“It‘s the coarseness of the world I don’t appreciate. How it passes judgment on me without no never mind for what I seen or where I been or what damn things have been done to me that no one deserved. You follow me?”
The bus lurched, and Sarah jerked back against the plastic-molded seat on which she sat. She looked up from her phone at the man across the aisle from her. Initially, she thought he was talking to himself and had paid no attention to him until his question made it obvious his words were addressed to her. A man with a white beard and long gray-black hair that he had tied behind him with a purple ribbon so that it formed an unruly mane that spread down his back stared back at her. The ponytail exposed ears with visible thin purple and red veins. A broad flat nose and receding hairline, sparsely populated with wild hairs that made their own decisions about what direction they grew, completed the picture. Some lay flat, others twisted, over his reddened scalp; and others stood straight up as if to rebuke the waywardness of their neighbors. He leaned forward, an earnest, inquisitive expression on a face that jutted toward Sarah as he waited for an answer, eyes open wide. Not once did he lower them to give her body the once over, which surprised her, since so many men did.
Sarah dropped her phone onto her lap, before it slid off onto the wet rubber tracks of the bus’s walkway. She flinched, startled after dropping it, anxious and at the interruption. She reached down for her phone and her hand made contact with his, for he beat her to it, and she was surprised at the quickness of his movements. His belly was folded over his belt and ballooned beneath his waist. His pants stretched until she thought the seams might split apart. He handed the phone back to her, two pudgy fingers holding its upper left corner like a teacup at an English garden party.
“I don’t mean nothing by it,” he said to her as she took the phone back. “It was a philosophical question, you understand. You don’t need to give no answer if you don’t want.” He paused, and so did she, unable to think of a reply. The bus swayed as its tires rolled down the slick street, swinging them both back and forth. Outside, snow fell heavily, big flakes mossy and abundant. They were the only passengers aboard.
“I’m Paul,” he announced after she wiped the cover of the phone clean. He did not ask for Sarah’s name in return, though the request was implied. But she did not offer it, nor say anything to him. He appeared uneasy as he considered her refusal to speak.
“I ain’t drunk.” He said sheepishly, which made her imagine a little boy telling a fib to his mother. His words and the sadness reflected in his face, with all its innocence. Sarah found herself warming up to him, despite her fear of strangers.
“I never thought you were.”
He smiled, his teeth stained yellow and brown, his lips pulled tautly upward accentuating his plump, red cheeks, as if this was the happiest moment of his life. Sarah smiled back with less enthusiasm, bemused.
* * *
That morning, over coffee, Steff wasn’t talking to her, still angry over their argument the night before. They sat across from one another at the breakfast counter. Steff hadn’t touched her coffee since she set their two cups on the counter. Her arms were crossed firmly over her chest, and her legs were tightly crossed, her back straight, a posture that suggested she intended to squeeze away any hope of reconciliation, a rigid and unyielding presence. She stared out the window that opened onto their small balcony, from which Sarah could just make out, through the bare branches of oaks and birches, the river, its grey water flowing beneath unseen clouds above. Snow fell steadily, tiny particles that melted as they hot the street, but they did collect on the grass and the trees, as fine as dust. The forecast predicted more snow, falling temperatures and blizzard conditions by the evening.
Sarah did not speak either, waiting for Steff to make the first move because she didn’t know what to say, and feared her words or the tone of her voice would come off wrong, would fail to convey the sorrow she felt, afraid that Steff wouldn’t hear her out, still angry over Sarah’s aloof and cruel remarks from the night before when she refused Steff attempt at seduction. Excuses for what she’d done kept running through Sarah’s head. True, she’d been exhausted, and also true she hadn’t been in the mood. Steff’s persistent flirtatiousness was annoying. All she wanted to do was climb into bed, curl up and go to sleep. But Steff wouldn’t take no for an answer, and Sarah finally had enough, and lashed out, attacking Steff where she was most vulnerable, her looks. Sarah’s patience had abandoned her, and she said what she said without thinking.
Upon waking alone, she recognized her rejection of Steff, the words she used, cut too deep, exposing the fear Steff carried with her every day, though she hid it well beneath that rough façade of I-don’t-give-a-shit-what-you-think-of-me she presented to the world. Sarah knew Steff struggled with feeling undesirable, even unworthy of being loved. Sarah hadn’t meant to trigger Steff that way, but she also knew that’s not how Steff took it. Sarah regretted her words the moment she said them: stupid, bitter, unguarded little things that came out in a moment of unthinking irritation. How she wished she could take them back.
