We board the bus in Lustnau, waiting by the sign for the stop by the house with the wall. I stand right under the sign, reading the schedule for all the buses, and she stands a little ways away, looking the other way, and then when the bus comes we board and she sits next to me and she cries. Her make-up runs as she cries. Mascara mixes with salt and her chin quivers, and she cries. She tries to take deep breaths and tries to smile, attempting something stoic or maybe just cynical, but it doesn’t work. She cries and she keeps crying.
I don’t know this woman and I don’t know why she’s crying. She’s just the tear-tumbled stranger sitting next to me and she could be anybody. I tell my fiancée about the crying girl, later, and she says she could have been that girl and I say that I could have been that girl too. She’s in her 30s, 32 or 33, and she’s wearing a fur coat and plush, crushed-velvet pants and a blue ski hat. She looks silly to be crying. She’s too old and she’s wearing the wrong clothes to be crying, but then I don’t know what outfits go well with tears. She’s dressed like someone who thought she was stylish, but then got out in the light of critical day and realized everything was wrong. She looks – no – she looks like someone who’s cold. She looks like someone who’s cold, colder than she’s ever been, and she put on everything she could think of that was warm, the pants the coat the hat, not caring about the combined effect. She looks like someone who thought she was safe, though, thought she could stay in and be warm and weirdly dressed and thought it would be OK, because she was safe, and now she’s on the bus from Lustnau, crying and forsaken.
She looked out the window. Above us the bus read out upcoming locations in its computerized enunciations, reading by rote the list like a litany. We pass the stops we always pass and we are silent, each of us alone under the voice, and the woman cries.
I don’t know who this woman is, who’s sitting next to me, and I don’t know why she’s crying. I imagine it’s loneliness, or that she just really wants to be left alone. I imagine someone doesn’t love her, or someone does and shouldn’t. I imagine someone has died, or said something or not said something, and I imagine she’s found something or lost something, learned something or remembered or forgotten. I imagine it could be any reason, but what reason could there be but the normal ones? Aren’t all our reasons sort of the same, running together like tears towards the chin, happening again and again, like the fights each couple repeats forever?
When I was a boy I stole my parents’ marriage counseling books to read the sections about sex. I wanted to know everything. (That was the same year, I think, that I looked up “sex” and “fuck” in the dictionary). So I stole the books, there were three I think, and I read the sections about sex and the rest of them too. There was a little information in there, but mostly I found accounts of people sitting in counselors’ offices, crying. It happened again and again, with different people in different accounts with different, made-up names, but everyone ended up making the same mistakes, everyone ended up destroying their life and their love without even knowing what they were doing, and they all ended up middle aged, overweight, emotionally wrecked and sitting in these seats, in this office, feeling despair in their stomachs. I was looking for the secret initiations of adulthood, and I found this horrible sadness, where everyone always felt bad and everything was banal. Now, about to be married, I’m reading these books again. I’m reading the one we’re assigned to read and the others too, the ones that collect around the betrothed like unwanted wedding traditions, and I’m surprised because these books are still the same. Everyone’s still making the same mistakes and still ending up in offices, in tears. Women are still not wanting sex and not understanding men’s needs and men are still not showing affection, and still falling asleep after forcing themselves on their wives. Everyone’s frustrated, in these books, and everyone’s trapped in this terrible loneliness, riding along with no knowledge as a pre-programmed voice reads out the names of the streets, as the bus goes the way it always goes.
It’s not even sordid, but just sort of sorry. All our foibles are so feeble and sad. Once, I wish, just once, someone in one of these books would do some sin that isn’t average, if only to show that we can be unique. Isn’t that the joke about the priest bored by confession? "No," he says, "I’m looking for an original sin, an original sin". Isn’t that what C.S. Lewis or somebody said about the angels, that they must be standing at the edge of heaven, watching human history, flabbergastingly bored? How is it, the angels ask, that God can tolerate this tedium?
But the angels and the priests, like all ideologues, are wrong. Every sin is an original sin and every woman crying on every bus is crying for her own reasons and for the very first time. This is what the books always got wrong, when I read them in secret and still when I read them now. They always assume people into classes and categories, and they take individuality away. They assume gender roles, bank on the probability of problems, and everyone is supposed to reprise pre-existing parts. But it doesn’t work. When the counselor goes home after counseling another anonymous couple with another case of textbook fights and failures, he too fights with his wife. He too gets cranky and raw, raises his voice and takes too-easy offense, but it’s different for him, because he’s writing the book on this and because he knows how this happens. But knowledge isn’t power, and his helplessness is just harder. And he feels it like he’s falling, and as he falls he’s alone, no more a class or categorized type but just alone, forsaken, and falling. He doesn’t need someone to say what he already knows but just someone to say, “hey, fuck it, I love you anyway.”
Because we are only ever individuals, and if there is to be such a thing as love, then it must be so obscene as to pick out an individual and reject everything else. If there’s going to be fidelity, and commitment beyond knowledge (and I take it as axiomatic that we can’t know), then I must love this one, and love her not as a type or an example, but as the one and the only one who matters. And the generalizations don’t work anyway. The categories don’t ever quite fit. I always end up scoring as a woman, talking too much and needing to touch, except I’m not frigid and not demanding babies. My fiancée doesn’t fight like a woman, or go through the day like a woman, but always only like herself. For in “forsaking all others,” I give up the general category of “women,” and instead know to this one, cling to this one, call this individual the one whom I love.
This woman, crying on the bus, she’s not a metaphor. She doesn’t mean anything or make any point. She just cries. Each tear is a new tear, slipping out of her eye and sliding down her face. Her lower lip tremors and she sniffs and her nose has started to run so she wipes it. She has a name, even if I don't know it. The bus says “Dorfakerstrasse,” and “Stuttgarterstrasse” and “Landhausstrasse” and she calms down and tries to smile. She looks like she might say she’s always known, she knew but didn’t want to know, but now she knows. But she is silent, sitting with me on the bus, but sitting alone. She fixes her make-up, looking at her reflection in the face of her cell phone. She smiles a sad smile and holds a used tissue in her lap.