The 7N Bus
(c) by the author
I never knew their names. In the beginning, I thought of the first one as ‘that young man who sits in front of me on the bus in the morning’. Later, he was joined by ‘the other young man’. After a time, I found that it was easier to think about them if they had names, and so I christened them Adam and Seth.
The 7N Bus runs on a circular route from the train station through Lewiston Place out to the Oldham Industrial Estate and then back to the train station by way of Chelmdene and Haymarket. I am an early riser, and I always catch the bus that leaves the station at 5:40 a.m. It gets to my stop around 6:10, enough time for me to read most of the newspaper.
We humans are so regular in our daily habits. The same people queue up for the bus each morning, more or less in the same order. A talkative, elderly man is always the first in line. Most days a middle-aged woman is the second person in line, and she and the elderly man trade information about what they have done since they last saw each other. I know that he is semi-retired but goes in a few hours every day to ‘help’ his son run the family’s shop. She is a dentist. Over the years I have learned a lot about the two of them from their conversation. When she isn’t there, the older man tries to engage the person behind him in the queue in conversation. I take care to be the fourth or fifth person. I suppose he’s pleasant enough to talk to, but I don’t want to share the details of my personal life with the people waiting for the bus, and I’m not ready to talk with anyone that early in the morning. My colleagues at work learned long ago not to engage me in conversation until I’ve had at least three cups of coffee and an hour’s time to get myself sorted out. One of the advantages of arriving long before the others is that I can manage to be agreeable by the time they show up.
All the regulars take the same seats each day. I usually sit by the window in the third row back on the left-hand side. If someone takes a regular passenger’s seat, it feels as if the natural order of the world has been violated. When it happens, the affected person shrugs and smiles ruefully. I always feel oddly disturbed when someone takes my accustomed place. It’s always a stranger. None of the regulars would do that. It’s quite irrational, but I do believe that it augurs ill for the day.
Until quite recently, a young man sat ahead of me. He began riding the 5:40 bus three years ago, something like that. He is the one I am calling Adam. As I said, I never knew his name. If we happened to stand next to each other in the queue, we might remark on some unusual aspect of the weather or, if the bus was not there at the accustomed time, speculate on the reason. But our conversations never went much beyond that. I once ran into him a store. There was a moment of mutual recognition, followed by some confusion, I think on his part as well as mine, as to how we knew each other. The reason dawned for both of us at nearly that same moment. ‘The bus’—we spoke almost at the same instant. We chuckled and then moved on.
I got to know the back of Adam’s neck well. Most mornings, I had the impression that he was half-asleep. Quite often his head would nod forward and then jerk back suddenly as he woke up. Most of us who ride the 5:40 bus do so by choice, because we wake up early. Some, like Adam, appear to do so because their job requires them to arrive early.
Adam seldom did anything but sit there. If someone left a paper on a nearby seat, he might pick it up and turn to the sports news. He would glance at it, but never for very long. He apparently never read beyond the headlines or the game summaries in the first paragraph. Nor did he spend much time looking out the window. He seemed withdrawn into himself. That may be why I thought he was not fully awake most of the time. About the only thing that occasionally drew his attention was a passenger getting on the bus.
Adam was, I would say, an average person. Well, truth be told, I am that too. No one who rides the bus really stands out. If we were somebodies, we wouldn’t be riding the bus, would we? Maybe he was a clerk in a shop or some sort of assistant in a business that opened early. From the conversations between Adam and Seth that I overheard later, I gathered that both of them were knowledgeable about electronics. Perhaps they were computer technicians where they worked. It’s hard to tell, though. The young seem to know everything electronic these days.
About the only thing that drew my attention to Adam in the beginning was an intriguing discrepancy in his looks. The base of his hair at the back, along the neck, was always neatly trimmed. He never allowed his neckline to become fuzzy or uneven. It was always a straight line across the back of his neck, and the area below that was clean shaven. Yet his hair was tousled, almost unkempt. It looked as if he never combed it and just allowed it to grow as it liked. I don’t mean to imply that his hair was dirty or messy—he kept it rigorously clean—but to all appearances he never combed or brushed it. It wasn’t until the rigour of the neckline hit one that it became apparent how artful this arrangement was.
