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Breath & Shadow

Fall 2008 - Vol. 5, Issue 4

"Strangers On A Bus"

written by

Michael Merriam

I board the #6 bus in Minneapolis' Dinkytown neighborhood, heading for the Uptown district. Once there, my plan is to make the short walk to DreamHaven Books to drop off some fliers for my upcoming reading. Instead of taking my usual spot at the front of the bus, I decide to head for the back bench. I know the bus driver: He's good about announcing the stops into the microphone, his clear baritone voice easy to understand through the dodgy lowest-bidder sound system that Metro Transit favors.


Sometimes I want to sit away from the handicapped and senior citizen seats, and I've ridden this route so many times I can tell where I am by the turns and dips and bumps. I know I won't miss my stop at Uptown Station. I settle into the back corner and lean my head against the cool glass.


They climb aboard three stops later and head for the back of the bus, a man and woman. I watch them through my dark shades as they approach. He is moving slowly, working two canes to keep his balance. She has her right hand on his back, perhaps to steady him, perhaps to reassure herself of his presence. He moves with a practiced ease that tells me he has been using his twin canes for some time. He is a large man, probably in his mid-thirties, still physically fit. She is tall, willowy, with short blonde hair that bobs and waves as they walk. He settles on the bench. She sits between us, a little closer to me than necessary. I look out the window, not wanting to appear like I'm staring, even though I know they cannot tell if I can see anything or not.


"Hello. How are you?"


Her voice is slow and measured, halting and stumbling over syllables and placing the wrong emphasis on the words.


"I'm fine, thank you. You?"


"Very good," she says. I notice the long, pale scar on the right side of an otherwise pretty face.


The man, who I am assuming is her husband or some kind of significant other, looks at me. I see his head turn down and I suppose his eyes find my white cane. "Didn't feel like sitting up front with the rest of the gimps either, eh?" He smiles softly. I smile back and chuckle. He is being honest about why we are both sitting as far away from the front as possible. I can respect that.


There are times when I am intensely happy for those spots at the front, but some days I want to sit as far away from the tangible reminders of my condition as possible. I want to hide myself here at the back of bus instead of sitting up front amongst the blatant stares and the pitying faces. Back here I am allowed a sense of normalcy, even if it is an illusion.


She swats his leg playfully. "Don't say that," she says. Her words might seem more scornful if she was not smiling at him.


He leans into her and their heads touch for an instant. I look away, not wanting to intrude on what I feel is a private moment.


"So if you don't mind me asking?" he says, drawing me back into the conversation. I smile at them both. "Ask away."


"How did you lose your sight?"


"I have a degenerative disease called retinitis pigmentosa."


"I had a client once with R.P." She flashes me a smile. It is brilliant, unself-conscious, and genuine. "I use to be a counselor. I have a master's in clinical psychology." She pauses and draws a breath. "You wouldn't guess it now, would you?"


Her expression is sad. He reaches out and touches her arm and the smile returns.


He takes up the narrative. "We were in an accident about four years ago. A car turned in front of our motorcycle from a side street and hit us."


I nod. I've been hit by a vehicle while on a motorcycle as well.


We talk for a few more minutes. He was a coach in high school. She was part of a counseling practice, back before. Now they work with people who are disabled. They are on their way to Bloomington, planning to switch at the Mall of America from the Light Rail to another bus. Like me, public transport is their only conveyance. He can no longer drive. She is too slow to react to changes in her immediate environment. Both admit to being a little afraid of cars these days.


As the bus crosses the Mississippi River, I give them my story in return.


"I was diagnosed with RP when I was fifteen, but my folks didn't have insurance, so I never did go back to the ophthalmologist after the initial diagnosis."


"Your parents or your school didn't offer you any counseling or anything?" she asks.


I shake my head no. "No. We lived in a little town of about five hundred people back then. My mom was single and worked two jobs. I was left to deal with it on my own, so the easiest thing to do was ignore it. Even when I was older and could tell I was getting worse, I tried to deny it was happening. I tried to hide my ever increasing clumsiness behind a smile and joke, and when I was unable to see objects others pointed, I just pretended I could."


Her husband leans toward me. "What changed?"


"I nearly ran down a group of pedestrian in a crosswalk. If my wife hadn't yelled for me to stop..."


I know I would have likely killed someone that day. It was the turning point for me. I let out a long breath and continue.


"I finally went back to the doctor, and he forced the facts on me. I suppose you learn little tricks to compensate for vision loss, but it's more difficult to fool sophisticated diagnostic equipment. I realize now there had been several instances over the last few months before I stopped driving where I navigated a stretch of road from memory as much as from what I could see."


"You got lucky," he says.


I nod my head in agreement. "Yeah. Still, giving up the keys was the hardest thing." I pause for second as a thought passes in my mind. "Of course, now I can barely handle a shopping cart."


"I can't imagine losing my sight," she says softly. "Aren't you afraid of the coming darkness?"


"No," I say, meaning it. "I may never go completely blind, and even if I do, I've had years to make peace with the idea. And if I do, well, you learn to adapt."


"Yes, you do," he says. "You learn ways to work around being broken." There is a tired, frustrated tone in his voice.


She turns back to him. "We're not broken. We're just a little--" she struggles to find the right word, "--chipped up, that's all."


I chuckle at her words. She touches my left hand. I look down. The last two fingers of her right hand are curled up, unmoving, thinner than the other fingers. She touches my wedding ring.


"Married?," she asks.






"Yes," I say, smiling.


"Good," he says. "No one should be alone in life. Everyone should have someone to hold hands with when things get tough, especially us "chipped" folks."


I nod. "Yeah."


"Fifth Street. Light Rail Station," the driver calls out.


She reaches across me and pulls the rope to signal for a stop. "It was nice to meet you."


"Good-luck," he says.


"You too."


They climb off the bus. He slowly moves through the backdoor. She keeps her right hand on his back. As they leave the bus I realize I never asked their names, nor did I offer mine. I watch as she stands on tiptoes and kisses him on the cheek. She takes his arm as they start down the street, and the bus roars away from the curb.

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