Winter. 2012. Newly laid off. I sold my car and bought a bus pass instead so I could take my son to his preschool on the other end of town. It took at least one bus transfer and 45 minutes of travel, if we timed it right. If we were slow getting to the bus stop, or if the bus was running off schedule even by just two minutes — fast or slow, it didn’t matter — everything was thrown off. Sometimes we had to stand in the bus shelter for 20 minutes, waiting. My son was 3 years old, and he carried his ratty blankie with him. Its name is Mo, because that’s what he called it. As soon as he could talk, I asked him what its name was, and he said Mo, and that settled it.
He liked to sit on my lap on the bus, which was fine because then we were only taking up one seat, and he was more likely to be quiet. Some strange people ride the bus to the east side at 6:45 in the morning, and I didn’t want strangers and creeps looking at my son. He still felt like a baby to me, even though he was getting more assertive and learning to have temper tantrums. He didn’t smell like a baby any more. The top of his head had that sweet, greasy-puppy smell of all little boys, like brownie crumbs and sandbox grit mixed together and baked like a mud pie. I loved snuggling him while we rode to his school. He was still sleepy and warm, and I’d feed him pieces of granola bar or fruit while he was wrapped up in his Mo. We pointed at the things outside the bus, especially construction equipment, which he loved the best. He knew the names of all the different kinds of machines. In his picture books, too, he knew the difference between one kind of machine and another, even though they looked the same to me. Mothers of sons end up knowing a lot about backhoes, I think.
He was going to this preschool because his father chose it and it seemed alright to me. It was across a busy street from his father’s house, which was good in case there was an emergency. The teacher was a nice German lady who’d married an American pilot and then separated from him after 20 years and two children because she caught him with another woman. She said that when she found out, she’d thrown a jewelry box through their bedroom window and broken it, and he’d had to fix the window. She still regretted it, she said. She wasn’t sure she wanted to divorce him, though she knew they could no longer be together. In the mornings, because the bus always arrived a few minutes before the school was open, she’d make me coffee and we’d squat on the child-sized stools around the table and talk Scripture while my son played with blocks or the wicker basket full of grimy toy cars. The coffee she made me was not very good, but I liked talking to her, and I admired her commitment to her God. She was welcoming to me, which meant a lot when I felt so gaunt inside. It was winter in Portland and it rained all the time. I was broke and on Food Stamps and taking the bus and turning gray like all the other sad single mothers in the world that ride the bus and try to do their best even though it is goddamn hard to get a leg up when you’re starting so low on the ladder. I wanted to be able to hold my head up and have my son hold his head up too, but inside I was ashamed.
After a cup of coffee spiked with hazelnut creamer, which I despised and never drank otherwise, I went across the busy street and waited for the second bus to come so I could go back to my apartment on the other side of the river. Usually it was raining, but there was a bus shelter to stand in and if I moved around a little bit I wouldn’t get too cold. My coat had very big pockets, so I sometimes brought a paperback. It was hard to ignore the empty tallboys and smashed candy that people left on the bench in the shelter. I saw people drinking beer out of paper bags on the bus, and I was grateful it wasn’t me. Life, at that time, was difficult enough — why be drunk through it, too?
The bus back into town filled up with working people, going to their jobs downtown. They often had wet, combed hair and their bags, even their backpacks, looked very clean and nice. I was rarely aware of my dinginess unless I had to sit next to a woman who had a job, and who dressed nicely so that she could sit at her desk and do her work. I began to notice, almost hungrily, the shoes that people wore to work, and how they were shiny and not worn down on the heels like mine, and how when a person went to work in the morning they took a lot of care with matching their tie and socks, or sometimes their shirt and shoes. I had been laid off in December and my pretty tailored suits and Calvin Klein dresses mocked me from my closet. I looked at women who wore stockings in the morning on the bus to work, even when it was forty degrees and raining sideways. How did people get jobs? I wondered. I had only figured out how to lose them.
I felt very low riding the bus home, because I already missed my son even though I knew the teacher would dote on him and he’d be happy playing with his button-eyed friends at the preschool. When my son was gone, I missed him immediately, even if he’d been driving me crazy or being obstinate. When we were apart I felt like someone had cut me open to rearrange my guts and forgotten to sew me up. Once, I met a man who showed me his chest and his belly and he’d had that kind of surgery, where his ribs and organs were corseted together by these big rubber bands right under his skin. It looked like someone had taken a handful of him and squeezed it, and instead of springing back to its original state his flesh stayed smooshed. This man wanted to sleep with me, but as soon as I saw how what those surgeries had done to him, and understood how many more rib-crackings and band-implants he’d have to go through, I couldn’t even consider it. I felt compassion for him, which was too much like pity, and I was looking for someone who would live longer than me.
Still thinking of my son, I got off the bus at the square downtown where all the bus transfers happen, and I happened to see a man I recognized from an AA meeting. He was Jewish and very traditional. His beard was long and scruffy, he had side-curls, he covered his body in a black wool suit, and he wore a hat at all times. He had trouble staying sober, and when he talked in meetings his freckles flared up and his coal-dark eyes danced around in his face, because he was in pain. He was stuck with the knowledge of his disease. He smiled at me and we stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to exchange a few words. We were both sober that day and congratulated one another on sticking with it. I said I hoped to see him soon, and he said I probably would. Portland is a small town, and once you start crossing paths with someone you start to see them everywhere. It had stopped raining and I was very cozy in my big down coat. My hat covered my hair, which I was growing out because I couldn’t afford a nice haircut. I felt warm inside, and happy for David because he was sober again and giving it a try, and I was grateful for the ways we try and try and try to do something because we really want to get better, and heal. If I had known him better I would have hugged him, but instead, when it was time to go, I stuck out my hand and said, “I’ll see you around.” He smiled at me and shook his head. We both looked at my hand, with its long white fingers and no ring and short unmanicured nails.
“Just my wife,” he said, smiling, and then he got on the train and disappeared.
It took me a moment to understand that he assumed I was a woman. Because of his faith, the only woman David would touch was his wife, and that his choice was to respect her, and to protect the intimacy they have together. This moved me, and instead of taking a second bus I put my hands in my pockets and walked 15 blocks home so that I could think about what had happened. It stirred something up in me that I hadn’t expected to feel.
I called my best friend, who lives in California, and repeated what David had said.
“That’s bullshit,” he said. “Hugs save lives.”
But that didn’t change the way I felt. Later, I told the story to the person I’d just started dating, and already hoped I would one day marry. I watched their face and the soft light in it, and the way they smiled when I told them what had happened.
“Just my wife,” they said. I felt as though a hand had very gently squeezed my heart and was testing to see if it was ripe yet.
They reached across the gearshift and touched my wrist, just where it came out of my shirt sleeve. I thought of all the days we might have together inside the magic circle we’d drawn around ourselves. Even in those early days, I imagined spending my life with this person, knowing that mine was the only body they would touch, and feeling the gravity and respect of that. I imagined how my skin would be for them only and their for me, and how we’d take care of one another with the care of a gardener who tends to a very small but densely planted plot. When they touched my wrist, I forgot that I was poor and worried and unemployed and scared of drinking. I just felt them touching me and I loved them. Their finger covered my pulse.
It was very simple. We smiled at each other. I thought I would die of hope.