Adam’s style of dressing was much the same. At first glance his clothes appeared to be thrown on. He gave the impression of being one of those young men who has never learned to knot a tie properly. The knot was always pulled away from this throat a bit, and the tie hung askew down his chest. Until one looked closer, he always seemed carelessly dressed. But his clothes and his nonchalant style of wearing them always looked good on him.
No one would call Adam a handsome lad, I think. Presentable, easy on the eyes perhaps, but no, not handsome. If pressed to categorise him, I would say that he knew how to make the best of what were only so-so looks. By apparently not trying to make himself look good, however, he ended up looking better that he might otherwise have.
I don’t want to give the impression that I spent a lot of time studying Adam. It’s just that he sat ahead of me for three years or so, and over time I became acquainted with his looks. If I had any artistic skills, I could draw every building the bus passes. After nearly twenty years, I am familiar with every aspect of the streets along the route. I sometimes play a game and keep my eyes shut during the morning ride. I keep them closed until I was sure we are almost to my stop. Most of the time when I open them, we are exactly in front of the building I thought we would be. Over time, the 7N bus and its occupants have become rather of a hobby of mine. One has to find something to do to occupy one’s thoughts.
I’m not alone in that. All of us who ride the 5:40 bus could probably compile a list of the people who usually get on at each stop—not by name but by sex and age and physical type. I almost always am aware of a newcomer as soon as he or she boards the bus. It isn’t that I intentionally look. It’s more that I realise that two people are getting on where usually only one does. I glance up and register the stranger and then return to my reading.
That early in the morning, most of us have a bench of seats to ourselves for the first ten or fifteen minutes of the route. After that, the bus fills up rapidly and all the seats are taken, and some people have to stand. Even in this respect, however, the same people tend to sit together most every day. The seat beside me is usually taken by another middle-aged man who boards at Lower Bridge Street. He gets out at the stop before the university.
Six or seven, months ago, the seat beside Adam was taken by a young man boarding at Kensington Street. I had never seen him before. Like Adam, he was slender and lithe. The thought struck me that they were rather of a matched pair in looks and dress. Both stayed on the bus until Lewiston Place. About half the bus gets off there to transfer to other buses or to head for work in one of the office towers there. The newcomer quickly became a regular and, unless the seat beside Adam was occupied, took that seat.
Two or three weeks after I first noticed the newcomer, I happened to look up as the bus pulled into the Kensington Street stop and saw Adam turned sideways in his seat looking out the window at those waiting to board there. He suddenly smiled and sketched a half-wave to someone standing in the queue. I looked out and saw the newcomer, the man I am calling Seth, wave back to him. Seth bounded on board the bus and hurried down the aisle, all the while smiling at Adam.
The two of them began chatting animatedly, discussing a football match that had been broadcast the evening before. I was reading and didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying at first. A car must have cut in front of the bus, because the driver had to brake suddenly. The driver shouted something out, and that made me look up to see what was happening. When the bus started on its way again, Adam and Seth resumed their conversation, and I heard Seth suggest to Adam that they meet after work.
I recognised the place he named as one of the larger and more frenetic gay clubs near Lewiston Place. I’ve never been in it—it caters to a much younger crowd. Whenever I have been in that area and walked past, it’s always been packed with people. Despite the fact that it occupies at least two floors in the building and must be able to accommodate hundreds, there is frequently a line of young men standing outside waiting to get in. At night, light pulses from the building, and the beat of the music can be heard a block away.
The realisation that Adam and Seth were gay made me pay attention to them. Adam had turned sideways to face Seth. ‘But we won’t be able to hear ourselves talk there.’ And then he suggested another place. It happened to be the place Richard and I patronise when we venture out to have a drink, but Seth dismissed it out of hand as filled with ‘old gits’. The two of them kept trading the names of places. Seth seemed to want to go to more active and noisy places; Adam preferred less rowdy ones. They were still discussing where to go when the bus arrived at Lewiston Place and they got off. For me at least, the bus seemed much quieter after they had left. I resumed reading the newspaper, but there was a vacant spot in the air ahead of me.
