bus drives through city streets with old stone buildings

If this were a Neil Simon play, Myra would soon be turning a corner. Around the corner would be found a sensitive lover. The message of the play would coalesce. Meaning would emerge from the long stretch of emptiness. At first, it would come slowly, like the faint green arriving stealthily on the monotonous brown of a winter landscape, arriving at its fullness in bursts that appeared random but were always predictable. Yes, it would happen—in the play things had to march toward their significance and she, the main character, had to maintain fortitude while working through the difficult scenes.

Just as in a Neil Simon play, the next stage, the fulfillment, would be marked by a pervasive cheerfulness. Everything would be happy, with no serious thoughts permitted. Not that things would not be serious, because, of course they would, but this seriousness would only be hinted at, while their smiles and laughter told each other they knew what things were all about and they had no time left to waste on being sad. They had, after all, both witnessed the death of many things inside themselves and neither wanted any more of that. Life would consist only of Sunday morning scenes, of tumbling together in bed, staying there long after the sex was completed, then sliding relaxed limbs into comfortable robes and reading the Sunday papers slowly.

Yes, she had suffered deaths. She tried to see herself in the window of the bus. It was always dark by the time she rode home, but the pane was smeared now with the city’s winter grit, so the glass reflected poorly. She saw only the dark, hollow circles that were her eyes and the darker frame that was her hair. Her hair was neat this way, pulled back from her face in a kind of ageless office style, a concession to herself because she had striking eyes and this style displayed them well. The stark reflection could not show the early gray that wound itself through the dark hair.

But Myra was aware. It was more and more apparent to her lately that she no longer existed. She resisted this knowledge at first, struggled mightily against it, but in the end had surrendered quietly. The surrender came after the night she had cried for the little girl she used to be, the act of mourning at last firmly taking hold when she had been moved to remember certain things that would now be considered irrelevant, even imaginary, as if reluctant to re-stake their claim in an existence that was clearly so inimical to them, an existence in which these things would never be found again.

As a little girl, she had loved her black patent leather shoes with the bows, had felt the preordained meaning of things when she wore them, a meaning that told her she would be beautiful forever, that people would always admire her. The first people who did always admire her, believe in her, were dead now, both her mother and father, within a short time of each other. There was no longer anyone who saw through her external qualities to the things she carried inside, who knew her value without having to be told.

When she was about seven years old, she had once begged to go outside at midnight in winter. She remembered that night when she stood in the backyard and gazed upward at the winter’s first snowflakes floating silently, effortlessly, in the light of the street lamps, transforming the brown earth into something white that had not existed before. She became filled then with a certainty that remained in some recess of her self for a long time.

She could see her own awareness of her value, how it suffused her in those early pictures, pictures in which she smiled broadly, displaying her big teeth, curls bobbing, eyes shining with unmitigated trust, the few times she had experienced pain or suffering, any genuine steps toward awakening from her private shelter, never having taken hold.

And she had been a promising child, she felt, one worth weeping over. Adolescence and early womanhood continued the same way. She had made her parents proud of her college career, her first job as an associate in a promising marketing firm. The company had appreciated and used all her ideas. For a while, she actually believed the world was benefited by her thoughts on better ways of selling things to Americans. It was also exciting to be young and attractive in a mostly-male environment. Each day she planned “her look”, always abreast of the latest trends in style. Dating any of the men, however, was difficult. Most were married, and even though that did not keep them from attempting to initiate a liaison with her, her own sense of ethics precluded that. The men who were unattached seemed to desire her as a side diversion in their climb to success. Money was their chief concern. She felt there was no one of them for whom she would become the chief concern. That was only fair, she told herself. In college, she had kept her own sights on what she wanted. No one was allowed entry into her carefully packaged dreams. Even those who wanted to marry, who offered love. It was not second prize she wanted, not marriage and a family. Not then, anyway.

When the firm folded because of factors which had nothing to do with her, it was difficult because she was close to becoming vice-president and she was forced to watch herself falling down the ladder she had worked so hard to climb. Finding another position did not take long, but the feel of the new place was not the same. There were more women there, some already younger than she was. In some ways, they had not the same scruples she had. Her work was not as readily noticed. The game no longer seemed one of intelligence and imagination, but one of daring, of risk-taking that seemed unwise to her conservative nature. So she did not remain in that position long, found one in what she believed to be a more reputable company, the one where she had worked for the last fifteen years. The place was reliable and steady, had been on the scene a long time. She never felt insecure. She even married one of the men who worked in the company, although the marriage did not last long, and she was glad to be out of it before things became embarrassing.

She was not sure when things at work had changed, when they had become less of a promise, then no promise at all, at what point tasks were transformed from things whose end results, although unknown, foreshadowed excitement and the certain anticipation of good, into no more than the requirements for earning a living.

