We Ride the 811
Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 2003
I am the woman you always look away from as you sit whitely on the bus, the little pequeŮita thing you donít know how to talk to, you white girls with your pasty looks and legs, you shaved girls who canít even eat the mild salsa I have to make for my husband now since heís got the ulcers and the depression.
I have to leave him there at home all watching his soaps he used to always get on me about.
ďClarita, your brain is melting,Ē he would say when I looked sad over some TV bodyís loss.
But now he watches them and donít even look up when I come home at 6 off the 811 and then the train. You girls donít even know about these kinds of men, these men with all their pathetic looks at you when you leave, and then you find the beer cans in the trash when you get home. Sometimes after payday itís tequila bottles, and I know there arenít no women no more. I never find condoms or lipstick no more. I never thought tequila alone could make me so angry, and thatís when the house breaks out with great yells and words on fire, but all from me now Ďcause he just sits there stupid and drunk and sad like a new widow, but he isnít no widow.
The doctor says heís got the depression and I have to be patient, and I try Ďcause once he used to make me laugh, and he used to bring me fresh steaks from his work, and he used to kiss me like no other man on this planet.
He used to be so sweet.
But he made me mad then too. You young girls donít know about men with their loud throats, and their eyeing the women all the time, and their body noises day and night, and their teenage mistresses over in Magna who think theyíve got a rich one Ďcause he spends all his money on her. Back then I wanted to buy a gun from that cabrůn on the corner and shoot my maridoís ass until he begged me to just love him enough to take him to the hospital, but then he goes and stops all of it, and thatís the worst.
I never thought a staring man could be so scary.
His face never moves and I have to cross myself daily against it, and daily I wish for what I never thought I would, that he get his light back and all his macho ways, even the lipstick stains, even the forgetting my birthday because of the muŮequita in Magna which made me scream until I couldnít talk or move. I even wish heíd yell at me all angry and red and ready to box my body to a pulp, and even that right now seems better than all this silence.
His body looks so heavy to me now.
No, you girls just
donít know about the ways a man can make you want to run back to
No, you girls canít know, all whitey muŮequitas, all thin, smiley mouths that twitch when we maybe look at each otherís eyes by accident. You think sometimes Iím might touch you, make you unlucky and brown, so you move your bag or your body away.
But I know youíre young, so I try to forget to be mad, and I donít call you sangronas under my breath Ďcause you just donít know nothing, but itís coming for you, so I can forget to be mad. I know what youíll see in the trash one day, and how youíll feel when you sit all alone at the Nordstroms wondering if you should buy anything ever again Ďcause itíll just get all marked with somebodyís cigarette burn holes and body dust and sadness. Just wait, itís coming. Youíll know it, and for that I should feel bad for you.
You all look at me getting on the 811 with Pedro, and Iím so white, and heís so dark, and Iím lifting all these bags, the diapers, the toys, the baby through the door and up the stairs. Pedro sits hard on the vinyl seat, flexing his tattoos to make sure no oneís gonna mess with him Ďcause they do, they mess with him every day, he says. They look at him like heís made of shit, he says, and heís not gonna put up with it, and thatís one of the reasons I love him.
I love him too Ďcause
sometimes I think heís afraid to live here, but I never say this.
His friends in
His mother, Julia, made us move here so she could see her grandbaby. Thatís when Pedro stopped looking at me. He stopped looking at me and he stopped smiling. He stopped laughing about the missionaries telling him heís related to Jesus and Joseph Smith both, and he stopped laughing at his own Mexican jokes about shooting guns in the air, and he stopped drinking beer with me on Saturday night like we used to do until we were falling on the floor all stupid and happy.
Iím always talking lately, talking for both of us. His silence makes my hair feel so hot.
ďJoshy, Joshy, itís ok. Youíre a pretty baby. So pretty. Smile, Iím gonna make you smile.Ē As the bus starts up, I change my new baby there on the handicapped seat. He looked like me at first, but now Joshyís getting to look like his daddy with the same beautiful lips, the same perfect eyes, only his skinís white and pink. I like to smell his stomach, so quiet and sweet.
ďMy baby and I are gonna go to the mall and then to my husbandís mamaís house,Ē I tell you as you hum. ďJoshua loves to ride the bus, but we donít come down here much any more.Ē
ďYouíre babyís pretty. NiŮito bonito.Ē
You like my baby, I can tell. All Mexican ladies like my baby. You can see he has your eyes.
