The sound of crinkling plastic fills the Megabus leaving from Boston. My seatmate covers her purple seat in a plastic sheet and rustles through a big CVS bag in search of her belongings. Each item is also wrapped in plastic bags. She mutters phrases like “so hot,” and “it’s almost June!” as she fans herself with her newspaper. I look around for other empty seats. The double-decker Megabus is busting at the seams with equally quirky and potentially noisy characters. I had hoped to sleep through this six-hour bus ride to New York; my friend and I plan to celebrate our reunion in style and I want to be rested. Somehow, I doubt I will get much sleep.
An older man sits across from us. He pushes rimless glasses up his nose towards his “MA Gen. Hospital & Psychiatry” cap. He pointedly reads his book and ignores the woman.
“Can you do me a fava’?” my seatmate asks him in a thick Boston accent that pops like bubblegum. “Could you ask the driva’ to turn down the heat?”
The older man looks slowly up from his book and in a low, thin voice suggests that she do it. “I can’t,” the woman says, “I would have to ask this nice lady to get up!”
I clear my throat and offer to move. The woman turns to look at me. I can’t tell how old she is. She has slathered on a thick layer of foundation three shades too dark for her New England complexion. An entirely black outfit, from stockings to turtle neck, hugs her small frame. Her hair is bobbed and bright auburn – suspiciously free of grey hairs.
She waves away my offer and the man reluctantly pulls his spindly body out of his seat. He walks slowly and carefully through the aisle of seats to the driver at the front of the bus. The woman cranes her neck to watch as her request is delivered. The man turns, gives a quick nod to the woman, and she happily opens up her newspaper.
A flash of gold attracts my attention and I see she bears a bulky wedding ring with a black opal embedded in gold. I check her companion’s wrinkled hand as he slowly squeezes back into his seat. His band of gold is simple, and shines dully in the dim light. I wonder if they are married, and struggle to imagine them frolicking in youthful love.
Thirty minutes into the bus ride, the woman is quietly engrossed in her newspaper and the man across from her is fast asleep. It’s finally quiet enough to read. I open Beautiful Ruins, my travel novel set in Italy, and pick up where I left off:
“At four in the morning, Pasquale was still thinking about the moment in the dark bunker…”
I devour the words, along with my almonds, in content. My peace is soon interrupted when four twenty-somethings across the aisle from us, start a spirited game of spades at their bus table.
“Children. They’re children!” My seatmate says to the sleeping man. The woman sighs, rustles her paper and plastic, and goes back to reading her newspaper. “A dorm.” She says to herself, “I think we’ve fallen into a dorm!” I hide my smile behind my book.
Her high-pitched cackle cuts through the silence. I give up on reading. She wakes the old man to read a review for a Korean “castration movie,” ending with how the victims “learn to adjust.” He makes no attempt to smile or grimace and puts his headphones back in. The countryside seems to fly by with the minutes. Meanwhile, the game of spades keeps on going.
“It’s ok, we’re learning! It’s a learning process…” says a boy in khakis and a striped shirt amid shrieks and giggles.
“Let’s google it! What’s this called, Spades?” asks a girl who hasn’t let go of her iPhone throughout the whole game. Her voice reminds me of all the things I hated about high school.
“Maybe they’re practicing for an exam,” the woman says. There’s no response from the old man trying to sleep. She taps him and he tiredly removes his earphones.
“Do they offa’ classes in cards at school?” she says. A slight shrug is all she receives.
“Fast track to Vegas!!” she laughs and he puts his earphones back in, only to take them out again as she asks,
“What is the allure of cards for four hours? There’s no prize!”
“Score” he murmurs simply with a shrug.
The woman seems satisfied with his one word answer. She leans back in her plastic and watches the fields fly by her window.
“Ladder!” The man says suddenly, excitement making his voice rise above a whisper for the first time. He points his pale finger at a truck passing with a fancy, extendable ladder strapped to the roof. The woman briefly looks out the window but says nothing. The truck passes and they both settle back into their own worlds.
About a half an hour later, the woman puts down her newspaper, taps the man and says, “I thought her name was Ellen Degenerate! It’s Degeneres!”
At this, the quiet man catches my eye. I suppress a laugh and his slightly asymmetrical, white mustache twitches up into the first smile of the bus ride. Beneath his wire frames I see a look my grandfather used to make when my grandmother would say something hilariously naïve or ignorant. Beneath all the bickering and the nagging, there stood the pretty little girl he married, and he never forgot how she made him laugh.