The little girl, so confident and full of hope…a hope that would last through the short life of a marriage she did not understand, a marriage in which she had no answer when her husband asked her what she wanted, knew only her mistake in ever thinking it was he, with his demands for her attention, his needs that interfered with her own…a hope that would last through further waiting, a further search for meaning in her work, her profession, other people’s children, all of which were finally disappointments…the little girl was dead now. Myra had entered upon middle age and she no longer bothered to hope. Somewhere behind her in the span of years that had turned gradually from bright color into gray, this loss of hope had taken on a companion. She had fallen into the habit of loneliness and self-pity.

This falling into loneliness had also happened effortlessly, imperceptibly. Her few friends drifted away, or else she drove them away, she could not be sure which, probably because of unwillingness or lack of energy to become concerned for their pains and a pressing need to contemplate only her own. And of course she had surrendered, given in to the nagging suspicion that had at last won out—the suspicion that there was nothing further that would happen, that the main theme was set and there was left only the playing out of final, preprogrammed scenes.

Why then did she fantasize, bother to think of him, this new “hope”, to envision what he would be, no doubt kind, rough but tender, a “diamond” gentleman in the rough, one who had waited a long time for her complementary gentleness, her sensitivity? Why did she think of the two of them as they appeared on stage for the final scene, speaking lines of resolution, of happiness and fulfillment? Myra could only conclude, with a broken heart, if there was such a thing, and it was a repository for all one’s emotions, that she thought these thoughts to amuse herself, to follow the story of the dead little girl to its consummation. Amusement…even as she knew that the final act would never be played.

But the full taste in that heart was too bitter. She chose not to face it, thought instead of the man who would be the other half of the Neil Simon couple, whether he would have survived his deaths also, silently telling her about them with his eyes as they tended to their small talk, their personal private jokes, their love ministrations to one another. She wondered whether he also wept secretly for himself, if he would tell her of his own long-lost dreams, of early cautious steps that surprised him when successful, of a belief that had been similar to her own, that had made it seem as if time would go on forever, marked only by the movement of ever-renewed energy?

Because he would have, as she had, the same innocent and betrayed past, they would recognize each other instantly, join forces wordlessly, knowing they had finally reached the end point of all previous pain and despair. They would now have each other. Of course, all this would be understood but could not be spoken out loud. The only thing voiced out loud would be the cheerfulness, the dialogue of the Neil Simon play, as in:

She: (laughter and the sound of falling)
He: My God, you’ve fallen out of bed. Let me help you fall back in.

She was even willing to think of this man as different, though still in the Neil Simon style of difference, in which everything turned out all right in the end. He might, then, be guilty of the equivalent of sometimes letting his hair fall into his eyes and his socks down into his shoes, like that boy in the fifth grade who had secretly loved her and spent all those hours trying to convince her that he didn’t, that boy she had ignored, because he came from a Vietnamese immigrant family, seemed different from the other kids, different from herself. This man she would not ignore, even though he might be a “diamond” in the rough, a man just like the bus driver.

It was not possible to think that the bus driver took any special notice of her—she was not stupid—but he did say hello to her in a way that might be stretched into meaning something more than it did for all the other passengers he greeted. It might be thought that his eyes assessed her each day, that he was someone who could see through unimportant things, like her no-longer-youthful figure, into the untouched vista she carried inside. He had the kind of masculinity the play called for. Muscles tightened at the back of his neck. A flexible gold watchband was set into one of his arms, arms on which black hair curled, arms which projected themselves from the sleeves of a shirt which was clean but in need of a good pressing. The man who sat next to her in church on Sundays had hair-covered arms like that, arms which he kept tightly folded in front of himself as he peered from the impenetrable enclosure formed by himself and his wife. She had no enclosure, was always outside, ever conscious of her lack of place, so that now she was not really distracted by those arms but only aware of them, aware in a way which focused her consciousness into a sharp point, a point wherein she first merged, then became one with desires all moving in the same direction, desires for union with someone, desires to be the insider in her own secure enclosure, looking out and perhaps slightly down upon the world from her privileged position as one-half of the attractive and sophisticated, yet somewhat primitive and earthy Neil Simon couple.

She rode this bus every day, once in the morning and once in the evening, her trip to the office and her trip home. It was only in the evening that she saw him however, the driver she had come to identify with power and competence. His name was Hal, she knew, because it was inscribed on a plastic bus company button that he wore on his shirt. He was almost handsome, with heavy eyebrows and a dark mustache that was neither too full nor too thin but settled very naturally against the contours of his cheekbones. His face was faintly marked with the scars of what had probably once been teenage acne but that did not render it unpleasant. Rather, she thought the scars heightened his masculinity. She always sat in the seat directly behind and to the right of him so that she had an unobstructed view. Watching him from the back enabled her to drink in the sight of every muscle, to contemplate the decisive thrusts of leg and arm that controlled this huge vehicle which momentarily controlled all of them.

