This is the third piece in my creative writing portfolio. This is a short story that I wrote last summer while at the lake, oddly enough. Hope you enjoy!
He sat across from me on the bus every morning, his slender shoulders bent over his phone, earbuds in, hat pulled low, ignoring the world around him. We got off at the same stop; the one right outside the university pool. We might have even had a class together, back in first year, before I had to take the bus. Back when my then-boyfriend had grudgingly driven me to class on his way to work each day.
I don’t know what drew me to Bus Boy – judging from my previous selection of boyfriends he really wasn’t my type. In the past I’d always gone for ‘bad’ boys; the ones whose muscles turn heads at parties, who swear too loudly, and drink too much. The ones who for some reason capture your eyes and there’s this long breathless moment where you’re the only girl in the room. Those boys never last long. Just long enough that when suddenly the eyes he’s catching aren’t yours it rips through your heart like a fishhook.
But Bus Boy was different. He was quiet and probably shy. He cared about school enough to read his textbooks on the bus. He slouched like he was trying to take up as little space as possible, though he was by no means short – he towered head and shoulders above me as we got off the bus together. He always wore the most beat-up pair of green converse hi-tops I’d ever seen, no matter the weather.
Maybe it was those shoes, or his height, or the simple fact that I was lonely and bored and still getting over my most recent breakup, but one cold November morning, I did something I’d never done before. I smiled at him. A complete stranger, and I wasn’t even drunk. He didn’t see – he was busy with his phone and his backpack and had his eyes on the floor. Not that I’d expected anything from it, really. At the time I wasn’t even sure why I’d done it. But I had, and I found myself sighing internally as I looked away and stared at the icy pavement blurring past, unable to stop thinking about how odd it was that two people could do the same thing together day after day and not even know each other’s names. Unable to stop picturing how sad he looked, slouched in his seat with his headphones cranked to block out the world.
Over the next week, he became my new project. My goal was simple: to get him to smile back at me. Not because I liked him or anything; just because I hoped it would make his day a little brighter. The second day I smiled at him, he didn’t notice me again, and I had to stop myself from glaring frustratedly at him. I didn’t want to look creepy. This pattern continued until Friday when he nearly missed the bus. As he shoved his ticket into the ticket box, panting from chasing down the driver, he forgot, in his fluster, to stare at the floor. I flashed him a smile in the split second he looked my way. Was that the ghost of a smile he gave me in return as he lurched into his seat?
The next Monday I found myself at my bus stop earlier than usual, stamping my feet against the cold and wishing the bus would show up already. Maybe today I’d get a real smile out of Bus Boy. Maybe in another week he’d talk to me. Maybe in a month we’d be friends. My last ex had stolen most of my friends along with my heart, and my housemates weren’t much for talking lately. At least, not to me. They were mad because when my ex moved out after our break-up we all had to cover his part of the rent until we could find someone to replace him.
I settled in to my usual seat on the bus, gingerly sipping on too-hot coffee from my travel mug as the bus squealed forward. Two minutes later we pulled up to Bus Boy’s stop, and he slouched on. Paid his fare. Stumbled towards his seat.
His eyes weren’t glued to the floor like usual. He glanced up at me as he took his seat, and I sent him a smile. He smiled back, definitely shy, and bent quickly over his phone. I tried to look inconspicuous, keeping my eyes on my own phone or out the window, but I couldn’t help but notice out of the corner of my eye that he kept glancing up at me. As we got off outside the pool I held the door for him. He nodded his thanks and we went our separate ways.
He slouched towards the library as I scurried for the English department. I had just barely remembered that I needed to hand in my essay before class started or it would be late. I’d meant to proofread it on the bus but Bus Boy had driven all thoughts of it out of my head.
Not that handing it in on time would do much. I was once again on academic probation after nearly flunking out last year, and despite resolving to try harder in school while I was working my butt off at two almost-full-time jobs last summer to pay tuition, I was once again swamped with overdue work. It piled up on me like an insurmountable mountain, sometimes pressing on my chest until I couldn’t breathe.
The day ground on as usual, class after class, hour after hour, until it felt like my brain was going to ooze out my ears if I had to sit through another lecture. Then I had a four-hour shift at the Starbucks in the Student Centre, and when that was over I forced myself to slog through three chapters of readings before I dragged myself on to the bus and headed home. It was dark out, and starting to snow.
By the time the bus rolled up to my stop, the snow was coming down thick and fast. My feet were half-way to ice-cubes and my breath steamed like cigarette smoke as I trudged up the rickety steps to my flat.
Nobody was in, which was fine by me. I boiled the kettle and made myself a supper of instant oatmeal and black tea, which I carried back to my bedroom and ate curled up in my comforter. Trying to drown out the noise in my head with a cop show on Netflix. Trying to ignore the pangs of hunger my small supper hadn’t satisfied and the tickling in the back of my throat that signalled I was getting a cold.
