It’s a cold and drizzly day outside, the sort of day that makes you question the merit of leaving a nice warm apartment (and bed) to struggle your way to class. Reminding myself that it’s only the third day of classes and much too soon in the semester to start skipping, I duck back into the apartment to fasten up my jacket before heading out the bus. There’s no hood on the jacket, so the frigid air runs through my hair like clammy fingers. I feel a bit like I’m breathing in a fish freezer. Yuck.
I check my watch and pick up the pace, because I’m running late and I really don’t want to sit out and wait for the bus in this stuff. Of course, ‘late’ is relative to precisely nothing, insofar as I have yet to work out any coherent system to the bus times. I have only found one consistent answer to the question ‘when does the bus leave?’: Right before I get there. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten within sight of the bus stop just in time to watch the back of the bus zoom into the distance. The unmistakable gasping noise of bus brakes in the distance lets me know that today is holding true to form.
Drat. If I miss this one there won’t be another for at least 15 minutes... and there’s a good chance I won’t get on that one either. Yesterday, three buses went by before I actually made it on one. The route is overloaded. 15 minutes plus 7 or 8 minutes to walk plus a completely unknown number. A quick mental calculation tells me I won’t make it to class on time.
I can see people filtering onto the bus in the distance. It’s taking a while; there’s a lot of them. But the bus is still pretty far up there.
The professor takes attendance, and he sounds like he's going to be a jerk about this type of thing.
I make a run for it. One hand goes to my pocket to hold my iPod in place, and my other arm tries to control the swinging of my book bag. Not exactly graceful, and I’m feeling like an idiot, but every step towards the bus decreases the chances that the driver will pull off without me.
My diet coke goes flying out of the bag and bounces twice on the pavement. No drinking that thing anytime soon. I scramble to retrieve it anyway, and half-run the last few steps to the bus. It’s filled to overflowing with people already, but the bus driver leaves the door open for me, so I smile apologetically and scootch my way into the front of the crowd. “Full,” I comment to the bus driver at my elbow. This apparently doesn’t merit a response. Oh, well.
There’s one stop left on the route, and, as much as I sympathize with them, I’m still startled when the driver stops for the half dozen people standing there. My fellow aisle passengers and I exchange helpless glances and shuffle nervously. Little by little we coalesce into a solid mass of humanity. I have somehow relocated to the center of the bus, and the only support bar is the one running along the ceiling. I’m short, but if I reach straight up above me, I can just wrap my hand around it. I feel sort of like I’m hanging from the monkey bars on the playground, but the bus jolts into motion and I hold on for dear life.
At least if I lose my balance there’s a cushy mass of people on all sides to hold me up. Unless I fall into the seat next to me. I eye the guy sitting in it, and squelch a wave of irritation. He’s not obligated to offer me his seat, and it’s not that I feel entitled to it as a woman. But he could reach the blasted bar no problem. If I fall on him I’m going elbow first.
As the ride progresses I lose all feeling in my arm, until I’m finally risking death at every smooth point just to get a few seconds of blood into my hand. Whee! No hands! I tell myself it’s like snowboarding or surfing. Self is not convinced. The bus jerks as the traffic ahead slows, and I am reminded that I twisted my knee falling down the mountain the first and only time I tried to ski. I make a frantic grab for the headrest of the seat across the aisle. Slightly better.
Unfortunately, this is when I notice how weird I’m feeling. I’m carsick and dizzy—maybe all my head blood is going to my arm. But my face feels flushed and hot, and I’m suddenly much more aware of the people pressing in around me. I unzip my jacket. The dizziness is getting worse rather than better. I skipped breakfast, but that’s not unusual. Did I eat enough last night? I think so. It was mostly junk food, but that's also nothing unusual. I remember having a big glass of water before bed; I can’t be dehydrated can I? I’m probably just a little motion sick. And maybe still light-headed and over-heated from running. Sometimes people faint at concerts from having their knees locked too long. I had a friend who fell off the stage that way. I flex my knees.
The bus moves onwards, but I’m hardly aware of its occasional jolts and bumps now. I feel like I’m suffocating. I look around. There are a lot of people on this bus, and I’m smashed in the dead center of them. The windows are all closed. Maybe I am suffocating. The oxygen could be getting low. Like when people get trapped on an elevator in a movie--they're always worrying about running out of oxygen. I fight back a claustrophobic impulse and another surge of nausea. Nobody else is dropping to the floor gasping like a fish. It’s probably not possible for everyone else to be breathing all the air. And why the heck would they make air-tight elevators? I scootch my jacket as far off as I can get it in this crowd.
Caught in self-absorbed misery, I’m startled to feel my throat move in reflexive nausea. Black speckles dance in front of my eyes. My knees tremble. Sweet heavens, I might actually pass out. I thought I was just being overdramatic! I want to sit down; I want off this bus; I want to throw up; I want to breathe. Maybe I should beg the guy next to me for his seat. But it’s not more than a few minutes farther and claiming you're about to pass out is just so melodramatic. Besides, he’ll probably think I’m just some entitled female making it up to get his seat. (I’m on the verge of fainting and I’m worrying about women’s lib. Go figure.)
I lock my throat and concentrate on taking deep slow breaths. Not much farther. Just around the corner and down the street. The air will be nice and cold. Just a bit longer. Don’t make a scene this close to the bus stop.
Oh, God, what if I do throw up? The edges of my vision swim, and I feel sick. There’s people all around, and I can’t breath, and if I throw up on someone I’ll die of embarrassment. Maybe I should tell them to stop the bus and let me off. I don’t know if they will and I don’t have the energy to be insistent. I don’t even have the energy to make a scene at this point. Picturing a chaotic mass of confused and alarmed people milling about on the bus makes it worse. If I pass out will they get me off this bus or will they all crowd around and suffocate me?
The bus gets backed up behind another bus at the stop sign just before the bus stop. My vision is fraying at the edges. Let me off, let me off, let me off. I lose some time. The people in the aisle ahead of me are shuffling forwards. I move down the aisle like a zombie. Each of the three large bus steps threatens to conquer my shaking legs, but there’s a bench on the sidewalk just outside the door, and I set my focus on that with grim determination.
I suck the cold clammy air into my lungs gratefully, even though its soggy grip around my head makes me feel even more flushed and nauseous. Dropping onto the bench I stick my head between my knees and spend a few minutes feeling miserable and disregarded as people flow past me. At the same time, I’m trying not to attract attention by looking like someone about to pass out. It’s a paradox, but I feel lousy and my demands of the world don’t have to be logical.
Finally, I realize I need to head to class if I want to make it on time. I certainly don't want to run. I take my feet, zipping up my jacket even though I don’t feel the cold yet. My lungs notice it well enough, and it’ll be worse if I wait. The classroom, when I arrive, feels stuffy and close, but I’m more than ready to get out of the drizzle. Plus I’m still feeling weak-legged.
I slump into my seat, completely forgetting to sign the attendance sheet.