That quickly became the pattern for Adam and Seth. Adam would sit up slightly just as the bus reached Kensington Street and look out the window for Seth. The two of them would greet each other with bright smiles and talk happily. One day someone set beside Adam before we reached Seth’s stop. When Seth came on board, Adam excused himself and got up. The other passenger slid over into the window seat. Adam took the seat next to me, and Seth took the aisle seat in front of us. Seth turned half-way around in his seat, and he and Adam spent the rest of the ride conversing animatedly. After that, no one took the seat beside Adam. As I said, the regulars respect one another’s space. We quickly became used to their conversations. For me at least, it added a cheerful note to the morning routine. It wasn’t so much the content of what they were saying to each other as the fact that they so clearly enjoyed each other’s company that heartened me. Perhaps I put too much stock in such things, but friendship of that sort seems to me to be sufficiently rare that it ought to be appreciated.
Then one morning, Seth was waiting with Adam in the queue at the train station. They were behind me, and I didn’t realise the two of them were together until I was seated on the bus. I had already folded my newspaper open and was reading it, when I became conscious that two people had taken the seat in front of me. I think I briefly felt regret that Adam has lost his usual seat. It wasn’t until I turned the newspaper over that I discovered that Adam and Seth had boarded the bus together.
In contrast to their usual talkativeness, both were sitting there without speaking. It wasn’t the quiet of two people who have nothing to say to each other, however. Rather, they appeared to be in that state when the important things have been said and done, and further conversation would disturb one’s enjoyment of what has happened. They also were physically at ease with each other. They weren’t touching or groping or doing anything to advertise the fact that they had made love, but they weren’t being careful not to touch each other. I wasn’t the only one to notice the change in their relationship. As I looked up, a passenger who had just boarded the bus and was coming down the aisle registered the fact that Seth had apparently spent the night at Adam’s place and smiled with satisfaction at her deductions about what had happened.
Thereafter the two of them almost always got on the bus together. Most of the time they boarded at the station. Occasionally they would get on at Kensington Street, often enough to make it apparent that Seth still retained his own place and hadn’t moved in with Adam. On a few days, Adam boarded alone at the station and Seth joined him after Kensington Street. The first time that happened, I wondered if something had come up between the two of them and was quite relieved when it became clear that the separation was temporary.
Maybe I am romanticising others’ feelings, but I think all of us felt better because Adam and Seth had found each other. The atmosphere on the bus seemed much more pleasant during that period. The two of them so obviously were happy, and that spilled over on the rest of us. They weren’t demonstrative about their feelings or so wrapped up in each other that they were oblivious to the sensibilities of others on the bus. But in many little ways one could tell that they were in love. One morning there was a patch of construction just before the intersection of Kitchener and Harlow streets. There were a few seconds of bone-jarring vibrations as the bus passed too quickly over the temporary patches in the streets. All of us swayed in our seats. But for a half-minute or so after the normal ride had resumed, Adam continued to sway in his seat and bump shoulders with Seth. Seth gave him a complicit smile and a look that said ‘What are you up to then, mate?’ But he didn’t move away either.
The episode brought a memory to my mind. Soon after Richard and I began sleeping together, I awoke one morning with Richard spooned against my back and his arms around me. I could tell from his breathing that he was asleep. We were both naked, and I can still remember his half-stiff cock pressed against my rear and the odd mix of comfort and arousal that caused. The hair in his groin felt wiry and stiff. It was almost as if I could feel each individual hair. I lay there wondering what would happen if I began to flex the cheeks of my ass together and press it into his crotch. It’s strange how strong certain memories are.
At that time, I was living in quite a small flat. The bedroom was barely big enough for the bed and a small table and chair. It was late morning, and the light in the room was quite bright even though the curtains were pulled. The night before, Richard had hung his shirt over the back of the chair rather hurriedly. One shoulder and sleeve were almost touching the floor. I lay there stroking the fabric of the shirt and feeling ridiculously happy about waking up to see Richard’s shirt in front of me. I can still see the colour—it was a dark blue shirt with almost invisible thin grey stripes running vertically up and down the fabric. It had one of those narrow, stiff, white bands that were a popular style for collars in the late 1970s.
Richard had pulled his wallet and keys out of his trousers and left them on the table. It was peaceful to lie there and let my eyes take stock of all of Richard’s possessions scattered about my room. When I looked down, I could see one of his arms and all the dark hairs on his forearm. I was almost afraid to move for fear of disturbing my quiet happiness.
