(Trigger Warning: Homophobic Slurs; Bullying; Physical Violence; Sexual Harassment)
by J.D. Moss
Gravity slams my shoulder into the rusting frame of the bus seat. The silent impact spins my body sideways, gravity finishing its job, pulling me to the hard rubber aisle–my back taking in the physical pain, my ego bearing the social pain.
“Fat ass!” Laughter covers the identity of the voice.
“What a fag!”
This voice, I know. I sit up to get a glimpse of him only to find myself looking at the ceiling of the bus as a foot steps on my chest, turning laughter into shouts and yells. I follow the leg up to a face I do not recognize.
“Quiet!” Screams the driver. The noise fades only slightly.
I know I have to rise quickly. I place my hand on the nearest seat – torn plastic and dirty foam work their way between my fingers as I place my weight on it. Pain spreads across my knuckles. The person occupying the seat has smacked them with a ruler. I fight the pain, resist the temptation to give in, and continue to move upward. I hear the knuckles in my hand scream with greater pain. The sound of wood on bone translates into pain which travels up my arm, speeds past my shoulder blades and spreads evenly across my skull. My motion stops. I hear the thumping noise again, the pain instantly registering in my head. I fall, mercifully not as far; unmercifully, the pain feels the same.
I am aware of name-calling, jokes, and barbs targeted at me, yet unaware of specifics. I force down my anger, shove down my tears. My whole concentration is in standing up. Get up! I command myself. This time, I turn over, my face looking at the ground, on all fours like an imprisoned hostage, freedom stripped, dignity raped — a person no longer human. I feel a few pokes to the side and a foot connecting with my ass. His foot. I cannot see it, yet I am sure. I arise swiftly, yet not swift enough, something – someone – hits me on the head. This annoys, but does not hurt.
Now standing, I pull my backpack in front of my belt just as a tennis ball, thrown at my groin, falls harmlessly into it, then to the floor. I watch it roll into the greedy fingers of a red-haired boy, his tongue sticking out the side of his mouth, eyes shifting to the ball’s owner, uncertain, yet determined.
“Give that back!” growls a dark-haired boy I do not know and will never know. The redhead quickly throws the ball in to the waiting hands of an older girl a few seats away. The mob is distracted for a moment while a short game of keep-a-way occurs, giving me time to take the only open seat left. I have survived – again.
My head is down, my eyes fixed to the floor. I am in the back of the bus – not where I want or need to be. Stuck in the line of fire, sandwiched between the kids wanting to be cool and those everyone thinks are cool. If there are to be cool kids it means someone has to play the fool. This is the part I have been given. I did not audition for it, I do not want it, yet it is the character I have accepted.
With the attention turned from me, I raise my head to gaze at him. My nemesis. His name now lost – just call him “Brad.” His image lingers – light brown hair hanging loose on a clean, smooth face. A dangerous misleading smile offset by a scar near the chin and a tiny mole on his nose. Never friends, yet he and I had coexisted peacefully in the past. We once shared a seat on this bus. Side by side, legs pressed together, we exchanged a few friendly words while we rode. It did not make us friends. Once we left the bus we went separate ways, yet we never brought harm to one another until he decided even sitting by me was bad for his image.
“The cock-sucker is staring at you!” Another of Brad’s friends joins the hunt.
Brad’s eyes now focus on me. His look is not one of anger or annoyance. “You want this?” Brad reaches between his legs and grabs a chunk of his jeans and like a stupid insect drawn to light I look, wondering how much is cloth – how much is him? A hand slaps the back of my head, breaking my gaze.
“Give him a buck for the blow job he gave you last night.” Brad’s buddy says as he holds out a green bill.
“He wasn’t good enough.” Brad declares to approving laughter.
No one’s better than your mother. I think, but dare not utter aloud.
Without warning, a hand reaches out, snagging my glasses. I’m too surprised, too slow, and now too blind to respond in time. The girl sitting next to me passes her prize to another hand in the next seat. I stand and reach into the spot she has just vacated, grabbing an empty hand.
“Let go, blubber butt!” A hand too soft to be a guys, yet is, pulls away. When I look up, Brad is holding my eyes.
“These are the size of coke bottles!” All heads are now turned toward Brad. “My God, how do you see through these?” He hands them around for the others to see; each new hand delighted by the game.
“Give them back.” I utter my first words since boarding the bus at school. I speak toward him, not to him. My words lack strength and my voice is void of power.
“Why would you want them back? You can’t see through them.” My glasses find their way back into Brad’s hands. I say nothing. “If you want them–” he pauses, looks around, stands, and smiles. The smile. How can you be angry at that smile? How can a boy like that have such a great smile? Brad takes a step toward me, and like some brain-damaged zombie, I stretch my arm toward him. As he closes in, he steps to his left, leans over two people, and tosses the glasses out the open window. “Go get them.”
Disbelief spreads across the bus as we move rapidly away. Anger springs from within me, replacing the mixed emotions from a second before.
“Stop the bus!” The lone voice of sanity bursts through the silence. “Stop the bus! They threw my brother’s glasses out the window!”
At first, there is no change in our speed. The bus then lunges as breaks are applied. I have to hold on to the seat in front of me so that I do not play gravity’s game again. Brad sits facing forward, blending in with the sea of heads pretending they do not know what has transpired. I see my sister at the front of the bus, see her mouth move yet hear no words. I blink. She is now at my side, her hand on my arm, leading me to the door opened just for us. My eyes close as the sun hits my face.
