Michael screams as I try to take the Mars bar from him.
” – You can’t take that with you in class. It’s not allowed.”
All the arguments – I run through them like a machine. A tired machine. And then I think about choking mum. And not inviting her for Christmas. Or both.
“Michael – come here. Right now!”
But off he runs, his 5-year old-feet tapping along the sweltering pavement. In the wrong direction.
“Emma – stay here. I’ll be right back.”
So I leave my oldest daughter, staring dumbfounded after her mother, chasing after her little brother. Oh, well, she’ll only have to stay there, at the bus stop and take care of herself and be the butt of jokes from the other children, who have some good reason for taking the bus, instead of our reason which is that Jon couldn’t fix the car “in a jiff” like he said he would last night after I threw something at him. I don’t remember what it was, I think it was heavy enough, though, to make an impression.
“You hear me – stay there, Emma. – Michael!”
I imagine I can hear the snickering of the other kids. I imagine I can feel the eyes of the older lady, who’s there waiting, too, and who has already judged me in a hundred different ways. I imagine that Emma’ll deal with all this, no problem, and stay safe till I get Michael. Emma’s eight. She can handle it, big girl.
“Michael – goddammit. Come here, or I swear, you’ll never have chocolate again.”
I finally catch him in the sleeve, two seconds before some truck lunches from the hidden nothingness behind that corner: the places we usually don’t think about until it’s too late.
The driver honks, Michael screams, I scream. It’s a cacophony. It would be funny if only I didn’t feel like crying.
I wonder if it was wrong to invite mum down from Bakersfield, or if it was wrong of me to throw that glass jar (yes, now I remember what it was) at Jon? Or if it was wrong of me to let Michael see it. I only threw it on the floor, after all. Not at him. But inside it felt like I threw it at him – my husband. Could my son, somehow see that? Is he just as smart as all the other kids, who begin to hate their parents at an early age, having seen through them – seen that there’s nothing there but fear, terror, helplessness?
Thoughts race, while I race back to catch the bus. Emma dutifully waits. The traffic of East 48th drones by, ignorant; people with real jobs, real directions. Perhaps somebody smiles mockingly. Perhaps no one notices. We catch the bus, in the last second. Michael is crying loudly, impossible to ignore.
Emma grabs my hand. But I feel guilty. I should grab her hand, feel in control.
But control left me years ago when I thought Jon saved me from myself. When I thought children were the blessing of all blessings. When I thought that I had a right to a new life, and finally somebody noticed.
The sun blazes, Yuma burns. I burn. We go by bus. I deposit my children at their school. I wait for another bus to take me away from the school again – to work. I wait while I burn.
And then I notice her: the dark-haired 40-something lady who was also waiting for the bus when I ran after Michael. She took the bus with us, sitting just a few seats behind … Why is she here – at the school stop? Why is she the only one here?
“Finally free?” she asks when I come back out from the schoolyard.
Direct, isn’t she? What the hell …
I push my sunglasses all the way up, so I can catch her eye. I’m not going to hide from anyone. And there are five minutes until the next bus and on to work.
“Are you waiting to change busses?” I ask.
“Yes, but I’m in no hurry,” she answers. Still friendly. Oh, so friendly …
“I am,” I say. “I am going to work.”
“So am I. Tonight. Right now I’m just going downtown to shop a bit.”
“Uh-huh … “
“Not feeling up to conversation, eh?” she smiles. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Now I feel strange … and like sitting down on the bus bench. I grab for my water flask in the bag. Where the hell is it … ?
“Listen,” I say while I grab, “I just delivered two monsters – well, only one actually, but it feels like two – to school. So yeah, maybe I don’t feel up to conversation …”
She nods, stares out over the street, squints at the sun.
“I just wanted to say that I … oh, never mind.” She eyes me carefully. ” – It’s idiotic anyway.” She shrugs. “What can I say?”
I look back toward the school grounds. I can hear lots of children. No one screaming. Not yet. A bell rings. My shoulders ease. Michael kind of smiled when the teach took over. But …
“So you’re not going to work until tomorrow, then?” I ask, still fumbling for the flask. I give up. Look up:
“What do you do anyway?” It comes off as kind of rude. Surprise …
But she just smiles again. It’s like she could disarm a whole army with that smile. Somehow it gets to me. She really means well. She’s just awkward … ?
“I am a doctor.” She stretches out her hand. “Charlotte Danner. – Danner Tansley, actually. My dad was a big Virginia Woolf fan. It’s not a certified name, but I kept it in his memory. God, listen to me – I’m really babbling today, aren’t I?”
But she still holds out her hand.
I take her hand, carefully, as if I had grabbed tumbleweed flying in from the Gila bassin, once full of barbed wire. I search for some leftovers, some trap. I find nothing. But her grasp is as ephemeral as those flying wisps, yet with a sinewy, firm strength. How can something be both gentle and iron cast?
