Old Man Winter’s Bus Ride
It was Christmas Eve. John knew that his wife would be spending the evening with her family. If things had worked out, he should have been there with her. He would be laughing with Joanne’s brothers and sisters, drinking hot cocoa and eggnog, standing underneath the mistletoe waiting for his unsuspecting beauty to walk by, or watching the nephews and nieces amuse themselves with hilarious and ridiculous games before joining in them himself.
But it hadn’t worked out. John and Joanne had been together for years, and it was the first time he had missed the Christmas party in so long he couldn’t even remember. Instead John stood at a barren and trashy bus stop in the middle of a frozen city. Dirty windows glowed with dusty yellow incandescence all around him. Hoarfrost crept slowly up the panes from the deepening cold, though the gray smudged light behind them continued to seep through in utter defiance of the winter darkness.
Everywhere, Old Man Winter had left his signature. Wet snow had drifted to the sides of the brick-front buildings, and black slush covered the roads and sidewalks. Men and women splashed through the streets in boots and galoshes during the day, but in the dark hours of the night the stagnating avenues and alleyways lay deserted, left alone to the drifting snow.
John shivered in the cold. He rarely fell prey to the winter temperatures, but this year—especially the past few days—had been jarringly frigid. The bitter air cut at his face and coat, and his bare hands were shoved deep within his pockets to lend a little warmth to his freezing fingertips. His jeans felt icy from the north wind and seemed to do nothing to relieve the chill. John wished he had bought himself woolen socks, even though he hated wool.
He stamped his feet in impatience, and wished he hadn’t. Dirty sludge spattered his jeans, and the cold wet oozed through the denim to his skin. He heard the shifting gears of the transit bus and the whine of its brakes as it slowed to a stop. He stepped away from the curb to avoid being splashed by the mush spewing tires, and the familiar hissing of exhaust fumes and the creak of the passenger door went unheeded as he stepped into the warm coach, stomping the clinging mire off his shoes. He continued up the steps, only pausing to pay his bus fare before facing the other passengers.
There was only one.
She was sitting near the middle of the bus, looking down at her hands, gloved tightly in black leather. Her pale cheeks and nose tip were rosy from the cold. She sat with her legs crossed, twitching her elevated foot to an unknown rhythm.
John slipped the ring off his finger and stuck it in his jeans’ pocket.
He sat down opposite the girl, two seats away, and watched her out of the corner of his eye. He waited until she was looking straight at him, and then exhaled warmly on his undecorated hand. How can I do this to her, to my Joanne? He thought. Am I serious? He glanced at her, and she abruptly looked away, uncomfortably shifting her feet. They rode in silence, but as the bus stopped to bring on a few more passengers, she got up to leave.
He halted her in the aisle.
“Wait. I know this isn’t your stop and it’s extremely cold. You’ll freeze waiting for the next bus.”
She looked at him strangely, but he continued.
“I stood out there for ten minutes and within the first seconds I thought I’d never be able to get warm again.”
He said this as though it meant something. She looked at the closing door, and then sat down only a seat away before staring at her gloves again.
I merely saved her from the cold, he told himself, innocently. And then he watched her intently. The ring in his pocket dug uncomfortably into his leg.
The girl’s satiny lips betrayed her sadness before John’s relentless scrutiny—he was thinking about how those lips must feel on his skin.
“I’m sorry you had a rough night.”
She looked at him a bit angrily, but saw that his face was sincere. She softened—though only a very little.
“How would you know if I had a rough night?” Her voice was quiet and beautiful, and he thought about how that voice must sound when it whispered next to his ears.
“Why else would anyone be unhappy on Christmas Eve?”
She examined his face suspiciously, but failed to detect whatever it was she searched for.
The back of his neck was suddenly very hot and prickly, and his leg burned. She’s talking about me, I know. He frowned at the contents of his jeans’ pocket.
“It must be painful,” he empathized.
She snorted. He went on.
“You’re together with someone for so long, and a separation makes you realize…” He paused and looked down. “…How much you valued the companionship.”
She stared at him.
He stared at his jeans.
I know what I’m doing. Just helping her out, that’s all. There’s nothing in it for me. He looked back up at her when she finally answered.
“You think you understand?”
John shook his head.
She sneered and turned her face away.
“I didn’t think you did.”
“I try to.” The words were nearly inaudible, but she heard them. Her face softened considerably and their eyes locked. He thought about how big her eyes looked in the mellow light.
“Thank you,” she said gently.
Her facial expression morphed into confusion, and she stumbled over her words.
“For… for protecting me from the cold.”
They both looked away.
I’ve got a chance. I opened the door. He smiled to himself, but the ring in his pocket burned hotter, and his smile disappeared.
He shifted restlessly.
The bus rumbled on through the lamp-lit city. The girl fiddled with her gloves, now and then glancing sidelong at John.
John stared at the floor, growing more and more uncomfortable. They were both silent.
The brakes squealed, and the sound of releasing pressure ruffled the quiet. John sighed. The girl’s eyes followed him as he stood up and looked back down at her, the internal struggle resolved.
“I’m sorry for your pain.” He said.
Snow crunched beneath his feet as he walked away from the bus. He took the ring out of his pocket and put it back on his finger. He felt better and worse at the same time. What had he been thinking, taking off his ring? He knew it would’ve injured Joanne, and she might never forgive him.
John turned to see the girl stepping out of the transit, and he waited for her to catch up, his face full of emotion. He spoke as she neared him and showed her his fingers to explain his slight.
“I took my wedding ring off when I boarded the bus.”
She smiled ruefully.
“I know. I saw you take it off. It hurt at first.”
“I am so sorry that we can’t—”
She hushed him and removed her glove, letting the flickering lamp light play over the ring on her left hand. Her eyes searched his face and her teeth chattered as she spoke.
“It hasn’t left my finger since the day of our fight, John. Mom and Dad’s Christmas party wasn’t the same without you.”
Tears sprang to his eyes, and John felt again the satiny lips, and heard the voice whisper next to his ear.
She took his cold hand in her own warm one.
New snow started to fall, settling gently on Joanne’s shoulders and eyelashes, and sparkling in the light before melting away.
Spring had come, and Old Man Winter’s bus ride was over.