Public transport and mental disorders: familiar strangers
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Public transport and mental disorders: familiar strangers
Familiar strangers is a fictionalized account of one person’s journey mixing their public transport and mental disorders.
Living forty-five minutes from university meant nearly two hours of my day was spent on the road. After shelling out countless dollars on gas, I began senior year at a Lynx bus stop since students rode free of charge. The wait was made slightly more bearable by the various interesting characters who kept me company. While I wanted to initiate small talk, conversing with strangers was never my forte considering the last time I did was many years ago when some Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door asking whether or not I believed in God. After I suggested God believe in himself because self-confidence is the key to success, they walked away and never came back. Since that incident, I have practiced Stranger Danger whenever possible.
To my right was a tall Caucasian man who texted with a speed and proficiency that would shame the Russian militia. He caught me looking and turned his head in my direction. “Hello, I’m warm.” I nodded in agreement as temperatures were indeed slightly above average for being mid-October. “No, no, with a capital double-u,” he said. “I’m Warm, Luke Warm.” What a strange name, I thought, for someone who could have easily been the most attractive guy in his class. About six foot two with biceps the size of a small cantaloupe and a jawline sharp enough to replace kitchen cutlery, his parents clearly did not see this coming when they named him.
Then there was the guy to my left, who looked like Chef Boyardee if he joined a motorcycle gang. A middle-aged man on the husky side wore a black leather vest with a silver chain connecting one belt loop to another as if to prevent himself from losing it. Judging from his relaxed demeanor, he was either high, or his wife just gifted him a brand new mattress, increasing his sleep quality tenfold. I noticed he was wearing sunglasses even though the sun was barely visible. Only when he took them off did I realize it was to hide a stye, which made his right eye all puffy like he had just finished crying.
I started shuffling the foot nearest him in tiny circles to get his attention. Once he turned, I said in a hushed tone, “Remember, a stye is only a letter away from style. Don’t fret; I still think you’re pretty cool.” A part of me instantly died because I actually found him quite intimidating and was praying he wouldn’t punch me in the face for even breathing. Knockoff Dog the Bounty Hunter just gave me a little snarl like a rabid raccoon when you poke its cage with a stick after trapping it. Nonetheless, I avoided eye contact as I stared down at the bus info on my phone, telling me it should have arrived by now. Five minutes pass. Nothing. Ten minutes. Still nothing. Just as it hit the fifteen-minute mark, I heard screeching tires and the whoosh of doors opening. Halle-freakin-lujah.
We were greeted by a mustached Middle Eastern man whose stomach longed for emancipation from beneath the seat belt straps. It jutted out the same way a stress relief ball oozes between fingertips when pressure is applied. “You sure drive slow for someone in charge of a vehicle named after a speedy wild cat,” I said. He told me looks were deceiving and began bragging about how he once had a six-pack. To that, I asked, “Before you drank it all, right?” The bus driver unfastened his seatbelt, so I thought he was trying to get a snack from his back pocket. When he stood up and started cracking his flabby Twinkie fingers, only then did it dawn on me that the only thing he wanted a bite out of was me. I took a few steps back, nearly toppling down the entrance steps. Then overweight Aladdin mumbled “hooligan” under his breath and gave me a head flick, which meant sit down. Not wanting to be a further nuisance, I did as I was told.
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The vehicle was dimly lit and smelled of stale potato chips mixed with body odor. People were scattered throughout in various stages of sleep, some with their cheeks pressed against the glass while others struggled to keep their faces from smashing into the seat ahead. I made myself comfortable in the back, where six seats joined to create one long sitting platform, and the dull roar of vents drowned out anxieties of being in a confined space surrounded by strangers. The body odor potato chip stench began filling my lungs when I noticed a stick figure beneath my window, carved into the metal with its tongue sticking out and two x’s for eyes. Below it read “Life Sucks!” I chuckled. Tell me about it, little buddy.
I was not swayed by the curiosity of knowing who gets on, with each halt garnering only a glance held just long enough to capture the stern expressions of those forced to take public transport. However, about fifteen minutes into the ride, something commanded my attention towards the entrance long before the bus came to a complete stop. My eyes were transfixed on the doors as I eagerly awaited this new passenger. Looking to be in his early to mid-sixties and wearing a camel-colored trench coat, black derbies, and a fedora, the man appeared to have come straight out of a film noir movie. A sharp contrast from the other leisurely dressed bus goers. It wasn’t his attire that captured my attention, though. In his hands was a bouquet of roses held neatly together with white ribbon, it’s petals illuminated bright red by the fluorescent lights above.
He caught me staring, and I quickly turned to face the window, praying he wouldn’t take the seat over. With my forehead pressed against the glass, I followed his footsteps by ear until I heard them come to a stop next to me.
“Hello kind sir, mind if I ask if this seat is taken?”
All feelings of nervousness were whisked away as I turned to two kind blue eyes staring back at me.
“I think she’s single, but surely not for long if you worked your magic with those roses,” I answered.
Prepping for awkward silence, I was surprised when my response was met with genuine laughter. The connection we shared at that moment struck me as rather peculiar, considering the two of us had only known each other for no more than a couple of minutes. He introduced himself as Arthur, and we shook hands. When he finally settled himself, I continued looking at the roses’ reflection in the glass, occasionally faking a prolonged neck stretch to get a better first-hand view. It didn’t take very long for him to figure out what I was doing and satisfy my curiosity.
