The Girl with the Sympathetic Face

“And then he says, ‘I’ll leave when the kids graduate high school, and we’ll get married.’ But when that time came, his wife was sick, had to have an operation and he didn’t feel like he could leave then. It was always one thing or another, and now I’m forty-five and I’ve wasted the best years of my life….”

“Mmm-hmm.”

Lily had a face that attracted confidences. Her bus ride to work was filled with revelations from total strangers. They made a bee-line for the empty seat beside her. Lily neither invited nor rejected these stories, some of which continued over days and weeks. In fact, she seldom commented. Yet the stories poured forth. To her, they seemed like the patchwork quilts her mother used to make: splashes of color, recognizable scraps of cloth, but assembled in a different way.

“The doctor said I gotta quit drinking, but I told him I’m no quitter!” said one bulbous-nosed fellow-traveler, wheezing out a cloud of alcohol-laden laughter.

Lily recoiled from his fumes, but she only said, ‘Mmm-hmm.”

She did her best to remain detached from all the stories, but sometimes detachment didn’t feel good. A weary young mother confessed to locking her little ones in the car while she grocery-shopped.

“I know it’s wrong, but it’s just so hard to lug them all into the store and settle the fights about who rides where in the cart. And they pull things off the shelves; I never know what I’ll have to pay for when I get to check-out.”

Lily bit her tongue. She wanted to say, “Don’t you know how dangerous it is to leave them alone? Can’t someone watch them while you shop?” But that would sound judgmental, and her opinion hadn’t been requested. So she said, “Mmm-hmm.” She worried about it all day.

Lily would try to avoid contact by bending intently over her phone, or  holding up the printed pages of a newspaper like a shield. Didn’t matter. Someone would sit down beside her, say “Good morning,” and of course, she’d respond. She couldn’t not respond. Then the story would begin and she’d resign herself again to the role of listener.

His eye was multi-colored. There was an oozing red cut on his forehead and his lip was puffy. Obviously, he’d taken a beating. Lily hoped against hope that he’d pass her seat, but inevitably he sat down beside her and started talking.

“Bet you wonder why I’m not in school,” he began. Lily shrugged. “I’m not going any more because I’m in this…club, like…and I’ve got things I gotta do.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“My mom, she was all up in my face crying and stuff when I got jumped in. She don’t understand, it’s tough on the street, you gotta have homies to watch your back.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“So now, I gotta show I can be trusted. Like, I hafta deliver this package to a guy.”

Lily could guess what was in the package. She felt a need to speak that could not be repressed.

“Don’t you think you’d be better off staying in school, maybe learn a trade and get ready for life?”

“Huh! You sound just like my mom.” The young man glared at her, got up and changed  seats.

The mother dumped her toddler like a sack of potatoes in the seat next to Lily, with a slap to stifle his tears. The little boy looked to be about two. His nose was bubbling with green mucous, and one eye was crusted shut. He gave off an unpleasant odor of unchanged diapers and sour milk. The mother plopped herself down across the aisle and pointedly looked away.

One blue eye, the one that could still open, looked up at Lily. Then he bent forward and vomited on her shoes. In the ensuing commotion of searching for tissues and wiping up what could be wiped, Lily never noticed the mother leave. When she glanced across the aisle, she saw an empty seat.

The hopeless slump of the little boy’s shoulders made something turn over in Lily’s heart. His probable future flashed through her mind: police, social workers, foster care, a string of homes and schools, maybe life in an orphanage, or worst of all, his horrible mother reclaiming him. No more, I can’t take any more, she thought, as she carried him up to the bus driver, a seven-foot journey she knew would change his life forever.

Lily took the next day off from work and nine a.m. found her at a car dealership. “I’m here to buy a car,” she told the salesman. “I’m done riding the bus.”

“Of course,” he replied, happy to have a solid prospect sitting in front on him. Just then his cell phone rang. He excused himself and stepped into the hall. When he came back, his face was creased with worry.

“Sorry,” he said. “Trouble at home. I’ve got this teenage stepdaughter. That was her school; she’s not there again today. She needs a firm hand, but her mother goes ballistic if I try to discipline her.”

Lily knew at that moment she might change her ride, but she couldn’t change her face. She settled down to listen.

“Mmm-hmm.”

 

 

 

 

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