“I’m just Carrie Sawyer,” I say, “cleaning lady for the elderly.”
“That where you are going?”
“Sounds like you don’t like it.”
“Sounds about right.”
“Don’t be. What kind of doctor are you? You work at the hospital?”
She shakes her head. “Not here in Yuma. I work abroad – for Doctors Without Borders. Know them?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
She hesitates, on guard. Something flickers in her brown-grey eyes.
The bus comes. I’m relieved.
We board, sit down. The school disappears behind me and I disappear from it, like a wild animal crawling into hiding.
I feel edgy all the way to my seat and wonder if I’m going to break down and cry. Something’s completely off. I’m falling too pieces. And why …
“We all have days like this, don’t we?”
The Danner-woman has chosen the seat next to mine, but on the other side of the aisle. All other passengers are non-distinct grey shapes. Like we’re riding a bus with shadows.
“I … guess we have,” I finally manage to reply, wiping the sweat of my brow.
But I’m going to work. The one thing I don’t need right now. How do I look my chief in the eye? How do I keep up the cheery face, when old man Kensington cracks his racist jokes?
“It’s hard having kids,” she says.
I can’t make out if that’s an observation or a question. If it’s a question it would be stupid, bordering on rude, given the mess she just witnessed at the bus stop. But an observation would be … banal.
I finally get a hold of myself and look more closely at her.
The lines under her eyes and the grey shadows above them indicate a handful more years than forty. But her eyes themselves are alive and sparkling as if they are the source of all life itself. Who is she?
“Where are you going?” I ask, trying to be polite, controlled. Trying not to think of Mr. Kensington.
“To _________ Motel,” she replies. “Been visiting my aunt. Really.”
“Here in Yuma?”
“Really. There are other aunts in Yuma, right?”
A mischievous smile, as if she knows she got me. Or maybe just a doctor knowing that her patient is improving.
I lean a bit more back into the hard bus seat and try to think of good things. Like Mr. Kensington visiting his grandchildren today. I think they live in Nebraska.
“So – ” I say, gazing at some point between the ceiling of the creaking bus and the dusty Yuma-scape passing by outside the window ” – it’s a family visit and then back to doctoring?”
“I don’t want to sound rude, Mrs. Danner – “
” – Miss.”
We chit-chat a bit. About the traffic. Weather. Stuff. But then I can’t keep it back any longer:
“Look – I might as well be honest – ” I take a deep breath and then let it out while I look/don’t look at her ” – and honesty is that I’ve only had one good conversation with a stranger on a bus for the last five years and I don’t think today is the one when I’m having another.”
I end that sentence with the look. At her. The ‘get it’-look. That look I hate when it comes to me. But it’s a powerful way to look. At others.
“I think you may be right,” she says, but matter-of-factly, as if the renewed hostility in my tone (why couldn’t keep it down? – I felt I could) doesn’t matter. Like she has seen it all before:
“I’m sorry for bothering you. I guess I just felt a bit, I don’t know … “
She trails off. Looks out her window.
The bus lumbers on, like a groggy rhino. Traffic thickens. Rush hour at its deadliest.
We sit in silence for the next many minutes. I’m approaching Kensington Station and my stomach churns. Maybe I can get to clean the basement today? So much for the money that went into law school. About the same amount that went out through that needle, I pushed into my arm for so many years.
I glance at her – the Danner-lady. She looks … sad somehow.
“I’m sorry,” I then say and feel like I have to clear a stone out of my throat: “I’m just sorry. About all of it.”
I dunno if I say it to myself or her or both.
Another woman, 60-ish, on the seat in front of me turns and eyes me like I was a convict she is not certain she recognizes. Then she turns back to her knitting.
“It’s all right,” Charlotte says. “I understand. Children can be the worst test – but still – ” she looks at me directly now, something warm and embracing in her eyes ” – they are the miracles of our lives, right?”
“You have some?”
She shakes her head. Something in me sours.
“Any small children in the closest family?”
” … No.”
Something in me sours again. Like old food, I thought I had thrown out, but I only put it someplace to be forgotten for a while. Then I find it again and it smells worse:
“Okay, but even so I guess you don’t know what the hell you are talking about, do you, doctor Danner?”
I see the next stop and get up from my seat in one fluid, perfectly aggressive movement – like a snake slithering toward its next prey. Then I look down at Not-Mrs.-Danner:
“I’m getting off here, ” I say and hate every word and myself: “Sorry for being a bitch. I guess I can’t help it, but not all of us have perfect lives.”
Something glistens in her eye. I don’t know if its a dying sparkle of the blazing sun outside the dusty bus window, or something that glistens for other reasons. Perhaps reasons to do with delivering children that do not breathe and feeling lonely enough to talk to strange women who are a little better than weeds …
“I wanted to have children so badly …”
It comes out almost like a whisper.
She is looking me straight in the eye for the briefest of moments, then her head slumps a bit. She looks away, continues:
“We tried for eight years. Nothing could be done. I had depression. My husband got tired of it and left.”
