I am on the bus, squeezed as close as possible to the windowside, in an effort to put a little space between myself and our substitute teacher for the day.
Nancy, the sub in question, is in her early 60s; long in the limbs, gray yellow in the hair, straight in the teeth. An old-timey lech might dub her a "tall glass of water" or some other euphemism involving liquids and large but slender containers for them, then loudly suck his front teeth.
When God handed out personal space perimeters, He bestowed upon me one with ample circumference. To Nancy, He gave none.
She leans close enough to butterfly kiss my ear with her charcoal clotted lashes.
"Now here's another story for you that is do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do."
All that do-do is the theme from the old television show The Twilight Zone. She uses it to preface stories from her life that contain elements of the supernatural.
Do-do, I had a dream where I wore a wide-brimmed hat, and a week later, I found myself wearing that exact wide-brimmed hat. Do-do, there is man in Brazil that lets entities speak through him, and I cannot buy Starbucks like you are doing because I am saving my money to go see him Do-do.
"What are you going to see him for?" I ask, sipping my 28 oz steaming cup of spiritual lack.
Nancy gets a far away look in her watery blue eyes and sighs heavily.
"For peace, I think. And comfort."
I picture a sweaty brown buddha of a man on a bamboo platform, spinning a rainstick and palming a turkey giblet in preparation for his next psychic surgery.
The image seems cliche to me, and possibly racist.
I wipe off my mental whiteboard and put up instead a list of pros and cons, circling and then underlining words and concepts that people mention twice. I take a picture of it with my Iphone and present my findings at the next meeting of school administrators, where I am rewarded a consultant fee of two hundred thousand dollars. Since I am now rich, I no longer have to sit next to Nancy on this bus. I pull the stop cord and get off alone, while all the other riders cheer and chant my name. I make a prudent amount of dollars rain upon them.
"So then I was in New York," Nancy continues, "Working for a lawyer with the last name of Birnbaum. So, you know...."
Here she smiles at me, squinting, almost winking. She does this constantly, trailing off her sentences and expecting me to fill in the blanks, often with nothing to go on, no context or overarching theme from which to infer a likely denouement.
I cannot finish the thought for you, madame, I know not whenst it came.
"We all had apples, so you can just imagine...."
What, in god's name? You made pies with them? Juice? Some sort of hard cider???
"The floors were diarrhea, so obviously we couldn't...."
WHAT? STEP ON THEM?? I need hard facts, information. My understanding of human communication is very limited, and when you don't finish your sentences, I get very nervous and I want to throw up. In this void you leave, do I nod knowingly? Politely chuckle? Hang head and shake jowls? Fart and blame others?
"....obviously, I was the wrong religion," she finishes.
"Oh. He was Jewish?"
She puts a long, bony finger to her nose and winks.
I want to tell her that she left out all the in between parts that would differentiate a "story" from what she just did, but she has already moved on to the next thing, and I need to be prepared for when she dangles another participial over my head.
Besides her fingers, the rest of Nancy is quite long as well. In fact, she used to be a fashion model, she says. Back in the day.
"I went to Studio 54, you know, in it's prime."
"Oh." My toes curl in social agony, but I do my part. "What was that like?" The question ekes out like a death rattle.
"In the bathrooms there, it was...." She tilts her head away and looks at me out of the sides of her eyes. I wonder if my breath is bad.
Most of the time when people talk to me, that is all I am thinking.
Occasionally I will think, ooh their breath is bad, but this is usually only a lead-in to a consideration of the fear is mine worse? Or, is that my own breath reflecting off their face and coming back to me in terrible waves?
"...well, I was only going in there to wee-wee, but some of those ladies...."
Wee-wee is Nancy's code word for urination.
She has already gone wee-wee several times since we left the school, and each time, she whispers it and makes a gesture with her thumb and forefinger that looks like she is indicating a unit of measurement.
It could be that she means she only has to go a little bit of wee-wee, or go wee-wee for a brief amount of time, but I am not sure.
When I ask her questions about her life as a model, Nancy brightens up considerably.
But it becomes all too clear that her name dropping is lost on me.
"We were doing a show for Dior..."
"What's that?" I ask loudly, swinging my little legs and eating my graham crackers with my mouth wide open.
"Hmmm....do you know Vera Wang?"
"Nope." Rub nose on sleeve.
"Uh-uh." I miss my mommy.
"Well anyways, I found myself in England, where you can just imagine...."
And this soft-spoken woman, whose whispery voice I have till now had to strain to hear, suddenly shouts "DO YOU KNOW JOHN WAYNE???" in a broad Cockney accent.
My students look back at me, seeking reassurance. I give them a nod, just a slight bob to say, it's cool, but keep your heads on a swivel, because shit might be getting real up in this bus.
Nancy remembers people by what they wore, recalling fashion in exacting detail.
"And Greta was there, wearing a mint blazer tied in a French twist over a lovely cream taffeta wrap pinned by an heirloom whalebone brooch. Her heels were Monsanto and her clutch, Verboten, in that summer's shade of decadent mauve."
"I used to wear long socks with shorts, but people told me not to do it anymore," I reply.
An hour later, we return to the classroom.
With despair I realize no one else is around, no other staff present to buffer me from Nancy's relentless half sentences and nostalgic tours of style.
For people like me, being talked at for endless hours is physically painful. I'm not exaggerating. We become fragile eggshells incapable of withstanding another poke; one more tale of house hunting in England or list of the best trade shows for models in the fall of 1983, and there will be yolk all over the floor.
The yolk is a metaphor for an introvert's wee-wee.
"Do you know what this is?" Nancy asks me slyly, pulling a baggie of something small and brown from her lunch.
"A bag of chocolate chips?"
"This," she says, as she makes an awkward attempt to lean towards me over the table, "is Vitamin CH."
She waits, watching me, the baggie suspended between us by a shaking hand. Nancy is patient, letting the meaning of her words wash over me.
"Oh," I whisper back. "The CH stands for chocolate."
"Hm," she says, conspiratorially. I am pretty sure I have just been told a secret.
But being told a secret, and understanding why something is a secret, are two very different things.
"Have you liked the other classrooms you've worked in?" I ask her.
Nancy carefully chews one of the chocolate chips. It leaves a brown stain on her front teeth.
"It's been an adjustment." She lifts her hand to half cover her mouth and hisses, "especially with the toileting."
I hurry to change the subject but she won't let me.
"You know? Like when there's grass on the field," she says, and makes a retching face.
The salami sandwich in my hands feels dry and heavy. I lay it back down on the plastic tray.
"But at least it's meaningful work, right?" Nancy continues. "Not like-"
She stands up and pantomimes holding something out next to her. Her face stretched into a pained camera smile, she turns the invisible item in her hands to show it from a different angle.
Then, she starts to walk fiercely down an imaginary catwalk.
But on the crucial pivot at the runway's end, her knee suddenly gives out. Nancy screams for mercy, stumbles, and falls against the back of her chair.
"Are you okay???"
The students at the lunch table are watching in horror. One of them has half risen from his seat, still clutching his carton of chocolate milk.
Nancy waves me off, and stiffly, proudly, manages to slide into a seated position.
It takes her a moment to regain composure. When she does, she goes back to nibbling her vitamin CH.
Things are quiet then, blessedly quiet. I return to my sandwich and take a moment to enjoy the solitary sounds of my own chewing.