Everyone has an “adventure” that scares their parents. For me, the below nightmarish night buoys my spirits when I feel lost. This past year, I’ve tried to channel the girl I was in 1978: logical, wary, strong, protective. That girl still exists…but as the title suggests, my mother hates this story.
As Sophia from The Golden Girls says, “Picture it…” It’s winter, 1978. I am about 10, deeply in love with John Travolta from Grease, a badass soccer player on a co-ed team, and navigating my parents’ divorce and remarriages. It’s not The Worst, but my life expands in ways I never predicted.
Every week in Divorcia, I get on a bus, the one that goes from Brockport to Rochester, New York, where my mother lives with her new husband. The custody arrangement is such that I go to school in Brockport, where my dad lives, during the week. On weekends, I see my mom. My simple routine involves benign public transportation between cities.
One Friday, I’m on a bus by myself for that forty-five-minute trip I’ve taken many times. The bus driver I don’t like is at the wheel, glaring bitterly out the window. He’s big, with a fleshy red face, like he sits all day and doesn’t enjoy anything. His eyes catch mine in the rearview mirror, even when I sit in the back.
An attractive woman sits up front, close to him, leans in for a chat. I watch them through most of the trip and think about their wild love affair. She has long brownish-red hair and her pants are super-tight. Her makeup is thick, with dark eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, blush, heavy lipstick. I wonder if she’s a prostitute, because, to me, that’s what heavy makeup and tight clothes mean. Television has taught me many ridiculous things.
As we get closer to the city, the bus empties out. At some point, it will be my turn, right at the end, in the middle of downtown, the department stores, McCurdys, the big fountain in the middle. That’s where Mom always picks me up. It should be noted, chez my father, I relish routine and hard work–even healthy food. At my mother’s, hedonism and sloth are acceptable and I plunge into a slow-moving black hole of junk food and all the television I can stand.
But before I can indulge, I have to get to McCurdys where my mother is waiting. I move up toward the front, knowing my stop will come soon and also reminding the driver about my presence.
“What’s your stop?” the driver asks me. The woman is still there talking to him.
“The last one,” I answer. He always knows. He knows me.
He takes this in, juggles it around in his head, and says, “I’m going to take a shortcut.”
The driver swerves off the main road and I trust that he knows where to take me. The last stop only means one thing. Downtown.
We go down roads I don’t recognize. He and the woman keep talking, laughing, but I can’t hear exactly what they’re saying. Rochester is not familiar enough for me to know where we are. Can I pipe up and ask, “We’re going downtown, right?”
No. I can’t. I don’t want to invite trouble—I have enough already—so I just sit there and trust.
We turn onto a giant lot with a few buses. Next to it is a building, which doesn’t seem populated. Dry reeds poke through Styrofoam snow. Maybe he wants to drop this woman off, then take me on my way, to my mother who must be wondering where I am. I can almost picture her in the car, waiting for me to get off the bus.
“Time to get off,” the driver tells me as the bus stops.
It’s in the middle of nowhere. The sky is gray, darkening. A hint of snow. There might even be tall grass somewhere, empty lots, nothingness.
I’m in a jeans skirt and coat. Nothing to insulate me well for the Rochester snowstorm. Soft flakes start coming down.
“This is not where I get off,” I say.
“It’s the last stop,” he insists.
The woman just sits there, watching me, no doubt waiting for me to leave.
With 1970s technology (none) and no sense of location, I take my weekend bag and shuffle off the bus and into the cold. In the winter, the grasses have long since died and create a patch of straw in parts of the parking lot. I start to walk toward what could be a neighborhood.
There is no thought that I could be in danger. Who would hurt a little kid? A little girl? I don’t think about food, the cold, or that I have no idea where I am. Just walk. Snow hits my legs, which are only covered with tights and a short denim skirt.
I keep walking and the skies turn darker. My fingers start to hurt from the cold. By this time, I should be getting into my mother’s car and going home. She must be waiting. I wonder what the bus driver and the lady are doing now? Does she charge him a lot of money? I invent even more stories about them, how they must be laughing about me.
They are doing crimes, I think. Especially getting rid of me. Everyone wants to get rid of me. There’s the thought that maybe this is what my parents want, for me to disappear. They could have planned this ahead of time. Let Patience wander away forever. This is not what I want, at least not yet.
No, that’s too drastic, too heartless.
They have to love me.
I know enough that panic and fear won’t help. And this also is unreal to me. It doesn’t seem possible that this would be my ending. So I just walk. I start to see people, hanging on the streets. Yes, I’m an oddity, a little flame-haired kid strolling around on her own. They leave me alone.
I don’t take pleasure in the notion of being “lost.” I don’t even think of myself as lost, just delayed. It won’t end tragically. That’s not a reality in my brain, that these two eyes, this body, this brain would shut down.
A deli comes into sight. They’ll take pity on a little girl. I enter and ask the woman behind the counter if I can use her phone. When she opens her mouth to answer me, I see she has no teeth. Her watery gray eyes are focused on me as she hands me the phone. Others walk into the deli and watch me as I dial the number. I start to get nervous, but luckily my stepbrother answers.
“Hi, John. I’m kind of lost.”
“Where are you? We’re worried.”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you go out and look out at the street?”
“Um…” I look around and I feel the attention of too many eyes. “…I should probably go.”
“Where are you?” His voice sounds more concerned, but he doesn’t see that I’m getting too much attention. Can’t say anything out loud and I might get hurt. My gut tells me to run.
“Just tell Mom to meet me downtown. I’m going toward the lights.”
I give the lady back the phone. She asks me if I’m sure and, without answering, I run out the door with my bag.
Go toward the lights.
It’s all I can think as I hustle in the snow. This wasn’t such a good night. I don’t think about thirst or hunger. Just lights. Street lights. A growing sea of lights. It might be hours later, but the streets start to become brighter. Cars in growing numbers until finally, I notice the long stretch of road leading to the center of town.
I am safe.
McCurdys is in sight. The fountain. I go into the department store and they let me call home. A short time later, my mother arrives, her face so solemn I’m almost scared to go near her.
She hugs me and holds me and stares at me with that concerned Mommy face. The whole weekend, I live under her wing, grateful to see her love. I am wanted–by both my parents.
Decades later, Mom says this is the most frightened she has ever been.
Even now, I think about that calm voice that guided me through a city I didn’t know, on a night that could have ended very badly. It makes me hope each person has that knowledge that they too can find their way home.