I’d never meant to spend my food budget getting black-out drunk the first weekend of the month. But money or no, I’d had to pay my part of the rent. Since that weekend I’d subsisted on instant oatmeal, KD, and the free coffee I got each shift at work, and I was getting pretty tired of all three.
I don’t know why I couldn’t stop myself from spending all my money on beer. Same reason I always chose such awful boyfriends, I guess. And probably the same reason I was failing my courses and I couldn’t sleep at night, too.
Perhaps that was why I wanted to get Bus Boy to smile. I wanted to do something right, for once. Because all I ever seemed to do was mess myself up.
On Tuesday I slept straight through to lunch and nearly missed my shift at work. Though to be honest I was more disappointed with myself for missing the bus than for missing class. My head pounded and my throat ached all through work. I got so motion sick on the bus ride home that I nearly threw up. Then when I got home I did throw up. Up and up till my stomach was empty and all I could do was crouch over the toilet and dry heave.
My housemate Mitch came in from work and started blaring rap music in his bedroom. The bass throbbed dizzily in my head. Laurena came in a while later, talking to someone I didn’t know. His deep voice rumbled lower than Mitch’s bass, and Laurena tittered like a prepubescent teen. A minute later she barged in to the bathroom and didn’t even pause for breath as she babbled for a whole minute about how she’d found someone who might take over Brad’s old room, hinting heavily that it should have been on me to find someone to fill in the gap since it was my fault Brad left. Even though she knew I didn’t like talking about my ex. Even though she could plainly see I was sick.
“Kit, Connor. Connor, Kit.” She added, by way of introduction. I hate being called Kit, I thought as I wiped a chunk of sweaty hair out of my eyes and squinted up at Connor. He had a wild beard half-way down his broad chest, and dreads down past his shoulders. He hadn’t bothered to take off his muck-covered boots at the door. I gave a weak thumbs up to Laurena and turned back to the toilet.
“Is she alright?” I heard him rumble as Laurena moved on to show him the kitchen.
“Probably had too much to drink.” Laurena laughed carelessly. The rest of their conversation was drowned out by Mitch turning up the volume on his already-blaring speakers. As soon as Connor’s tour was over and the door had slammed shut behind him, I crawled out of the bathroom and dragged myself off to bed.
Wednesday I woke up just long enough to call in sick to work, and Thursday I spent at home in a panic over how much class I had missed – right in the middle of Midterms, too. I had five essays to write by the end of term in four weeks and a Psychology midterm on Monday. And of course I hadn’t started preparing for any of them.
I felt like death when I woke up on Friday, but I decided that I needed to get to class and attempt to catch up or I would be screwed for finals. When I stood up to go to the bathroom, however, the world spun suddenly around me and the floor lurched up and smacked me hard in the face. Moments or minutes later, I realized someone was shaking my shoulder.
“Kit! Kit, are you OK? Can you hear me?”
I moaned and the shaking stopped. “Laurena?” I asked blearily.
“What happened?” A little crease appeared between her bushy black eyebrows. She spent hours every week plucking them, but somehow they were always too bushy anyways.
“Blacked out,” I said, trying to sit up. She helped me back on to my bed, frown deepening as she looked at me. I rubbed my head where it had hit the floor.
“I’m not surprised. You’ve been pretty sick,” she said. “When’s the last time you ate?”
I had to think about that. “Tuesday?”
She snorted and told me to stay in bed while she made me some breakfast. I tried to protest that I was going to miss the bus, but she pretended not to hear as she skated off to the kitchen.
Five minutes later she returned with a thick slice of peanut butter toast, a peeled and sectioned orange and an Advil with a tall glass of water.
“So is Connor going to move in?” I asked around a mouthful of hot toast. It was probably the tastiest thing I’d eaten all month.
“I think so,” she said. “Still needs approval from the Landlord, but I think so.”
I nodded. Muddy boots aside, he hadn’t seemed all that bad. At the very least I wouldn’t have to budget my food so tightly, because he’d pick up the extra rent we all couldn’t afford. Laurena flashed me a rare, genuine smile and left me to my breakfast, calling out for me to text her if I got sick again.
I called in sick and spent all of Friday and Saturday studying for my Psych midterm and struggling through readings for my History and English essays. I worked the long shift on Sunday, and managed to drag myself out of bed in time to catch the bus on Monday.
Bus Boy caught my eye as he got on, and he smiled at me. I grinned shyly back, hugging my backpack a little tighter as my heart leapt in my chest.
Maybe tomorrow I’d work up the nerve to say hi to him. Maybe on Friday when I got my paycheque I wouldn’t spend it all getting drunk. Maybe Laurena didn’t hate me as much as she let on. Maybe Connor would move in and we wouldn’t have to scramble for rent. And maybe, just maybe, if I beat the odds and broke past that impossible probability of failure, this December I’d study hard enough to pass my courses and get off of academic probation.
The future was unknowable, but as I clutched my backpack that cold morning, with Bus Boy’s smile warm in my memory, I felt that things just might not end up so terrible after all.