I took my son on a bus ride. Boston, Massachusetts, to Ithaca, New York.
In a car, the trip from Boston to Ithaca takes six and a half hours with a pee break; eight if you add a second pit stop with lunch; twelve if you give yourself the quintessential summertime gift of detouring through Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In a Greyhound bus, that same journey inexplicably routes you first through New York City, then New Jersey, then Pennsylvania, then upstate New York till you arrive, like weary Odysseus lo those many centuries before, in Ithaca. Total time, station to station: nine hours, fifty-four minutes.
“It’s an adventure,” I told Connor as we stood waiting for the driver to take our tickets at 7:30 on a July morning already warm enough to heat up and distribute exhaust fumes to every corner of the bus station. In lieu of summer camp, I was taking him to spend a week with my college roommate and her family, his first time far from home without us. “If we hate it, it’s just one day lost out of our lives, and we’ll never do it again.”
Connor banged his forehead against my shoulder in a mock is-this-really-my-life gesture. The impact was enough to send me jumping back to keep my takeout coffee from sloshing on our feet. All spring we’d been dealing with these bodily mishaps–the playful punches that wound up bruising, the hip checks that sent us sprawling across the kitchen.
He was twelve and a half, suddenly just three inches shorter than me, on the edge of something and edgy at home. He’d finished kayak camp in June, already knocked back half a dozen Star Wars novelizations, and seemed committed to spending the rest of the summer idly provoking his brother and interrupting the dog’s nap. It was time, his father and I thought, to get Connor out of his comfort zone.
If discomfort is what we sought, discomfort was what we got. It was freezing inside the bus. Not chilly cold, but meat-locker cold. In my straw bag we’d packed the typical modern array of digital amusements (one laptop, one game system, one cell phone, two iPods) plus a few analog backup devices (two novels, three magazines, a deck of cards) and a pound of M&M Plains that was already hovering on the edge of my radar. But my summer-weight cotton sweater and his requisite ‘tween hoodie were stowed in Connor’s bag underneath the bus, tantalizingly close but irretrievable.
When the bus pulled off the highway a half hour into our trip to pick up more passengers, I popped up the aisle and out into the sunshine to take care of the problem, all jaunty, can-do momitude in my city walking shorts and red leather clogs.
The driver was loading the last of the new luggage into the bay. “My son is cold,” I said to him, smiling, rubbing my hands together to show him what I meant, hoping that when he heard the word “son” he pictured a shivering infant rather than a strapping twelve-year-old. “I thought I’d just grab our sweaters real quick.”
He turned his face slightly in my direction, not meeting my eye, then turned silently back to the bay. It was completely packed. Leaning in, I couldn’t see even a corner of our duffle in the back.
I got back on the bus. Connor had retracted his arms inside his T-shirt like a turtle. “How many hours to New York?” he asked, aghast. “Four,” I told him, which wasn’t true; it was four and a half. “Take my clogs. They’re warmer.” He unstrapped his river sandals.
For what would be the only time in our lives, we were wearing the exact same shoe size. We swapped footwear, wrapped ourselves around each other like puppies and looked out the cold window at the sun-warmed world outside, the wildflowers on the side of the highway waving in the hot breeze as we blasted by.
“Why are you taking the bus?” people had asked in the week before our departure, in tones that suggested urine-soaked seatmates, dirty terminals, and probable criminal behavior against one’s person and possessions. “Gas isn’t that high.”
Gas was indeed that high, but not yet as high as two Greyhound tickets. Moreover, we had two perfectly good working vehicles in our driveway, and I’d made the run to Ithaca dozens of times before. I adore road trips. One summer, a friend and I drove nine thousand miles in a big loop around the country in a tiny car the color of a pencil with no air-conditioning, and often we logged five hundred miles in a day no problem.
But I was twenty-four then, not forty-four. Now in a typical week I drive the same roads over and over at the same time of day, and many afternoons I find myself staring through the windshield with all the mental acuity of a goldfish in its bowl. Much as I hate to admit it, a tiny part of me wasn’t sure I could trust myself to pay attention for that long anymore.
Plus, I was sick of being in charge. On the highway, you feel duty-bound as a driver to judge your fellow travelers as you maneuver in and around one another, pulling ahead to pass them or switching lanes to let them blow by you doing eighty-five. You feel obligated to at least consider calling the cops about the way that mattress is hanging off the back end of the pickup ahead of you.
And if you’re a twelve-year-old boy and your mother is at the wheel and the journey is long, it’s simply impossible not to see her as an eminently lobbyable person, someone who might at any moment agree to exit the highway and head for that Quiznos over there, or stop for the laser tag or putt-putt golf advertised on that billboard, or buy a Big Bag of Skittles at the Stop ‘n’ Go, or detour to Howe Caverns, if only she’s asked frequently enough at sufficiently random intervals.
In the bus, we are driven. The driver is in charge, and because it’s clear from the outset he’s not going to stop for Skittles, we don’t ask. We sit next to one another as equals, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip, riding companionably with our fellow travelers, each of us on our own journey but together for now in the same bus hurtling communally down the highway.
As we got closer to New York, we did the things done by New Englanders who don’t get down there much. We hissed out the window, as dutiful Red Sox fans should, at Shea Stadium in the distance; pressed our foreheads against the glass to watch the foreign world of the Bronx whisk past; said things like, “there’s the Triborough Bridge,” but not too loudly in case we were all turned around and that was in fact the Whitestone Bridge we were looking at; passed landmarks even Northern rubes like us couldn’t miss–the Museum of Natural History, Central Park–and then suddenly we were sucked from the daylight into the dark maw of Port Authority.