ďWeíre gonna go to the mall and Iím gonna buy Joshua a new jumper, maybe a purple one or a yellow one. Yellowís my favorite color. Purple would be ok too, I guess,Ē I say, but then weíre at the Smithís and youíre getting off the bus. Everyone else here looks mean today, quick and crabby my grandpa used to say, but I canít stop myself from talking about everything, about the cleaning business Pedro and I are gonna have when we save some money, about our new landlady who brought us oranges last week, about how my grandpaís gonna be happier in heaven because he was so full of pain, about my baby speaking words that sound like ďappleĒ and ďblue.Ē Sometimes as I talk, you all nod, and sometimes you look away or read your funny scriptures.
Itís hard for me to look at Pedro any more. You donít think he loves me, I can tell. You give me that look like Iím living sorry. But I know Pedro. Thatís just his way. He really is good with Joshua when itís just us and him. He sings songs to Josh in the morning, and draws him crayon pictures of cars and palm trees.
Josh coughs and I rub his chest. I worry about my baby all the time, worry about Pedro when he stays out all night. I never get to sleep. I turned seventeen in January, but we didnít have a party Ďcause I was so tired still from Joshua. All I ever do is worry, and Iím so far from anyone I ever knew. Some days I think of going back to LA so I can drink coffee with my girls at the mall.
Pedro says someday he
will take me to
In LA we went to the beach a few times, but Pedro would never touch me there. He lifted weights with the others while I waited in my jeans on the hot sand.
Sometimes I get this feeling like thereís something I canít see yet, something important, something big and dark and moving fast toward my eyes. When I feel this I cross myself even though Iím not Catholic, and my baby fidgets. I know he can feel it to, and thatís when he begins to cry.
ďYour mamaís gonna buy you a yellow jumper, you just be patient. Sweet Joshy doll. God will always love you, right Pedro?Ē
He knows, but just doesnít want to say right now. Pedroís mother is quiet too. She doesnít talk to me. When we visit her, I sit all tight on her old couch and she fixes us lemonades. She makes Pedro bring me mine, but at least she loves Joshua. She hugs him and pinches his cheeks and says pretty words to him in Spanish.
Me and Pedro never had a wedding, just a Justice saying his words, and the cramps from Joshua shooting down my legs. Pedroís a real man or he would have just left me, I know it. After our wedding, he called his mother, but she hung up on him. I called my girlfriends, but they said it wasnít at all romantic and that they would never put up with that kind of shit and that I needed to demand my beautiful day. But Pedro is all I ever wanted. I knew since I was fifteen and saw his perfect smile coming right at me when I was in The Gap. He looked and looked at me like he would love me forever.
This had never happened to me before.
If you could be me for a moment you would maybe understand.
You think you know me.
Yesterday my girlfriend dumped me cold with a mild little kiss and a so-relaxed voice saying something was just off about me.
ďSomething about you is just so skewed,Ē she said, acting puzzled. ďYouíre eyes, maybe. Or your neck. I canít be precise, but whatever it is, I think it must be having a profound impact on my feelings for you.Ē She sipped her usual honeyed tea at her usual after our usual day of shopping and holding hands and reading over cappuccinos, and I wanted to say, ďWait,Ē or ďWhatĒ or even ďHell,Ē but I said nothing because my lips could no longer move.
This is how the upper class does it. They say they canít pinpoint exact causes. They sadly smile, mention that whatever it is, the toast, the bed sheets, the karmic aroma floating around the room, all of it seems so very beyond their control. They sip their tea, get distracted by presidential headlines in the paper, then hint quite subtly that the world simply cannot continue one more minute with this inexplicable tension. Sadly, they say, thereís nothing they can do about it.
Iíve developed a taste for rich drama queens, and there you are acting like you know me.
If my mother knew about JaNae, she would have said she was never right for me in the first place.
ďWeíre hardy stock,Ē my mother would say, ďHumble and hardy. We donít need stuck-ups like her.Ē But my mother doesnít even know Iíve stopped dating men, let alone men-of-the-earth. She has no idea I now want women, and not only women, but women who like Nordstom, and a lint-free, cashmere lifestyle.
And there you are acting as if itís all right to say you know about my kind in that whisper that always carries, the kind of whisper the rich always use.
You smile a little when I stare back at you, and then you look away like you think I want to undress your scraggly body in my head when all I can think about are JaNaeís real motives. Certainly Marla, or Sandy, or Penny, or any of the other women she knows all have better hair and portfolios than I do. And then thereís Tessa and Jennifer with their perfect bodies. Maybe JaNae has been making comparisons. I care and Iím trying not to care.
ďAre you asking me for apathy?Ē JaNae asked last week, but I hadnít said anything. ďAre you asking me to just go blithely along?Ē she asked the next day, but I still hadnít said anything.
