First Love: Poem
Let's fall in love
Why shouldn't we fall in love?
Our hearts are made of it
Let's take a chance
Why be afraid of it?
Give me a kiss to build a dream on
And my imagination will thrive upon that kiss
Sweetheart, I ask no more than this
A kiss to build a dream on
Victor and I
Every weekday at 6:45 am, Victor smoked a cigarette before joining me in the café. At 7 am on cue, I stared down at my coffee, rippling in its cup as he approached the bar stools. Today, however, he did not smell like smoke.
“Visited the family in Reno, they’re doing pretty good. Matt, - remember? – He’s the lawyer. Well he’s got himself a new car, one of those SUVs. He’s gonna’ be giving me his old Camaro real soon,” Victor gloated.
There was a pause, and all I could hear was the clinking of porcelain and the sizzle of hash browns in the café’s adjacent kitchen. But the calm was soon interrupted by the sound of Victor’s hand in his pocket.
Pulling out a tan book the size of a coaster, he continued, “And look Bill, look what I’ve got here! It’s a copy of the Tao te Ching, written by an ancient Chinese philosopher.”
Quivering from his pale hands, Victor shoved the text into my face; I nodded. My first day back at work, and nothing had changed- here I sat on my same vinyl stool, second from the left, facing the window outside. Victor, the driver of Bus 8 to Schurz, had returned from Reno just as haughty as when he left, whether or not ancient Chinese wisdom enlightened him.
“Where ya’ goin’?” he inquired as I swiveled off the stool.
“Didn’t you hear the bell ring? It’s time to load up the buses.” It was the first thing I had said all day.
When I stepped outside, the cold air tickled my nose and the blood in my hands froze midstream. January in Nevada was always the most desolate month of the year. While the animals scurried off into their burrows and clumps of dirt mingled with snow, I dutifully delivered busloads of factory workers to the Lyon Industrial Complex, so they too could sleep walk through their dismal jobs. The ride to Lyon was a straight, monotonous road of 23 miles, during which my passengers and I solemnly gazed through our respective windows. Sometimes my eyes would drift down to the mangled set of windshield wipers in front of me, and I’d wonder why it never rained.
I not only depended on the Citizen Area Transit of Nevada (or CAT, as we called it) for my financial livelihood, but I also relied on it as a means of transportation to my financial livelihood. Not far from my home was a CAT stop- a rusted sign twisted into the ground to denote that civilization couldn’t be further than 20 miles away.
During my first week back from vacation, the walk to the bus stop felt longer than ever. The once majestic scenery now appeared drab. I looked to my right and saw the Cortez mountain range, no longer shining of the same brilliant mauve, for in winter, the sun hid behind its peaks. Further down, sporadic tufts of creosote rustled in the wind. A tumbleweed staggered in front of me - and all I could think was, “Why, why am I still here?” I paused in my tracks, “Why after six years?”
It was a long time to be doing the work that I did. The route never changed, the passengers never changed, my coffee never changed, the café service never changed, and I left home to work here under the assumption that I never would, either. Now I just searched for an opportunity to get out- like a lucrative job opening in Schurz, the gold inheritance to accompany my grandfather’s death- or a reason to stay.
When I stepped into the café the next morning, Victor was thumbing through that little Chinese book. Although damn tired of his antics, I felt powerless in the grasp of habit. I had no choice but to plop down beside him, on the seat second-from-the-left, the tallow-colored stool that for thirty minutes of the day was mine.
The moment I lowered myself Victor heaved a great, philosophical sigh.
“This stuff is deep,” he said, and looked off into the dim horizon.
“You know,” I worked up the courage to interrupt him, “Behind those mountains, the ones you can see out the window… well, there’s an old mining town called Searchlight. It’s where I grew up.”
“That so?” remarked Victor, matter-of-factly.
“Yes,” I told him, “population of 267 until I left. Now it’s 266.”
I glanced over to see that Victor had resumed flipping through his book. He never did have a knack for listening.
