Three teen-aged girls in tight mini-skirts clung together on a wide seat at the rear of the bus. A gang of quarrelsome bums I’d seen near the Salvation Army shelter kept inviting them to a beer party in a park near the river. Flattered by the attention, the girls huddled together, giggling and mugging, fingering their long straight hair and exchanging melodramatic stage whispers in a blur of kissy lips and painted nails. Erupting in squeals, they’d pull their knees up to their chests and rock back against the seat, flashing a heavenly tangle of slender baby legs and nasty panties.
I kept a protective eye on them, but I also sneakily glanced up their skirts, a cackling pirate about to ravish his concubines, a fairly unrealistic fantasy for a balding, forty-two year-old man whose desires greatly exceeded his ability to fulfill them. Well, I decided, if I couldn’t have them, then neither could the smelly cretins trying to charm them.
One of the girls, quiet, and a bit more self-possessed, caught my head wagging “No,” and she seemed to finally realize that they were courting certain disaster. Grabbing her friends, she led them off the bus at the next stop. On the way out, she turned to me and nodded, letting me know she’d taken my advice.
I was living on South Congress Avenue, a few blocks uphill from the Colorado River, a five-minute, wino-infested walk from downtown Austin. I rented an upstairs corner apartment in a complex that poured itself down a wooded slope above a dry creek choked with rotten logs and garbage. I lived alone, painting tiny abstract watercolors vibrant with Prussian blue, crimson, piss-yellow and a radiant, transparent pink nearly buried beneath a rusty earth pigment cooled with dabs of viridian. I contained the colors within shapes that mimed a woman’s handbag, or a shepherd’s pouch, hard-edged poly-forms that concealed more than they displayed.
I craved only the most compelling pleasures then, a wanton tongue crushed against mine, char-broiled meat, my brush’s wet scrape across a sheet of handmade paper, a transparent water glass riven gold by a lamp’s muted sheen. I had escaped alcohol’s leathery grasp and vanquished the chattering devils who’d been hissing in my ears for two decades. But like a newly born infant, I couldn’t filter the torrent of sensations bombarding me. I shunned what I wanted most, as though I might crash through the skylight of my own desires.
And Eros came to me of its own accord, the mysterious cornucopia sobriety awards those who need it most. I tried to isolate each tender sensation and savor its fruity musk. The chalkiness of evaporating gouache. Sundown’s violet ribbon encircling the hills west of town. The teenaged punk-rocker with bottomless eyes who rode me hot and close one night and aroused long-stifled memories of my own innocence. But I lacked grace, and delicacy, and I clung so tightly to each pleasure that they all escaped my grasp like freed canaries.
Barricaded behind my paintings, I struggled to avoid romance, but I was a half-shut door left creaking in the breezes of my own dithering. A well-connected divorcee came slumming, ransacked my heart and then retreated into the cocoon of entitlement that wealthy Texas women toss over their shoulders like cashmere sweaters. And now, I’d entangled myself with a schoolteacher, a robust redhead with an explosive perm who radiated a brittle, self-absorbed independence. She’d transformed courtship into a complicated series of political negotiations dry as the barrage of legal warnings that precede a rented video, as though her feminist political baggage, her car and the house she owned could somehow transform our relationship into a passionate romance. She disliked my paintings for their exclusion of social commentary, and preferred discussing art therapy and her unfocused spiritual enthusiasms. I strung her along because I could, and I hated myself for it.
The next time I boarded the bus, the quiet girl I’d signaled a few days earlier walked to the back, sat down and began leafing through a newspaper. She looked older than her friends now, maybe twenty, and judging from the pile of books in her lap, a student at the local junior college. Her chestnut hair framed a slender, sculpted face burnished gold by winter’s morning light, ablaze with a taunting cheekiness that could shame older men who thought themselves brave. I had to look at her a few more times before I realized that she was staring me down, her flashing mahogany eyes boring holes in my chest, a smile’s bare hint lifting the corners of her mouth, an elusive provocation powerful enough to flood me with desire. She was, in fact, the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen in my life. I grew tipsy with desire, and slid back into my seat.