Today the 811 seems heavy and dank. I prefer to ride it when itís empty, and the moon is full and flickering, and the air outside is clear like melting ice. Today itís all gray inversion-thick outside, and I should be riding somewhere that means something like JaNaeís house or Macyís or the Second Coming, but Iím only going to work in my usual eco-friendly-but-nicely-pressed-stupid-just-got-jilted-and-will-always-be-wanting kind of way.
You think you know me, but sometimes I can see the lines of uncertainty forming in your face, and this is when I like you just a little. Most of you are on your way to the University of Religion with your Bibles, your Books of Mormon, and your often celestially superior looks, but some of you are nervous-mouthed, turning the pages of your scriptures too quickly, shakily highlighting the passages you think will help you live.
What is it to live like you when men arenít possible?
You will never know how pink and ready Iíve tried to be, how virginal and straight and long-haired fresh Iíve tried to be. My toes just couldnít point like yours. My mouth just could never convince a man that he was it, though I tried and tried, reading love books, reading Cosmopolitan to see what was wrong.
And I found it was everything.
My eyes not wanting to give enough. My smile uncertain when it should have been coy. The way my mascara tipped to the left a few millimeters in the wrong direction showing all my wannabe-falseness. The Bishop said try harder, and I said, yes, I will, and he said pray, and I did, and he said read the holy words, and I tried, but all the begetting and killing and men-in-charge was hard to take.
So, I went shopping, and an attractive woman touched my neck, and thatís when it seemed like things might turn around for me.
Twice today Iíve thought that if only I had been wearing the Kenneth Cole silk cardigan JaNae bought me when we first got together, if only I had put it on yesterday morning, if only I had used a blend of LancŰme lipsticks, maybe she wouldnít have dumped me.
I understand this is kind of sick.
And itís even more sick that it truly might have helped to delay the inevitable.
That Latino boy slouched in the handicapped seat stares at me, doesnít look away when I look at him. He thinks Iím sick. He thinks he knows my kind, would kill my kind if nobody was looking. Thatís what they do, men who look angry like him. They kill, or at least it seems they could.
And now youíre sleeping, or maybe youíre praying. I always have to imagine that when you pray itís for God to fly down from His dreary little planet and kill my kind with his manly lightening. I always imagine the godly jolt and then the bus all smoky acrid with my electric-just-deadness.
A white teenager in khaki pants gets on the bus, and certainly he looks like some grocery bagger all innocent and bland, but he stands close, crotch next to my face, and I suddenly get nervous, get all these images of violence.
Though JaNae always said intuition was a false metaphor, I still believe in it, and right now itís telling me men stand close to us like this to get power. They stand tall above us, they laugh, they take off their pants and get hard and say, ďIf you donít want it now, Baby, youíre going to want it, weíll show you what itís all about.Ē
Or at least thatís what I think they want to say. JaNae always tried so hard to stop my mind from getting carried away like this.
ďDarling, imagination is nice,Ē she said after I asked her if she loved me, ďbut itís always best if used in small doses.Ē
Right now my teeth are hurting with the sharpness of humanityís chill.
The world is full of evil and it feels like Iím in the center of it.
Yesterday on the TV they
showed a white man being shot right on the street in
I canít get that out of my head today.
Iíve always hated it when people laugh.
Sometimes people laugh at my daddy. Everyday I think about him and his lost looks. He says he used to be a handsome man. Unrighteous women wanted him, he says. They wanted him to write them poetry, but he avoided them, and settled down with a quiet and plain woman.
ďQuiet women are Godís gift,Ē my daddy says. He says Iím Godís gift. I try to smile at him. I try not to think about his pain.
That old woman across from me talks quietly. She looks calm. I want to think this is how my mother would have looked when she got really old, but she died when I was only a baby. I want to look that way, calm and maybe happy.
Jobs are hard for my daddy. Right now heís got a rainbow fish farm, but they keep getting diseases, and I just donít want to think about them either, their circling, floating bodies. Daddy wants me to quit school and help him figure it out.
ďCome on, Roberta. I need your college mind.Ē
ďDaddy,Ē I say. It takes me a while to continue. ďDaddy. I would really like it if I could maybe be allowed to stay in school, please, if thatís ok.Ē
ďOh, Roberta, my head hurts so much.Ē
He says this a lot, twice, three times a day now.
I donít like the way he holds his head when I come into the room. But at least he has never laughed at me.
