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One Way

The trip I took began one way and ended in a better way. Not that I wanted it to end at all- traveling was a chance to remqin unknown, a perpetual stranger who could be judged in passing but never around to bear the opinions of others. Every place is livable until it becomes familiar, until people nod to you in recognition and call you by name. That's why I like Manhattan. Nobody wants to delve inside the life of a stray teenager. No one looks knowingly at your torn jeans and faded backpack and rushes off to inform the neighbors. In Manhattan, nobody really cares ...

I left Duluth on a frigid Monday night when the station would be deserted. The midnight buses in winter always collected the winners-the homeless trying to get out of the cold, the unemployed leaving to find jobs and the reckless teenagers, unforgiven by their respectable families, who are sent away to be forgotten.

My parents didn't wait for me to board the bus to Cincinnati. My mother carried my bag to the empty benches while my father waited in the car. My mother turned to me once, before she joined my father.

"This really is the only way. Be thankful your Aunt Edna agreed to let you stay. You can come home when this all dies down, when people have forgotten."

I didn't say goodbye, but stared at the cigarette butts discarded near the trashcans and wondered if anyone thought of their refuse after they threw it away. And I thought of my mother as I boarded the bus.

People never forget, they just find more interesting details to clutter their minds and fill up the gaps in their souls. Small talk like garbage is only useful once. You use it until it's empty of whatever interested you. But the stories like litter never fade; they only blow down the streets of other people's lives, marring and streaking reputations in a thoughtless, impersonal way.

The bus ride itself wasn't bad. The seats were mostly empty through Minnesota, so I stretched out in the red, high-backed seat and lulled myself to the movement of the tires on their asphalt mission. I watched the highway signs go by, gazing at them as the silent sentries who mark the roadside towns, Middleton, Bramberg, Saxville - little green signs boasted the existence of the thousands who live between this sign and the next. Yes, the land between Middleton and Saxville was Bramberg, and the people who lived there were Bramberg, too. And I wondered how many young women were sent from Bramberg on a midnight bus to be forgotten.

In Richling, the bus picked up more passengers. An obese lady with Avon perfume took the seat next to me. She sat flipping through her torn address book and debated who, at the end of her ride, she should visit first. I feigned sleep, hoping she would pay no attention to me. But I felt her eyes, caked with the blue shadow middle-aged women relish, rake my face and glance to my body. I knew she wondered and, for once, I decided to give a smalltown woman some authentic gossip to take to her Wednesday evening bridge game.

"My baby's due in two months. My parents sent me to stay with my aunt because I'm only sixteen. They don't want all of Duluth to know what I've done."

She pursed her lips and turned a faint pink. I smiled to myself; she didn't look at me again.

Why did my parents think? That Cincinnati would be different? No one there knew me, but they would know I wasn't Edna's daughter. Maybe that made it acceptable, valiant even, for Edna to volunteer for me to stay. She could always claim, at her Saturday rosary breakfasts, that it was her sister's child who couldn't stay out of trouble. As long as it wasn't her own ...

When the bus pulled in at a rest stop, I walked around to relieve the cramps in my legs. What would be different in Cincinnati? Or anywhere else? Fidgeting eyes and racing minds just prey on others' misfortunes. A story is somehow more enticing when you know your listeners will gasp.

"Good God, Melba, did she really?"

"Well bless my stars, that Smith boy down the road ..."

"And you know I won't tell a soul. What did you say their names were ... "

No, every place would be the same. The only ones who really don't care to hear your problems are those who have enough to worry about themselves, the people whose lives are fast and busy and anonymous. I could live somewhere like that. I asked the driver if any other buses came through that stop and changed my ticket for the farthest destination.

I still wonder what Aunt Edna thought, her bloated face searching the Greyhound crowd. She tapped her Kmart sandals on the lipstick-stained Virginia Slim butts and picked at her chipped, orange fingernails. She waited a good two hours before calling my mother.

"Well Claire, I can't wait forever. Did you send her?"

Yes, Aunt Edna will wait, and my parents will wait too.

They'll wait to see if Mary Jane Blackman ever marries Tom from Central Heights, to see if Mrs. Doughby will learn to drive and stop running over the trash cans at the edge of the lawn, to see if the Stirlings do get a divorce ...

They'll fill their minds and their lives with the litter of other people's problems as if they don't have garbage of their own. And they'll wait and they'll wonder but they'll never really know.

As for me, I'll come home when people forget.
- Mary O. Fumento, 1990

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