Connor unfurled our yard-long ribbon of fan-folded tickets to figure out our timetable. “Great news,” he reported. It seemed we had almost two hours before our next bus–to Binghamton–pulled out. Plenty of time, he figured, to bop up to the Nintendo World megastore at Rockefeller Center.
As it turned out, we had just enough time to navigate through three levels of the building, utterly lost, before finding the departure gate to Binghamton, where the only bus of the afternoon was leaving immediately, our tickets’ printed departure time be damned.
This bus was warmer, better. The seats were higher, the windows bigger, the clientele different enough (old couples rather than young students) to make us feel we’d been somewhere, traveled somehow. We lurched out of the terminal, dropped into the shabby cavern of the Lincoln Tunnel, and then we were done–out of New York just as quickly as we’d gone in.
As the day wore on, Connor listened to his music, eyes open but unseeing, staring absently at the houndstooth check of the upholstery in front of him. I looked at my boy, his face so close to mine, with his high cheekbones and thick brown hair standing on end in places and his caramel-colored eyes, the lip that may or may not have the faintest beginning of fuzz on it, his smooth skin with the tiniest hints of pores to come. Short, thick eyelashes. Almond-shaped eyes, straight nose. He is a dead ringer for his father, only purer. More intense.
Connor turned, pulling out an ear bud. “What are you looking at?” he said.
“Nothing,” I told him.
Loving an adolescent is a lot like being an adolescent—you have to hide the intensity of your feelings, the sheer volume and volubility of your emotions, lest you scare off the people around you. “Break out those M&Ms,” I said.
For lunch, we ate orange peanut-butter-crackers, a little box each of raisins, and as much candy as we could handle at one time without feeling sick. In between, Connor described in exhaustive detail how to win when playing “Age of Empires.” (Hint: Destroy the other armies one at a time.) Then we played Crazy 8s, one of the few card games that lends itself to the tight confines of a bus seat, followed by, when we got bored with the 8s, Crazy 7s, Crazy 2s and Crazy Aces. Connor laughed out loud at how easy it was to fool me by playing the wild card from the previous game.
In Binghamton, it dawned on us that the two-something hours we’d managed to pick up along the journey were to be squandered in a bus station that overlooked another bus station in one direction and three crumbling parking lots in the others. There were no earlier buses to Ithaca, now a frustratingly close fifty minutes away.
We walked once around the outside of the building, just to be outdoors, but a hot wind was blowing dirt through the air and our luggage, which we didn’t dare to leave unattended inside, was heavy. We were the only two people out of doors who weren’t there to smoke. This, I said to myself as we retreated back inside, is what people were imagining when they had said, “You’re taking the bus?”
Connor checked my cell phone for messages (there were none), then compensated by leaving a long mournful message for his father and brother on our home answering machine that made our entire journey sound simultaneously disastrous and boring, while I talked over him in the background, saying things like “That’s not true,” and “It’s not so bad.”
On the bus to Ithaca, our last and shortest hop, I tried to think what I should say to Connor about his upcoming week away that wouldn’t sound like micromanaging–advice about how to handle his laundry, how to politely eat around food he didn’t like, how to share a single bathroom with five people, how it was possible at the same time to feel horribly homesick and be having a wonderful time.
In the end, it all seemed like too much yap, so I said none of it, settling instead on an all-purpose maxim. “Try to be more polite with them than you are with us,” I said. We both laughed.
“I’m going to miss you, pup,” I told him, fluffing his hair.
He shrugged. “I’ll IM you.”
We arrived in Ithaca on time to the minute, 5:24 p.m. Our friends took us straight from the bus station to their boat, and as the warm summer evening spread like glass over Cayuga Lake, our trip began already to feel like something we did once, as a lark, a long time ago.
Going home alone the next day was a different kind of journey. The bus headed straight north to Syracuse, mounting the long, slow hill that climbs for miles high above the lake, then back across the New York State Thruway and the Mass Pike, as direct a trip as you could want.
I sat by myself in a window seat and did something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager myself: read an entire novel, cover to cover, in one summer day. I read Plainsong by Kent Haruf, a book so pitch-perfect that every once in a while I had to put it down for a moment, out of respect for its flawlessness. During those pauses I stared out the window and let my thoughts swim around the edges of my boy, stopping here and there on practical things. Had he remembered to bring an extra pair of sneakers, as I had asked him to? Did I give him enough money for the movies, and, if I did, had he put it somewhere where he’d be able to find it again?
But my thoughts kept sliding closer to the essence of our trip. He hadn’t asked for any of this; I had been the one to set it all in motion. But he hadn’t said no, either. We might miss each other terribly, or we might both be perfectly fine. Either way, there was nothing to do now but let the hours unfold until the week was up and I was back again.
I felt hollow under the breastbone and tight at the base of my throat. Missing someone fiercely feels a little like anxiety and a little like grief, but it’s lighter, more buoyant. It’s just plain love, only stretched out long.
As the bus headed east toward Boston, the afternoon slant of the summer sun on the wide window created a hovering double reflection, with an image of the interior of the bus superimposed against the picture of the world outside. I looked out and watched the country flying past and, at the same moment, my own self hurtling forward.
Brain, Child (Spring 2008)