I arrived at the bus stop. There she was again, this time sitting on a bench at the bus stop, looking out for her bus. I turned around and faced away from her – I didn’t really want to hear more of her stories this time, they would probably be the same and I’d heard them once already. Her face was unmistakable – gaunt cheeks that made her big eyes look bigger, her high cheek bones protruding close to her eyes; her cheeks devoid of makeup, and her wrinkled lips standing out – painted a deep red. I turned around slyly to look at her – she did have makeup on her cheeks, but apparently done so subtly as to be not instantly noticeable. She must have been in her seventies. She had on the same big gold earrings and was hunched over in the same heavy coat above the thick turtleneck she was wearing the last time I saw her. I’d forgotten her name and was tempted to approach and make conversation, but just to get her name, that did not feel right. I knew if I jogged my memory, it would come to me.
I was waiting for the bus last week, tired, seated on a bench and nodding off. A hand touched me and I heard someone ask me what I had in the big box. I looked up and saw an old, wrinkled woman with big watery eyes. It was an air mattress, I said. She asked me what that was, an air mattress. I was somewhat surprised that she didn’t know what an air mattress was – the picture was on the box. I told her you blew it up and it worked like an extra bed. She was quite impressed at this apparently new invention. I was surprised that she was impressed. She was much older than me and it seemed unusual that she didn’t know what an air mattress was. But stranger things have happened. Her eyes were bright, alert, if protruding from her face. She asked me where I was from. “India,” I replied. “The most beautiful people are from India,” she said, “India and Africa. They have the best skin.” I didn’t argue with this vote of confidence, even though it was clear that that praise was being directed my way because of a group I belonged to, through the accident of birth. I’ve never had any ethnic or religious pride – being a human is perhaps the only group identity I’ve been somewhat comfortable with, much to the dismay of friends and family. Of course, I was at a bus stop, and she didn’t ask for my metaphysical position on where it was that I truly belonged, so I didn’t say anything. Instead, I asked her where she was from. She mentioned France, or maybe it was one of the other European countries. I know that’s not very helpful; it wasn’t Spain, it wasn’t England, it wasn’t Germany, maybe it was Switzerland. No, it was probably France. I must have asked her how long she was in New York, or what she did for a living, because she told me she was retired. At this point, I told her my name and asked her who she was. “Rose,” she said. She mentioned her last name too, but I’ll just refer to her as Rose. She was surprised at my non-Indian sounding name and I gave her a brief tutorial into the joys of the Inquisition and the noble role of a certain revered Catholic saint in India’s history.
I remember now – it wasn’t France, it was Venezuela. I remember that because she told me she’d married a black man and her family disowned her after that. I recall being a bit taken aback at such strong racism in South America. She said her son went to visit her family in Caracas at the age of twenty and he came back very depressed because the family rejected him because he had a black father. He asked his mother why she had to have married a nigger. She repeated this several times in our conversation.
In the early fifties, Rose had come to New York to study. She had divorced her first husband in Venezuela, a forgettable man who she did not mention again, and she was looking for a new life. She was fond of jazz and when she came to New York, she’d go to the jazz clubs in Harlem, where she met her second husband, a well-known jazz musician, now deceased, who I’ll call Bill. According to Rose, Black men had such beautiful skin and it was hard to resist this dashing man who swept me of my feet.
My parents didn’t like it one bit, I married a nigger, they said and they disowned me. But I was in love. And then we had a baby, my son, who always said to me, “Why did you have to marry a nigger!”
I asked her where her son was now. Did he become a musician too?
No, he died when he was young. He came back from Venezuela and died of a broken heart. I told him to not go. “They won’t accept you,” I said. “No,” he said. He was headstrong, “They are my family, I want to meet them.” He went there, they didn’t want to talk to him. I told him, he wouldn’t listen. He came back, he took drugs, and he died. I couldn’t do anything.
“You didn’t try to have more children,” I asked.
Oh no, I divorced Bill two years after we got married. He had many girlfriends. I told him, “Bill, I know what you’re doing.” I knew he was sleeping with other women. He was a musician, it was normal for them to play late into the night, and then these women would throw themselves at him. So I divorced him. And then I showed him. I told him, “Bill, you watch me now. You had all those girlfriends, now you see what I can do.” Her eyes lit up at this point, a combination of glee and vengeance in them. I slept with his friends, I slept with other musicians. He told me, “Rose, what are you doing? These are my colleagues, you’re embarrassing me.” I told him, “Bill, you had your chance. Now it’s my turn. I told you I was going to do it.” I had a job at the UN at the time, African diplomats were after me, the ambassador of Kenya. Another fellow wanted to marry me.
I asked her if she didn’t remarry?
No, marriage should not be allowed. You cannot stay faithful in marriage. To have sex with the same person for the rest of your life?! After two years, you get tired of the same person and then you have affairs. Why be married if you are going to have affairs?
“Were you ever married?” she asked me, probably observantly noticing the absence of a ring on my finger. I told her it was a long time ago.
“What do you do now, for work?” I asked.
She told me she had worked as a steno-secretary at the UN and now she was retired. Now I go to concerts, I have my pension, and I go to the museum and enjoy my life.
“Do you cook often?” I asked. I’m often interested in the food habits of strangers, I don’t know why.
Oh no, I don’t cook. I just order food. Cooking is too much.
The bus pulled up. It was crowded. I waited for Rose to get in, but she walked back to the bench at the bus stop, choosing to wait for a less crowded bus.
When I saw her again the second time, she did the same thing – she declined to board a crowded bus and waited for an empty bus instead. When I got on the bus, I saw Rose sitting on a bench at the bus stop, looking out for the next bus. To her right, was a young woman, not quite twenty-five, standing proudly to the world, listening to music on her iPod. I wondered at the progression of age, there, an old woman, who’d seen a lot over the years, and next to her, a woman in the prime of youth, who one day might be wrinkled like Rose, though perhaps with no less pride. And what will become of me, I wondered – that one way track also has a spot reserved for me. Maybe I’ll be like some of the males in my family, feeble of mind and robust of physical bearing, though perhaps the opposite might be slightly more desirable. Or not. To be discovered.
© 2013 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.
Born in Mumbai, Marlon de Souza lives in New York City. Among his teachers are water bodies, Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, His Royal Highness Wolfgang the First, Leonard Cohen, and his dog-child, Jules. More of his work can be found on http://www.JustAnotherAveragePerson.com