Sarah drank the coffee Steff made them in silence, anger and shame the dipole that kept the two of them apart, as they watched the falling snow. Minutes passed. An unbearable anxiety formed in Sarah’s gut and moved upward through her chest until she felt the pounding of her heart in her ears. So, she spoke first, unable to tolerate that silence a moment longer.
“I hear it’s supposed to do this all day. Ten inches—maybe more.”
Steff raised her cup of coffee (black, unlike Sarah’s with its six creamers) and took a sip. The only evidence of emotion Sarah could see were red streaks, resembling scars, which obscured the whites of Steff’s eyes.
“Yeah, I heard that. It’ll get colder, too. You’d better hurry up and go run your errands before it gets worse out.” She pushed her chair away from the table. “Your hair’s still wet. You took your shower, right?
“Half hour ago.”
“Then the water ought to be hot again. I’ll take mine now, if that’s all right with you.” She emphasized the last phrase, a jab that made Sarah cringe.
Steff pushed her chair away and stood up, then headed to the bathroom, undressing as she went, her bare feet thumping loudly on the hardwood floor.
Sarah finished her coffee in one gulp. It left a sour aftertaste in her mouth. The hair dryer was in the bedroom by the small vanity where she kept her makeup. Her makeup, not Steff’s for Steff never wore any. As hot air from the dryer tossed the strands of her hair every which way, Sarah brushed them vigorously until her scalp hurt.
* * *
Paul continued the conversation as the bus rumbled along, slower than usual because of the snow piling up on the roadway.
“I was a somebody, you know.”
“Really?” Sarah replied to show she was listening. She did her best to say as little as possible. One, because she got the idea he needed an audience, and two, because she didn’t want to tell him anything about herself.
“Oh yes! He said. “It probly don’t seem it the way I look now, but I was important. Had a house in Exeter. You know Exeter?”
“Sure.” Exeter was a gated community along the river west of where Sarah’s apartment building. It was where the new money lived. The homes, though different in scale and layout, looked eerily alike on their five to ten acre plots, all carefully landscaped, many with new trees. Large homes, some rivaling the size of a small museum. Hedges acted as privacy walls, and they all came with long driveways on which luxury cars could be seen sitting alone for days at a time, like metal monuments. Sarah once attended a party at a home in Exeter thrown by a friend from school who married the managing partner of a major law firm located in the City’s financial district. Steff had refused to go. “One look at me and they’ll call the cops,” she said at the time, only half in jest.
“People came every weekend to meet with me,” Paul continued. “The mayor, you know, and members of the city council and … and I held a fund raiser for the governor once. Governor Evans, you know, very bright guy, very friendly. We were pals. Had only good words for my two daughters, my wife …” His voice trailed off.
Evans had been Governor more than a decade earlier. He’d resigned over some financial scandal involving gifts from various companies that did business with the state. There were rumors he had an affair with young female lobbyist. A couple of his aides were convicted, but Evans himself avoided prison. His wife divorced him about a year that, though she’d moved out months earlier. Irreconcilable differences the papers reported.
“What did you do?”
“Me?” Paul hesitated, and seemed confused. “Oh. Well, I was a banker, you know. Really big bank. Well, more a fixer, really. They called me in whenever a deal looked to go south. I knew stuff. How to work out any – damn, what’s the word I want – issues, I guess. I knew how to deal with issues. Knew the right people. Got things done. Fixed ’em. Big Pauly. They all called me that.”
“What happened to you? I mean why are you here on this bus looking like …” Sarah cut herself off, because, after all, it really wasn’t any of her business.
“Like a bum?” Pauly said. “Oh, you know—the usual. Feds. SEC. Damn State Attorney General looking to make a name for himself. Got to have a scapegoat. Someone has to be the fall guy. So, I got picked. Short straw, you know. The bank got a slap on the wrist. Fines. I got ten years in Allentown. You know Allentown?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Not terrible, but still prison. Out after three, but it was all gone by then. Divorced, bankruptcy. My old pals refused to see me. Turd in the punch bowl and all.” He hesitated a second, then said, “Pardon my French.”
“Don’t mean to be crude. Just the way it was.”
