Bus Rides

Bus Rides

By Christine Pakkala

School Bus ArtWhen the second-grade class comes out, I immediately see Lulu’s blonde head among the brown, floating like something lost and bright at sea. I recognize the turquoise sleeveless top she hated at the store but I bought anyway and the stained khakis she insisted on wearing, instead of the skirt with the matching turquoise flowers.

It has only been an hour since I waved good-bye to my daughter at the bus stop, but I am absurdly excited to see her again. I signed up to chaperone all the field trips, but as the teacher gently said, “All the parents need a chance.” Now is my chance, and my heart knocks around like a teenager in love.

“Line up,” the teacher says. “Children, line up.” Although she doesn’t tell them to find partners, everyone does. Janna clutches the hand of Madison, Anna wraps her arm around Sophia, and so on.

And there is Lulu, staring up at the clouds, absolutely alone. Her brow is furrowed in that way I recognize: she is concentrating hard. Cirrus, cumulus, stratus, she told me the other day, naming the kinds of clouds.

My heart tightens like her shoelace knots I tied this morning. It hurts to see her like that, turning her gaze from the clouds and heading to the school bus alone. Damn it, Lulu! I want to yell. Grab a hand.

But she doesn’t hold anybody’s hand, and she doesn’t have her arm draped around anyone’s shoulder. She climbs up the bus steps, and I have to follow although the yellow school bus fills me with dread. It reminds me of journeys I would rather forget—but I can’t, now that I’m her mom. Her very presence in my life is a constant reminder of my own girlhood.

I know her Westport, Connecticut, childhood is very different from mine. Her parents are married, her sheets are clean, her dogs are purebred, her refrigerator is full, and she is bathed and read to and adored. But I can’t help it. My intention is to let the past be over there—in Idaho—while I’m safe over here on the East Coast. But it keeps rushing in.

When I was Lulu’s age, I hated riding the bus, where all the kids paired up in the seats made for two. It seemed to me that school buses were lawless places where kids could be just as mean as they wanted to be and no one would care. And I was an easy target. I was the new kid in town, over and over again.

First, divorce, then drinking, then trouble making payments forced my mom and stepdad to keep moving us until we ended up in a run-down trailer court on the outskirts of Asotin, a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it town on the banks of the Snake River. When school started, the yellow bus screeched to a halt in front of the trailer court manager’s unit, kicking up dust. In the pocket of my yard-sale cords was a round plastic token for the free lunch. I walked down the aisle embedded with dirty pink circles of gum and squeezed past the shoulders hanging off the seat. There was no place to sit.

Trailer trash! Some kid shouted it out, and lots of kids laughed. As the bus pulled away from the manager’s trailer, as I stood there, hot and dizzy in the aisle, all eyes on me. The bus driver made a U-turn, so I had to hold on to the seat or lose my balance. My fingers brushed the shoulder of a girl.

She said, Ooh, cooties.

I looked back to the front of the bus, helpless and panicking. I wanted more than anything to just sit down. The bus driver caught my eye in his rear-view mirror. He slammed on the brakes, metal shrieking.

Sit down! he yelled. With his armpits ringed with sweat, he stood up and bellowed, Move over. Finally, some kid (striped shirt, big collar) scooted over, and we lurched forward to Asotin Elementary.

But that was me—not Lulu. So why can’t I let her be a girl who chooses to stare at the clouds instead of grasping a friend’s hand?

On the bus, Janna and Madison whisper to each other; Anna and Sophie try to get their window down. Lulu marches past them toward the back of the bus and finds a seat. I slide in next to her and wrap my arm around her. I kiss her cheek once, and, when I go for the second kiss, she leans away.

“How has your day been so far?” I ask her.

She leans her forehead into the window and stares out. To me, it is the posture of melancholy. “Good,” she says into the glass.

“What did you do?”

“Mom, we were only there for an hour.” She sighs and looks out the window.

I look around the bus. I wonder if I’m coming down with something, it hurts so much to breathe. Maybe it’s allergies, this tightening around my chest.

As the bus roars to life, the children’s chatter grows in competition with the motor, and we make our way to Bridgeport. We pick up the children’s “Buddies” at school there. Bridgeport is the town that neighbors Westport. It was once prosperous but when the factory jobs left, so did the prosperity.

As these children file onto the bus, it occurs to me that I have more in common with these Bridgeport kids than I do with my own daughter. Their childhoods are ones without a lot of money to cushion them.

Yet every girl has perfectly groomed hair, tied back in buns or ponytails. I imagine their moms combing their daughters’ hair early in the morning, then tying it into frothy buns. It makes me remember that no matter how bad things got, my mom would always make me sleep with big plastic pink rollers. In the morning she would take them out and spray my hair with Final Net. She’d tie up my curls with fat, bright yarn and send me off to meet the bus. Even hungover, she would do that. Even if my stepdad beat the crap out of me with his belt the night before, I still looked good on Picture Day.

Looking at these Bridgeport girls with their gleaming hair, I feel compassion for my own mother for the first time in years. Trying to make order when there was none; trying to take care of me in a way she knew how.

