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Separate Lives

by Corinne Demas Bliss


Jean stands to watch them leave. Althea, her niece, is too tall for her young man, and they are an awkward-looking pair, as they walk off with their arms linked around each other's waists. Just before they are beyond the reach of Jean's sight, they turn to wave goodbye once more. They didn't want to leave her alone in the terminal, to wait for her bus, but she had insisted, and they seemed glad now to be free.

Jean sits back down. The seats are molded plastic, attached six in a row to create a physical sympathy among the travelers; when someone moves, it can be felt up and down the line. She opens a book and stares at the page, but she does not focus enough to be sure that the black marks there are in fact letters, and not just black marks resembling letters. She is thinking about her niece Althea, who is walking through the city right now, with her arm still around her young man, and she feels satisfied with herself, as if it was her blessing and not just the mere accident of love, which has granted Althea this pleasure.

Jean had come down to the city to see an editor (her official mission) and she had visited her niece (her unofficial mission), who was living in what her parents felt were inappropriate circumstances. She can now report to her sister and brother-in-law that their daughter, although in love, has not lost her senses, and that they should be more tolerant of what they insist on calling her "behavior." There is something a bit self-righteous in her speech, Jean knows, her telling her younger, more conservative sister to be more liberal with her child, yet she is too pleased with herself, too pleased with Althea, to care. She will try to amend her tone when the time comes so that it will sound more like an observation, less like a reproach.

Jean had enjoyed visiting Althea, and had been charmed by her frankness and by her strange mixture of innocence and savvy. Jean's children, both sons, had been safely launched into the adult world long enough ago so that Jean is able to forget most of the trials of her own parenthood. She remembers herself as having been more liberal than she in fact was, and congratulates herself on her ability to make real contact with the younger generation. Jean feels that her niece is a bit of a fool and that her young man will never amount to much, but she believes they have as much chance at joy as anyone and so she withholds her criticism and simply wishes them well.

The bus is announced over the loud-speaker, but no sooner does she begin to gather her things than the same voice announces delay. Because Jean was slow to mobilize she is rewarded now by being able to reclaim her seat. She assumes the identical position she had before and opens the book to the same page. If you had been away from the scene for that interlude you would have no clue that there had been that false alarm. But of all the people waiting in the terminal she is not one you would probably have picked out to watch. She is a small, unassuming woman with grey hair and grey clothing. She is, in fact, a successful writer, but not famous enough to be well-known. She looks very much like what she looks like on her book jackets: dark eyes under pale brows, a small mouth, a pouch of flesh below her chin. Her readers-she has a few thousand fans spread around the country-are not the sort of people who would accost her in a bus station seeking her autograph. In her thirty years of publishing (four novels, two collections of critical essays, hundreds of reviews, three books for children) no one has ever recognized her in public and approached her, although at the few social gatherings she attends, when people know she is there, they sometimes seek her out.

A main reason for Jean's obscurity is the isolation of her life. When her husband, David, made his first big money in electronics, they retired early to a farmhouse miles from a small town, a town miles from any city. David devoted himself to his new hobby, restoring antique furniture, and over the years became such a skilled craftsman that he now did work for museums. He moved as slowly from one piece of furniture to another as she moved from one piece of writing to the next. An article took her the time it took him to repair the foot of a bannister back chair, a novel, the time it took him to restore a Chippendale highboy. Although he was not someone who like to read, he read what she wrote, and although she was not interested in furniture, she followed the progress on all his pieces. She was as indifferent to the fine curly maple on a four-drawer chest as she had been to his electronic projects, as he was to a well-turned paragraph, but they both admired each other for what they did. They had been brought together in life not by their common interests, but by their interest in each other, an interest which was visual and tactile, rather than intellectual. She had been foolhardy, she knew, and yet it had all turned out well, or at least as well as life could. At night, in their old white farmhouse, she shook out their down quilt and it fluffed up and settled over their two bodies, soft as fog. The heat that warmed her was his heat, as hers warmed him; their heat held in place by all the millions of tiny feathers sacrificed by geese, and she slept content, night after night, year after year.