“Can I ask what they convicted you of?”
“Does it matter?” he said.
“No. I guess not.”
“You know how sharks is? How you deal with them when they start circling? You throw chum in the water to distract them. Well I was the chum, see?”
“Sure. Got it.”
“I had nothing on nobody. Kept no records of anything. Not of meetings, conversations, money passed, et cetera, et cetera. Had nothing to give the Feds or the AG. Just my word and that was nothing without a record to back it up. I was careless. I got along, you know. Big Pauly. Good old Big Pauly. Kept everything up here.” He tapped his forehead. “That’s the way they wanted it, you know. No paper trail. Nothing recorded. So, when the shit came down—you don’t mind I said shit, do you?”
Sarah shook your head.
“When the shit came down, it was easy to make me out as the rotted apple, you know? My own fault. Too trusting. Thought my pals would come to the rescue. Like I said, stupid.”
“What do you do now?”
“Me? I ain’t got nothing. Great unwashed. Statistic.”
“You have a place to live?”
“Oh yeah. See, this bus here runs all night. I beg downtown from eight to five. Regular hours, like anyone. Heck, less than I used to work. Then I go to the Salvation Army or one of the shelters to eat. Buy a bottle when I can. No bottle tonight, though. Bad day at the office.” He laughed at his own joke.
“You have no one? What about your daughters?”
“With their mother, you know. Don’t see them. Don’t want them to see me, neither. Not like things is now. You know?”
He stopped talking, and looked down at his feet. The hair on top of his head looked greasy, what little there was of it. His beard had little bits of food caught within its maze of bushy curls. Some gravy or soup stains, too. She wondered when he last bathed.
“So, girls are with my ex. California, last I heard—or maybe Arizona? She remarried, you know. Good looker. When we split, knew she’d find someone else. Land on her feet. Not blaming her, you know. I knew when we married what the deal was. Beautiful women don’t marry slobs like Big Pauly less they got a good reason. Miss her sometimes though. She weren’t mean about it, just practical. Miss the girls more. You know?”
* * *
The shower turned off, but the door remained closed. Sarah finished dressing, her face already done. About to walk out the door, about to shout a hopeless goodbye, out of the corner of her eye she spotted the bonsai, the one Steff gave her, sitting alone on a side table in the living room under a grow lamp, the only place where it could be kept warm in the winter. She stopped. Took a step toward it and then another and another, then passed through the kitchen and the dining area into the living room. She stood over it looking at its beauty, so unexpected, so—wondrous.
“The bonsai bloomed!” she shouted. Sarah started yelling, going on about the bonsai’s single big flower, its perfect white petals and perfect fragrance, very subtle—not overpowering but distinctly memorable. Not once in the sixteen months since Steff gave Sarah the little Gardenia jasminoides tree, had it budded, much less flowered.
“What?” Steff shouted back. “I can’t hear what you said!”
Sarah found her standing by the bathroom countertop, stark naked, hands on her hips and looking at her figure as it turned itself within the mirror. The tattoos that covered her back and circled around to her belly glistened from the drops of water clinging to her skin.
“The bonsai bloomed,”said Sarah, this time softer but with the same excitement. “Please, come with me.”
A look of disbelief appeared, but Steff followed Sarah out of the bathroom, her hair still damp, drops dripping from her hips and legs where she hadn’t scrubbed herself dry, her towel wrapped around her shoulders. When they arrived at the bonsai, she didn’t say anything for a full minute.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she said in a murmur. “How bright it is against the darkness of the leaves. I can’t believe it. After so long, I’d given up.”
“When this happen?”
“I don’t know. Last night, I guess. I saw it just as I was about to leave.”
Sarah grabbed Steff’s arms, pulling her around so they stood face to face. Stef was taller by a good six inches and heavier by thirty pounds, all of it muscle, but she didn’t resist.
“Dear one, please forgive me. I was wrong, so very wrong what I said last night. Please, it was a mistake, a stupid, dumb mistake. I was horrible to you. I would do anything to have those words back. Anything. Whatever you ask, I’ll do it. I love you so much, so much, I —”
Steff stopped Sarah from continuing by placing a finger on her lips. Gently, Steff took her hand and wrapped it around Sarah’s neck. She pulled Sarah to her bare shoulder, and Sarah rested her head there, face nuzzling collarbones still damp and cool. The rouge on Sarah’s cheek smeared off onto Steff’s right breast. She lifted Sarah’s head with a finger until they were looking into each other’s eyes. Steff smiled.
