The way it is
December 30, 1973
Their names were Jim and Brenda.
They sat across from me on the long seats at the back of the bus from Montclair to Fairfield – though they got on in Newark and got off at some point before I did.
Sometimes, when I was late, I found them on the late bus, too.
They were younger than I was, maybe 17 each. They grinned and laughed a lot, and snuggled during the bump ride west up Bloomfield Avenue.
“Where are you going?” I asked them one day, weary of the Yankees losing and reading the rude remarks the newspaper had to make about their games.
Jim looked up, his eyes glowing like green sparklers.
“I work in West Caldwell,” he said, and then he and Brenda giggled as if he had said something funny.
I shook my head showing I didn’t understand.
“Don’t worry,” he said then with exaggerated seriousness. “We’re not crazy. We’re in love.”
I envied them. It was an illness I ached to catch.
“We met here on the bus,” Brenda informed me as the bus passed the Claremont Diner, giving me an urge to taste their famous cheese cake.
The two of them laughed again, hugged, and fell back into their own world once more.
The next day, they spoke to me first and told me they intended to get married in April.
It was still September and because of my own dismal history, I wondered if they would last.
I hoped it would.
Brenda only smiled at my obvious doubt.
Day after day, they came and went. I noticed that Jim always got off first, and that Brenda rode an additional ten blocks in silence, staring out at the trees that by then had started to shed their leaves and at the newly constructed stores stretched out along the side of the road like ranch houses with squat windows and flat roofs, and giant red-lettered signs advertising sales.
During these blocks, I felt the tension in her that she apparently didn’t want to admit.
One day, during this ten block stretch, she spoke to me.
“What do you think of Jim?” she asked.
I looked up from the newspaper, my expression clearly showing my surprise.
Her voice had sounded higher in pitch than usual.
Her question puzzled me. I had always thought of them together. When I separated them in my mind, I was equally surprised how easily it was accomplished. Brenda become somewhat rounded, complete, where Jim seemed less able to stand on his own.
I coughed, and lit a cigarette, and mumbled, “He’s all right, I guess.”
She nodded and turned to look out the windows again, then started to cry. Not for long. She shook them away with a shake of her head and then remained silent as I went back to my newspaper.
“He’s a monster,” she said sudden, and I look over the top of the paper at her. Suddenly the news seemed less controversial than she did.
She slid over to my seat, and whispered, “He beats me.”
I shook my head; this was no business of mine.
I tried to speak but nothing came out.
“And I’m pregnant,” she went on.
I wanted to think she was kidding, but one look told me she was not. Her eyes were serious and her mouth was a tight line that split her face in half, her mouth and jaw showing her as determined, while her eyes and brows looked as if she could collapse into crying again at any moment.
Again, I had nothing I could say.
She sighed and leaned against me, her head on my shoulder.
“What am I going to do?” she asked.
I stared down at the rubber mat on the floor, at its worn history and the cracks of age. I felt a little like that mat.
Then, she was gone, down the aisle, casting several backward glances at me before she slid out the front door to the street.
For the next three days, I took a very late bus I knew the couple would not be on, my boss very far from grateful for my tardiness. When I tried to explain, he frowned and asked what the fuck I was talking about, and told me to get in on time or don’t bother coming in. So on the fourth day, I took the early bus, scared to death of seeing the couple in the back. But when I got there, Jim was there, but not Brenda.
I hesitantly asked him about her. He simply said that she had stayed home.
Something nagged me. I couldn’t help think something was wrong. But I pushed my nose into my newspaper and kept it there.
The next day on the bus, Jim wasn’t there either. But I got a lot of odd looks from the other passengers, who watched me as I walked to my seat. I put my nose in the newspaper again, but didn’t see the article until I was nearly ready to get off.
A girl’s body had been found in the Passaic River. She had been dead for three days. She was pregnant.
Maybe it was her; maybe it wasn’t.
I dropped the paper on the seat and left it there as I made my way towards the door. I felt sick, and I felt responsible for not trying to help Brenda when I had the chance.
Maybe it was all in my mind; maybe the two of them were fine. Maybe they had gone off to get married early.
But I never saw either of them again – and it’s been nearly a month.
I keep hoping I will, but down deep know I won’t.
It’s the way it is.