In the mornings, my passengers wore thick coal-colored overcoats to blanket them from the draft. They stuffed their hands in their pockets uniformly, and in fact, they were all wearing uniforms underneath. Their collars sometimes poked through the neck of their jackets, and I saw that their work shirts must have been of a deep, oceanic blue. In the afternoons, they assembled in a crooked line to reenter my bus, and there was not a single face that had not been dilapidated by the day’s labor.
Although we never looked each other in the eyes, I could see that my passengers’ cheeks were hollow and sad. The spark of humanity had flown from their faces and all that remained were empty and directionless stares. Rather than turn me to stone, I feared that eye contact would somehow affirm my greatest fear: that I was becoming them, or worse, that I already was.
It was easy to mass together my entire group of commuters, to preconceive for them a generic, singular existence. Sometimes in my mind I’d follow one of the passengers home, only to find that trailing in my thoughts were the synchronized footsteps of all the others. They might as well have been spawned from the same gene splice; no one possessed their own identity. No one except for her.
She first came to me as a flash of orange light flickering past the café window.
“Did you see that?” I asked Victor.
“See what?” he grunted, “There ain’t anything there.”
“Oh, guess it must be my eyes again,” I recoiled, although I knew more than anything that it was real. Although only for a second, there was an elemental brightness in my world, pure, concentrated emotion that would stain my memories for years to come. Like an exploding sun, the propensity of her passing didn’t reach my consciousness until it was too late, until I was already thunderstruck and thrown onto the floor.
I abandoned my coffee and set out to uncover her trail. I found nothing; any glimmer of her existence had by then shivered off into the cold.
“She’s just lost,” I thought, stopping at the back wall of the station, “People like her don’t come here.”
Simultaneously I desperately tried to forget, to shove the entire episode into the back of my head where it would collect dust along with memories of my hometown. Like Searchlight, I knew she couldn’t be far. She was just… obscured. I fell so helplessly into speculation that I didn’t even notice my boss calling me from behind. Realizing that I was headed towards my bus, he sped up and tapped my shoulder. I jumped as if abruptly awoken from a dream.
I could feel my heart thumping in my stomach as he motioned me to his office. “Am I going to be fired?” I thought. I couldn’t lose this job; I wanted to, but I couldn’t.
“Have you noticed any strange behavior in your coworker Victor, lately?” he asked.
I hadn’t. Why?
“Well, we’ve experienced some theft here at the CAT station, and our surveillance cameras recorded Victor walking the grounds last night.”
“Oh,” I nodded gravely.
“Now, I’ve noticed that you two talk a bit, and I’m going to have to question you today for the investigation. Don’s taking over your shift,” he responded.
And so I was interrogated for the next odd hours. About fifteen minutes after being handed my first cup of water, two key-jingling police officers arrived, already clued-in to the previous conversation.
“Mr. Haynes,” one of them turned to me, “What’s this you said about the Camaro?”
I recollected what Victor had told me shortly after Christmas. “His brother gave it to him” I said, and the two men looked at each other.
“Funny,” the heavier officer remarked, “that car was stolen.”
I tried not to jump to conclusions, but, assuming that he was already guilty, I felt cruel and contemptuous for blindly revealing his secret. Although Victor lied like he breathed and dominated our conversations with the sole purpose of self-glorification, he was my social-crutch. One morning alone, I could fare- and had endured it in the past by meddling with jam containers and swishing my coffee incessantly. But after this episode, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be close to Victor again.
The next morning, I ducked behind the café’s window, garishly advertising 99-cent hash browns, and saw him gnawing at his breakfast like a perched bird. I resolved to walk in and apologize, but when I peered at him a second time I saw an impermeable despair welling from his eyes, his fathomless blue eyes staring right back at me. I pushed my back to the glass, breathing erratically. I didn’t know where to go, what to set my gaze on- until I saw the cigarette machine.
