I glance at the man across the aisle from me. I am used to tourists with glowing skin, in flattering, impeccable clothes, eating ice cream, just so. Walking aimlessly, gently touching merchandise as if blessing it, turning over price tags, assessing their surroundings with satisfaction and entitlement and certainly no sense of urgency. This man seems agitated and sleep-deprived. Harassed, even.
The SNCF, he says loudly into his telephone, is a huge piece of shit.
He already got off the bus once, when I got on. I had to back up and get back down to let him by. He held a hand-rolled cigarette between his index and middle fingers—going out to smoke, I assumed, but then he disappeared. I assumed he lived in Niort and was returning home.
Twenty feet away, in the grass, were gathered several young men and their dogs. There is something new this trip: angry, often drunken young men sitting on the ground, against walls, accompanied by big, contented-looking dogs on leashes. I was at first interested in them and in their dogs. On a regular basis, as if staged, one of the dogs loses its temper and barks furiously at an approaching person or dog that has somehow given offense. It has a grudge. Always, the dog's owner holds it back, just barely. The young men seem thin and hungry and weak. You can see their muscles moving under their grimy skin. Still, somehow they muster the strength to restrain their dogs when necessary.
He returned, and then spent what seemed like a long time standing outside the bus, talking to the driver, his hand-rolled cigarette between his index and middle fingers. Their conversation seemed to be what was keeping the driver from leaving, and I was annoyed and confused. They seemed to be having a discussion about bus routes, the driver to be attempting to put it all into a grand historical context. But what do I know? I couldn't hear much of it. I heard some introductory clauses, "At that time, you see," and "Normally, what happens is that," and "In my opinion
" The driver seemed to be trying to appease the man's frustration, to explain why the world is the way it is, to take him under his wing. It wasn't in his job description, but he did it anyway.
"But what is he doing?" hissed a woman behind me, who had been complaining of being too cold, due to the air conditioning. While the man across the aisle was gone, the driver also tried to assuage her discomfort. She, too, was inconsolable.
Finally the conversation was snapped in two and the man got on the bus.
The driver accompanied him, checking the seats and floor for trash and counting the passengers. Most of the seats were empty. The man stopped and glared at me and said something to the driver about "Madame." I realized there were assigned seats—I'd forgotten—and I'd taken the one he'd been in. What did it matter? There were so many empty seats. It didn't matter to him or to me or to the driver, who shrugged and smiled at me. I said, "I can move if you want." He ignored me and sat on the opposite side.
Now, listening to the man on the phone, I learn what happened: he didn't reserve a place, and the offices where he was supposed to be able to buy a ticket were all closed. He'd left the bus to buy his ticket to Bordeaux, where he had to change buses again. I don’t know where he finally bought it, but having succeeded seemed to bring him no relief. The driver didn’t know anything, he said. None of the drivers know anything. Nobody knows anything. They're filthy beasts, they're a dirty species of whore, they're shitters who make you shit. The driver told him that he drives the buses all over, one day in Portugal, another day in Canada, he never knows where he’ll find himself next. I wonder if I am misunderstanding his French, as this doesn't make sense, that he’d drive a bus in Canada and then return to Europe to drive a bus in Portugal, or to Portugal. It seems outlandish. Maybe the bus driver was exaggerating for effect. Maybe he meant it was as if he drove a bus in Canada one day and in Portugal another.
I could write some stupid story where he and an American tourist make friends on the bus. One of those tempting and insipid unlikely-alliance stories that inevitably disappoint when tension abates, when the mean one is won over and turns out after all to have a caring heart.
Outside, one of the dogs, a German Shepherd, suddenly throws himself into a fit of barking directed across the street. The owner hugs the dog, embraces it, and forces it to sit. Then he forces his own face against the top of the dog's head—you might say he's kissing the dog on top of its head, but he doesn't move from that position, pushing down so hard that the dog lowers his own head and finally lies down on the ground. They are in that pose as the bus pulls away.
As we approach a red light, the man across the aisle, defeated, tucks his knees up against the seat in front of him, leans his head against the window, and closes his eyes. I'm relieved. I don't like him awake. He still has that bent hand-rolled cigarette between his fingers. He didn’t smoke it. His comfort object. Will it fall from his fingers when he is really asleep? Or will there remain that small, reflexive tension in the tiny muscles of his hands, reliving the wrongs of the SNCF, that gigantic piece of shit?
I close my eyes, too, and hope we don't have intersecting dreams.
When you travel, almost everyone you see is someone you will never see again.