at home, and then she looked up at the bus driver, the muscles in his legs so obvious when he stepped on the break, when he stepped on the gas, and Penny’s wild heart leapt. It forgot about her husband and it made demands. Plus, also: Penny knew her husband had a girl behind the counter of every dry cleaners.
People got on the bus, emptied their pockets, walked past the couple and sat in the very back seats. It was almost like they were alone, interrupted only by passengers’ quiet exits, the bus driver’s insistent, but off-sounding, have-a-nice-nights. Penny stretched her left leg out, long, so that her foot could almost touch him. And the bus driver, who seemed to grow more enormous with every big turn, his smile like a smile from the movies, his arms capable of holding the moon, kept his feet where they were, but hinted with the twitch of his knees, with the urgency in his voice, that he, too, wanted more from life, more from her.
Each time they got to Penny’s stop she lifted up her hand and the bus driver said “stay on”
and his words pulled her hand back down, made her hand a heavy, but delicate thing, incapable of any motion but the descent back into her lap. “Stay on, stay on” he said, and she did, she did, she did.
At 10:29 the last woman on the bus, holding big garbage bags in both of her small hands, rose out of her seat. She walked slowly down the aisle dragging the bags behind her and smiled at Penny. Penny thought the old woman might never get off the bus, might walk so slow that her and the bus driver would never get their moment alone. It’s true: she was starting to get impatient.
“What’s in your bags?” she asked as the woman inched forward, scoot-scoot.
“Mysteries!” the old woman said. Penny thought she saw her wink, but it was hard to tell with the old skin folded over the eyes like it was, with the small overhead bus light her only hope for illumination.
“Do you need help carrying them?” Penny asked. She wanted to help her get off sooner, wanted to claim the whole bus her own, her bus driver’s.
“No!” the old woman said. “I have to carry them! That’s the mystery!”
“Well,” said Penny. She brought her right hand up, cupped it to wave goodbye.
“Have a nice night!” the bus driver said, and the old woman eased down the big stairs without a hand to hold the rail.
“I guess it’s time to go home,” Penny said as the bus started moving again. She rested her hands on her knees, eager. They drove, and drove, and it didn’t take long for Penny to realize they were not headed in the direction of her stop. Yipee, Penny thought. Yes. As they moved farther and farther away, she felt her body tingle and tickle with anticipation. This is the moment she loved best. How she adored the work of this kind of man: someone whose job it was to be on the move, to constantly change the scenery out of those endlessly rectangle windows. The bus driver drove and drove and Penny sat patient and firm. She thought about the dullness that came everyday before she got on the bus home. She thought about the predictable and unbearable weight of routine that awaited her in the quiet neighborhood where her husband parked his car. How the windows there were covered over in curtains, and for good reason. She looked at the bus driver, and noticed that he, too, was concentrating hard. He was focused as a headlight, Penny noticed, and she liked that. He had a goal, and it had nothing to do with standing still, with setting an alarm clock just to remind yourself that you’re alive.
At 11:00, she took off her pantyhose. It was getting late, after all, and romance wasn’t everything. “Where are we headed to?” she asked.
The bus driver didn’t say anything.
“Hmmmm,” she moaned, moaning her best Hmmmm. “I can’t wait.”
Penny stood up next to him and caressed the back of his neck, feeling the little hairs at the base of his skull, so soft. “I love surprises,” she said, although she did not.
The bus driver kept looking ahead, abandoning even the comfort of the rearview mirror.
Long minutes passed and eventually Penny sat back down. And waited some more. She waited and he drove and drove, the sun long gone, the new day approaching quickly, like another bus to meet.
“Look,” she said, “should we pull over? I would l-o-v-e to pull over with you.”
They drove south. That’s the direction they were headed: south.
And that bus driver just got bigger and bigger, a near giant, and led her away.
“Stop!” she said at 1:00. And he did. He spoke his first words to her in hours at a gas station several hundreds of miles from home. “Stay on,” he said, and what could she do?
As they drove Penny got to hating the bus driver, his long tease, his endless road trip. She threw her pantyhose against the windshield, their black legs crumpled and sliding down. She was really ready to go.
The bus driver, though, he was dedicated. He wanted a commitment.
“I have a husband!” she yelled, crossing her arms meanly. “Hey, let me off!”
“It’s your first day!” she said, and moved to the back of the bus. She looked out the side windows, watched the road turn from pavement to dirt to pavement again, saw the unfamiliar road signs and ignored them, and then fell asleep. She couldn’t help it. It was very late.
Penny woke up to the calm bus driver’s voice. “Look,” he said, pointing out the right window. The sun was coming up over the horizon, a bright half circle, making the trees golden, lighting her pale skin. She adjusted her eyes, watched the sun move up, move out, lay over the fields with purpose. He had offered her this, had loved her at least this much.
Penny was ready to get off, really. She raised her hand again, raised it for the thousandth time, but now jerked the line. The stiff bell rang. Sadness flooded her heart for that single lonely ding, so trained, so short. Her heart flooded and then she looked out the window
and recognized her neighborhood, the familiar houses, the broken sidewalk, and then she felt nothing at all.
The bus driver’s ears perked at the bell and he stopped. The slim double doors opened. Penny stumbled out of her seat, walked the great distance of the bus aisle, pushed a hand over her hair to smooth it, and walked off. “Have a nice day!” he yelled and she looked back, cooly. She walked, and walked, she circled the block without knowing why, and she thought, as she dragged herself across the neighbor’s lawn, that she had been closer to home than this a million times.