Picking one that looks relatively hardy is key. Sometimes you don’t have any choice. I swear I’ve been on one with four tires that were different sizes. You can tell if one is over-crowded because it breaks the horizon in the distance and doesn’t quite resemble a bus, it comes at you like a misshapen Snickers bar, like maybe it melted around the edges a bit. With a squint and hand to the brow you can readily enough tell that there’s men hanging out of that roaring, creaking contraption!
We waited for the bus on the corner like a handful of middle schoolers, kicking rocks and sucking on suckers, laughing and joking with our backpacks littering the ground. I didn’t see our bus until it eased onto the shoulder in a cloud of red dust. I was shoulder to shoulder next to Oms sitting on the ground, cross-eyed and examining the end of my bee-stung nose in all it’s size, glory and redness.
Someone else saw it, sporting Nueva Italia in it’s front window, coming at us like a Snickers bar alright, melted and swervy, hailed it with a finger in the street. Polka music leaking through the cracks in the windows, sweat smudged and sneezed on.
I still had both feet on the ground when the bus started moving again. Poor Omar behind me, the last of us, had time enough only to leap in the direction of the door before we’d butted back into traffic. I paid for the two of us with a damp bill. The driver was serious. Sleep deprived probably, plucked it from my hand, tore the tickets, shifted gears twice, groped for change, counting blindly, miraculously pushing the bus past 70 by the time the silver hit my palm.
The nearest handhold was a human limb. I held on. Peculiar velvet curtains, curled and dusty along the rim of the windows with jiggling golden tassels. People packed as tight as sardines, sweating down each others backs, breathing each others carbon dioxide. Everyone staring straight ahead, seeing nothing, oblivious to the polka, oblivious to the elbow in their cheekbone. Children sleep on wide laps of mothers and grandmums. It’s a bus-coma. They don’t feel pain, a foot trodden upon, a kidney prodded, they don’t get mad. Knocked about and knockin’ others, somewhere in a parallel state of unconscious misery. I love the bus despite myself, love the feeling of helplessness as it swerves around a stray cow on the shoulder.
“Were we on two wheels just then?” I ask in English.
Omar and I are squashed together like two moist toads. Belly to belly we wipe our brows with our shoulders. Clinging to the metal rail on the roof, I’m on tiptoe. Omar holds his backpack braced firm between his knees, stands leg-locked like a marine. When the bus lurches I slide side to side, front to back, occasionally coming off my toes but the bodies surrounding me hold me upright as I dangle from my handhold. Our faces are close and we talk in English like the language will save our words, like they’re special because only we understand them. I laugh my joy and exasperation into Omar’s chest. My face makes a damp circle on his shirt.
The bus lurches and swerves and I’m swaying this way and rocking that way, coming off my toes, my stomach fluttering because Omar’s breath touches my own, turn my head away into a wall of shoulders, armpits, sweaty napes, his breath falls down my neck.
More people pile into the bus. A little girl climbs on, clobbered by knees, hips clapping her head. A woman wakes from the bus-coma, my age no older, sitting in a window seat. She reaches for the little one, pulls her into her lap and falls back into the coma, eyes closed. The girl cowers upon the strangers thighs as a crush of bodies heaves above her. Women holding plastic grocery bags bulging with milk and apples, kokitos and yerba. A man has a weed-eater. Everyone finds a place, clings like fleas. Men are hanging from the windows and doorframe on the outside of the bus, riding in the wind, bus-coma securely intact.
I love the feeling of my stomach pressed against Omar’s and I love what happens inside it when we jerk haphazardly into the left lane. I rest my head on my up reached arm and smile into his face. I’m a blanket of sweat and my hair blows across my bee-bitten nose. I’m thinking to myself that these buses have a life of their own, and suddenly his face is closer to mine than it was a moment before. My breath hitches in my throat. For the first time he’s about to be kissing me, the length of a breath separates us, for the first time he’s impossibly close, my heart is surging, making me dizzy. Slowly, it’s impossibly slow the way he comes to me as the trees and cows whip by outside, we’re hurdling down the road, my pulse careening wildly. The polka blares, elbows, shoulders, bodies urge me into the cave of his chest, press against me and press us closer and our lips cling together for a moment, a perfect paradoxical moment, and we are kissing, kissing like there is no sweat trickling on our faces, like my nose isn’t red and throbbing pressed into his cheek. We are kissing and my toes have come off the floor and I’ve forgotten where we are and I don’t feel the coma-ridden bodies crashing about us and I can’t feel anything except a great surging inside myself as we surge through the Paraguayan fields and palm trees and the sun sets in our midst.
And when our lips come apart and the contradictory dream begins to fade, time’s stood still and everyone still stares ahead in the bus-coma and all I can do is laugh and think to myself, while his sweat and mine trace my face, that never before have I had my personal space so perfectly invaded. No, I realize, it’s not the kiss that I enjoyed so much as it was the world of our own that it happened in, amongst a thousand other bodies lumped together into a human loaf.
I’m a little embarrassed after the tide of bliss rolls off and I think to myself afterwards that bussing really is the way to go. Americans could do with a little more of this scene I say in my head, still shaky from the newness of Omar’s lips. Save the world some gas, save the junkyards some space. I know an American or two who could do with a bus ride now and again. I wondered how the world would be different if people stood a little closer together every once in a while. God knows we could all use a few more kisses too.