I was so absorbed in my reverie about those early days with Richard that when Adam and Seth stood up to get off the bus, I did something unusual for me. I looked Adam directly in the face and smiled at him. Somehow I felt that he would understand the train of thought he had occasioned by his playfulness. He smiled back at me. It was only then that it struck me that he must think me an old fool. Adam couldn’t possibly have read my mind, but he was kind enough to share his own happiness with others.
Most of us who ride the 7N bus that early in the morning are older. We haven’t forgotten what the first flush of love is like, however. But even though the memories are overlaid with what has happened since, we can still be transported by the thought of love and hope for the best. Or maybe it’s just me. I can’t speak for the others.
A few weeks later, on a Friday, I joined the bus queue just after Adam and Seth. Seth was standing off to the side holding a small canvas bag. There was a psychical as well as physical separation between him and Adam. He sounded rather defensive when he spoke. ‘I’ll be back on Sunday evening, Monday morning at the latest.’
‘I don’t see why you have to go.’ Adam was aggrieved.
‘We’ve been over this before. Gavin and I made the plans and bought the tickets months ago. Before we met. This is the only concert the Vads are giving in England this year. I know you don’t like that kind of music or I would have tried to get you a ticket.’
‘You could have asked, instead of just telling me this morning that you were off for the weekend. I would have gone with you.’ Both of them were trying to keep their voices down, but the odd word here and there escaped their attempts to control their emotions.
Seth looked around, trying to avoid Adam’s angry looks. He suddenly brightened and waved at someone. ‘There’s Gavin. I’ll be going then. I’ll see you on Sunday.’ He glanced briefly in Adam’s direction and then rushed away toward the entrance to the train station.
Adam turned away, refusing to watch Seth leave. He faced forward, looking toward the head of the bus queue. His shoulders rose in a sigh and then slumped. When we got on the bus, he took his usual seat in front of me. The entire time he rode the bus, he kept his face cast downward, refusing to look up. When he stood up to get off, he hurried down the aisle, brushing past those who were slow to stand up from their seats. Once he got off the bus, he walked rapidly away, carefully looking straight ahead and refusing to see anyone.
I sat there wondering if I should have said something. I realised then that I had grown to feel rather proprietarial about their relationship. Which was wrong, of course. It wasn’t my relationship and I had no right to imply that I could offer any useful advice. Perhaps they reminded me too much of Richard and myself. And what would I have told Adam? ‘One argument isn’t the end. He’ll be back. Everybody needs a little space apart from the relationship.’ Useless platitudes when you have a grievance. It’s easy to be sane and logical and wise about others. Far more difficult to be rational when you’re one of the parties involved. The first time Richard and I had a fight over something he wanted to do by himself with a friend of his, I nursed that grievance for weeks. The last thing I would have wanted was for a well-meaning stranger even to notice that my lover had walked off to spend a weekend with someone else. It would have made matters worse to have to accept consolation and sympathy from someone I didn’t know and who happened to feel sorry for me. If I had been Adam and found someone sitting behind me on a bus offering advice, I probably would have expressed my feelings in the vernacular—although it might have relieved his feelings to have been able to tell someone to fuck off.
God, I was furious with Richard that time. One morning as we were getting dressed for work, he casually let slip that he wouldn’t be around for a while because he and his mate Len were off to Amsterdam. I was too stunned to speak at first, but I quickly found my voice. We had a major row, and it ended with Richard throwing his things into a bag and rushing off to meet Len. I was so mad I called in sick to work and spent the day raging around the flat. I couldn’t think of anything but Richard’s ‘desertion’. It didn’t help to get a postcard three days later from Amsterdam with the bald message ‘I’ll be back on Saturday.’ I tore it in two and tossed it in the bin, only to pull it out and then shred it into confetti.
When Richard returned, he was greeted with silence. He tiptoed around unpacking his things and then sat down opposite me. His first words other than hello were ‘Don’t worry. I took precautions. I’m not bringing any diseases home.’ That, of course, was precisely the wrong thing to say. The knowledge that he had not only taken off without me but been having sex with others infuriated me and set me on a monumental rant. By the time we had finished that argument, it was apparent to both of us that we had very different ideas of what fidelity meant. I had more traditional notions. For Richard, it simply meant that I was the person he came home to at the end of the day.
So what could I tell Adam that would have been of any use to him, even if I had known him well enough to offer advice? My own experience hardly boded well as an example.
