It’s blue inside bus #7. The neon light bounces off orange plastic seats reminding me of the UVA football colors. There are no UVA students on the city bus. If they were here, they would try for one of the middle seats. That way they wouldn’t have to make eye contact with the people in the back of the bus. They’d pretend not to hear the booming voices of several men singing along to their portable radio. They’d pretend not to notice the shopping cart lady in the very front booth lugging items like mismatched baby socks and doggie chew toys. They’d pretend they were riding a friend’s oversized Jeep through the familiar back roads to the country club. They’d ride their imagination all the way home.
I stare at my reflection in the window. I am thin, but not skinny. I have long, thick, hair that flows past my shoulders. It’s the best part about me, I joke with my friends. I am starting to see the formation of what will be full-blown wrinkles in another couple of years. I wonder when my classmates at the community college will start to notice the ever-growing age difference between me and them.
There is an Asian woman sitting in front of me who looks to be my age. Although she is in front of me, her seat faces sideways toward a large plastic window. I stare at her profile.
Her hair is as straight as an icicle. My scalp tingles. Cold air hits the back of my neck. Something bumps my ear.
Quickly, I brush the back of my head, smoothing out long strands of frizz. My hair is night-tangled. The day hair has worn off due to humidity and lack of strong hair spray. The night hair has tied knots in an otherwise well-groomed lifestyle.
I stare at the shopping cart woman. Her hand disappears into the cart, pulling out something I can’t identify. Carefully she picks at it, plopping small pieces of it in her mouth.
Splotches of warmth dart between my necklace and the flesh behind it. Again, I swat the back of my head. I can feel it now. Something is definitely not right.
I whip my head around. Crusty knuckles and jagged nails. An old man with white hair and the smell of strong alcohol is holding a chunk of my hair. Strands fall between his fingers as he smiles. A mouth with yellow teeth.
Violation! I want to scream. You can’t do that! But it’s only hair, I remind myself. No use getting freaked out over something small.
I yank my hair back and stare at him. His eyes are uneven windows with shades half drawn. His head gently bumps against the back of his seat.
There are no other seats. Teenagers sprawl over the bench behind him with their legs stretched out in unison. There is one large woman in a blue uniform with a name badge pinned to her chest. She looks official. I could see her yelling at someone to ‘PUT THAT DOWN’ or to ‘STOP RIGHT NOW’, with absolute authority. I look at her desperately. Surly she must have seen the hair groper running his fingers against my scalp. Her eyes remain fixed on the seat in front of her.
Defeated, I turn around again to face the Asian woman. Oh well. It’s not the worst thing in the world. So what? Someone touched my hair. Much worse things can happen to women who ride public transit.
My sneakers are black converse high tops and the soles are sticky from someone’s gum. I pick them up just a tiny bit so that I can hear the gum squeak as it slowly rips off the floor. I imagine it trying to hold on, but not being able to. It’s always good to be grounded. If I keep taking night classes, some day I will be grounded too. I could work in an office. I could make okay money. I could take cabs wherever I wanted.
I feel a lift from inside me. I’m lighter. I’m airy.
I’m being touched again.
Instantly I feel a warmth circling around the top of my head. Little pin-pricks of pressure pull at the top of my scalp as I feel what I’m praying is not there. His fingers.
I jerk my head back and stare directly at the man behind me. He is clearly drunk now. His clothes are stained and he is drooling a little. The smell of cheap CVS mouthwash fills the air. He is probably homeless. I can’t yell at a homeless man.
“Stop it,” I say firmly, grabbing my hair and turning around again. The bus driver hasn’t looked in her rear view mirror for the entire drive. I don’t expect her to look now. I stare at the Asian woman. She is staring hard, too hard, at the window in front of her. I know she can see me.
I nervously lean forward, hoping the man can’t reach me from here. I am practically breathing down the Asian woman’s neck. From this angle I can see her lavender bra strap has a bowtie on the back of her shoulder.
The bus is still several stops from my apartment. Where are these people going? It feels as if no one has stepped off the bus. The teenagers are sleeping. I want to be completely and blissfully unaware of the world too. I want their bench.
Then I feel it. A million snakes swerving through each strand of night hair. I don’t wait to see if it goes away. I know it’s not my imagination.
I flip my head around and stare directly into the hair groper’s eyes. Both of his hands are now knuckle deep in layers upon layers of my hair. I see bits of myself extended in ways that aren’t angled correctly. Am I too polite or am I too afraid? Am I too feminine or am I too meek? The questions sting with judgment.
“Stop!” I say, but it comes out in a whisper. The man lets go of my hair with both hands and it falls limply against the back of my plastic seat.
I lean all the way onto the edge of my chair, hovering dangerously close to the Asian woman. If she refuses to see what’s going on with the hair groper, she won’t notice me hovering beside her. I can’t lean back. I can’t risk being touched.
It only takes a minute for the bus to jump forward as a pothole recedes into the past. In a matter of seconds, I crash wildly into the side of her seat. My hands desperately grab at the air, hoping for something to hold on to. My sneakers skid out in front of me. The Asian woman juts forward, her icicle hair splitting into a million separate pieces. I swallow hard. Maybe she still won’t see me.
“You need to sit back!” She shouts. Her mouth twists into a scornful contortion. Her eyes open wide.
For a moment I don’t say anything. I am ashamed. I stare at the official-looking woman with the name badge, but she doesn’t look up.
“I need to sit like this,” I finally say. My high tops stick to the floor in worried defiance, but I don’t move. I stand my ground. Hovering on the edge of a plastic seat, I know I am not invisible.
Rebecca Lee has been published in newspapers, university journals, and literary magazines around the world. Some publications include: Able Muse, The Kentucky Review, The Virginian Pilot, etc.