I donít like it when people laugh at us. The sound of snickers always gets louder when I pass by groups of people, and I canít stand it. Iím trying so hard to stay pure, but thereís so much noise in the world. That girl up there, she keeps talking and talking. Sheís too young for that baby. She probably isnít married. But I know I shouldnít judge. The Bishop says God rewards us for trying. I think this is why people laugh at me. They know Iím always trying so very hard at things they would never think twice about.
I keep thinking it canít be God whoís made this planet so hateful.
I often wish it would just end. I donít think I can hold out forever. I try. Iím always trying, but then something happens, like today the bus smells of gasoline, and I have to breathe its filth in, and I have to look at all these hard, sad people, and listen to their talk of dead grandparents and shopping and bad love.
He should have come by now.
Itís almost the year 2000 and He should have come to stop all the TV death, all the yelling next-door and the drugs, all the bus pollution, all the terrible city noise that keeps me from hearing even one drop of calming silence.
My favorite scriptures are the ones that talk about peace. I donít think Iíve ever felt peace. I want God to come now so I can rest a little.
He should have come when my daddy suddenly kicked in the wall and yelled to break the windows all because my brother said heíd kissed a girl, an unrighteous girl, and he said it all defiant. Kissing is bad enough. I know it leads to things, especially with those kinds of girls. Daddy looked scared and I couldnít watch, but then I heard a slap, and when I turned, my brotherís face was red. Daddy hit him until he ran out of the house, and we didnít know where he was for two months. I prayed for Christ to come then, but the Bishop said prayers donít often get answered in the way you expect. No man knows. Be patient. Your daddy will come around. Your brother will return. You are safe in the Lord.
God should have come when the Bishop said that, and He should have come when my mama died because I was only a baby and I would have stayed happy all my life if Heíd come then, and I could have done without seeing all this misery.
I think this is why people laugh. They know I canít take it. They see all my fear and weakness no matter what I do to hide it.
The old woman smiles a little at me, and I want to smile back, but instead I look away.
When I was fourteen, I tried to rebel. I dressed like these women on the bus in revealing clothes, and I tried talking like them with swear words which were hard for me to say, but I said them anyways, and I stopped talking about God, at least out loud, but the girls in the lunchroom knew I was faking. Every day they laughed a little louder.
Sometimes that boy by the driver looks at me too much like some of the boys in high school did. This boyís hair is dark and too smooth, and he always rides when I do, always wears black, always looks at me like he might say something, something Iím sure I donít want to hear like how he likes to eat live birds, or how he wants to put his tongue on my sacred places. Gentile boys just want to shock you or feel pleasure inside you. Sometimes I canít look at his eyes. Theyíre so pretty they hurt me.
Some days when I take
out my Book of Mormon, I think that woman in the nice shoes would kill me if she
could. Hers are the eyes of a Mormon
hater, all hard and cold like that thick roof ice we had the winter there was no
sun. I see eyes like this womanís
when I walk through the mall in
When Iím in the city, people think Iím going to talk to them because I carry my scriptures openly, but I never would. I would never hand them a Book of Mormon like the Bishop tells us to do. I canít even stand to open my mouth in front of anyone. I get so nervous when I might have to speak, like if someone wonít move out of a doorway, or if someone drops a dollar on the floor. Once a man with long, white hair dropped his keys and didnít notice them, but he noticed me. He must have thought I was going to speak to him because my mouth was open a little, and then he spat at me, called me a swear word, said I was a polygamist oppressor.
Iím no polygamist. Iím just a modest girl, and I wonít hide the precious words of His coming. Itís not like Iím trying to read my scriptures to people. Pearls before swine the Bishop says.
Anyway, I didnít tell the man he had dropped his keys, and I felt bad for it all week, and I wished all week Jesus had come to make me feel a little better.
When I was dating Alan with his sandy, soft hair and his constant stream of future plans, of Internet start ups and Wall Street indexes, he was looking so pretty and maybe even a little cocky, and daddy couldnít take it because, as he said, no young wannabeís going to loud-mouth in his house, so he pushed Alan onto the couch. Daddy looked surprised for a minute, but then he told Alan that if I didnít stay pure, if he touched any hair on me, Alan would be dead in a ditch the next day. Alanís mouth looked shaky, and I never wanted to see his mouth look shaky, and I never wanted to see my daddy lay a hand on anyone ever again.
I wanted to leave the room, but I couldnít.
Thatís whatís wrong with this world. There is no escape. The scriptures tell us we can get through it. They tell us to pray and ponder and be of the world but not in it and be a pillar of light in the darkness and to remember our rewards on high. But I do all of this and the world is still there in three dimensions whether I can stand it or not.
