The bus smells like old milk today. Every day. I hate sitting in the middle of the long busses, right in the weird, hinged part that rocks back and forth as the bus makes a turn. It’s the part with accordion walls, and I’ve got no choice, because it’s the only seat free. This isn’t a carnival ride. I’d prefer the only moving parts of my motor vehicle be the wheels.
I’m headed to Brentwood School. My son hears that they don’t even really have to study there. My son hears they just sit around in circles like a bunch of hippies, and that the students sometimes just leave and go to the beach. I wonder where my son hears things like this, and I remember that these legends of other schools are as old as the day the second one-room schoolhouse opened up in one area. I roll my eyes when he starts in on subjects like cafeteria food, the things other parents let their kids do, the way things were so awful in this school or that town. He’s 14. Let him have it. In a few years he’ll be in college talking about how good his high school choir was. Then after that it’ll be job stuff, small town stuff. There will always be stories to tell about these things.
Brentwood School is beautiful. These kids are all sitting outside, eating fancy chicken kabobs and fire roasted vegetables. They’re dressed like the magazines. They look like the movies. Their voices are like the radio. The campus looks like a resort. A bell rings and they don’t move quickly at all. The teachers are dressed casually, expensively. The butterflies even act like they might not know there’s a harsher version of life out there with windshields to hit like a hobo hitting rock bottom. It’s an innocent place, and there’s not a lot of pressure to do well.
On the bus, sitting across from me, this old man has a face with lines so deep they could have been written by Steinbeck. He has white whiskers, sores on his arms, and his trucker hat is falling apart like it’s been listening to overwrought country songs. He’s holding onto an envelope that looks as worn down as his skin, but the envelope appears to be empty.
Doors of classrooms close, and a group of students stand outside of the art room, spray painting skateboards. They aren’t laboring over the work. They’re just spraying. A group of kids pass me and they’re talking about how they really wish some girl’s self esteem was better. They say that she’s really pretty, but she’s so down on herself that it makes it hard to spend time with her. This is what these kids talk about, I guess. I think I was talking about smoking weed or some guy I liked who didn’t like me back, or how much of a bitch my parent/guardian/best friend was being.
The old man lifts the envelope to his cheek, dabs his face with it, returns it to his lap, reads it. He does this again and again. The envelope has a name on it- Suzanne. Her name is written in purple, cursive like the kind your mom used when she was writing notes to the school office excusing your absence.
I sit for a minute in the courtyard of the school. I’m early. When I take the bus I give myself extra time. I am nervous. I don’t know that I relate to these kids at all. I am about to talk to them about sex. I imagine their dating lives. I imagine their homes, their parents. A boy comes running up a hill, and he’s pushing a girl in a blue mop bucket. Her legs are sticking straight up out of the bucket like carrot sticks. I see his RUNDMC shirt and I think an old person’s thought. “I wonder if he even knows who RUNDMC is.” So be it, I’m old.
Suzanne. Who is she? What was originally in this envelope? It’s possible this is just an envelope he found in the trash. Each morning there are people who come by my house with their shopping carts and dig through my trash, right outside my window. They take more than the recycling. I’ve shuddered many times at the thoughts of the junk their hands have touched. I have taken to double bagging my bathroom trash. Maybe he just needed a soft thing to rub against his face. But then he puts the envelope back in his lap, reads the name, touches it with a hard, yellow finger.
In the classroom, everything is going well. These teenagers, at the meat of it, they’re just like any others. One boy asks if I could be his mother. I tell him I’m no fun at all as a mom. I’m not just saying that. Later that night I tell my son. We talk about the kind of grandmother I’d be. He says I’d be a bad influence. I was never a bad influence on him. He just does the opposite of what I do, and it all works out well.
I’m openly staring at the man, but he’s gracious or removed enough that he doesn’t look back at me, challenge me to stop. It’s impolite, but there’s nothing else to look at. I suppose I could stare at my phone, or count BMWs out the window. He lifts the envelope to his face again. Dabs his cheek. He’s crying. The envelope returns to his lap, and he’s staring at her name as if it’s one of those optical illusion puzzles that were so popular in the 90s. What’s he going to see in that name if he relaxes his eyes just right?
The kids ask me questions. They ask me about orgasms, nipples, why some men get man-boobs. They ask me what my life was like. One girl asks if I was ever raped. They ask me why people like the things they do. They ask me about love. They ask me about love. Again, and again, they ask me about love.
I can answer anything at all about sex, the body, the way it all works, the psychology of the fetish, the medical explanation for the process of getting a boner. But I don’t know fuckall about love. What I know best is the absence of love, because the absence is around us more often than love proper. I don’t know anything about love that you don’t, kids. I want to find Suzanne. I want to find the old man. I want to fill up the envelope with whatever was needed to keep her around. Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s an apology. Maybe it’s less time spent at the dog track, pissing away the rent. Maybe it’s a few more years of life, or better access to health care. I want to know what to say when a young girl with a ponytail and a striped shirt asks me “How do you know for sure that you’re in love?” I want the answer to be better than “Sometimes you don’t know until it’s too late.”