“Just what I need,” I thought, although it had been 15 years since I’d last smoked. I also knew that the scent would remind me of Victor, whose company I already missed but couldn’t face. I walked over to the dispenser, dropped in some quarters, and a pack of cigarettes fell into the box below. I grabbed it, and squeezed the container a little until the sides crumpled under my fingers. Looking for a light, I strolled over to the back alleyway of the café. There I saw the cook, scraping at the dried food on his apron while balancing a cigarette in his mouth.
“Do you have a light?” I asked, and without speaking he pulled out a pack of matches. A few ashes fluttered from his cigarette as I lit mine.
“Thanks,” I said back at him, and he resumed counting the bricks on the wall, or whatever else it was that he was doing.
I wrapped my lips tenderly around the cigarette and inhaled. As the smoke crowded the back of my throat I felt livened and free. And then I heard the bell.
I held onto my cigarette for as long as I could before hastily stomping it out in front of my bus. Opening the door, a rush of cold, stale-smelling air greeted me.
“Another day,” I thought, as the passengers began to pool outside of the bus.
I gazed at them anxiously as they began to form the same old line. And then I saw her, a cherub floating in the somber crowd. It was her hair, vibrant carotene locks that wrapped wildly around her shoulders. The tips, fraying brightly from the rest, looked like they had been dipped in fire. She was the one I had seen before.
The factor workers shuffled single-file into the bus, and she was one of them, though she climbed the steps hesitantly. Why? Only breaths away from me, my eyes followed the curve of her upper lip as she spoke.
“Is this the bus that goes to Lyon?” she asked.
I choked, because glass no longer separated us and I couldn’t breath.
“Sir?” she queried me.
“Y..Y..Yes,” I could barely push one word out of my throat.
With that she cozied into a back seat. From the massive rear-view mirror I could see her pulling out a book, although the title was obscured by the smudgy hand-pole in front. Besides, I didn’t want to stare.
Heart still racing, I twisted my key in the accelerator and the engine rumbled.
Avoiding the café the next morning, I hopped into my bus thirty minutes early. Sometime I had decided that I would muster up the nerve to talk to her, and now I could practice, in solitude, what I would say to my new passenger.
Would I call her Ma’m or Miss? She couldn’t have been over 30.
“Ma’m,” I spoke out loud, my voice still raspy with sleep.
“Miss,” I tried it on for size.
“Excuse me, but what brings you to these parts?”
There was no response but the creaks of my driver’s seat. The frigid air made my lips tremble a bit before resounding, “What brings you here?”
That was it. I was going to talk to her. I’d stop her on her trip down the aisle like no one else was around, like now, and I’d talk to her.
When the bell rang I was so nervous, it felt like someone had emptied a tube of Bengay down my stomach; I burned and ached. The throngs of men and women gathered at the door and I cranked it open. A few of the usual drones boarded first, bringing along with them wafts of cool air that clung to their jackets. My stoicism peeled off like old layers of paint.
I saw her, and she shined even more brilliant than yesterday.
This was it. I’d rehearsed but I wasn’t ready. I grunted a bit to get all the gravel out of my voice, because I wanted to sound strong and clear for her.
One step closer.
She’s different than the rest, and now I was too for having seen her. I can’t let this…
Right there. She’s right there. Chunks of metal fall as she puts her fare in the machine. One more nickel.
I look up to the sky for some strength – some angel, and I’m not even religious, and the sky is gray. It’s the first thing in the morning and the heavens are as forlorn as a half-dead stray dog, thirsty and unloved on the street. And I can’t. I don’t say a word.
She passes me.
She passes me by like every other opportunity, ambition, future that I ever hoped to have. I just wasn’t brave enough to live a life any bigger or better than the one I left behind in Searchlight.
I folded open my hands, burying my head deep inside. I slid into the steering wheel and could hear pings of water against the windshield. I looked up and tears slithered down the glass. It was raining.
(c) Aimee Friedland 2007