At each stop, the regular south Congress Avenue bus passengers boarded, old Texan gentlemen wearing three-piece suits fifty years out of date and sporting Stetson Open Road hats, Cecil the street preacher rifling through his worn bible and revving himself up for the percussive rants he’d discharge against the high-rises at the intersection of 6th and Congress, and cement-faced Chicano gang-bangers lounging in a cloud of their own misdirected testosterone, tattooed teardrops dripping from their eyelids, trying their best to intimidate me. She sat quietly, twinkling like a diamond amidst a pile of peach pits, glowing through the chattering rabble surrounding her. She shot me a last haughty glance and, overcome by her own boldness, she disappeared into her newspaper, a Chinese courtesan blushing behind her fan.
The next morning I took one of the rear seats. She stood up, walked over and threw herself down beside me, and then immediately jumped up and took a seat farther away from me. “Hi,” I said, and smiled at her. She was wearing a blue dress that revealed a pair of delightfully slender legs, and she kept trying to pull it down over her knees. I leaned over and whispered, “Stop pulling your dress down! You have very sexy legs!” She blushed furiously, but she left it alone. It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation on a bus without being overheard, and I became acutely aware that a couple of nosy old biddies were shaking their heads in disapproval. She slid away from me and took cover again behind her newspaper. “What’s your name?” I asked. She lowered her paper. I received a put-upon rolling of the eyes and a yawn quickly stifled behind her fingers. I saw that, unlike her girlfriends, she wore neither makeup nor jewelry, lovely in her unadorned plainness. “You have a name, don’t you?”
“Mary! My name is Mary! So there! So now you know – so there!”
“Looks like you just woke up, sweetie.”
Another stifled yawn, puffy eyes, grouchy, bitchy disdain, and a hint of acne-sprinkles around the corners of her mouth that made me yearn to kiss her.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
“The classifieds. I’m looking for a car.”
“Oh? If you buy a car, you won’t ride the bus anymore.”
A scornful glare indicated the depth of my stupidity.
“I might, or I might not!”
“Well, I’m glad you’re getting a car, but I’ll miss seeing you. You’re the best reason I can think of to ride the bus. You’re beautiful – Don’t you ever smile?”
She rolled her eyes heavenward, slid even further away and glared out the window, but when I’d look over at her, I sensed that she was trying very hard to keep from examining me. When I glanced back and inspected her again, she peered out the window and pretended that I didn’t exist.
I continued to see the teacher, mostly because I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of her without hurting her feelings. I knew that she was trapped between her own independence and a wintry desperation so intense that even when she laughed some hidden wound gnawed at her heart, and she seemed then as forlorn as a lone drunk hunched over a cocktail on Christmas night. When you’re consumed with desire for someone who might be feeling the same way about you, all other possible lovers become annoying distractions.
My paintings began to display such intense erotic heat that I grew embarrassed by them, sulfurous panels reeking with sexual tension. I was consumed with desire for a shy, withdrawn girl who seemed determined to keep my attention. I reminded myself that years ago I’d destroyed a marriage when I’d become infatuated with a young girl desperate to escape the monotony of a sprawling, white-trash family, a ravishing, Irish-Cherokee beauty who snuck out of her bedroom window late at night to join me, only to run off later with a pimply Romeo in a rusting Chevy, leaving me dragging my humiliation and unspent passion behind me like a sack of mossy potatoes.
Mary opened up, and we talked. By now, I knew that her parents were divorced, that she lived with her mother, listened to Joni Mitchell and spoke passable Spanish. And I’d heard all about the dumb boys that she’d flung from the walls of her romantic fortress. She was quick, and filled with sarcastic stories, and she hissed into my ear with a girly lisp that melted what little reserve I could muster. But while she became looser and more open every day, she continued to cover her mouth with her hands when she talked, and she suppressed every laugh that struggled to escape her. Once, while she was chatting away, I’d taken her hand in mine, feathered my finger across her palm, and brushed her hair back from her face. She fell quiet then, breathing deeply. I kept holding her hand, and then I set it down in her lap, a hair’s breadth short of the French kiss floating between us.
