The Girl on the Bus

A summertime crush, courtesy of mass transit.

Since time untold, boys have had crushes on girls — head-in-the-clouds infatuations carried on from a safe distance. Charlie Brown had the Little Red-Haired Girl. Duckie had Andie Walsh. Last summer, I had the Girl on the Bus.

To save some money on my daily commute, I had eschewed the Metro and started taking the bus between Union Station and my office in Georgetown. Then, one day, I noticed her — a young woman sitting on the opposite end of the bus.

I just couldn’t stop looking at her. She had soft blue eyes and a placid, even facial expression. She had a plain and natural sort of beauty. Just looking at her relaxed me.

As I started seeing her there more and more often, I developed a routine that allowed me to watch her inconspicuously. My usual seat was near the front of the bus, facing the back. She usually sat near the back, but facing forward. With my dark sunglasses, I could sneak glances of her without appearing to be a gaping yokel.

The more often I saw her, the more I daydreamed about approaching her. But it had been almost a year since I’d dated anyone, and I hadn’t tried to chat up a stranger since high school, so I was incredibly rusty. Besides, she was usually wearing ear buds. I’d be making even more of a nuisance of myself by interrupting her music, I rationalized. So I kept myself at arm’s length — free to imagine what could be, without fear of rejection.

I saw her less and less as the summer wore on, due to vacations, changes in my schedule, and whatever mitigating circumstances she might have had. Soon, I stopped seeing her altogether. Still, I looked for the mystery girl every day — until one day in September, when my guard was down and I was trying to fix my broken sunglasses, and she reappeared.

What’s more, she sat down right next to me. She wasn’t even wearing her ear buds! It was as if the stars had aligned in my favor. I’d shaved just that morning (a rare effort for me), and I was wearing aftershave and one of my best shirts. I looked good, and I smelled good.

Of course, I did have milk breath, which was all the excuse I needed to clam up. I sat in silence, too self-conscious to even steal a sideways glance. Why hadn’t I been better prepared for this? What could I say? Ask her where she’s been, and try to awkwardly segue into the foibles of commuting, and how you notice the same people day after day? No, too sketchy.

Should I pull out my notepad and start writing, then ask her for an unbiased opinion? But what the hell could I write on the spot? I should have had something already written or printed out.

Maybe I could slip her a piece of paper — a little Hey, I’m shy, but I really want to talk to you, e-mail me some time. Yeah, way to man up, buddy.

I noticed her fidgeting with her bag. We were close to her stop, Ninth and New York Avenue. Maybe I could feign ignorance and ask her if her stop was coming up. Sure, it was dopey, but would be a start.

Nothing. I did nothing.

I beat myself up over it, knowing that I had missed the best chance I would ever get. Unable to get the experience out of my mind, I unburdened myself on LiveJournal. I got several pep talks from friends, online and in person. Now that I had several other people involved in the saga, there was no turning back. I had to make a move, or look like a chump in front of all those closest to me.

I got a second chance just three days later.

She was in the window seat closest to the middle doors, and there was an open spot next to her. I claimed the seat and immediately went mute again. I had intended to say “Good morning” right away, nice and simple. But I hesitated, and the longer I waited, the stupider and less spontaneous it would sound.

I tried to say, “Hi, I’m Kevin,” but the words kept getting stuck. I held them right on the tip of my tongue and wouldn’t let them out. I felt paralyzed. I had never had so much difficulty just talking to a girl.

I noticed a brightly decorated truck, like an ice cream truck, going the opposite way on the street. It was covered with anti-homosexual images and slogans, and reprehensibly enough, I think there was a reference to 9-11. A part of me thought, Oh, there’s something to talk about! Just make an observation about how tasteless it is. But even I knew that starting with politics was just asking for trouble.

Just as the bus had started down Massachusetts Avenue, I inhaled sharply. “Hi, I’m Kevin,” I said. She turned to look at me, her face registering … something. Confusion? Curiosity? It wasn’t hostility, at least. “I always see you on the bus, and I just figured …” I can’t even remember whether I finished the thought.

She seemed willing to play along, and told me that her name was Joanna. Yeah, come to think of it, she did look like a Joanna. I think. What does a Joanna look like, anyway?

I asked her if she worked in the city. (Duh.) She was a paralegal, as it so happened. She asked where I worked, and I told her I was a data researcher at U.S. News & World Report, in Georgetown, working on the college rankings. She seemed to relate, telling me that she’d done some research on other schools for her college, a small school in Maryland. I didn’t catch the name. I asked her to repeat it, still didn’t get it, and moved on, not wanting to look like a moron. I talked a bit more about my job, which I’m sure was fascinating. We spent the rest of the conversation commiserating about the horrors of commuting, since she also took the train into DC.

So, I was incredibly relieved. I had initiated conversation, she was receptive and talkative, I maintained eye contact for the most part (a major weakness for me), and she had a beautiful smile, with straight, white teeth. I’d never really seen that smile, since people usually don’t spend their morning commute engaged in anything other than listening to music, reading a book, or staring off into space.

And she was laughing. It was a pleasant, chipper, but slightly goofy laugh. I liked it, because God knows my laugh is as goofy as they come. A girl that I had a crush on in seventh grade made fun of my dopey, low-pitched chuckle, and I’ve never quite forgotten that.

We drew close to her stop, so I reached for my bag, grabbed a pen and a postcard advertisement of Coriolanus (the play I was acting in at the time), and asked if I could give her my e-mail address.

I quickly saw the hesitation, the reluctance in her face. She said something about a boyfriend, he probably wouldn’t be happy with that, yadda yadda. So the answer was no. I started babbling, as I tried to let her know that I just figured it was worth a try, no harm done, etc. etc. She got up to leave; I think she said it was nice talking to me.

After she was gone, I realized that we were passing Eighth Street. I had scared her into getting off early.

Oh well. At least I got farther than Charlie Brown ever did with the Little Red Haired girl.

Article © 2008 by Kevin Brotzman