I watch the bus driving away. If I’m lucky, the next one will be here in fifteen minutes. I’m pissed off because I’m tired and hungry and, well, because I usually get pissed off when trying to get anywhere in this city. This time it’s worse: I actually made a run for it. One should never run if it’s not for one’s life, especially if one runs like me. At least I amused passersby with my thirty metres of tiny steps and my arms flapping around uncontrollably, actions which can only be compared to a chicken’s dance after my grandma chops its head off. As I’m desperately gasping for air, feeling quite pathetic and embarrassed, I promise myself that I’ll stop smoking and start exercising, knowing I won’t do either.
Another pack or a ticket?
Forty-seven seconds later I’m lighting a cigarette. The first one always tastes best. It provides a perfect blend of guilt—because I’m spending money which I don’t have after having finished the last pack way too quickly—and the strange satisfaction of knowing I have nineteen more to go.
I refuse to pay for a bus fare. I tell myself it’s my modest contribution to civil disobedience. Quiet rebellion against the Late, the Expensive, and the Rude. Truth is I’m lousy with money, and my stomach hurts every time I have to part with it. It’s a cultural thing, really— generations have lived and passed through these streets without paying a single dime for public transport. We were told by more sophisticated specimens of the world that it’s a communist thing. A slightly odd notion, since I sprang out of the collapse of that grand vision and was bred in hysterical times when nobody knew what was going on, where the hell they should go, or how to get there. Maybe I was affected by idyllic tales of golden days when life was simple—when everyone had a job, a house, and a car and spent every summer in their holiday home on the coast (unless they were as unenterprising as my father and had to impose on various neighbours) and when we basically lived in a rural paradise. Maybe it’s not that complicated, and we are just a nation of danglers.
Number two is going up in smoke. I’m watching people around me, and yes, I’m judging every single one of them. One man draws my attention more than others. He’s in his late-forties, I guess, losing his hair in the most disgraceful way. Tall and skinny with hollow cheeks and aquiline nose; a slightly disturbing, yellowish complexion; and outdated, thick glasses hiding his tiny, colourless eyes. He is clumsy and awkward with a suit hanging on his bony limbs and his gnarled fingers holding an oversized briefcase and a white plastic bag a bit too tightly. He looks like a paedophile. Really? A paedophile? And what does a paedophile look like? Where do I come up with crap like this? It’s like the time I noticed that risotto tasted like water someone had washed his feet in, a remark which disgusted even the most repellent of my friends, a guy disturbingly fascinated with women’s periods, obsessed with his bowel movements, and who has jerked off to basically everything short of children and animals.
As the man walks over to one of the benches, the plastic bag rustles, and I realize he’s holding a mobile phone close to his ear, talking to someone. The conversation is evidently heated, but he talks quietly, so I have to make a conscious effort to hear what he’s saying.
“Where are you? We agreed to meet … I’m in front of it right now. … Okay. … So when are you coming back? … Okay.”
I can only catch fragments, but I can tell he’s mad.
No, not mad. Disappointed.
“I got you fresh … They’re still warm. What am I supposed to…? You know what, I’m gonna throw it in the trash.”
At this point I feel the sadness in his voice, desperation, and I’m so caught up in grief for this poor, awkward man that I don’t even realize he’s hung up without saying goodbye.
It sounded as if he was talking to his daughter. A grownup and one he probably doesn’t see often, if he sees her at all. He was looking forward to seeing her, bought her something to eat, something she obviously likes. And she stood him up. Without a call or an apology. Am I as cruel to my parents? I avoid them as much as I can. It’s not that I don’t love them. I just can’t stand to be around them often or long.
Did he notice me staring? Was I the closest person around? Maybe I reminded him of his daughter. Whatever it was, he turned around abruptly, and in four quick, decisive steps, he had us standing face to face.
“Take it. I’m not gonna eat it.”
I must have flinched a bit because he took half a step back. He wasn’t intrusive at all, but he disrupted the flood of first-child guilt. And, oh, the sheer horror of a stranger addressing you. A person gets used to some forms of involuntary, and usually unwanted, interactions with fellow commuters. I don’t mind stares or comments from a distance or behind my back—I’ve been yelled and cursed at more times than the ex-prime minister. Old ladies are particularly bad (hell knows no terror like women over fifty), and I’ve taken my share of screaming about windows, seats, morals, and language. Especially in August when their theme song is “Close the window, it’s cold!” Really? You’re one foot in the grave. Draft isn’t your biggest concern. And I suppose the reason that they stopped showering is because soap destroys skin? Everything wrong and evil in this world is either caused by or connected with that D-word. Seems the bloody thing is more dangerous than drunk drivers, the four riders of the apocalypse, Justin Bieber’s oeuvre, happy-triggered turbofolk fans snorting cheap stuff, religious fanatics, and kicking donkeys combined.
