A story that came to me as I was on the bus the other day, watching people getting on and off, sitting next to this middle-aged guy who looked confused and hateful and depressed and seeking, even pleading, for a companion. At the same time. So, I wrote the following text, and in order to avoid any confusion; I've written it in General American. For the record, I mean. It'll probably be up for some editing, later on - regarding typo's and additions/extractions - but for the moment it goes like this:
"Mosses for an old man"
(with extra credits to Nathaniel Hawthorne for title inspiration)
"Can I sit here?"
One of those ordinary girls, again; the one who wears her jeans a little too tight and her jackets a little too short. Blonde hair, also. And - she had a pair of these light eyes that never give away anything. He tried to stare into them for a moment, to get a sort of idea and grasp what lurked behind, but then she flinched. Thus, he settled with a fair compromise.
Of course she could sit. And, as an escape from possible boredom, he would get a chance to study her better. She flung her bony, teenage ass (which he had a hard time trying not to picture, in detail) onto the springless bus chair. Slightly torn, the cover matched the youngster's grungy dressing. Complete with a rugged attitude and all, at least no-one could blame her for not being thorough. Fucking whole-hearted. Speaking of which, he wondered whether it was his heart that kept him from expressing his feelings out loud. Whether he was turning soft for not commenting directly on the nuisance that the neighbor-seat inhabitant personified. These pranks; he used to go at them with a wry smile and a resigned annoyance, oh yes, always pointing his finger at their being useless. But nowadays he stayed quiet. Did not even grimace at his own face, mirrored in the panorama window next to him. Did not pout conspiratorially to the old lady passing their double-seat, heading for the doors as the bus slowed down. During the short pause at a stop near the Herrington High School, he instead caught an unnoticed glimpse of the girl's face – while still staring intensely into the window reflections. She was, on her hand, looking straight ahead. Into nothing. And in the old days, he would have murmured to the back of his right hand, in whose palm he placed his chin striking a pensive pose, how the nothingness of focus found for the eyes resembles the nothingness of focus found for the soul.
It took him ten seconds to realize what craziness his mind had, in fact, uttered. Then he swore. "The old days"? Hell, no! He was not nearly that old, not yet. And these concepts that constantly snuck into his thoughts were starting to fret him. Moreover, he was wrong. The facial features of this girl showed no ignorance at all, nor any "see-me-care"-arrogance. She appeared straightforwardly innocent. Simply...indifferent. And additionally; a tiny pinch of sadness. Not more than a hint. But it was there. A furrow near her left temple, a hint. She moved, shifted positions and bent her leg sideways over the other. Closed her eyes, and reminded him once more of all these kids, the type as such, and their tiredness. Always lacking the energy to go that extra mile and they never hesitated to confirm it. To state it and to prove it. She leant backward, and took a deep breath. He was not watching her through a blurred, dirty glass anymore. He looked straight at her, unyieldingly. And she turned to face him, with her small face and blonde locks. She even smiled.
So this was how it started, his inner voice concluded, this was what it felt like to meet a stranger and to be surprised. He saw her lips move, and an urge to mimic them came over him. In order to gain some more time and consider the alternatives, however, he first gave her a quick nod. He shrugged his shoulders, making the fabric of his dark blue winter coat tighten just above the over arms. She smiled again before she turned away. What a silly game. Trying to maintain his concentration, he studied the pattern of the bus chair in front of him. Ugly, diamond-shaped figures in gaudy colors overlapped, covering the entire chair in a patchwork quilt of nausea. We could talk about the design, his inner voice continued, and whereupon he condemned it for its distracting effect, people always enjoy disregarding the surroundings when they can find nothing else to talk about. The girl twisted a strain of hair around her little finger, another matter of disturbance. Thus far, his head and body had remained clear and he found no reasons to suddenly lose control over any of them. Not at this point. Therefore, he answered the girl’s remark with a polite “thank you” and made sure his voice was very calm. Neither rejecting nor inviting, but quite plainly that of an old and distinguished gentleman who would prefer to spend his bus ride in silence. Still, it was of minor help. He realized with a certain discomfort that it was not up to him to declare any wish of being left alone. She hardly took notice of him now, yet he wanted her to. That was the main issue, the problem. The case. In the old days, which he refused to acknowledge, he would have left and avoided any further contact. Be it verbal or physical. No more accidental brushes of his hand across her jacket, no more knocking of knees. How old was she, eighteen? Maximum twenty; and on a completely different stage in life, anyhow. As for himself, he was younger than he seemed – of course – and he did not have to wear that ridiculous hat. Though, she had described it as nice, but it was probably all part of these teenage phrases. She was one of those kids and she had grown up using their lingo. Their style. She was part of a world he hated, but was it thereby necessarily implied that he had to hate her? He decided he must ascertain his subconscious, along with all its worries.
“Where are you going?”
The only way possible and, similarly, the worst one. To her credit, she handled it exquisitely. She told him the truth. Or, if it was not the truth, at least she gave him an honest-sounding reply. She explained how she was going to town to meet with some friends; they were going out for some pizza or burgers. That was what she said, word-for-word. And it all came across so casually, her life so uncomplicated; he was almost brought to tears. Simultaneously, he was overwhelmed with massive frustration, when considering how surreal the situation had become. You do not talk to strangers on the bus. There is no room for conversation in a place like that, save – perhaps – insignificant everyday nonsense, concerning the weather or whatever. Or both. This was an agreement he had lived with and lived by, since way back, but now there was a shake in the foundations on which he had built all his convictions. She had just asked him where he was going, and he had no idea. Not of any directions where he could possibly be heading, and not of what he could possibly say to her. Hell, no. Hardly able to bear the increasing conflict, between the two of them and between his own selves, he shook his head and sighed. He waited for a moment, hoping she would disappear, vanish into thin air, dissolve into atoms, or simply get off. When neither happened, he resumed his hesitation and tried to disguise it as natural slowness. Anyone accepts an old man’s flaws, essentially because he is old and thus excused. But she was not ready to give up on him yet. Before she arose and lifted up her bag and indicated that she was leaving him, for good, she took a deep breath, one last time. Her voice was solemn, as she spoke, and her eyes shone like crystals. With an appearance that struck him as altogether serious, she declared;
“I think there’s always something left to discover, but you don’t always have to seek so hard.”
And indeed, he knew.