After touring a museum with their Buddies, the children file back on the bus. This time, the teacher instructs them to sit with the Buddies. I find myself in a seat with the other mother. After saying hello, I turn and see a little girl from Lulu’s class sitting with her Buddy.

“Hi, Madison,” I say, smiling sweetly at her.

She looks very bored, very hot.

“Hi,” she says grumpily.

Her Buddy, Bianca Sofia Rodriguez, according to her nametag, gazes in another direction.

I’m happy that the Buddy system broke up the real buddy system, happy that everyone is suffering.

And that makes me feel a little ashamed. I turn back to face the front, and the bus jounces along. I’m not a proper grown-up. Proper grown-ups don’t want revenge—not against other children, anyway. But the stronger emotion prevails: I sit there thinking of Lulu, alone at recess while the Madisons and the Sophies play fairy games. I want to fight them, and the ones I can’t get to now: the Heathers, the Tiffanys, the Jennifers that made my yard-sale, drunk-Mom childhood miserable.

Madison suddenly yelps.

“My Lip Smackers!” she cries. “I dropped it!”

The panic in Madison’s voice is familiar. I dropped a small bottle on the bus once. It was amber-colored glue.

I bought the glue for myself with the Christmas money that my real dad gave me. When school began again, in January, I carried the glue in my coat pocket, feeling for it when some kid said, “What’d you get for Christmas, retard?” All day long, I kept it in my pocket, and when I felt lonely, I help the bottle in my hand, under my desk.

On the bus ride home, I got a seat next to the window and held it up to the weak January sunlight. I watched how the sun made it orange. The bus hit a pothole, and I dropped the amber-colored glue. I was on my hands and knees looking for it, when the bus pulled up to the trailer court. The kids were laughing, telling me to get up. Somebody kicked me in the butt.

Get off the bus! You’re going to make me late for my shows! the kicker yelled.

Did I say already that when I held it up to the light, it changed color? I wished more than anything that I hadn’t let it go.

The parent next to me jumps up and, after glancing under a few seats, grabs the Lip Smackers, triumphantly handing it back to Madison.

I hope that for all these kids, that what is dropped will be picked up. What is lost will be found. What is broken, mended. I hope that they never need magic glue.

We get out at the Buddies’ school in Bridgeport. It’s a modern building, but huge, housing kindergarten through eighth grade, unlike our smaller K through 5 school.

We troop to a cafeteria to eat lunch. I suppose the idea of sharing a meal is to build a community, but it doesn’t work that way. First of all, each kid from Bridgeport gets the free lunch (although they don’t have to hand over the plastic token like I did). Their lunches are, of course, identical: a bologna and cheese sandwich, an apple, milk, and cookies. All the Westport kids open their paper bags filled with too much food—a great variety of organic applesauce, sandwiches, clusters of grapes.

The children eat in absolute silence. Lulu has a Starbucks fruit salad, an Odwalla juice, organic chips, and a fresh bagel. I watch her carefully as she eats it, watch each bite of apple that goes into her mouth, each grape.

I turn my attention to her Buddy sitting next to her. In Spanish, the Buddy asks a boy from her class if he is going to use the mayonnaise packet. He hands it to her with a smile, and she opens it and squirts it onto her sandwich. I watch this little girl enjoying bite after bite and remember how hungry I used to be at Asotin Elementary. I ate every bite of my free lunch. My favorite was the chicken-fried steak that came with a dollop of mashed potatoes, limp green beans, and a roll that was golden brown and tasted like butter. The lunch lady gave me seconds on the rolls when she had them to spare. I hope this girl had breakfast. I hope she’ll have dinner, too.

Finally, the silent lunch is over, and the Westport kids say goodbye to the Buddies. We troop out into the sunshine, and all the alliances re-form as we wait for the bus, Madison with Janna, Sophie with Anna.

“Do you want me to sit next to you, or do you want to sit next to a friend?” I ask, hating myself for still wanting to yoke her to another child.

Above me, on the step, Lulu turns, her wide blue eyes considering me. She leans toward me, cups her hand to my ear and whispers, “Is it okay if I sit with Riley? She doesn’t have a friend.”

I nod.

“Are you sure, Mom?” Lulu asks.

I nod again.

“Come on, Lulu,” someone bellows from on board. Lulu turns without another word and jumps up the step.

I am so struck dumb by this realization—that all the time I was worrying about her, Lulu was worrying about me. I climb on board, see her sitting there with Riley, the two of them talking. The bus lurches forward.

“Lady, take a seat,” the driver says.

Author’s Note: The great thing about writing an essay is that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The same cannot be said for the issue I write about in this essay. I had that moment of clarity on the bus, but I still have to fight the urge to pack Lulu too many snacks and ask her a couple dozen questions after school every day. She caught on pretty quickly to a trick I picked up in a parenting magazine: If you want to know how your kid is doing at school, ask them what they did at recess. Now her answer is standard: Nothing.

Brain, Child (Spring 2008)

Christine Pakkala’s essays have appeared in Salon, Serendipity, and Ladies Home Journal, among others. Last-But-Not-Least Lola is her chapter book series debut, published by Boyds’ Mill Press. She lives in Westport, Connecticut with her husband and two children.