This time, when the Muzak pauses, and Jean's bus is announced, it is for real. She moves with the crowd to gate seven and discovers that although there seem to be hundreds squeezing through the doorway, there are not so many people actually on the bus. She is even able to get a window seat, and she is almost pleased that the reading light doesn't work so she can forget her book and look outside. Next to them, another bus, a twin, pulls into the stall. Through the two windows, both tinted, she can make out the passengers. Some are getting off, some are staying on-the bus is obviously continuing on to somewhere else. New passengers enter slowly, replacing ones who've left, and a man across the aisle, who had remained on the bus, shifts across to take the window seat opposite hers. In stories, of course, this happens all the time, but it's the first time in her own life that anything this remarkable has ever happened-for the man who reaches up to click on his reading light, the man whose face is now illuminated for her, is her old boyfriend, Martin, unchanged, except for subtle signs of age, in all those decades since they were at graduate school together.

He was a husky man with a large fleshy face and black hair that he never seemed to wash and that he parted too far to one side, so the hair in front-which had to travel up and over his entire head-was always falling down in his eyes. They went to movies and plays together, they ate out together in inexpensive little foreign restaurants-Italian, Hungarian, Chinese-they read together and studied together. He was witty and funny and full of ideas and dreams, and she could talk with him all night. But she did not fall in love with him, although she liked him so much she wished she would, and if he had fallen in love with her, he was too tactful to let her know. When she fell in love with David, suddenly, inexplicably, Martin was cordial to her at first, and then disappeared out of her life. She thought he expected her to weary of David, as she herself wondered if she would, yet as time passed, the fantasy that Martin was there, waiting for such a thing to happen, grew dimmer. Still, she thought about Martin often and followed his career, and she was hurt that although she had written to congratulate him on a scholarly book, he had never acknowledged any of her work, though she knew some of it, surely, must have passed his way.

She taps on the glass, but her bus is already starting up its engine and nothing can be heard. He does turn towards her bus for a minute, but it's clear he can't see anything beyond her dark window, and she jiggles her reading light to try to get it to work.

The sight of his great fleshy face, his hair cleaner, but no better parted, fills her with a kind of anguish, and she bangs at her window. He leans down, out of view for a minute, and when he sits up again he unfolds a set of galleys in his lap. Calmly, he takes out a pencil and begins working on a sentence which had been buried in the crease. She wants to know what he has written; she wants to know what change he is contemplating in that line. She wants to know everything about him and she wants to tell him everything about herself-the idea for her next book, her lunch with her editor, her visit with her niece, how Althea lived with this young man, how they seemed so happy. . .

Jean presses her face against the window and pounds with both palms. Then she stands up quickly and tries to get past the teenager who has occupied the place next to hers. He's sprawled back in his seat, eyes shut, earphones on, tapping the armrest to the tape-recorded music she can't hear. He opens his eyes reluctantly and is slow to pull back his legs so that she can squeeze past. She rushes to the front of the bus, but it is too late, the bus is already backing out of its slot, and because of the angle, the windows of Martin's bus are turned suddenly opaque, so that she is even cheated out of a last glimpse of his face.

The bus pulls out of the terminal, into daylight, and Jean stumbles back to her place. The teenager rearranges himself so his feet stick out in the aisle. At the last traffic light before they get onto the highway, a girl runs out to the waiting cars, extending bunches of flowers. Buckets of carnations and pale roses are lined up on the narrow strip of pavement between the two opposing herds of vehicles, theirs held in place for these seconds by the traffic light.

Jean puts her seat back as far as it will go and shuts her eyes. She tries to picture Althea walking off with her young man, to find pleasure in that memory, but all she can think is that Althea is only temporarily protected by love, that in time, in her life, Althea will inevitably be deprived of people, too.

To comfort herself, Jean imagines that she has chosen to make her life with Martin. She imagines that they live together in a city somewhere and spend their evenings in animated conversation, sharing what they read, what they think, and she imagines that she was on the bus in the station and has seen David, separated from her by two panes of glass and that noisy space of air. She pictures David's lean face, his long fingers, and she knows how desperately she would have yearned for him. She imagines herself tapping frantically on the window, and then, as a gift to herself, she allays her desperation by remembering that she has him, she has David, and he will be waiting for her when the bus arrives.

The bus lurches forward and when Jean opens her eyes they are already out on the highway. They speed west, into the sunset, just as in a story, though not fast enough, never fast enough, to catch up.

Corinne Demas Bliss is the author of a novel, The Same River Twice, and a collection of short stories, Daffodils or the Death of Love. She teaches English at Mt. Holyoke College. (1985)


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