I prefer not to sit next to strange men when I travel. When I say strange, I mean unknown to me. I have nothing against odd or quirky men generally. Unless they are also seated directly beside me. In an intimate space — a space so tight it takes no effort to smell or feel that particular man. Then, I am wary.
Headed to my hometown, I board the coach with my everyday purse and a minimally-packed duffle. I scan the pairs of seats on either side of me as I lope down the aisle. I settle on a row, midway back, that seems clean enough. No trash on the floor around the seat and no visible crumbs or stains on the upholstery. I toss my bag in the overhead compartment and wait to see if I’d win the lottery.
The bus lottery is simple enough. Would I hit the jackpot and pull out of the station with an empty seat beside me? The odds increase the earlier you are to board. You secure your spot and casually place a purse or jacket on the seat next to you to deter others from plopping down there. Most folks want to sit alone, I assume, if for nothing other than comfort, the legroom and the ability to spread out across the width of the 36 or so inches of connected cushion. The odds decrease depending on variables like the day of the week, if there is an approaching holiday, the time of departure, etc. I’d won the grand prize a handful of times and when I did, I was always grateful to the Greyhound gods. You can’t win them all though.
“You mind if I join you?”
Not how I would ask to sit next to someone on a charter bus, but okay. Things I would have rather him said: “Is someone sitting here? Is this seat taken? How comfortable are you, on a scale of one to ten, with my sitting beside you?”
I answer “yes.” As in, “Yes, I do mind. I’d much rather a woman sit here.” I absolutely do not want the strange man to sit beside me. But along with that “yes” I shake my head and gesture toward the seat of the to-capacity-filled bus. He thanks me, removes his jacket and proceeds to settle into the seat. Opting not to use the overhead storage, he fusses with a large satchel he holds on his lap. I catch a whiff of his underarms — an added layer of anguish to my disappointment — slump and bury my nose in my pashmina in search of lingering perfume.
We are riding into an ever-darkening night. Outside the oversized windowpane, gradients of darkness whip by and dissolve into an expansive, forever black. I watch the night sky and wait, for any touch that feels deliberate because I want to be reasonable. I want to be sure before I rise up out of my seat like a viper to strike, injecting him with venom of bitter revenge. I won’t not do anything this time.
Years ago, as an undergrad traveling home for winter break, the bus made a pickup at a makeshift stop. It was the kind of “station” that doubled as a diner-slash-gas station. Although other passengers boarded, I only remember a single man. The bus must have been crowded that night because he paused in the aisle beside me and scanned the rest of the bus before deciding to sit.
Making room for him, I scootched toward the chill of the frosted window. I cocooned myself as tightly as possible in my coat, tucking it firmly under and pulling it over my body like a bubble-coat blanket.
He formally introduced himself. His name was Charles something or other. I offered my first name in a dry tone hoping to discourage further conversation, but after finding out we were headed to the same place, he asked my last name.
“Carsons! I know yo’ peoples! Grew up wit’ ’em,” eyes widening while a grin spread across his face.
He grew up on the West Side and used to play ball with my uncles and other relatives. Not surprising; my family is a sizeable and well-liked bunch. He knew my father too; my father “had him a beautiful daughter” he said. I thanked him and turned back toward the window.
The bus rattled and rocked along. With less than an hour of my ride to go, I dwelled somewhere in that space between sleep and wake when I thought I felt something. There was that instinctual pause and tuning in, like when you sense an insect traversing the landscape of your body. I held my breath and waited.
Just lightly. Across my thigh. Again. Just lightly, but intentional enough to pull me into full awareness. Charles was rubbing my thigh. One or two fingers or a whole hand I don’t recall, but the surge of heat that flooded my torso and exploded in my chest was unforgettable. It shocked even me, as it ejected me from my seat.
His eyes were glazed in guilt and fearful as he shrank in his seat. He stuttered sorries as I pushed past him toward the aisle and headed to a seat near the rear. The driver’s voice crackled over the intercom asking if everything was all right. I said nothing, and for the rest of the ride watched Charles’ outline shift and turn in his seat, as I formulated violent, rage fantasies of all the ways I could humiliate and violate him.
Real sleep doesn’t happen for me within the confines of an 18-inch seat cushion, my legs unnaturally angled beneath me. Real sleep shouldn’t happen with a strange man beside me. I’ll sleep when I get where I’m going. Thankfully, it’s just an 11-hour trip. At times, the strange man’s knee touches mine, his arm brushes against me with the jostle of the bus. (There is no armrest in between the seats; I looked for it, needing to create a barrier and also cause him discomfort if I’m being honest.) Each collision, although I know it to be unintentional, makes me more irritable and feels like a violation.
Six hours later around 5:00 am, the bus stops in Rochester. The interior lights blaze on, and people stand to reach for luggage and disembark. I realize I must have been sleeping when I look down and see the cord of the strange man’s phone charger draped across my lap. The block is plugged into an outlet beneath the windows, on my side, about knee level. Still, in the haze of interrupted surprise sleep, I am offended and envision driving a hard elbow to his chest. The thought of him entering my space, moving around and across me, without my awareness, my permission, is infuriating.
For the remainder of the ride, my attitude is as acrid as the man’s body odor. A day’s worth of funk wafting from musty armpits drives my body even closer to the wall of my window seat. But if he had smelled like any of my favorite things, laundry exhaust, fresh snow or bread baking, it wouldn’t have made much difference because…men.
On the corner with their dudes blocking your path. Pulling you closer on the dance floor even after you back away. Tugging at your clothes, grabbing your arm when you pass because they just “wanna talk fo’ a minute.” Slipping past you in an already tight work kitchenette. Grinding against you on a crowded train. Embracing you in uninvited hugs, smothering you in extended consensual ones. Following you home or down the street, conversing with your back.
As if they don’t know “no.”
Because men. I side-eye every incidental touch as the bus bounces down the road. Because men. I never make eye contact because I don’t intend to look kind or inviting in any way. Because men. Even his faint and infrequent snore grates on my nerves. Because men. I’d like to wail on him for every time I didn’t put hands on the ones who touched without permission, who felt they could get away with it and did.
The driver announces our arrival in Batavia and turns on the interior lights again. “If this is not your stop, please stay on the bus. It’s a quick in-and-out here.” My seatmate doesn’t move. I clench my jaw.
Aside from the discomfort of little legroom and the ache of resting on my behind for hours, I can’t stop the tensing of my body with the bend and curve of the road. It’s an amusement park ride but way less fun fighting against the centripetal force to keep my body from his, his from mine.
One side of me is poised to defend any semblance of an offense. The rest of me is tired. All kinds of tired. Because men.