“These are for my wife. Today marks our twenty-third anniversary. Twenty-three whole years, can you believe that?”
To be completely honest, I couldn’t. It was beyond me that I have been on Earth for the same amount of time; two people who were complete strangers at one point have not only found love but sustained it. I found this to be quite remarkable. Love has always been a topic that perplexed me, both the search for and keeping it. As though the more I try to understand it, the farther it dances away from my grasp. I have come to terms with things happening when they are supposed to, and patience shall remain my best friend until then.
Arthur then asked me to hold the bouquet of roses while he sifted through his pockets. I sat patiently, awaiting whatever it was he had to show me. Moments later, a wallet emerged; the dark walnut-colored leather faded to a light brown in various spots. It wasn’t the wallet itself he wanted me to see, but what was in it. He thumbed to the compartment with a plastic sleeve and pointed to a photograph of a woman in thick-framed glasses wearing a turquoise dress.
“That’s her, that’s my Ariel. Doesn’t she look lovely?”
“Yes, very much so,” I replied.
He carefully removed the photograph from the sleeve and handed it to me in exchange for the roses. I spent a couple of minutes examining the image. Its corners bent from Arthur’s desire to carry his wife with him even though the photo itself was slightly larger than the plastic encasing it. They met in 1990, he said, during his employment at Lowe’s Home Improvement. Arthur told me she came in looking for a washing machine and came out with the phone number of a man who would quickly become her soulmate. They officially tied the knot in 1996, just a year before I was born. And ever since, he has sworn by the power of home appliances to bring lovers together. We both chuckled at this seemingly absurd sentiment.
“Have you felt as though things have become too much? To the point of regretting the decision made many years ago?” I asked.
“Oh, for sure! That’s just what comes with the bundle. Most people indulge so heavily in the good parts that they forget love is often hard work for both parties involved. Nonetheless, there’s a certain fortune that comes with marrying your best friend. There have been countless times we’ve fought over the silliest things; however, we worked through them. For not only our sake but for our relationship’s. From my many years of being in it, I have found that to be what love means. To love another unconditionally, through both the good and not so good bits.”
“Man, you really got lucky. I would give anything to have received even a sliver of your fortune,” I said.
Hearing this, Arthur turned towards me with squinted eyes and let out a deep sigh.
“Well, how about you, do you and your lady not have the best relationship?”
“It’s rather complicated and really depends on the day,” I said. “Some better than others.”
“Please, if it’s not too much of a burden, I would love for you to elaborate. I will try and offer advice, where possible. You can trust me.”
And I did.
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I explained that she entered my life towards the end of my freshman year, during a particularly difficult period when I had not yet grown accustomed to the university setting. For the first time, I knew what it felt like to have my breath taken away. While I thought nothing of it, our bond slowly grew into something much more severe than I had anticipated. We maintained contact for two years until she officially moved in with me during March of this year, amidst the stresses of school and my parents’ recent divorce. Even with these troubles, she was determined to be with me.
“It sounds like you two get along pretty well,” Arthur said.
“You’re right; it was relatively smooth sailing at the beginning as we figured out how to live with each other. However, things worsened until she controlled every aspect of my life, from interactions with others to my thoughts. Truth be told, I am unsure whether I hang on because I care or because I have grown too tired to alter circumstances.”
“Have you tried talking through things? That often helps,” he suggested.
“I find talking to be rather difficult when I can barely get out a few words without feeling like I’m talking to thin air. More often than not, it ends with me excessively mumbling to myself.”
“I see. Maybe you and . . . say, you never did tell me what her name was.”
Arthur’s question caught me off guard, so I dipped my head, finding comfort in the floor below. He sensed the hesitation and insisted that I didn’t have to tell him if I felt uncomfortable.
“Her name begins with an A and ends with a Y,” I answered.
He was given three chances. His first guess was Abby, to which I shook my head. Next was Ashley, to which I again shook my head. Before the third guess, I noticed his eyes following the scenery outside, signaling his stop was approaching. Arthur apologized and pulled the metallic bell cord, the entire bus screeching to a halt. After tipping his fedora in farewell, he plucked a rose from the bouquet and placed it onto my lap.
“Love in many ways is like this rose,” he said. “Come at it the wrong way, and it pricks you. However, only when you learn to hold it will its beauty be truly appreciated.”
And with this sentiment, Arthur departed. As I sat there looking at the rose between my thighs, its petals glowing bright red from the fluorescents above, I wondered my fate were I to have told him the truth. How would he have reacted if I told him the person I spoke of was actually on that very bus, listening to our entire conversation? I strained my head until my thoughts were no longer thoughts but a growing mass of white noise pressing against my skull from the inside out. Would he have understood, or would he have called me crazy? Crazy. What a simple word that so beautifully captures how I often feel. Life is already difficult enough as it is. And even more so when one is to share it with Anxiety.
Nam Hoang Tran is an emerging writer with work published or is forthcoming in Funny-ish, Montana Mouthful, Star 82 Review, and Bending Genres. His free time is spent outdoors, doing yoga, and discovering new artists on Spotify. He currently lives in Orlando.