When riding public buses, there are several social conventions we all try to follow, three of which stand out above the rest:
- Don’t talk to people you don’t know.
- Don’t look at anyone.
- Don’t purposely touch a fellow passenger.
These simple rules make the unpleasant reality of being stuffed like sardines into a tiny metal death machine just a slight bit more tolerable. They’re good rules to live by, even outside public transit’s turbulent ecosystem. While I would never speak out against these norms, I did find myself thinking people took them way too seriously when it came to Teresa, the young woman in the back seat. They avoided her bench like the plague, even when the bus was packed to the brim. I only discovered the reason the day I broke all the rules, and decided to sit next to her.
Teresa looked like a pleasant person. The combination of her long bleach blond hair, narrow frame, cheerful grin, and brightly-colored clothes gave the impression of someone with a rather sunny disposition. Any man would be lying if they claimed not to find her attractive, which is why I couldn’t help but wonder why no one ever sat next to her. Did she stink of B.O.? Did she have restless leg syndrome? Was she one of those entitled jerks who used an oversized purse or bookbag to guard the other seat?
I wanted to find out.
The first time I spoke to her, I was on my way home from another boring lecture. I’d made the mistake of picking my University major based on what my friends were doing. One by one, they flunked out, abandoning me to study a subject I had absolutely no interest in. I suppose it was that loneliness that encouraged me to sit across from Teresa that day and break one of the bus’ all-important social conventions.
“Hey,” I said, waving at her nervously.
She didn’t look up or respond in any way. Maybe she thought I was talking to someone else. I couldn’t blame her: she’d seemingly been an outcast for so long that being addressed must have seemed a little strange.
“Excuse me,” I continued, leaning closer to her so I could get her attention.
She looked shocked when she realized I was speaking to her. I saw her jump slightly like a grade-schooler being snapped out of a daydream by their teacher.
“Are you talking to me?” she asked, her voice as bubbly as that of a Malibu Barbie.
I could see her ever-present grin broaden lightly with excitement. She obviously enjoyed the attention. I was relieved, because I rarely invoked such positive responses from women. Usually, I’d get a scowl or a rude “fuck off.” This was so much better, and I felt my cheeks flush red unexpectedly. My tongue started getting tangled in my mouth, making it hard for me to respond.
“Y-yeah,” I managed to say, amidst a slew of unintelligible syllables, “I-I-I’m David.”
Again, she looked surprised. As she leaned forward to examine me, my eyes wandered to her chest. I caught myself before she could notice, and quickly returned my gaze to her face. It was just as pleasant to look at as the alternative.
“I’m Teresa,” she replied.
I’d broken the ice, and now it was time to enquire about her predicament. I couldn’t outright ask her about it, though: I had to be sneaky. The last thing I wanted was for her to think I was an asshole, so I went about it a little backhandedly.
“Not a lot of people on the bus today, huh? Thank god. I got wedged between an old perv and a sweaty fat guy yesterday. Talk about a long bus ride,” I complained, waiting for her reaction.
She laughed and gave me a dismissive shrug.
I continued, “You don’t seem to have that problem. What’s your secret? Is it mace? ‘Cause I’m totally cool with macing someone in the face if it’ll keep them from squeezing me into human lemonade.”
Teresa tittered, shaking her head.
“No mace involved, sorry. People don’t like this seat because they think it’s ‘too cold.’ There’s a crack on the ceiling. Makes it really chilly back here,” she explained.
Curious, I peered towards the lumpy, half-rusted ceiling. I couldn’t see the crack, but I believed her. The bus was well over 20 years old: it was leaking all kinds of things from all kinds of places. It came as no surprise that the back seat got a little bit more “fresh air” than the rest. The city really needed to consider retiring these older vehicles.
“Must get really cold in the winter,” I commented.
“Oh, you get used to it. I’d sit closer to the front if I could. Wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to…it can get pretty lonely here,” she answered.
“We can keep each other company!” I offered, almost too quickly. Hopefully, she didn’t think I was coming on too strong.
Teresa’s eyes sparkled with joy.
“That’d be great!” she answered, just as enthusiastically.
We chatted about everything and nothing for the duration of the bus ride. I was so focused on the conversation that I nearly missed my stop. Heck, even when I realized it was time to get off, I had half a mind to stay behind so we could keep talking. I knew, however, that I’d get a chance to see her again soon. With a friendly wave, I exited the vehicle. Wanting to sneak a final glance at her, I peered towards the window as the bus drove off. To my surprise, I did not see her sitting in the back seat. Oh well, I figured, probably dropped something and bent over to pick it up.