Seth didn’t reappear until Tuesday. He and Adam boarded at the train station. Seth looked a bit hung-over, but that may have just been my imagination and conjectures about how he had spent the weekend and why he hadn’t been there on Monday. Adam and he were being careful with each other. They rode most of the way in silence. Seth’s attempt to start a conversation about the football games on television that weekend was met with a dismissive ‘I didn’t have time to watch them’ from Adam.
As the bus neared Lewiston Place, Seth asked, ‘Want to meet for lunch then?’
Adam shrugged, ‘Sure.’
‘Yeah, it’s as good as any.’
‘My treat. I’ll even buy you an ice cream after. Chocolate with chocolate syrup and chocolate chips on top.’ Seth nudged up against Adam and smiled uncertainly.
‘A double scoop?’
‘Triple, if you want.’
‘You’d have to help me eat that.’
‘Can I share your spoon?’
Adam finally smiled. ‘More than that if you like.’
‘All right then.’ Adam smiled again, but he looked a bit sad. The argument was over but not to his satisfaction, I think.
For the next month or so, matters between the two of them seemed to have regained their previous state. At least as far as I could judge from seeing them for fifteen minutes each weekday morning on the bus, they enjoyed each other’s company and spent as much time as they could together. Seth seemed to be making an effort to interest Adam in his recreations and not take Adam’s participation or nonparticipation in them for granted. A great many discussions revolved around which music groups were playing that weekend and whether they should go hear them or go to a club or a football match. I wasn’t familiar with the names of the groups they mentioned and it was impossible for me to follow their discussions of the relative merits of various bands, but they appeared to have developed a playful disagreement about each other’s taste in music. They only singer whose name I recognised was one that Seth dismissed with a scornful scatological monosyllable. Adam nodded in agreement and said that the most popular singer of my generation was ‘a favourite of me mum’. About some matters musical they were in total agreement.
I didn’t realise how much interest I was taking in their relationship until Richard came for one of his weekend visits. He drops by a few times each year. He rings early in the week and asks if I’m free the next weekend and if he can stay over on Saturday. He knows, of course, that I am always free on the weekend, but he’s polite enough to pretend that I might be busy. That particular weekend Richard came alone—the current boyfriend was attending a wedding—which may have been why I felt free to talk about Adam and Seth. It struck home to me how much I was talking about them when Richard began nodding his head impatiently. He obviously found Adam and Seth and my adventures on the bus less than enthralling. When I saw that the subject bored him, I moved on to other matters. Richard seemed to be in the last stages of his relationship with the wedding guest, and he wanted to gripe about it. I’ve lost track of how many semi-permanent boyfriends he has had. I wonder if he keeps up with his other exes in the same way he does with me. As I sat there commiserating with him about his current problems, I amused myself by imagining Richard travelling about the country, each weekend visiting a different ex. There were enough of us that he wouldn’t have to make a repeat visit for four or five months.
At the end of the evening, when Richard had exhausted the subject of his current affair, he asked the ritual question he always asks, ‘Are you dating anyone?’
I was still envisioning Richard visiting each of his former boyfriends in turn and rather than give my usual ‘No, no one’, I asked, ‘Do you ever see Geoff Whittaker?’
‘Who?’ Richard was baffled by the query.
‘Geoff Whittaker—my successor as the boyfriend of the moment.’
‘Good lord, was that his name? I’ve totally forgotten. I wonder what happened to him. Are you sure that was his name? It doesn’t sound right. Why are you bringing him up? You’re not still angry about my misdemeanours, are you?’ He grinned at me in what he obviously intended to be a sheepish admission of the impossibility of my being upset about his truancies.
‘No, I’m not angry.’ And then I changed the subject. I don’t know why Richard keeps coming back. I don’t know why I let him. The next time he calls, I should tell him that I won’t be free that weekend. Or perhaps I should get caller ID and just not answer when he rings. How many times would I have to refuse one of his invitations to visit me before he stopped calling? Richard is always the one to propose a meeting. I can’t recall ever ringing him and inviting him to visit. But I’ve never refused his request for a talk and weekend’s lodging. The first visit came after his break-up with Geoff. Since then, he has visited two or three times a year, often in connection with problems with his current relationship. The two of us seem reluctant to let go of what was the first love for each of us, well, the first love for Richard, the only love for me. Our furious parting has evolved into an amicable split, and we have become acquaintances with a certain history and a certain understanding of each other. Perhaps I find comfort in Richard’s gossip about his current inamorato’s shortcomings. Perhaps he finds comfort in my post-Richard lack of desire for another relationship. I didn’t mention Adam and Seth again that weekend. Richard drove off late Sunday afternoon, for what I was certain would be a heart-to-heart talk with whatever his name was.