After daddy pushed Alan, Alan didnít believe me when I said daddy had a big bark and not to be afraid. I wanted Alan to stay so bad I let him touch my thighs once more, and he did, and I thought he was ok, he kissed me so hard, but then he never called again. A few weeks later I saw him at the library, but he didnít even look at me. I held my books tightly, and I slowed down to let him see me, I slowed down and opened my mouth a little, but my mouth was so dry, and I couldnít say anything.
I thought I could hear him laughing, and after that I couldnít eat for six days.
A spiritual fast, my daddy called it.
I pull my scriptures closer, push myself harder against the cold wall of the bus. I skim over a passage about Godís terrible revenge, but I donít want to think about that. I close my eyes, and as the 811 fills with pushing people, I pray for the thing God has yet to give me, a feeling that is calm, and that maybe feels beautiful.
Everyone I know is dead.
I had some cousins in
the war, one of them even a Nazi. They
were forced to fight, and later I heard they died in
My mother died in 1944 when the bombs dropped so heavy I thought they might pile on top of us and kill us merely by smothering.
Logic isnít common to people.
Hitler was never logical. Thatís
why he had power. He always appealed
to absolutes and fears, and thatís what people listen to.
My mother tried to teach us logic. When
our teachers were telling us about race and inferiority, we would point out the
illogic of determining power by skin variation.
When they tried to tell us God inspired
All my sisters are dead now. There were five of us, all girls. I never got along with them. I was the prettiest one, and then I became a Mormon. They thought I had been abducted into a cult. They thought I had given up logic.
The war made everyone a little crazy.
Iíve done hurtful things in my life, made stupid remarks, and then felt sorry, but this individuality is so small, it doesnít really matter any more.
When I first came here, the bishop told me to visit a woman in the hospital, but I was still so young, so frightened of all the medical odors. I went in at and told her I could not stay because my husband needed his dinner at 5, and in those days this was more believable. I never went back and she died a few weeks later. The devil works this way, they tell me, by avoidance and fear. Thatís what my husband always used to say.
I didnít argue with him. He hadnít read very much in his life.
Heís been gone for thirteen years now and Iíve almost forgotten how his cheeks looked in the morning. I keep thinking they were an ochre color like the city roofs, but perhaps this is just my imagination.
We all live as if we were existentialists, so centered on our selves.
And because of this, and because everyone I know is dead, Iím tracing them all, learning their genealogy until I can see every connection in black and white, until there are no more questions about who was who, or at least who begat who.
I never really knew who my husband was.
In those days talking about philosophy and love were uncommon between men
and women. I donít think we really
loved each other, at least by your standards now, but I know my ideas about the
fleeting nature of emotions were mixed up with the illogic of
Sartre said humans make themselves, and that God is not the question. When I turned fifty, I decided humans remake themselves over and over, and so there is no knowing, but the idea of God can make this feel a little more comfortable.
I only had one child. Erich wanted more, but I was afraid. Even though the Bishop told me I was mistaken, I could not have another child in a world where there was a Hitler and an atom bomb.
My daughter was always beautiful, and men loved her too much.
Riha let them flatter her and didnít question their romanticism.
This was her rebellion against me. She
tells me she lives in
You with the pretty shoes, you probably think Iím naÔve, too old and
static to know things. You probably
think youíve seen everything. Riha
always thought I was naÔve. I
wanted to go to her, but she hung up. I
wanted to find her, but I knew
And that was a hard thing to do.
Sartre said, ďThe more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it,Ē but perhaps we only get further buried in the sandy details.
That woman in the back of the bus looks like sheís lived hard in her life. Her clothes all cut up. Her ragged hair. A world refugee. I donít want Riha to be like her, but she could be.
I came through
If I hadnít met Erich, I would have been worldly.
I wanted to be a model in
All these people on the bus, theyíre searching. They want to know why things happen the way they do.
But we canít ever know why, we can only invent.
I believe a little in God, but I also believe a little in Sartre.
There is a randomness to this world we canít avoid. That young woman holding her scriptures so tightly, sheíll learn this some day. I learned it during the war.
Sometimes I donít sleep well because of this and because of my arthritis, so I get up and ride the bus early. Besides, there are so many names to trace, so many relatives dead and perhaps lost. They think I do it to save them because Mormons are fond of saving people. And I am dutiful. I file every new name with the temple workers so they can be baptized if they want, but thatís not the thing. I do it for myself. I need to see the wideness of my connections. I need to know that history really did happen, that all these people might have really lived, and then perhaps I can make myself feel less alone.
Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 2003