She stops traffic. Literally. People see her and hit the brakes. It’s as if their minds cannot take all of her in and desperately seeks more time. Stares follow her every step. Every. Single. Step. Her feet can only move her a few inches at a time. She moves slowly towards the bus. Joe and I are sitting on a packed bus on our way out for an evening. She finally reaches the ramp and the bus tilts when she steps on it. She is winded at the top and has to stop, catch her breath and then move towards her seat.
There is a stillness on the bus as she settles herself. The driver has difficulty in putting on the seat belt, she is using an extender so the issue isn’t a physical fit but the physical touch that is necessary for securing the belt. She is strapped in. As we drive at every stop, people glance in the bus and when they see her they stop. Actually stop. And stare. Their faces set as hard as their stare.
She is hugely fat. I am a very, very, very big man and I feel small in comparison. Her clothes fit tightly, straining against her body, holding her in, stitches desperately holding on. Everything about her is gray. Her clothes, her hair, her manner. Nothing sticks out. Nothing calls attention to the person who is sitting quietly on the bus. Looking only forward.
Stare at her. Point at her. Laugh at her. Call out to her. Kids, young teens mostly, try to get her attention. They don’t see me. Huge in my chair. They don’t see the man in front of me sitting in a chair designed by NASA. They don’t see the woman on the other side of the bus, quietly petting her guide dog as they travel together. They don’t see Joe, tucked away at the back of the bus. No. The bus is empty of all except her. Her difference makes us all invisible.
One kid screams something hideous. I don’t need to report it here. She looks straight ahead. We all hear the words tossed at the bus. We all feel them batter the side of the bus as they land, hard, against the window.
No one knows what to do.
Least of all, I.
Those words, those hateful, hurtful words. They are reserved for me. I had thought. But no. I am not the target here. She is. Her face is passive. I know that face. I have practiced that face. It is a face that is meant to communicate ‘you can’t reach me in here’ but now I see that it doesn’t say that, it says something much different, ‘I have fled from you, I live in terror of you, I have vacated my eyes in fear of the hatred I see in yours.’
Even when she got onto the bus, already full of the different. Her eyes glanced around, first identifying a seat, then looking in panic at us, knowing we could all see her, knowing that she had to be present for a few moments as she walked the stage in front of us. Would she find rejection here, even amongst those used to rejection?
For the briefest of seconds, when she got to her seat, before turning around to sit, our eyes met. I saw in her eyes something else. Something beyond panic. I saw courage. Raw, unadulterated courage. She was out in the world when it would have been safer to stay in. She may hide within but she will live without. In that moment I admired her. Truly. Deeply.
Another hateful word slams the side of the bus. It begins a torrent of words. They rain down on her, she must hear them, she must. But she stays still. Carved of soft stone. I’m biting the inside of my cheek, like I do when I’m under great stress. I can’t think of what to do.
The man in the chair by NASA turned to her, using the breath that he used to steer the chair, took control, he said, ‘Where are you off to on this cold evening?’
She turned to him, grateful to be spoken to, included, ‘I’m just going home.’
Then, as a sea of vitriol engulfed the bus, as the light turned green, we all began to talk. Of normal things. Of work. Of home. Of weekends. Of dogs. The bus suddenly seemed like sanctuary. They were out there. We were in here. There wasn’t anything we could do in the moment about them, but there was something we could do for her.
In a world that uses hate as a weapon of exclusion, we could use inclusion as our best defense. We had the power to change the world around us, and we did. We had the power to make the space around us welcoming, and we did. We had the power to use gentle voices to silence hateful voices, and we did.
When she got off, she turned to all of us, still with journey’s ahead of us and said, ‘I am so often alone, for a few minutes I felt what it must be like to have a family who loves you when you need to be loved.’
She cried as she walked along towards the door of her apartment. One slow step after another.
But no one teased her in those steps.
Some kids saw her get off the bus. They stared. But they were silent.
I’m not sure why