The trip always began in an ordinary manner, stop and go on the streets of the city. Faces entered the door in the front of the bus and left through the huge double doors in back without much change of expression. Some people read newspapers, some slept, others stared blankly through the windows. These first movements of the bus were without tension, a necessary prelude, a downtime in which the anticipation of stronger sensations helped to bring about their existence. She could feel the slight shift of the passengers in their seats, the building of excitement in herself as the bus slowly left the narrow, congested streets of the city and approached the expressway. Masterfully, Hal, because she thought of him by his first name, guided the bus up the ramp, as if stroking a beloved object. Slowly, gracefully, he weaved past all other vehicles, disturbing none, but sometimes coming so close that the passengers’ collective breath was suspended and they felt a touch where none had occurred.

Finally they reached the summit, left the ramp for the highway and he was free. The bus began to fly with electrifying speed, the attention of every passenger aroused and absorbed in the sensation of new-found life, of departure from the ordinary, of momentary escape. Faster and faster they whirred along, overwhelmed by their own mighty soaring, carried into and through the forgotten parts of themselves, then back again many times, as they passed lesser vehicles, earthbound creatures flapping and honking in anger and jealousy. This climb up the mountain, this voyage into waves which undulated toward an ever-receding, ever-returning, silver-rimmed horizon, was given to them all by this single figure whose sublime movements of acceleration, deceleration, turning and weaving, braking and coasting, contained not a single instance of wasted motion, not a single occurrence of hesitation or doubt. All was a masterpiece of timing, a performance in which they were brought to the pinnacle, then to the sea’s edge, where they became poised, in perfect balance for one exalted moment.

Each time they disembarked from the expressway, she felt exhausted and renewed, filled with a sense of relief and emptiness, as if drained of a poisonous substance. Her adoration of the bus driver was complete and total. For those few moments with him, she had been relieved of knowledge, granted a reprieve from the dreary days that unrolled in her mind as if on a long ribbon stretching into twilight. He had momentarily changed the darkness, as in that winter long ago when night was parted by midnight snow. She felt herself as the little girl again. She felt the possibility of a different closing scene to the play. He could be the perfect Neil Simon character, a wonderful foil to herself—casual in his strength, careless in referring to his competency, forceful in his battles with the world but slow-moving and careful in movements toward her and always, always, imbued with a laughter that filled them both with strength and held despair at bay.

The bus driver always said goodnight to her when she got off the bus at her stop. She always replied politely yet somewhat remotely, as she came back to stark reality and the assurance that her dignity could not be questioned. Tonight she dared for a moment to look at his face, to see if she could perhaps momentarily catch a spark of recognition in his eye.

Their eyes did not meet. He looked past her absentmindedly, as if she were not there, as if there were many things of importance on his mind. In a sudden explosion, the play turned into a movie. Colorless scenes, aborted actions appeared before her eyes—a black and white reel of disjointed figures who moved across the screen in slow motion, hands and faces gesturing surrealistically, registering no emotion, emitting no sound. She saw the days of her recent years. It was the picture of a world wherein nothing mattered, a world wherein nothing of consequence occurred.

At the same time, another reel unfolded, a reel that could not be viewed except in the strange manner of total sensory involvement, a more advanced multi-dimensional viewing. She saw, felt, became immersed in, relived again whatever days there had been that had mattered, the days scattered throughout her life that formed a nucleus, the center of the plot that she was. The little girl in the snow appeared again, but only shortly. The reel skipped over much of what she had long considered important and with sudden brilliant flashes settled on things that she had come to think of as never having happened. The early days of her marriage, those failed, perhaps naive, but valiant efforts, forays into the impermeable wilderness of another person, efforts which occasionally, with unexpected clarity, resulted in a point of contact, communication, momentary but sharp gladness, those days appeared on the screen and with the power of total dimensional viewing, filled her with unbearable longing, a pull toward themselves which she found almost impossible to bear. It was as if her life forces were being condensed and sent toward one point, a point that acted as a magnetic field, was all around her, could not be avoided.

Yet this longing for what had passed was not as strong as the longing toward what could be, the desire for what as yet remained incorporeal but vibrated painfully, incessantly in her, with the desire to become real. She felt herself splitting into two parts. Some part of her knew that in order to take on life again, she must give up the Neil Simon picture and reach for pictures that seemed to be less. She would have to settle for beginnings again, beginnings that would be painful, would force her to see what she would rather not see, what she feared to know. Another part of her knew it was safer to wait, to hold to the Neil Simon dream, even though it could not materialize, would move her more swiftly, surely, into what she also feared, the aloneness that stalked her like an animal hungry for prey.
Secret springs inside herself became poised, waited expectantly. She felt propelled by inner movement as overpowering as the movement of the bus ride. An image appeared before her, an image of herself as a middle-aged woman with graying but real hair, expanding but real flesh, a woman open to the unexpected turns of life, accepting of herself, of whatever stood before her. That woman understood, turned her eyes from shadow, from the stage on which she was unreal, the stage on which self-deception was played. Almost joyfully, she reached toward the image of that woman, longed, as if after a long journey, to embrace her, then stopped. That woman would be only an audience, a spectator, must relinquish, would have no part in the play. So she turned her inner face away, resumed her former role.

