As dusk casts magical shadows beneath barren winter trees, I walk my solitary way to the KAT bus station for a journey west. While waiting for the number 11 bus, I watch, transfixed, as a family of four interact with one another.
Two little girls are bundled up in pink furry coats and thick purple mittens—a toddler and her sister of perhaps age 5. They stare delightedly as the golden lights of the bus station revolve round and round, showing arrivals and departures. The toddler tries without success to catch the moving numbers. The older girl just laughs with wonder, every so often looking up at her mother to see if she is witnessing the magic, too. The mother and father talk to one another, but their eyes rarely leave their children. It is 19 degrees out and we are bundled up like Eskimos.
Dusk is a mysterious time, when there seems to be a kind of hum underlying the sounds of the city, like the deep rumble of a whale gliding through the ocean. I watch my shadow lengthen and wonder which one is more real—my physical body or its shadow. The bus arrives and we trudge on, grateful for the warmth inside. Just before the older sister gets on, she looks at her reflection in the window and does a little dance, while the cherubic toddler runs and manages to climb onto the seat herself. She succeeds, and I think: She will be a warrior, a leader.
Their mother is beautiful, her collar pulled high on her neck; she has sculpted cheekbones and an innate dignity that needs no confirmation from others. The husband and wife seem to be so united—like a pair of eyes that never stray, one from the other. They get off at a Church of Christ on Kingston Pike and I realize they are going to a Wednesday night prayer meeting.
They hold hands going into the church and I am envious, while knowing deep down that a traditional family life is not for me. I would make an irresponsible parent, and I’m not much good at marriage either. I am pretty much inadequate at following rules altogether.
My route is a different one, often solitary, almost always misunderstood by others, and always away from the beaten path. You might say it’s my vocation. My best friend, John, whom I am going to visit, tells me I am a freak of nature. I like that. As I enter his apartment on the 12th floor of his subsidized apartment complex, the wind howls outside. I tell him about my experience on the bus as the wind moans and he makes no comment. We look at one another, then away, the two of us gazing at the darkness outside.
John arrives and we are soon all having shots of whiskey to brave out the cold, which seeps through the window. We listen to Eminem, we listen to Bach fugues, we listen to Gregorian chants, and, finally, we dance riotously to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.”
David suddenly becomes pensive. “Do you wonder why other people seem to be so normal and we are so damned crazy?”
“Maybe because we are such drunks?” asks John.
We laugh and high-five each other, but really, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, this drinking thing. All of us are in and out AA. In and out of sobriety. In and out of self-destructive patterns, valiant efforts to “behave,” and repeated failures.
“It’s really not that much fun anymore, is it?” David says in a sober moment. “The hangovers, the chemicals, the throwing up and the wondering why we do it. Again and again and again.”
“Not to mention the expense,” adds John.
This conversation is making me uncomfortable, but John and David finally crash out so I rush to catch the last bus back downtown. Large snowflakes freeze on top of my head and I get on the bus wearing a lace veil of snow. The KAT driver and I nod to one another and I go to the back of the bus. The only passenger besides me is a drunk man, half asleep, clutching a bottle of booze next to his chest as though it were his lifeline. Perhaps it is. Having had a few too many myself I fall asleep and awaken to the sound of the bus-driver calling me: “Ma’am, ma’am. You have to get off now. You’re at the end of the line.”
It is such an effort to wake up that I want to beg the driver just let me curl up there on the bus seat and sleep until morning. But I gather the fragments of myself together, try to muster up some dignity, and walk the long blocks towards 4th and Gill. It is a relief to be back in my neighborhood, in my own skin, in my own apartment. Before I even get inside the door, a mass of fur leaps at my chest, nearly knocking me down. It is my ever-faithful dog, Mallory. She twirls around with glee at seeing me, then growls as if to say, “Where the hell have you been?”
We huddle together on the couch and fall asleep into a peaceful slumber, as the wind rattles the window on a frozen winter night.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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