by Kelly Babcock
It was on the bus heading home after work on a Friday evening that it happened. Epiphany was the word he'd heard others use. He thought it sounded inadequate.
It hadn't started out well. He had left work at four-thirty, as he always did. Slopping through the damp chill of a sunless November day to the bus stop, he saw leaves scattered on the ground, saw them because he could not raise his head, could not look in the eyes the denizens of this chilly town.
One cluster of leaves had hidden a pothole, full of cold water, two inches deeper than the top of his shoe. He found it accidentally.
On the bus, he sat in an aisle seat, three from the back. Only five others were on the bus, one had gotten on at his stop in front of him. From his seat he could see the wet sloshed track he'd left with his squishy left foot. The woman who'd entered with him had sat in the seat across the aisle. She was pretty. Dressed in red. Shorter, curly black hair. No, not curly, wavy. He'd seen her every day for nearly two years.
She turned and caught him looking at her. He looked away quickly, guiltily, out the window so that he wasn't there on the bus. “Nope. Not here at all, see, I'm not here, you were imagining I was looking at you.” he thought. Then he felt foolish and returned his gaze to the one legged footprint trail that led to his seat. She followed his look, tracked the footprints to their row, to his seat, saw the darkened wet brown suede, smiled, not intentionally mean, but then felt guilty in her turn.
He saw all this out of the corner of his eye. No, not true, he was looking at her again. He shook his head, more to himself than to anyone watching him, dropped his chin to his chest, closed his eyes and began to count stops by the motion of the bus.
One stop. The bus would fill up as they got further into town. Then there would be others to distract the woman from his presence. She'd have someone else to interact with, someone to save her the trouble of having to be company, silent or otherwise, to someone like him. Someone like him, so … what was he? Grey.
He had a tiny apartment on the south side, and worked in a baffled cubicle on the east side. So far out of town that there were stop signs on the corners, no traffic lights. He was nowhere, going nowhere, coming from nowhere.
Well, again, not true. He had been a big splash in a little school back in his home town, a place that had only two traffic lights itself to boast of. Had he stayed there he would have been a big fish in a little pond, or at least a bigger fish in a little pond. Now he was a minnow in the ocean. Starting out in an office he quickly found he was not predatory enough to cruise the cool still office pools of the corporate river. He soon found himself swimming the cubicle rapids.
The door hissed closed, the bus lurched, two stops. There were eleven more til they turned the corner. Thirteen from work to the centre of town. Thirteen, unlucky? When he left home he had been confident, made his own luck, now he was pulled around by the current.
“That must be awfully cold?” said the lady in red, indicating his soaked foot as he looked up to see who she might have been talking to. It was him. “I'll be okay,” he said, trying not to sound surprised but stammering all the same, “only fifteen minutes from home.” He looked away, calm on the outside, raging inside. “Stupid, Stupid, STUPID!” he berated himself. Why hadn't he said yes, yes it is cold. Why hadn't he talked to her.
She had never talked to him before. He had thought he would like to talk to her the first day he'd seen her. But he was new and thought “Lots of time, places to go first.” Within two months his spirit was dashed and he struggled to just ride the bus, to just be.
For a while his mind replayed the days, weeks, months, that first year, and now almost another whole year gone by. Losses, small successes and larger failures. Nothing spectacular, mind you, but never seeming to be on top of everything. There were others who had all the strings in their hands and pulled on them deftly. They would always catch the deals he tried to make and keep them from going down in flames, but that just made them look good and him look like he needed more time to learn.
Why was he doing this? What was here for him? If he went home, there would be one admission of failure, one brief job search in his little hometown, and then he'd be on the rise. Like he should have been. It wasn't that jobs back home were lesser situations, it was just that back home things moved at a slower, saner pace.
He stopped his minds meandering and thought … “Why? Why didn't he do just that?” He would be embarrassed to return with this perception of failure in his pocket, but he could spin it as education, make it valuable on his CV.
He looked around, the bus had filled, they were one stop from the centre of town, he'd lost count. And things looked brighter. There was less greyness to the day. He flexed his wet foot in the wet shoe. Even it felt warmer.
Home, he suddenly knew he was going home. Everything was at home. He was going.
He'd make arrangements tonight, grab a Greyhound tomorrow, be in his old bed by tomorrow night. There'd be no reason to return here except to clean out his desk on Monday, put a few things into boxes, into a borrowed pick-up.
Epiphany? The word wasn't nearly good enough. The bus rounded the corner onto main to head south toward the apartment he couldn't bring himself to call home anymore. As the rumbling coach rounded the corner, the sun broke through clouds and washed into the bus from over the buildings on his right. Everything lit up, the sun trying to make up for the lack of perfection in that sad old word. “Epihany, epiphany … ” The decision, based on the realization that he had always been free, deserved that sudden, warm, glowing, fluid light. He glanced around the bus at everyone chattering and smiling, laughing. Had they always been here? Always been this happy? The lady in red was talking across the aisle to the blond woman in front of him. She looked at him as she finished her sentence. She stopped speaking then, and still looking at him, she smiled. He thought to smile back, but discovered he already was.
She looked down at his foot again and he felt the cold returning in his embarrassment, but then she looked back up at him and she was still smiling warmly, and then she was talking to him again.
“ … know if this would interest you, but I've seen you here on the bus for some time now and, well, a bunch of us go to the bowling alley on Friday nights and we're short one this week –” The blond cut in then, “Belle! You're making up excuses. We're short every week. Just ask him.”
Belle's cheeks caught fire in the beautiful sunlight coming through the windows, and her eyes twinkled as she resumed her interrupted speech, “– well, anyway, I was wondering if you'd ever bowled? No wait, that doesn't matter, I was wondering if you'd like to go bowling. We usually eat there, we just go home and change quick and meet up and it's such fun … you're grinning, you're laughing at me, I'm rambling.” She was still blushing but harder now.
He wasn't laughing at her. He was still smiling, but his mouth was open. He spoke then, expecting to still be stammering, but the words came out like he was the boy wonder that had moved here just 23 months ago.
He said, “You know, I seem to have stepped in a puddle, and my foot is actually quite cold. If there's time I'll need to go home and change into dry socks and find some other footwear. But in all honesty, Belle … it is Belle, yes? In all honesty, I haven't been bowling in over two years and I think it really is time I got back at it, don't you?
He hadn't noticed that he'd called his tiny apartment home.
Belle smiled and said, “What's your name?” ...