The sun breaks through the clouds and the bus is suddenly washed in gold. There are five perfect fingerprints on the glass to his right with gilded loops and whorls, like the man who left them dipped his fist in gold ink. A man gets off at the fifth stop and thanks the driver around the sleepy gravel still lodged in his throat. Behind him, there is a grandfatherly crinkle of a turning page; the woman in the front seat on the left chuckles at something, the peaches-and-cream of her lipstick smoothing out thin and shiny as her mouth stretches.
He thinks about the man he left at home with wet lips and mussed hair. He wonders if the man has gotten out of bed yet to shower or if he’s drinking tea still, dressed in the wrong shirt. The sun fades behind cloud cover but his face is still warm. He wants to know if his happiness if obvious, and how much he looks like an eager child with the corners of his mouth twitching up into a grin while everyone else is yawning.
He loves this, he thinks it to himself: I love this. The blustery morning energy of the city. Stories unfurling like buds at first light. The air of coffee and newspaper print, the rustle of scarves and bleary eyes–the orange juice and toast of it.
She smells like stale cigarettes and relief.
That is the first thing he thinks as this new woman steps onto the bus. The fumes catch in his throat like soot, but are preferable to the yeasty stench that wafts forward from the men in the back seats.
They are rowdy these men. They want trouble but haven’t found the right outlet yet—they are a storm as of yet undecided on its path. This bus is a breath before a thunderclap.
He sits in the middle of the bus and makes himself inconsequential. His gum has gone cold in his mouth and he holds it dead on his tongue like a cherry pit. There is sweat in the small of his back and he is freezing. They are saying things, these men behind him. Not good things.
He thinks about the waiter he’d locked eyes with not three hours ago, the look they’d shared, the smirk, the tick of the clock. He wonders if he might be just as obvious to these men, too. He wants to shuffle his shoulders, wants to unclasp his top button (all the buttons done up is such a tell he shouldn’t have done it) but his hands are shaking, and he is entirely too scared to move.
There are too many children and they are too loud. A new boy has boarded the bus to complete their fivesome earning himself an “AY! FRANK-AY!” All three boys’ top buttons are popped, and their hair is crispy with excess hair-gel. The girls have their skirts rolled up and their heads close, their hair tied with garish ribbons.
“What’d Ms. Davidson say about the homework?” The girls make hesitant responses, the first boy booms out “Ms. Dick-son!” There is a round of gasps and a small voice loudly complaining that’s mean.
“Don’t care if it’s mean Rebecca, I don’t give a–ass!” He swears like it’s a new discovery, a certain nervous keenness bolstering the word.
“Yeah, Rebecca, calm ya shit.”
“It’s calm ya tits.”
“Calm ya shit AND ya tits!” This gets nods and smirks of approval from the rest.
The group moves on and the quieter girl in the corner watches Rebecca with a mix of admiration and fear that is familiar. He knows that look, wonders if this girl knows what it means quite yet; wonders if she’ll be as afraid or disgusted of it as the rest of the world will be.
Con più vibrato
He gets off eleven stops too soon. That is the problem. The problem is he gets off eleven stops too soon. The door clips shut behind him with the click of a padlock and the air stills and smells of stale urine and panic. He remembers a scrap of self-defence advice that if all else fails to soil yourself, and then they won’t want to touch you.
These men spit slurs like clumps of chewing tobacco: aggressively, with ease and stinking tongues. The rest of their sentences become afterthoughts, splatters peppering around the gritty key points. Faggot, sissy, poove, cuntboy, ladyboy, tranny– if he lists them off like this maybe he can make them nothing, just strange sounds sloughing from their lips like chunks of liver.
So, there are the men and here are their words and here: the hare in headlights.
He feels the end of the day in his bones, in the ache of his left ankle, the bristle of stubble on his jaw. The wet smears of rain water on the window dance red and green with passing traffic lights. It smells like rain and damp. The person pressed against him has a coat slick with droplets that seep into the wool of his sleeve. They all sway together with the motion of the bus on the potholed street, eyelids drooping and shoulders clashing awkwardly. Dress shoes clack hollowly against the mess of wet tracks on the floor as more people board with dripping umbrellas.
There is a mother with a small child perched in her lap like a baby owl. She coos at little girl, who gurgles and tries to twist her rubber-armed glasses until they break. The mother taps her on the chubby fist complacently, offering a heatless admonishment and a smile.
He thinks of his own mother. Is she grey yet? When she frowns is it still the same lines that crease around either eye, or are there more now? Her friends must ask. Does she pretend he died? He hopes she is happy, and he hopes she is not. He hopes they never speak again. He hopes she calls him and says she loves him.
Tutto a un tratto agitato
“It’s a bit queer,” she said. A bit queer, a bit queer, “all these men that want to be women I think it’s disgusting.”
The jazz in his earphones is tinny, the trumpets shrill like an alarm bleating. It is 8.16 in the morning and he is unsure where this woman has gotten all the sudden fervour from. Her monologue to the commuters continues. They do not involve themselves, staring out windows and fidgeting with phones. No one looks at this woman. He shifts in his seat, pretending to stretch enough to tug his scarf to cover the pride pin on his lapel, makes eye-contact with a person in the seat across shifting their school coat closer like it’s a safety blanket and averts his eyes to his boots.
There is a leaf stuck to my shoe, he thinks.
“Perverts they are, the whole lot of them, fucking diseased,” she says.
The doors open and she grabs her belongings with her dirty nails and rounds on him. She viciously kicks him in the shin like an eight-year-old vying for attention. When he
looks up, he feels her spittle hitting his cheek, something between stagnant milk-tea and the saliva of a dog.
“The whole lot of you freaks should be put down.”
Furioso ma semplice
“It’s infectious y’know? One faggot to ‘nother faggot and then it rubs off on whoever’nd-and–now tha’ one’s a,” something unintelligible mumbled into his grimy beard, “or a tranny, or… a whatever.”
The other men agree. The silent one in a football jersey who looks like someone’s dad merely nods and tightens his fists over his gut. The one with upper arms like legs of ham is quite clear that the trannies are of course the worst, and the one with the limp hair agrees the loudest. But they all agree.
“Should – you know keep ‘em–ah– different y’know away from the rest of us, normal people, so they can’t pass it on.”
The men do not agree that this is enough of a measure.
It is his stop, this is his stop, my stop, he thinks. Maybe they’ll get their wish; maybe he will separate from them now and that’ll be the end of this entire thing and nothing will happen— maybe if I’m quiet and I don’t breathe too deep. The bus pulls in and hanging leaves make slithering sounds across the roof.
When he stands, his ankle shifts painfully and makes a sound like a loaded gun. He hopes they haven’t heard that. He presses his fingers to the glass to steady himself and thinks about the next person who might sit there and if they will see these fingerprints—if these fingerprints might be evidence in some investigation into whatever he hopes doesn’t happen tonight.
The men stand behind him. It is their stop, too.
He glances at the driver as he walks to the door, but the driver does not look at him, maybe he’s worried about catching it. He breathes the sticky cologne of the one closest behind him. It smells like boot leather and broken things, and it turns his stomach. The door opens like eggs cracking and he steps out.
Editor’s note: If this poem raises distress, or causes any issues for you, there’s counselling available for all UniSA students. You can book an appointment here.
Words by Ezra Théodore Tillet
Photography by Tiana Belperio