U-Turns Are Not Permitted
I used to like driving before I got this job. Back then, driving meant gunning it down long, unbroken roads, with no soul in front or behind as far as you could see. And damn, how far you could see back then. Day was when you could drive a pick-up truck straight down the middle of California and see across the sun-baked fields all the way to the Sierras. Their snow capped peaks poked out of the clouds like new teeth through a baby’s gum.
Now driving isn’t driving anymore, not with my job. I never pictured myself as a divorced fifty-something woman working as a bus driver, but I guess life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan it. I spend my days steering a vehicle as wide as my ass and as long my working hours through the godforsaken streets of Los Angeles. Stopping and starting at every stoplight, bus stop, and brakelight, it’s just pedal and brake, pedal and brake— all the way from Downtown to Santa Monica and back. The sameness would drive me crazy if it weren’t for the people— those carless Angelenos. Looking back at them through my rearview mirror is like watching a bad nature documentary of some wild species. Unshaven loonies hollering at the empty seat next to them, mean old ladies sticking out their canes to trip disrespectful youths, young housekeepers gabbing away in Spanish or some other language I don’t recognize all the while balancing sleeping babes on their shoulders— I’ve seen ‘em all. I may chug through the same smoggy lanes, but it’s a different job every day. Whether I’m radioing in, counting change or yelling at some low-riding-jeans-wearing punks in the back for lighting up a cigarette on my bus, this job takes more energy out of me than I ever thought I had. By the end of my shift, I have wrenched my neck from so much looking back and forth to see what’s ahead on the road and who’s causing trouble in the seats behind me that I can’t hardly move it. I’m so stiff that just moving an inch feels like trying to twist off the top of a stubborn jar. I get so drained that when I go home I just knock out on my couch before I can even turn on the TV, let alone pull a beer out of the fridge.
And I don’t go driving anymore.
But I’m not complaining. At least I have a job. It’s not a bad one after all. It’s union, and I’ve got benefits. That’s more than my ex-husband can say for himself. Last I heard he was working on and off as a mechanic, but he can’t keep a job these days.
The other day, this guy who I swear looks exactly like him climbs on to my bus. Same stringy hair, with a squeaky bright bald patch peaking out. Same square shoulders, heavy build. Once upon a time I took that solid look of his to mean he’d be in it for the long haul. I thought he was just like the first car he drove me in, a battered white Chevy, ready to weather the long drive ahead. I should have taken that flashy red ‘74 Camaro he bought just after we married as a sign. Still, I never thought he would up and leave me. No, I didn’t suspect a thing ‘til he was already off the exit ramp and out of my life.
Well, this guy turned to me and said, Honey, I forgot a dollar, can I have a break just this one time?
No, I snapped, No, you can’t have a break. It’s a dollar or you get off the bus.
Okay, okay, Honey no need to get testy. He fished out a dollar from deep down in his pocket and inserted it into the machine.
I’m not your Honey, I told him. I didn’t wait for him to sit down. I just stomped on the gas and pulled away before he had time to sit down, and I watched him stumble into a seat from my extra-wide rearview mirror.
He kept his eyes trained on the ground, so I couldn’t get a good look at his face. There was no way it could really be him. Joey would never stoop to taking a bus, not when his cars had always been the shining pride of his existence. Maybe that’s why he had never wanted kids— he and his cars were all he needed. He lovingly waxed them and fine tuned their insides, replacing all the rusty parts and fixing them up all shiny and new. How they hummed under his touch! He whistled while working underneath them, and the way he would gaze at them, well, I used to think he reserved that look only for me. By the end of it all, I had ground my teeth down to stubs from biting back the ferocious hatred I possessed for those cars. In my fantasies I keyed that polished red paint, sliced gashes in their tires, and shattered their windows with a sledgehammer.
Then he left me, and took his cars with him.
Ma called me up the other day to ask me how to fix her voicemail box and while she was on the phone she asked me why I never had any kids with Joey. He was a no-good rotten son-of-a-bitch, she said, and she had known it from the start. But at least I could’ve had some kids with him while there was still time. Kids are just punks these days, I said, I’m glad I never had to put up with some snotty rugrats. And then I changed the subject.
I’m turning onto Wilshire, when a skyscraper towering above me reflects the sunlight, blinding me. I brake cautiously, letting the angry swarms of cars swerve around me as I regain my sight. I am still trying to look in my mirror to get a glimpse of this man’s face as I inch through this ugly traffic jam.
It can’t be him. He looks up at the mirror, and my eyes are watering in the sunlight, so most of his face is in shadow. But there’s something like a glint of youth in his bloodshot, yellowing eyes that just takes me back. Back to long road trips straight through the heart of California to visit his folks up North. Our joyrides were just that— hearts popping out of our chests as the friction on our tires and the heat of our bodies drove us crazy with arousal. We would break the speedometer down the long deserted strips and howl like monkeys set loose from our cages. It didn’t matter if we smoked cigarettes and chucked 'em out the window, or flipped off other drivers in our way, all we saw and all we needed was the long open road— and each other. I would talk about us having a baby someday and he would tell me just to slow down there, Linda, aren’t things moving a little too fast? I would say, things can never move too fast, and he would reply, yeah but that’s on the road, not in life. And I didn’t listen because I knew they were one and the same.
Now I’m heading into the heart of Downtown, and it’s almost like I can feel the shadows of the tall glass closing in on me as I sputter along. It’s the peak of rush hour and the air is clogged with so much haze than I can barely see the brakelights of the car in front of me. I can only glance behind me, to see my odd collection of folks. Aside from the man, there’s a plump girl no more than fifteen with a stroller, a bearded old hippie wearing a Grateful Dead shirt stretched tight over his round belly, and a studious kid with his nose stuck in a history textbook and headphones jammed into his ear sockets. Some days I want to call in sick and just light out of this city, find somewhere remote where I can thrust down on the pedal like I used to and maybe feel what it’s like just one more time before I end it all. But then I remember these people and their faces. Faces with creases that remind me of winding mountain highways. Sometimes the light catches their teeth when they smile like highbeams bouncing off a flare in the road and through the dark I see a momentary flash of something— maybe happiness, even.
The man tugs down the taut string to trigger to the “stop requested” sign to light up. I pull in at the next stop, and he swaggers up to the front, instead of exiting out the back like he’s supposed to. I crane my neck around to get a good look at him.
He looks me in the eye and there’s a twinkle there that never fades. He says, Thank you Ma’am.
Then he winks.