I was exhausted when I climbed onto the bus Tuesday afternoon. I sat down next to a young sophisticated college student and zoned out, lost in my own tired thoughts.
“I like your hair style.”
I looked across the college student to the woman with yellow hair on the other side of her.
“Thank you,” I said. “It’s really handy. If I need to write something down I can just pull the pen out of my hair.”
“Yeah,” she said. “But I don’t think my boss would have liked it if I had let my hair down. I worked as a waitress you see. In those days you had to have your hair up in a bun, with a hairnet over it. There aren’t very many ways to do that hairstyle, you know, so we were always looking for new ones.”
I smiled, and nodded, and then looked back at my lap. I was tired, and just wanted to get where I was going. I didn’t feel like chatting.
The woman, however, did feel like chatting. “Do you know what’s exciting?”
“What?” I asked to be polite, trying not to make eye contact. Then, suddenly, I felt guilty. I could at least listen to the women.
“This past winter I turned 52…”
“Oh wow,” I said. “Good for you. That is exciting.”
“That’s not the exciting part.”
She talked like she was a little bit crazy, with exaggerated facial expressions, saying some phrases in a stage whisper and almost yelling others. But the actual content of her words made perfect sense, once I heard her out.
“What’s the exciting part?” I asked.
“It’s raining,” she said. “And I have arthritis. But I’m not scared, this time. You wanna know why?”
The next words were whispered, as though they were too precious to be spoken out loud. “I have my own apartment.”
“Wow, congratulations,” I said.
The college student in-between us sat back as far as she could in her seat, and fiddled with her phone.
“I have two cats,” the woman continued. “They’re gonna have a more stable life than I ever had. They may walk from the kitchen to the bedroom to the living room, but their litter box is always in the same place. I saw my cats lying contentedly on the floor of my own home the other day. And I thought, ‘if this is as good as it gets, it’s enough.'”
She leaned in close, and whispered. “I’ve never thought that before, in my life.”
“I have my own room,” she added. “And I can paint! I painted my own apartment!”
“That’s awesome! What color did you paint it?”
She beamed. “Well, I went to a garage sale and got some cans of paint. I got a rose color, and I got this really beautiful butter color, and I got an ugly blue. But when I mixed some of the butter in with the blue, it made…” her voice turned reverent, “aqua.”
She described the process of choosing trim colors, and how she mixed paints to get the exact right shade of rose for her bedroom. “There’s just enough room in my bedroom for a bed and a nightstand,” she said. “But I don’t care. You wanna know why? Because I have my own room! I’ve never had my own room before.”
“I didn’t put the TV in my bedroom, though,” she continued. “I get seasonal effective disorder, you know. If I put the TV in there, I’d just lie in there all winter. So I had this voice in my mind, like a mom, saying ‘don’t you put the TV in your bedroom!’
“People say I’m crazy, you know. But the mom voice, I had to have that, because I didn’t have a mom looking out for me. I was in the foster care system when I was four, you know, and my foster parents were abusive. They put me in the swimming pool and I was gonna drown. I knew I didn’t have a mom, or anyone, to save me. That’s when the mom voice told me to swim. Since then the mom voice always told me things, like when something was a really bad idea. Because I didn’t have anyone else to tell me those things.”
By this time she was crying, and my eyes were tearing up as well. But it was my stop, and I had to get off. “It was very nice to meet you,” I said. Then I exited the bus, my heart feeling hollow and heavy at the same time.
What sort of world do we live in, when a 52-year-old mentally ill woman with arthritis wanders the rain-soaked world, never even having a room to call her own?
She had said words which trampled my ungrateful spirit to dust and shame.
“I think I’ve made it,” she had whispered to me. “I’m scared to say that out loud, but I think…I think I’ve made it.”