“Do you know why I give you beautiful things like the bonsai? It’s because you are beautiful. And beautiful needs to be surrounded by beautiful.”
Sarah started to shake her head, but Steff interrupted the movement with her strong hands.
“Don’t argue,” she said in a voice without any anger in it, only the low raspy tone that first attracted Sarah to her. Her cigarette voice she called it once. “You’re precious to me, okay?”
“Okay.”Sarah let herself be led her to the bedroom. Once inside, Steff tossed Sarah on the bed and then slowly removed all of her clothes, piece by piece.
“What errands? You don’t have no stinking errands,”Both laughed and giggled, and did other things until the morning wore away and the afternoon as well. Meanwhile, snowflakes fell ever faster outside the window, oblivious to the two lovers.
* * *
“It’s the coarseness of the world, you see. You know what I mean now. That all this could happen and yet nothing is changed except my life. All the others, they go on like nothing happened. They got no concern for Big Pauly. I’m just a grain of sand to them, a speck, you know. So tiny I don’t matter, so tiny I’m invisible. But I don’t appreciate it. It ain’t the way the world ought to be.”
“I’m sorry Paul,”Sarah said. Looking at the large imposing man, a mass of flesh three times her size, she realized he had a point. The world is coarse, and he and I and everyone else are just so tiny compared to the vastness of it. The wind blows on everyone, and some suffer things they don’t deserve, and some receive rewards they haven’t earned; and there’s rarely any justice when all is said and done.
Pauly eyed the shopping bag at her feet.
“You buy something for yourself?” he asked “Something nice? Clothes? Perfume?”
“That? Oh no, I bought that for my partner. A present.”
“Your partner? You not married then, huh? So is this guy, is he good to you. He treat you right? I always treated my wife right, you know. Never hit her, nothing like that. Anything she asked, I got her, no questions asked? So, he’s a good guy, this partner?”
“Well, it’s not a guy.”
“Not a guy? You mean—whadda you mean?” The way he sounded made Sarah uncomfortable, made her remember why she had a rule about taking to strangers in the first place.
“My partner’s a woman. We’ve been together for five years.” when he didn’t respond, Sarah kept talking, hoping she was wrong about him. “We had a silly fight last night, and well, we made up, but I thought—well, I thought I should buy her a present. To show her I love her.”
“So you a dyke, is that it?” Paul’s tone wasn’t so friendly anymore.
“I don’t like that word Paul. But yes, I’m a lesbian, I guess”
“She guesses she’s a dyke.” He spoke louder now, more strident. “How the fuck do you not know what you is, huh? You sleep with dykes and you guess you’re a dyke? What the fuck?”
“Paul, please don’t use that word. It bothers me. And to answer you, I tried lots of relationships with men. I was even engaged once, and – ”
“Oh, so now you were fucking engaged.”
“Yes, well … but then I met Steff and she was different from all the men I ever dated. Better, for me, I mean. Look, I’m sorry if it bothers you to talk about it, okay? Why don’t we just drop the subject?”
“Bother me? Bother me? No, it don’t fucking bother me, you fucking lesbo dyke. It don’t bother me I been talking to you this whole time never knowing you was a fucking pervert. Why should it fucking bother me? Do I bother you, huh, Mrs. I’m a fucking lesbian?”
He was shouting now, eyes narrowed, and the ugliness of his expression frightened Sarah. All at once, the bus started sliding sideways, the back end fishtailing. Both Sarah and Paul slipped, and Sarah grabbed hold of a nearby metal pole to keep herself from falling off her seat. The next thing she knew, the bus driver was walking down the aisle toward his two passengers.
“Pauly, I warned you. I warned you, man.” The driver was a black man with a grey beard, maybe sixty years old, smaller than Paul, but there was no fat on his body. He must work out a lot, Sarah thought. He looked like a body builder.
“But she’s a fucking dyke, John! I wouldn’t have talked to her if I knew that.”
“I don’t care what she is, you got me? You know the rules, Pauly. I let you ride this bus all night, let you sleep on the benches, hell I even buy you a sandwich now and then. And I don’t have to do none of that, now do I?”
