Thomas sits on the bench with his hands folded across his lap, bouncing and swaying as the wheels of the bus seek out every divot, bump and hole on the road. His eyes sit focused on the conspicuous ad of the half-naked man and woman that hang above the seat across him.
“State of the art equipment,” the ad reads, “meet the new you for only $39.95 a month.” He smiles after reading “a month.”
“Is that all?” he thinks sarcastically.
He lowers his head scanning the other passengers as he often does on his long bus ride home from school.
Most faces are familiar. He has seen all of them at one time or another on his route.
In the corner is the man he calls Alfred. Alfred’s an older man with an elitist air about him. His once salt and pepper hair, now all salt, and his bifocals, that stereotypically sit on the end of his nose, made Thomas immediately think of a butler.
Beside Thomas sits the woman he calls Winny. He had decided that she was a retired seamstress who rode the bus into the heart of the city to spend her afternoons in the ten odd museums scattered throughout downtown. She’s young to have already retired, but Thomas has imagined that she was a fine seamstress who had sown the collars and cuffs of royalty and celebrity, and rides the bus so she doesn’t forget where she came from.
Then towards the front there is Becca, short for Rebecca. She’s a single mother of three who works two jobs in the city during the day and goes to school at night. The first job pays for the bills and the second job pays for the baby-sitter and her classes. She never has enough for anything extra, unless by some act of God her children’s dead-beat father sends her some money. On days like that Thomas imagines her taking all three kids out to a movie. Then afterwards, she takes them for a scoop of ice cream. He likes to imagine them getting two scoops even though he knows that Becca would probably only be able to afford one each.
Thomas has never spoken to anyone on the bus and knows that all of his fantasies are likely wrong. But among all of the faces he is sure his is the most familiar. It’s unlikely that anyone would forget about the black man, with the scar, who rode in the back of the bus.
His scar fades-in an inch above his temple and descends down his left cheek and under his chin. Every few inches is the crisscross pattern left from the Red Cross sutures. The scar tissue is a pale white, a stark contrast to the black of his face. That’s why he always sits in the back with his left side facing away from everyone. After nearly ten years Thomas still is unable to answer questions about his scar. And as he knows none of their stories, they too, know nothing of his.
“Next stop Madison St.,” the bus driver yells.
Thomas has only been on the bus for 15 minutes and knows that there are still 23 stops left. The ride has barely begun.
The bus pulls to the side and Thomas registers the hissing sound of the hydraulics as the doors open.
“Goodbye Alfred,” Thomas says to himself without looking over. The snooty old man makes his way out as a new passenger gets on.
The bus waits as the tall well-dressed black man stops to drop his change in the receptacle and makes his way to a seat, but never once does his attention waiver from the cell phone in his hand.
“Je ne sais pas ce qui s’est produit, ce ne marches pas,” the man says into the phone, immediately drawing Thomas’ and the other passenger’s attention, Thomas being the only one who understands what he’s saying.
Thomas stares at the top of the man’s lowered head. The man’s right index finger jammed into his right ear and his left hand forcing the phone against his left ear. He struggles to hear the voice on the other end as his own voice rises above the hum of the bus. He shows little concern for the solitude of any of the other passengers.
Thomas becomes all at once agitated and excited. The other passengers attempt to eavesdrop on the man’s conversation, even though they don’t understand anything he’s saying. They stare at him out of the edges of their eyes. It’s not often that they see a French speaking black man in an Armani suit.
Thomas himself hasn’t heard that French accent since he left Rwanda ten years ago.
“N’oubliez pas de me prendre,” the man continues. “A tout a l’heure.” He hangs up the phone and leans back in his seat pausing midway to look back to make sure he’s not about to rub against something disgusting and ruin his suit.
Thomas, never once allowing his eyes to leave the black man, stops as his body flexes and tightens. The once excited Thomas now begins to tremble and his temples begin to throb as the rapid beat of his heart intensifies. He wants to scratch his scar even though there is no irritation. He recognizes the man, as does every inch of the white tissue that covers the side of his face.
“Next stop Belmont St.,” the bus driver yells.
Sixteen more stops and Thomas will be home.
For the first time ever Thomas knows the name of one of the passengers and for the first time someone on the bus knows Thomas’s story.
The man in the suit looks around the bus sizing up the crowd. He pauses for a moment on Thomas as their eyes meet and quickly he moves on to someone else. Thomas knows that the man doesn’t recognize him. How would he? The last time the man had seen Thomas he was unconscious with a machete sticking out of side of his face. For all the man knew Thomas had died ten years ago in the Kigali church. Plus how would this man ever be able to remember a specific face among the faces of all his victims.
The man raises his arms up in a yawning motion and lays them across the back of the bench. His head darts back and forth hoping to find someone staring at him. He obviously isn’t use to so many people ignoring him. All the eyes that once sat in the edges now look away from the black man hoping that he doesn’t try to speak to them. But Thomas still in shock can’t stop staring at him.
