On a Greyhound destined for Lafayette, Indiana, I sit cross-legged on the three-seater at the back of the bus. I figure I can withstand the toilet stench for extended legroom, a rare commodity. My best friend, Jenelle Molyneux, is sitting in front of me occasionally nodding off. The summer sun blinks over the golden fields as my milky pen loops across my journal’s card-paper. A man clamours out of the bathroom.
Standing a slim 5’10” with a wide grin, he pauses and beams down at me. “Hey, you’re a writer? I’m a writer too. Well, not really, but I like writing down my thoughts, yah know? And reading too.” I smile, bemused by his openness. I’ve been travelling for seven hours without talking to anyone. And I like to talk.
“Just a little journaling, nothing too serious,” I reply, looking back down. He braces himself against the seat in front of me as the bus barrels down the interstate.
“My name is Jeffrey, and I like people who can express themselves,” he smiles extending his arm. I’m immediately intrigued. I wonder if he is an artist; he’s certainly strange enough.
I introduce myself and shake his knobby, rough hand, surely not the delicate fingers of a painter or pianist. The deep lines on his face and his sandpaper palms show this man works hard.
His glassy eyes reflect contentment.
Jeffrey asks to sit beside me. I hesitate. However, considering I have all this room and everyone in the back half of the bus heard him ask, I feel obliged. His slanted smile and Quagmire chuckle make me nervous, but nonetheless I move over. Like any decent gentleman, he asks if he can drink his paper-bagged beer beside me. “Be my guest,” I reply. I’ve seen far worse on the bus over the past two weeks. I add an ellipsis to where I was writing in my journal and close the cover.
Having already travelled from Kamloops, B.C. via Greyhound, I had gained experience perfecting my small talk skills to the point that within 10 minutes I could find commonalities with perfect strangers. It took Jeffrey about five minutes to figure out we were both from the west coast. He said my “aura” gave it away.
Hailing from Alaska, Jeffrey knows B.C., and nearly hugs me when he learns I have also been to the Adams River. He’s heading to Cincinnati for work where he holds a senior position with a drilling company. Jeffrey chose to take the bus from Chicago because, “drinking and driving is too dangerous these days.”
I nod in agreement, “It certainly is.” At least he’s responsible, right?
Yes, the man that Jenelle, assumed to be “homeless,” due to his worn khaki shorts and oversized tee-shirt was, in fact, successful. He even offers me a business card which I kindly decline. I don’t want to encourage him.
“Taking the bus is all about the experience, yah know?” said Jeffrey, about 45 minutes into our conversation. He leans in so close I can smell his lunch of Camels and Budweiser.
Jeffrey then gets up and staggers to his seat at the front of the bus to fetch another beer. I feel slightly relieved because he was getting too close to me. Jenelle turns around laughing, pulling out the iPod headphones she was using to avoid entering our conversation. Just as I’m about to get mad at her for not helping amuse Jeffrey, we hear him returning down the aisle. He compliments anyone who looks at him, giggling all the way back to my seat.
“People are always sweating the small shit, you know?” says Jeffrey plopping down beside me. Apparently the bus driver told him to “tone it down.” I agree with him, privately amused because I made a similar remark in my high school yearbook.
“West coast, man, that’s what people are missing over here. They need to realize that there are more beautiful things going on and they have to enjoy the ride sometimes.” I knew exactly what he meant. Hell, I wouldn’t have strapped on a backpack and bought a 30 day Greyhound ticket to tour music festivals if I didn’t intend to enjoy the ride.
Suddenly he tucks down dangerously close to my lap, and cracks open another beer. He hovers over his drink with the guilty mischief of child who sticks Play-Doh in their mouth just to spite their parents. “I can tell you’re a free spirit, Kayla,” he said taking a swig. I laugh nervously. Two guys across the aisle look over in amusement.
“Thanks Jeffrey,” I respond.
“No, no, really, you are. You get it. Life, you get it. You must be thirty years younger than me, you probably don’t even know Led Zeppelin, but this conversation is like listening to [Jimmy] Page playing. Everything becomes clear.”
“Page is one of my idols. I guess I know what you mean.”
Mouth-gaped he just looks at me, then out the tinted window, then at me again. His shaggy hair reminds me of Russell Hammond from Almost Famous who sets out to find “real people wanting to have a real time.” Sure, Russell was on acid when he made his Led Zeppelin reference, but Jeffrey wasn’t exactly sober either.
We speed past a billboard that says, “Your mom chose your life. Pro-Life.” I shake my head at the backwardness of the American Midwest.
He continues to get drunker and consequently more honest about his loneliness and pursuit of happiness. We take a nostalgic trip back to Alaska and his adolescence of camping and fishing in British Columbia. I answer every question about my interests and experiences truthfully; after all, I’ll never see him again. Perhaps, that’s the appeal of bus ride “friendships.” You can be whoever you want to be, including yourself.
Over two hours later we finally arrive in Lafayette and Jeffrey gets off the bus to have a smoke before continuing to Cincinnati. He tries to help me with my bags, but with Jenelle’s cousin and uncle (whom I had yet to meet) standing nearby, I was too embarrassed to admit I knew him. I avoid eye contact to subside my guilt. I knew a lot about him and he knew a great deal about me.
Jeffrey ignores my social cue to leave me alone and comes up close to me. I cringe thinking he’s going in for a hug, but instead he whispers in my ear, “Life is short honey, remember you can’t sleep with a journal.” For a long time, I was offended by that statement but maybe he makes a point.
The bus engine roars alive, signally the end of the smoke break. Jeffrey stands near the door and I see him take one last drag of his cigarette. We make eye contact. He winks. People start piling back on so he flings his butt onto the asphalt, stomps on it, then bounds back onto his humming playground.
Sometimes the best way to feel a part of something is to go for a bus ride and see who you’ll meet.