Bus Prelude and Fugue

I had intended to come home today and write a blog entry about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of things rather than the giving end, but that will wait. I want to tell you about the bus instead.

There is a boy who often rides the 25 home the same time as me, mid-afternoon. Really, there are lots of kids on around that time, but there’s one in particular. He’s maybe thirteen or fourteen, and the moment you see him you somehow know you’ve seen him before. He’s some version of who you once were and maybe who you still are inside sometimes. He walks stiff-legged and barrel-chested in his shorts and tennis shoes, and he can’t help but swing his bag against other passengers’ knees as he lowers it. When more teenagers get on at each school we pass, they look at him narrowly, loath to take the empty seat next to him. Once a group of kids tried to load themselves on at the back door of the bus instead of the front, and he rushed from his seat and lectured them back off to the correct entrance in a voice like a foghorn. But between these occasional polemics and his frequent moves from one seat to another, he stacks two thick volumes of Bach on his lap, flips one open, and then leans forward onto his arms and reads the sheet music. He reads the notes like he’s starved for them. Always. I don’t think he’ll ever get his fill. Sometimes he hums.

This afternoon he was in fine form, switching seats several times within the space of a few stops, the precious Bach cradled in one arm. One moment he sat directly next to me, and then turned and deafeningly informed me that he was going to move to the other side of the bus. I said okay.

A stop or two later a woman and a little blonde boy got on and sat on either side of me. They began having a conversation about how the bus worked: when the bus driver stopped and when he didn’t, when passengers got on and when they didn’t. He spoke in English: young, pointed questions, and she answered them entirely in fast, unself-conscious Spanish. They went gently back and forth and up and down, in complete harmony with one another, as we passed through the dappled sunlight. The bus was quiet except for their conversation, and I was enchanted. I thought that I could write a poem about the music they were making.

I reached into my bag for my journal to make a note and then a loud voice said, “Are you speaking Spanish?” My friend with the Bach had made one more move, to the other side of the woman. She said that she was. “I’m learning Spanish.” He held up his book. “Vientiquatro Preludios y Fugas. It’s my favorite.”

He announced his birthday in Spanish, and then repeated it more slowly and translated to English as if she might not have understood. She nodded patiently. He clearly cared enormously about his pronunciation.

He asked the little boy how old he was, and when he said five, the older boy repeated back, “Cinco!” loud and staccato. The little guy tucked his chin into his neck and giggled with delight: this stranger on the bus knew their secret language.

The boy with the Bach asked the woman where she was from. She told him Mexico. “Oh, I’ve heard Mexicans speak excellent Spanish.” She smiled and pulled the cord for the next stop.

As the bus sung to a halt and she and her little charge stood and moved towards the back door, the three of them called out to each other, more than once, “Adios!” The small voice, the gentle voice, and the rough one all overlapped and found friendly resonances.

When bus doors had closed and the sound had faded and everything had gone back to its hum of regularity, I sat very still but a little bit dizzy and warm, still clutching my journal in one hand.

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