She saw the closing of the Neil Simon play, the scene she had lived through so many times in her mind, sometimes changing minor details but always maintaining the main theme of effortless, almost casual fusion with another. She saw the figure of the man who was necessary to the picture, a man like the bus driver. She heard the words of the closing dialogue:

He: (Embracing her) Damn, we should have been doing this a long time ago.
She: (Sighing) Yes, it did take a long time.

The self-knowledge that had begun to settle previously struggled to establish itself more firmly now, became a long continuous boulder which she felt tangibly, a dull raft of pain inside her chest, then turned into flickers of light which appeared and settled lightly, with hesitation. Perhaps the play was never going to happen. From habit, she held the pain in control, held at bay the thought that her closing scene would be after all no different than she had secretly known. She grasped the hand railing firmly and stepped off the bus. With no visible change of pace, with only a slight involuntary shudder of the arms at her sides, arms which almost looked, to a casual observer, as if they were holding the rest of her slight body together, she walked up the street to her home.

Home was halfway up the street in a quiet middle class neighborhood. It was a two-apartment dwelling and she owned it because a long time ago she had realized the stupidity of paying rent to someone else and made the assertive move to be a rent-collector herself. She thought that was probably the last interesting thing she had done. The house was neat but not pretentious, fading quietly into anonymity just as she was. Even the people who lived upstairs were quiet—an elderly retired couple who couldn’t begin to present any kind of problem to anyone. There were no flowers around the lawn or attempt at ornamentation anywhere. She had lost interest in that sort of thing these past few years. An empty concrete geranium pot stood next to the front steps.

She was greeted at the door by the cat who had seemed to know for the past ten years the exact time that she would arrive. She headed for the cupboard where the cat food was stored because he always ate immediately. When the cat was fed and she had changed into her comfortable clothes, she brewed herself a cup of tea and sat at the kitchen table a while, not wanting to think about what to eat for dinner, wanting only to think about him, the bus driver, at least for a short while before the day was over and she would have to sleep in order to begin another one.

She put the evening news on television because that made noise and lent more of a semblance of normality to her existence, made her seem less lonely. The news announcer had the same kind of rugged handsomeness that the bus driver had but his looks were more disciplined, tamed by the addition of a suitcoat and tie and an expensive haircut, the kind that looked as if the hairs were pasted together so none could be out of place. It was an accomplishment, she supposed, to be able to sustain that look of competence. It seemed to her that women who had husbands or lovers who looked like that always acted so smug. She felt herself slipping into her fantasy. The familiar role beckoned again as she thought that her partner, her co-star in the play would be able to switch easily from the garb of casual and intimate informality with her into that of knowledgeable professionalism before the world. She would not be smug, would not exact any penalty from others because of her good fortune but would remain gracious and unselfish. He might tease her sometime:

He: (caressing her warmly) I could not wait to get home today, to leave all those other women.
She: (laughing) I can imagine how difficult that must be for you.

She drew down her bedclothes, realizing suddenly how extremely tired she was. There were only two elements in her evening routine that remained—eating dinner and taking a bath, but she was not hungry tonight and she could take a bath in the morning.

Settling into the warm familiarity of her bed was not as comforting as it usually was. Despite her fatigue, some strange surcharge of energy had taken hold and would not release her tonight. The cat came by and hopped on her bed, wondering why she was in it so early. The sound of his purring mixed with a strange cacophony of other voices and she knew that the movie reel was beginning to play again, this time not bothering at all with the little girl or the young woman, but focusing without hesitation on the sight of the attractive middle-aged woman who emerged momentarily from the surrounding darkness. It was the bright but rapidly fading image of the woman that she was, self-sufficient and independent as it had seemed requisite to be in the world. For some reason, the camera focused on the drawers in her bureau where everything was neat and set into perfect little piles, then cut to her office at work where people had to knock and wait before entering respectfully into its mute neatness, its organization. Finally it rested on her eating dinner at home. No one sat across the table from her. It was unlikely that anyone would.

Darkness descended, covered her eyes, a curtain falling on a stage. She felt a momentary shudder, a movement within, as if parts of herself were shifting places, but the movement brought no relief in its wake.

She knew without doubt, accepted dumbly, the fact that the Neil Simon play was never going to happen.