On a bus coasting across the Midwest, there is a young man. He must be young because his face is lumpy and beat red with a couple of white heads on his chin, and the pock marks on his cheeks seem to indicate that he is now rounding the curve from prepubescent to late adolescence. His greasy brown hair covers his eyes, but he doesn’t seem to mind as he continues flipping through the pages of some romance novel using his student ID to mark his place. I cannot see the name of the author from where I sit, but there are two half naked cowboys on the front cover. The title of the book is probably some sort of play on words about a couple cowboys taking a long ride into the sunset. I ponder over this scene for a moment and reflect on the difficulties that accompany one’s coming of age journey. Those of us that have lived long enough to stumble into life and step over to adulthood are far too quick to dismiss the harsh realities we had to face in order to officially be “grown-up.” Casting my brief epiphany aside, I can’t help but wonder if the image on the front cover seems to be divulging either an adolescent curiosity or solidifying the reader’s sexual preferences.
I quickly scold myself for judging this greasy-haired book by its cover. At the same time, I cannot keep my gut from twisting and my head from turning as he catches my eye again. I give a nonchalant assessment of my co-commuters before my glance makes its way back over to the disheveled occupant of the third seat from the door. There is a businessman in a cheap trench coat checking an expensive watch, and a homeless lady is slumped in the seat across from him. An elderly man staring at something on the floor is holding the hand of a woman about the same age looking out the window as corn fields turn into stumpy skyscrapers. In the corner of my eye, I can see a plain looking construction worker fiddling with his wedding ring as he wrinkles his eyebrows mulling over the events that led up to the fiddling. It is only fellow introverts lost in the alleys of their own minds that accompany me. Phew. No one thinks I am a blonde haired, stiletto wearing creep. I continue observing.
I notice the backpack sitting next to the boy is filled to the brim. A toothbrush sticks out the front pocket and tells me he isn’t studying for a Contemporary Literature final. The pit in my stomach persists as I put the pieces together. Something is wrong. The twist in my center bumps up to my heart as it begins beating faster. These two independent organs have this sort of sixth sense about other people. They often work together as one unit designed to alert me whenever I come across someone who is hurting. It is like empathy sheds her role as an idea or frame of mind and goes through some sort of metamorphosis or evolution into a literal biological event.
I cannot pinpoint the origin of the empathetic response system going off in my core, so I glance at the boy once more. His eyes seem to have minds of their own, blinking every couple seconds. Maybe it a nervous tick or an indication of some type of obsessive-compulsive behavior that helps him focus. Maybe it is a feeble attempt to keep from crying in front of the six strangers accompanying him this morning.
For a brief moment, I lose focus on my case study as the businessman power walks to the front of the bus with his briefcase in hand. He mumbles something about the shortcomings of the public transportation system and steps onto the street leaving a thick aroma of drug store cologne in his stead. I turn back to the reader just in time to see his small nose wrinkle in a weak acknowledgment of the stench, but the rest of him ignores it. He remains hunched over the text at hand.
Curiosity takes over, and before I know it, I am standing up. Eyes squinted; I glance to my left and then to my right to see if I have drawn any attention from the bystanders. I begin to realize I could probably go into anaphylactic shock and die before any of these people even acknowledge my presence (Despite the blonde hair and off-brand stilettos, I must admit that I am also rather plain looking). Using this new power of invisibility to my advantage, I stand in place, give myself a pep talk, and muster up the courage to cross the aisle and sit next to the boy.
You were meant to help him. It is your civic duty to march right over there and coax him to seek help from an adult. After all, he is clearly running away from something. Paying no mind to any of the prior bus stops, he is on his way to anywhere but where he came from. The poor thing is most likely disgruntled because his parents don’t understand how he thinks. Although you are a bit curious about where he got the book and why he decided to read it, this is far more important than a young man’s curiosity. This is someone’s future! With only a backpack and a book, he is not prepared for the real world. You can tell him that you were there once. Oh! And you can affirm that yes, growing up really is hard. Although it may sound cliché, you must have the courage to tell him that there is, in fact, a light at the end of the tunnel.
Who am I kidding? I am an adult. He is the child. I am in control!
Standing up a little straighter, with my chin held a little higher, I take one more look at the person whose life I am about to change. Suddenly, I realize that he is now walking out the door with his backpack over his shoulder. The moment is gone. Like the drug-store cologne, a toothbrush is all that remains of this commuter. The toothbrush somehow stares into my soul. Her bristles point at me as if I am the reason she is now left alone without a boy or a backpack to need her.
Realizing that a toothbrush can’t look into my soul or point at me, for that matter, I watch the man and his backpack walk away. Suddenly, the pit in my stomach returns and- Crap. I missed my stop.