“No, but…” Paul was upset, and Sarah could see he was afraid of the bus driver. Feared him at least as much as she feared Paul.
“There ain’t no but about it, Pauly. Now get off my bus, right here, right now.”
“But John, it’s snowing outside. It’s cold. I don’t have no proper coat. I got no place to go. You want I should die in this shit?”
“There’s the Sisters of Mercy shelter six blocks down McCravey Street, due north. I think you can make it there before you freeze anything important. Get out or I’m gonna kick your ass right here. Now get!”
Paul rose to his feet with as much dignity as he could muster and walked to the front of the bus with John following him the whole time. John swung open the door and Paul shambled down the steps until he was on the street about a foot away from the sidewalk.
“I can still ride tomorrow night, can’t I John? Please. I didn’t mean nothing. You know I didn’t, right? I promise it won’t never happen again.”
“We’ll see. You got two strikes on you, Pauly. You understand me. Two strikes, man. I ain’t losing my job over you, you got that?”
Paul said something that sounded like an apology, then the bus door closed. Sarah watched Paul stumble off in the thick snow that was still falling, swirling fast and hard.
John walked to the back of the bus. Sarah trembled as he approached, adrenaline still rushing through her system.
“You all right, Ma’am?”
“Yes,”she said. “I’m fine, really, I am. I was just a little scared there for a minute.”
“I’m sorry. I woulda stopped sooner but you have to be careful with all this crap going on out there. Damn bus don’t stop as easy as you like when it’s like this.” He gestured to the window.
“Is he— is he dangerous?”
“Pauly? No. Least not most of the time. He’s just a little off, is all. Most of the time he just sits there or he sleeps. Sometimes he talks to people. He does like to talk about himself. I let him ride my bus as a courtesy. Only time I ever had trouble with him before was when some young gay kid got on. Started yelling and carrying on just like he did with you tonight. Never got beyond the yelling stage, though. I guess he don’t take kindly to you people for some reason. But that don’t justify what he did. I’m real sorry.”
“No, it’s okay. I should thank you.”
“That’s all right. Listen, how close are you from your home? I’ll take you right there, even if it’s not strictly on my route. Least I can do.”
“325 Park Avenue. The apartment building. Do you know it?”
“Oh sure. Have you there in five.”
“Can I—can I come sit up front with you?”
John laughed. “Hey, you see anyone else in here? Sit where you like.” Sarah followed him to the front of the bus and watched as he turned the bus slowly back into the middle of the street. There no other traffic on the road, only a few people trudging along the sidewalks.
“Was what he said about himself true?
John’s eyes were dark and piercing. “I don’t know? What’d he say?”
She re-told the story as best she remembered it: the bank, the conviction, his time in prison , the wife and two kids, the divorce. The more she told, the more indeterminate it sounded, a mere skeleton wrapped in vague references that permitted a person to fill in the gaps and inconsistencies using their imagination. Sarah wondered whether any of it was true. When finished, John shook his head and whistled to himself, a long extended note.
“Well that’s a new one to me. I heard a lot of Pauly’s stories, but I never heard about him being any hotshot banker before.”
“But could it be true?”
“Who knows? A lot of these folks on the street ain’t right in the head. A lot of them, they got mental problems if you get me. I’m just saying I never heard that one before is all.”
“So what do you think of him? Is he just a bullshit artist?”
“Ma’am, all I know is he’s a man down on his luck, no job, no home, and he drinks too much. Maybe a little crazy, too, but then if you had his life, maybe you’d be the same.”
* * *
Long after midnight, Sarah turned the key in the lock to her apartment, entered and then quickly shut the door. All the lights were off except the one by the bonsai tree in the living room. The bulb cast a yellowish hue. Sarah walked over to it and looked again at the flower, which appeared larger than before. The blossom was fully opened up, its petals glowing with a faint greenish tint created by the way light reflected off the leaves.
Sarah found Steff fast asleep wearing the boxer shorts that were her standard bedroom attire. She must have rolled over because one leg was atop the sheets and her bare back was exposed. The window blinds, half-opened, cast shadow ribbons across her body. Sarah undressed and climbed into bed. She needed to feel the warmth of Steff’s body. Draping her arm around her lover’s shoulder, Sarah kissed the nape of Steff’s neck, again and again, soft quick kisses as she snuggled in next to her. Steff sighed, but didn’t wake up. Not that it mattered.