Joel Barish on the Bus

The sun has already set when you leave the office, and the world seems no longer capable of colors. Another short December day, and you'll be thirty-eight. You hide your hands deep inside your pockets, knowing that the cold will find them anyway. In the parking lot, your car is not in its usual place, and you look around panicked for a moment. Then you remember that it won't be back from its annual checkup until Thursday. Resigned, you turn and head for the bus stop.

Under your feet, the pavement is soggy and soiled. The crows keep their heads low and fluff their feathers, trying to stay warm as they probe the cracks for anything edible. An old lady buries her chin in a scarf, her nostrils releasing a puff of steam. There is no one else at the bus stop. The lady is wearing gray. The crows are wearing black. You're wearing black. The old lady looks at you with disapproval. The crows look at you with disapproval. You look at your feet. The bus arrives. You find an empty seat near the back, and lean your head against the window. You close your eyes, and let your bones resonate with the motor's monotonous rumble.


It's April. You're sixteen. A clear orange sun shines above verdant lindens. The asphalt sparkles and shimmers with the heat. At last, the school bus arrives, and you climb aboard. Inside, it smells like too much air freshener. Erica is sitting near the front, and you remind yourself to breathe as you take in her unclouded, perfectly sculpted face. Her hands are playing absentmindedly with the straps of her backpack, which is resting on her lap. You hesitate. There's an empty seat next to her. Your throat is dry and your hands start to sweat. If only you knew what to say. Every time you see her, this happens. And every time, you feel like a worthless piece of shit. You wish that she didn't affect you in this way.

So you keep walking, and sit down across the aisle, a few rows behind her. From here you watch as her delicate fingers rise and comb through her straight black hair. You imagine what her hand would feel like if she did that to you instead. She's wearing her tiny green shoes again, and you notice that her right heel is out of its shoe and resting on the hem. That makes you feel ashamed, for some reason. You look away and think of the other times you've watched her. How she sat in the cafeteria with her back straight, when everyone else was slouching. How she kept her chin up when a senior poked a dirty jibe at her in the hallway. How she volunteered to decorate the homeroom for Christmas.

At the next stop, your friend Charlie gets on the bus. You give him a small wave, but he doesn't see you. He goes straight for the empty seat next to Erica. Charlie, who can pull a joke out of thin air, and who always beats you at chess. He has no trouble starting a conversation with her. You watch with powerless envy as Erica tilts her head to one side and laughs. And you tell yourself that it's okay, that in a few years it will all make sense, and this will be just as easy for you. As the bus moves, the sunlight filters through the trees in ragged bursts. You close your eyes and let the light fall on your face, in a violent dance of orange and red flashes.


"Hey buddy, last stop," the driver wakes you with a firm tap on the shoulder. It's dark outside. You look around and the bus is empty. Everything looks dirty and gray under the electric lights. You mumble a vague apology and step off. Your feet are numb. You pull your hat further down to cover your ears. Walking to your apartment, you can't stop feeling like you forgot something important, but you just can't remember what it was.