The problem is there’s no escaping these people. Mouldy crows overflow the streets as early as six a.m., and their numbers start to decrease only as the sun goes down. Where these rags need to go that is so urgent, even during the rush hour, is still beyond my comprehension. All I know is they wake up at five, and off they go sightseeing from one open market to another. It’s a fucking road trip, really, and I’ve started avoiding the numbers which connect the majority of this city’s grocery shrines. Not even nights are safe anymore due to those who cannot sleep or forget where they should get off.
Little do pensioners on quests for some cabbage and leeks care about those of us with a still-working sense of smell. The tragedy of being the size of a basketball-playing hobbit—implying your face will inevitably be in random, moist, hairy armpits—is lost on them.
If you somehow survive the battle for the window, avoid eye contact with the daily weirdo on duty, and find a seat without having to spill blood for it, there will always be someone demanding you give it to a senior citizen. They hardly ever make the request themselves, opting for leaning on you and staring profoundly. However, there is always a crusader who will bitch out loud about the kids nowadays without respect for anyone. Only if you don’t get the hint will they turn to you. “Did your mother raise you this way?” or “Your father must be really ashamed of you.” Thank you, I will let them know about your concerns. And, believe me, they have a lot more to be embarrassed about than my behavior on a bus. I get up for pregnant women, the disabled, or those over seventy-five. Otherwise, my soft but tiny buttocks are parting with this seat either stiff or cold (reasons may vary, but I bet it would have something to do with Draft) or when we reach my stop. One of the two. Can’t say I care which.
“Take it. I’ve just bought them and they’re still warm.”
Before I have time to think, I’m politely declining his offer. “No, thank you. I’ve just eaten.”
I’ve just eaten? What kind of a lame excuse is that? And why not take it? It’s not like it’s poisonous or infected. Truly, the polite thing would be to accept it, whatever I choose to do with it afterwards.
“Please, take it. I’m not gonna eat it. Would be a waste to throw it away.”
Okay. He offered it again. Now’s the time. You can do it. Say, “Okay,” and, “Thank you.”
“No. Thank you, but no. I’m full.”
What the hell is wrong with me?
People are staring, their eyes like thousands of flesh-eating bugs. The bus is finally here, and I hurry inside, relieved I don’t have to deal with it anymore. I manage to sit down and stay seated without anyone chewing my aorta. Why aren’t we moving? The bus fills up quickly, leaving one seat empty just opposite me. No … It would be impossible.
But, yes, the man walks in and takes it. Jesus. Am I being punished for being a rude person and a lousy daughter? Someone really needs to rethink the whole nine circles.
Somewhere in front, there’s a man frustrated with the schedule, yelling obscenities about the government and screaming at the poor driver who is on time for once. “You fucking useless slugs, taking a break every fifteen minutes. If Tito was still alive, you would all end up cracking rocks. Mesić is to blame, the cunt. Is this what we were fighting for?” What has the president to do with public transport, why do they always have to mention War, and why is it usually spoken in my dialect, prolonging the stereotype of us northerners being uneducated drunks?
Eventually, we get on our way. I stop breathing at some point, concentrating hard on five stops to freedom. The battery on my MP3 player is dead. I feel naked without my music, so I do the most pathetic thing—I pretend to text. Is he watching me? He probably is. Every light is a red one. I’m counting seconds and suppressing the urge to stand up and force open the doors.
Buckets of sweat later, we reach my destination and I run out. Smooth.
The bus is rolling away, and I can’t help it—I turn around just in time to catch a glimpse of the man. Still sitting, eyes glued to the plastic bag of fresh bagels in his lap.
As I walk away, I make firm decisions. I will call my parents more often. Show interest in their lives. Invite them over for a coffee from time to time. Stop upsetting them on purpose. Try to let go of my grudges.
By the time I reach my front door, I will forget all about it.
First published in IWP’s Exchange Collection: Narrative Witness: A Caracas-Sarajevo Collaboration