Then she hesitates – looks at me again – sees how dumbfounded I am, that I have nothing to say. Then it is as if she makes a decision.
She stands up quickly, walks down the aisle, and exits from the center door of the bus, just before the rhino lumbers on again.
I want to follow. I want to talk. To apologize. To explain that maybe I am also depressed. Maybe the pills I’m taking to keep it a bay aren’t working. Maybe there are all sorts of reasons I just broke her heart when she tried to be kind to me. Which is the story of my life and I wish I could change it, but it never – never – changes.
Including the fact that I’m a coward and sit in the bus until the next stop – but then run back towards the nursing home and don’t even look for her, because I’m afraid they’ll kick me out if I’m late again.
I only stop once. When somebody yells at me:
“Hey, lady – you forgot your purse!”
It’s a young guy, with pimples instead of a face, and he looks embarrassed by just looking at me. He stands at the bus stop where he got off same time as me. He waves at me, and the waving gets timider and timider as I turn back and walk towards him and try to grasp what he just said, and try not to look too much at him, in order not to make him more embarrassed and my heart feels like a knotted fist.
Then I get it:
“It’s … it’s not my purse … ” I say.
“Must be that other lady’s, then – the one you talked to,” the young guy says and pushes the purse into my hand without explanation. Then he is gone.
Somehow Charlotte Danner Tansley won’t go away so easily.
We’re home and it’s late and peace has caught me after all. In a few brittle moments, but nevertheless. I cherish them even so. For their fragility. For the time I can just sit here in front of the computer and let YouTube videos run and try to think that it was okay that Jon had to put Emma and Michael to sleep for the nth time this week. He was as dead-tired as I was, but what do we do? Have a lottery?
Why can’t my husband just say he doesn’t care? Even when he has had to follow another con to another transfer up in Flagstaff and listen to this creep’s insults throughout another blazing day on the highway.
Life as a cop kills you, but not in the ways you think.
I tap another video and it runs. It’s my junk and I know it.
Then I look at the purse again.
It’s small, brownish. Leather. Some kind of African pattern (I guess) on the front.
I have already opened it more times than I care to. I want to again.
If she only had left an address. But no. She wouldn’t just make it easy. Perhaps it’s some kind of refined revenge. But she would have to know me better than that, right? To know what ticked me off.
To know what I would not stop doing, once I saw that I had no choice because that is who I am. When all is said and done.
But a stranger can’t know another stranger so well. That’s impossible.
No address. Damn her.
Just that pic. Some lipstick. Old receipts. A gasoline card. Small mirror. That’s it.
That and that pic.
Lying there at the bottom, like a nugget of gold in a mess that could as well have been my life.
I take it up again and look closely. It looks back at me:
Charlotte is there, in some village. Africa. She’s in a medic’s uniform – or what goes for it in the bush. She is holding a boy, perhaps eight years old or so. He only has one arm, the other is bandaged but it is clear that half of it is missing. She holds him in her arms. He clings to her, with all the strength he has in that arm he has left. She smiles at the world on the other side of the camera: That sad, strained smile, I saw on the bus. Yet also a smile of hope and infinite patience, like she could carry that boy forever.
And maybe – just an infinitesimally small maybe – it is also a pic that’s one of the most personal things she had – for some reason. Why else carry it with her like this, so close, instead of leaving it in a drawer or on some hard drive?
It’s a real photo – developed on that glossy paper they used to use all the time. Not a photo copy. Not a print-out. Real. Like in the old times, say, 10 or 15 years ago. Like the last picture I had from my life on Skye from the summer of ’94 – the one where Siné Munroe and I stand with our backs to the autumn-red sea down at Armadale and hold out the camera and hope it will catch us like we hope this will not be the good-bye that would last the 16 years it actually did.
So it was Charlotte’s pic that did it to me. It made me do it.
Made me excuse myself with that same old excuse to my husband and feel bad about it, but it was only a little sting and it was quickly over. Once I had closed the door … once I had distracted myself for the usual 20-30 minutes with videos of nothing and email and status updates.
Then I knew I had to find her.
Say I was sorry.
And … find out if it was just an accident that I sit here with her and the child she never had.
It can only be an accident. There is no other reasonable way to think about it.
And yet …
On the back of the photo, some words in handwriting (hers?):
… It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you ….
No. It has to be an accident. I’m just being hysterical about it, because I feel like a pit inside – for unknowableth time in my life.
I want to find her. I have to.
But despite several hours of frantic search on the web, I never find Charlotte Danner Tansley. No Facebook page. No NGO. No clinic – nothing.
It is as if she never existed. Or doesn’t want to …
So all I have is what she left me, for her own reasons which I will never understand. If they were reasons at all.
I only discover that I have fallen asleep by the laptop, when Michael wakes me up, because he can’t sleep and has braved the stairs in the dark to come down and look for his mother.