“What are you looking at?” the man in the Armani suit yells towards Thomas. His strong accent makes the words seem almost dirty.
“Rien,” Thomas says as he lowers his head down to his overlapped hands lying in his lap.
“Tu parles Français?” the man fires back.
“Un peu,” Thomas says, a lie, he of course speaks more than a little.
The man lifts himself from his seat and makes his way toward Thomas and Winny. He stands above them implying they make room for him. Thomas never budges, but Winny on the other hand has always avoided conflict and replaces him at his old bench.
His long legs stand above Thomas’s head, even after sitting the man towers over Thomas.
“Where are you from?” he says to Thomas in English. “I am from Rwanda,” he says without Thomas asking.
“I’m from Kigali.”
“That is where I was born,” the man says, ”what a strange world.”
Thomas knows everything about the man before he speaks. “Were you born in Kigali?” the man asks Thomas.
Thomas doesn’t say a word.
“What is your problem? I am your brother,” the man says, “Do not treat me this way.”
Thomas lifts his face and turns to the man and his scar becomes visible for all to see.
“You are Tutsi,” he says to Thomas
“Yes,” Thomas replies.
The man in the suit lets out a sigh of frustration, and all at once his tone changes from “homesick traveler” to “disgruntled police interrogator.”
“How do you come here?” the man says in broken English. Thomas sits silent. The man shakes his head back and forth. “I am not going to hurt you,” he says.
“I was born in Kigali.”
“When did you get out?”
Thomas can’t make up his mind where to look. His eyes dart back and forth from the man’s cold brown eyes to his smooth dark lips.
“I left after this,” Thomas says pointing to his face.
The man leans over taking a closer look. He examines it as if to verify its authenticity.
“Yes,” Thomas answers.
“Did you catch the man who did this?”
“Home was an ugly place. I left as soon as I could. The violence was too much. All the death and…” he trails off.
“Yes,” Thomas says.
“And your family?”
“All dead,” Thomas says looking into his eyes.
“I was fortunate, I was able to get my family out before it was too late.”
“Lucky you,” Thomas says looking at his lips.
“How long have you been here?”
“Ten years for me. How do you come here?” he asks again.
“I was 14 when I was taken to the Red Cross and one of the volunteers adopted-”
“They just want to take you from your home. It is cultural imperialism,” the man interrupts.
“Don’t you recognize me?” Thomas asks tiring of the interrogation.
“I am sorry, should I?”
“Yes, you should.”
“You do not talk to me like that. Show respect for your elders”
Thomas stares back into his eyes.
“Stop looking at me with your disgusting face,“ he says, “I do not know you.”
Thomas continues to stare at him, hoping to force him to remember.
“I do not know you,” he says and spits in Thomas’s face.
The warm saliva rolls down the middle of Thomas’s face and makes its way to the tip of his nose and some drips over the edge onto his jeans while the rest trickles under the bridge and down to his lip.
“You should have died there,” the man says. His eyes begin to dart around in his head as he attempts to evaluate everything he says before he says it. “You do not deserve to breath the same air as me. Stop this bus,” he yells towards the driver in the front. “I am not a killer. I am not.”
It seems almost mechanical as if it has been his mantra for ten years. His breathing intensifies as Thomas’s slows. For the first time Thomas is in control and this calm cool African is fidgeting and scared.
The man knows he has no government connections to hide behind here and no machete under his jacket. Thomas’s eyes become ice. He doesn’t move, he doesn’t flinch, he doesn’t falter. He only stares back at the tall man in the Armani suit.
The driver looks in his mirror at the reflection of the man. His erratic gestures and
ecstatic screams of denial convince the driver to pull over.
The man lifts Thomas by the collar of his shirt, “get up,” he yells in Thomas’s face dragging him towards the doors on the side of the bus. The rest of the passengers just stare at the spectacle. The driver rises from his seat.
“Hey,” the driver says, “what’s going on?”
“Open the doors,” the man says.
“Get your hands off that boy,” the driver says.
Thomas follows the verbal volley between the two men never looking away from the man.
“Take your hands off the boy,” the driver says slower this time.
Thomas regains his footing on the perforated metal grate that serves as a floor for the now silent bus. The man in the suit steps away from Thomas as the driver stares him down. The driver makes his way to the front to open the side exits. The doors pause as the hiss builds up and the doors spread open allowing the polluted air from the exhaust to penetrate the once isolated environment.
“Now get off,” the driver says.
The man stumbles off the bus backwards, expecting Thomas to follow. He lifts his chin toward the sky looking at Thomas with his downcast eyes. He refuses to lower his head as he stands outside the threshold of the door at a wide berth from Thomas. Thomas stares back as the hiss builds up again and the doors glide shut. The hum of the bus begins and Thomas watches the figure of the man as stands on the street, his body turning to follow the bus as it rolls away.
Thomas’s lips glisten with the moisture of the spit. Winny hands him a tissue and he wipes at his face, removing the only evidence that the man was ever there.