I have been traveling on a bus in India for 15 hours, and I am lonely. Not lonely as a single traveler roaming alone, but lonely as an empty passenger not willing to initiate the cure for my disease. I have over-written in my journal and my hand is experiencing early symptoms of arthritis. I’ve organized my itinerary with five backup plans. I’ve confirmed that I’m still under budget, and now I’m sitting bored to death, unhappy with myself and with no other rock for my mind to hide under.
“Oh, good, a stop,” I think as the bus decelerates in the middle of nowhere.
After visiting the bathroom, I wait for everyone to climb back aboard. When no one moves, I take the liberty. The door handle is stuck and I pull and pull until an elderly gentleman approaches and points out that we have a 20-minute break before the driver will return. Then he asks where I am from. For a moment, I think: Has he seen through me? Does he know that I am desperate for attention?
I answer cautiously — and immediately feel my penned-up insecurities melt away. This one simple question leads to a conversation that lasts through the day and into the night. Eventually, my neck grows stiff from speaking behind me through the 1-inch space between my seat and the one next to it. As our vocal cords exhaust, I smile wordless thanks for this gift of congregation.
A short while later, a commotion starts a few rows ahead. Suddenly a human figure lurches toward me, staring straight into my eyes. It looks like a ghost startling me in my dreams, but in fact is a woman who insists in the form of a question “May I sit with you? My child can’t sleep in our seat.”
Before I can answer, she fills the empty seat beside me and rests her head back on the recliner. A minute later her head jerks in my direction and she asks, “Are you married?” I smile, knowing that this will lead again to the kind of heartfelt sharing I cherish on the road: opinions, questions, reactions, desires, dreams.
Eventually my companion falls into a heavy slumber, amplified through her nostrils, but I am freezing and cannot sleep. Though my sweater is clinched tightly over my damp arms and my blanket is draped over me like a poncho, icy air flows onto me through a miniature window crack. Thankfully, the bus makes a road stop and I carefully step over my seat-mate’s lap. My goal is to find the bus guide and request another blanket, but I realize that I haven’t memorized his face. I return to the row before mine and look dismally at my vacant arctic seat.
The retired teacher behind me, my earlier conversation partner, inquires about the concerned look on my face. He suggests that I sit alongside the sleeping man across from him, who has chosen the seat next to the window, leaving the aisle seat free. As I relocate my purse, blanket and body, the man comes out of his sleep. I smile as if being caught committing a misdemeanor and explain my situation. He confesses that he has wanted to talk with me the whole journey and just never found an opportunity to do so. Suddenly we are deep in conversation about music, work and people.
After a while, sleep dominates the direction of our words, but again, I have trouble finding a comfortable position. My head bobs forward and backward as though I am dunking for apples with my teeth. My anonymous friend guides my restless head to his shoulder. I follow his leadership and breathe in deeply. I want nothing more than to feel my temple somehow attached to his shoulder.
Still, I cannot sleep, not because I am uncomfortable, but because my heart is racing a marathon I don’t know how to run. He steals a look at my wide-open eyes and I childishly turn away from his discovery. My shy reaction is hindered with a gentle hand that embraces my cheek and brings it back to its natural resting spot near the nape of his neck. Then he kisses my forehead like a mother kissing her son.
I cherish the warm feeling of his hand as it glides down the back of my neck and down the angora coat that clings to my thawed forearms. As his touch draws near to my hand, my body stiffens, feeling an unfamiliar need to catch his grip and never let go. His hand approaches my wrist. I hold my breath. The fingertips of this stranger slowly pass over the top of my hand, pass my knuckles, and pass over my fingers until he uses my fingernail as a launching pad — and suddenly disappears. His hand returns to its safe place on his left leg. He sits motionless.
In my overwhelming feeling of deprivation I stare at his statue-like hand upon that distant leg and beg with wanting eyes. My right hand is forced to cope with its recent rejection. I wait and wait for him to reconsider. After five minutes I feel completely abandoned. His shoulder no longer feels like my bloodline and I now have a need to alienate this close moment. I am sure that I have just read the last line of this saga.
As I take a deep breath to energize my fatigued neck muscles and remove my exhausted head, his hand moves closer, like a spider towards a fly caught in its web. With increasing anticipation, I watch this creeping hand move magnetically toward my fingertips. It nears the end of its journey right before my fingers, and stops with fear and hesitation.
I am part of a chemistry experiment in progress, ready to explode, and I realize that I don’t need to just wait and receive his affection in this episode. Without stopping myself, I make the final move and caress my fingernail over his palm. Now every window has been opened to accept this moment of closeness. His fingers ski over my veins and tightly grab the body of my hand. My grip rewards his behavior and for the final three hours of the journey, we hold each other’s hands in quiet solitude.
When the sun rises, our fingers loosen and our drowsy minds begin to emerge from half-sleep. Our eyes lock in the gentle beams of dawn and the bus comes to a sudden halt. His stop, the one before mine, arrives without warning. Frantically we both separate from our close position and he begs me to call the number on his business card, the only indication I have of who this stranger is.
Then he is gone, without my promise, and I sit beside an empty seat, no longer alone again.