“Why did you just stand there?” She yells. She is angry, angry at them, yet angrier with me. “Were you just going to leave them behind?” As we walk down the side of the road, her eyes scan the pavement and the dried and dying weeds along its edge. I walk along, hearing and seeing, yet not connecting sight or sound to reason.
“Why do you let them get away with shit like this?” Her pace is as furious as her voice. Unexpectedly, she walks off the road, reaches down in the dirt, and holds up the eyeglasses. “I can’t believe it, they don’t even look scratched.” She pushes them toward me and drags me forward. “Your damned lucky!”
Looking in my hands, I see the black-framed, thick-lens extension of myself. Even without a face, they look nerdish. I put them back where they belong and can now see the yellow blur as others see it, a dirty old school bus only noticeable in that it is not moving.
“One of these days, you’re going to stand up for yourself!” She moves a few steps ahead of me. Without looking back, she states “And pull up your pants.” I do not linger nor do I hurry. At the bus doors she waits, both hands on her hips, disgust written on her face. Once I enter, she follows. I walk down the aisle, not toward my seat, but toward Brad. I hear her chiding the driver for not helping or punishing the kids responsible. He tells her to take a seat. I am one foot away from Brad, who is looking at his feet, when I feel my sisters hand on my shoulder, stopping my progress. Without a word she leads me back to the front. With glaring eyes and a jerk of her head, my sister orders the girl in the seat next to her out. Once the girl is gone I am pushed in and my sister corrals my movement, blocking my way by sitting next to me. All of this is done in complete silence. Silence dominates the ride home.
As I sit, I think of her. This interaction is uncommon for us in a school setting. We never talk at school. We have the same lunch hour, yet do not sit together, do not go to school events together. If we see each other in the hall, we move as far away as we can from one another. We seldom make eye contact, do not share the same friends, and pretend we are not related. The same goes for our brother, Ronald. We both think he is the catalyst of our actions, yet he is only our justification.
The bus empties each time we stop and the silence deepens. I only notice when we reach Brad’s stop. I watch him exit. I watch him walk toward his house. I watch him until the bus takes me out of his sight. At no time does he look at me. For some reason, this makes me angry. My sister and I exit the bus and walk the mile to our farmhouse home in the same silence. That evening, the uneasy quiet remains between us. No one notices. She will not tell our mom what has happened; the price I pay for this small consideration is in knowing her silence is a sign of her disappointment. My silence is due to shame. The next morning, we walk in the dark back to the same bus stop, and in our final silence we enter the same bus so we can do the same miserable things all over again.
By the time we reach Brad’s stop, my sister and I have settled back into our separate but comfortable roles. She is in her normal seat in the front, yet I have purposely placed myself in the middle of the bus, close to where Brad normally sits. As the bus jerks to a stop, I look for him in the darkness yet see nothing. It is only when he enters the light of the bus that I notice he is wearing the cloak of deniability. He and I, as well as everyone else, will never speak about yesterday. There will be no confession to clean the soul, no involvement of those in authority to satisfy justice, and no apology, no forgiveness. I sit and absorb the normalcy of the common acceptance of the wrong. We all move forward as the bus resumes its journey to school.
The morning ride is always more serene then the journey home. Sleep still hangs heavily in our eyes and we are rested, not restless. Chatter does not begin until the bus drives into the approaching rays of light from the rising sun. Our real day does not start until we leave the emptiness of the farms and enter the clutter of the town. Small, quiet conversations float lazily around. Gentle words part callous lips trained to bear harsher language. The truce prepares for its end as the bus makes its final turn toward the school.
“Thanks for last nights blow job.” Brad’s wingman grins as he commences the day’s abuse. I only smile.
“You are so sick!” He turns away from me and faces Brad. “I bet he would suck you off if you paid him enough.”
“Is that true, white trash?” Brad mockingly asks.
I say nothing as the bus comes to a stop at the front entrance to the school. The doors swing open the students rush out. I stand just as Brad’s friend moves into the aisle. I move behind him with Brad behind me. We inch our way forward until our movement is halted when a girl in discolored jeans steps into the line. Brad bumps into me, chest against back, waist against ass.
“Do you like that, butt boy?” he leans toward my ear, his mocking words crashing into my head, his breath moving around my neck. We stand touching for an eternity of seconds. Then the line moves forward and I breathe in relief as I step off the bus, moving to my right to let Brad catch up with his friends. Instead, he shadows my movement.
“So, I’ve got extra cash, when are you going to blow me?” All I feel and all I think is nervousness. I do not know, much less consider if he is joking, or just tying to entrap me. I am unaware if anyone else has heard his question.
“How much?” My question comes out without any thought. I do not know why I asked it, yet I do know I was not joking. No one hears the question but Brad. This time, I’m smiling. Brad’s walk slows as his friends move ahead. He again turns his head toward me as his smile turns from playful to nervous.
“How much?” I repeat.
His smile disappears – mine deepens. We both stop. My eyes are drawn again downward and I am certain that there is a growing tightness in his jeans. Brad bolts, leaving me behind, his backpack removed from his shoulder and hanging loosely in front of his zipper. He moves away from me and his friends as he disappears in the river of students headed toward their first class. I soon follow, wearing Brad’s dangerous misleading smile.
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