I bought a box of chocolates one morning and boarded the bus. Mary walked down the crowded aisle toward me, and rather than sit, she stood very still, waiting for me to look up at her. She was wearing her blue dress, a pale smear of lipstick, and eye shadow – managing at once to look both chaste and slutty, torturing me a bit. I handed her the box of candy, and said “For you.” I wanted desperately to pull her down onto my lap. She let her presence take full effect and then sat down next to me. I leaned over and whispered: “You and that dress were made for each other.” She didn’t back down, or slide away from me. I had to have her, and I sensed that she was ready. Before I got off the bus, I leaned over toward her and whispered, “I can’t stop thinking about you.” Just before I stepped off the bus I looked back. She was smiling slightly, and I knew she was saying “Yes.”
The next day I suggested that we meet downtown and go to the park, and then go to my place. She agreed, eyes wide and eager.
“How about Saturday morning?,” I proposed.
“Sure – what time?”
“Around noon, I said.”
“Good,” she said. “That way I can do my homework in the morning.”
“That reminds me,” I said. “I keep forgetting to ask you – what grade are you in?”
“I’m a sophomore,” said Mary.
“At the university, or the community college?” I inquired.
She glared at me, incredulous.
“No, silly, at LBJ high school!”
She dropped her hands from her face and smiled, a wide-open beaming grin revealing pearl-white teeth nearly buried behind gleaming racks of chrome retainers.
“Well,” I said. “Well.”
I couldn’t speak, and I flushed so deeply red that I thought I could taste it in my mouth. Her shyness, awkward glances, and that brassy honk in her voice that made me so hot belonged to a pubescent girl extending herself far beyond her ability to deliver what she was offering me. I pictured her bedroom shelves lined with dolls. My nose became an enormous leathery proboscis dragging the bus’s floor. Ears widened into brutish flaps, I could feel them rudely slapping the backs of people’s heads as I tried to exit the bus. My feet turned to leathery stumps, crushing the bus’s stairs as I clomped onto the sidewalk. I imagined the entire crowd gathered around the bus stop eying me with jaundiced disapproval, an aging bull elephant gored by his own self-deception. A gaggle of winos leaned against a chain-link fence and watched me deflate into a gasping heap. I was a single French kiss away from a cell in a Texas state prison.
My mother called one day. Nearly ninety, and she’d crashed her car again, and her driving days were over. I agreed to buy the car from her, so I rode a Greyhound bus out to California and picked it up. I drove back in an acrid cloud of guilt and confusion, balancing the schoolteacher I’d never love against my unresolved longing for a dazzling young girl who’d probably already forgotten me and moved on to another infatuation. I assured myself that I’d made a mature decision and choke-chained my passions before I slid into a romance that could only fail. But I knew that I’d be forever haunted by the cowardly retreat I’d made before I had ever pulled her close enough to feel her heat melting into mine.
I never rode the city bus again. I sent the teacher home, her pickup’s tail lights bleeding angry crimson streaks trailing all the way out of the night-shrouded parking lot. Then I began over-painting my work with a series of pearl-hued rectangles bisected by hard-edged bars and stripes tinted dingy brown and Lenten violet, planks nailed so tightly over a shattered window that only the faintest hint of light escaped.
A few months later I walked down to the corner store. A bus hissed to a stop, and even before I looked up, I could feel Mary staring at me. I glanced up at her, sitting behind the driver, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, eyes wide, questioning. As the bus slipped into the traffic, she turned around in her seat, on her knees now, pressing her face against the window, and slowly nodded “Yes!” one last time as the bus disappeared over the Congress Avenue bridge.