I didn’t see Teresa for about a week, partially because my schedule had me finish classes at all hours of the day, and partially because midterms were looming just around the corner, and I felt the need to book a study room in the library. I needed absolute silence to focus, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to get that at home.
It was late one evening when I heard the familiar shriek of age-old brakes as the usual rust bucket made its way to the station. After paying my fare, I stepped down the empty bus’ dimly lit hallway, trying my best to ignore the ominous atmosphere of blinking neon lights, squeaking floor tiles, and claw-like gauges of rust along the walls. I tried to convince myself there was nothing unusual about it: I’d heard the same sounds and seen the same sights in broad daylight, yet I couldn’t help feeling apprehensive.
My fears dissipated the moment I heard Teresa’s voice calling to me.
“Welcome back!” she said.
What was she doing on the bus so late? Could she have been a fellow student?
“Thanks,” I answered, “Nice to see you again.”
She gave the seat next to her a firm slap.
“Come here,” she invited.
The bus was empty and I had my pick of any seat I wanted, but it would have been impolite to refuse her invitation. As I made my way towards her, the bus flew out of the station at full speed. I twisted around like a drunken ballerina, landing right next to her. A chill ran down my spine the moment my body slouched against the seat. Not one of those “Holy shit, I’m terrified” type of chills. An actual, literal chill. She wasn’t kidding when she said it was cold in the back. I could see my breath and feel the hairs on my body perk.
Teresa’s soft smile never faltered.
“Careful there,” she teased, as her hand slowly reached towards me.
My breath. I could see my breath with each exhale.
Why couldn’t I see hers?
Her face approached mine, as though she meant to kiss me. She traced her fingers delicately along my arm. In any other situation, I would have welcomed the sensual touch, but I was too busy wondering about her breath…about the lack of a breath. My eyes wandered to the window, and the nervous sensation in the pit of my stomach returned.
She wasn’t there.
No, that’s not quite right. There was something in the window, but it wasn’t visible. I don’t know how to explain it. It was as though there was a visible absence of something where she sat. I could see my own reflection and that of the bench, but we were partially obscured by a shadow in the very loose shape of a woman.
Suddenly, her gentle touch turned violent. She jabbed her fingernails into my skin, causing me to let out a whimper. The moment I opened my mouth to scream, she lunged at me and pressed her lips against mine. For a brief moment, it felt euphoric, and my head began to spin. I felt exhausted, as though I’d just gone to the gym. Every muscle in my body loosened into jello as she climbed on top of me, forcing the kiss to linger longer than reasonable. My vision blurred as she seemed to suck the life right out of me. I had no will to move or fight back. My body just sat there uselessly. I might have let myself fade into unconsciousness, if not for the pain.
Oh god, the pain.
It felt as though my blood was boiling and freezing at the same time. I still don’t know if she was causing it, or if it was my body’s way of trying to jerk me back to my senses. The pain spread to every inch of my body, making my skin and bones prickle like a million mosquito bites. The searing pain was unlike anything I had felt before in my life, as though my nervous system had been replaced by strobe lights from an underground rave. I couldn’t help but thrash violently to try and ease the pain of lava coursing through my veins.
I don’t know what would have happened if the bus hadn’t come to an abrupt stop at that moment. My convulsing body flew right through her and landed face-first on the center aisle.
I couldn’t move.
In the moments before I passed out, I was aware of nothing but the smell of rubber and the sound of the engine purring loudly. The world faded to black.
“Not another one,” I heard, as I came to.
I let out a pained groan.
“You alive?” asked the man.
I felt strong arms lift me and place me on a seat. My mind was hazy and my body was so drained that I could barely keep my head up. I opened my eyes, spotting a pair of clean dress shoes in front of me. The bus driver knelt down, giving me a light slap on the cheek to wake me up.
“C’mon bud,” he urged.
Did he think I was drunk?
In a painfully slow motion, I lifted a hand to my face. I could feel grooves imprinted on my skin from the slip-proof rubber carpet that covered the length of the aisle. How long had I been out?
“Nhgrghgh,” I grumbled tiredly.
“Good, your color’s coming back. That’s a good sign,” he said.
I know he kept talking to me for a while, but I was so out of it that I can only recall snippets of the conversation. He sat with me until a cab arrived to take me home, and then escorted me to the door. As I disembarked, I remember looking at the back seat and finding it empty.
“The…the girl,” I mumbled, as he ushered me into the cab.
He held the door for a moment, a grave expression on his face. I saw him eye the back of his bus cautiously.
“She won’t be bothering anyone anytime soon,” he uttered, before shutting the door without another word.
That was the last time I saw Teresa. I’ve ridden the same bus since then, but now both seats in the back are empty.
But hey, at least now I know why no one sat next to Teresa on the bus.