A week or so later, Seth suddenly stopped in the middle of something he was saying to Adam and pulled his mobile phone from his pocket. ‘It’s Gavin,’ he announced to Adam. ‘Maybe he got the tickets.’ Seth chattered happily with the person on the phone. His conversation was punctuated by joyous cries of ‘great’ and ‘terrific’. When he hung up, he turned to Adam and said, ‘Gavin got us tickets for the fourth and fifth both. We’ll be able to get close to the bands.’
‘Where are we going to stay the night of the fourth? We can’t afford a hotel after what these tickets are costing us.’ Adam sounded less enthusiastic about what appeared to be tickets to one of the summer music festivals.
‘Gavin’s friends will put us up. I stayed there last year. We’ll take some beer, and I’ll get some …’ Seth must have thought he was speaking too loudly because he dropped his voice and whispered something to Adam.
Adam whispered back to Seth. He didn’t look happy, and he glanced around to see if anyone was watching the two of them. Luckily I had enough time to shift my gaze back to the newspaper I was holding and had the presence of mind to pretend a rapt interest in the story I wasn’t reading.
Seth’s next comments were audible, at least to someone as close to the two of them as I was. ‘Oh, loosen up. Have some fun once in a while. It doesn’t hurt anyone. The police don’t even care about “recreational use” any more. Half of them probably smoke it too.’
‘What’s this place like? Gavin’s friends’ place.’
Seth reverted to whispering. I did hear the comment ‘mattresses on the floor’ and I think I heard the word ‘orgy’. Seth was quite enthusiastic about staying at this place. Adam looked sceptical. They were still discussing the matter when they left the bus.
For several days thereafter, Seth spent most of the bus ride talking on his mobile, making plans with his friend. Occasionally he would turn to Adam and consult with him about a proposed arrangement, but he didn’t otherwise seem to have much to say to Adam. On the eleventh, Adam mumbled something in response to a question from Seth. ‘Hold on a minute. I’ll call you back.’ Seth snapped the phone shut and turned to Adam. ‘What do you mean go without you?’
‘Just what I said. I’m not going.’
‘God, you are such a wanker. After all the trouble Gavin went to get these tickets and now you decide not to go. Well, I’m going whether you do or not. And don’t even think about asking for the money for the tickets back.’
‘Take somebody else then. Or sell them. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding someone who wants them.’
‘Nah, it won’t be any trouble at all replacing you.’ Seth opened his phone and called his mate back. In an exaggeratedly clear voice, he carefully explained that ‘the fucking bitch has decided not to go’. Everybody on the bus could hear him. Adam’s face turned red and he turned away and looked out the window. When we go to their stop, Seth stood up and casually walked down the aisle without looking back. He flounced off the bus and walked away, still talking into his phone. Adam sat there without moving. The bus driver glanced back over her shoulder and tried to catch his eye. When Adam realised that the bus wasn’t leaving, he looked up and then shook his head no when the driver tilted her head toward the still open door. The driver closed the doors and drove on. Adam was still sitting there, rigid and angry when I got off.
The next morning was the second. Seth boarded at Kensington Street. Adam wasn’t there. I knew from the conversations I had overheard that Seth and his friend were travelling to the concert on the third. Adam rode the bus alone the next day. The fourth and fifth were the weekend. The next week Adam was waiting for the bus on Monday. When we got to Kensington Street, he kept his head down. Seth got on and took a seat a few rows behind me. He pulled out his phone and began chatting loudly with someone about the great time he had had over the weekend. Adam never stirred or gave any indication that he could hear Seth talking. That was the last time Adam took the 5:40 bus.
Seth still catches the bus most mornings. He has a new boyfriend now. The two of them seem to get on well. I’ve never seen Adam again. Perhaps he found a job elsewhere or maybe he takes a later bus.