End of the Line

Fiction by Tina Bartolome

June 20, 2013

Illustrations by Brian Lei

Stupid ass girl with the braids burned off part of her eyelash trying to light a cigarette at the bus stop. She thought no one seen her but I did. And I laughed out loud at her, too. I wasn’t mean about it. No one knew what I was laughing at. I didn’t point at her. I got manners. She knew though. She turned around to face downhill as everyone else turned uphill to face me and see why I was laughing. Fuck you lookin’ at. They snapped their necks back around. Some of them shrugged. Little freshman Velcro Trapper Keeper nerd. Big girl with the mini backpack that made her look even bigger. Dude who always picks his face in chemistry and leaves his nasty face flakes on the floor. That curly-haired white girl who used to wear neckgear in middle school. Now she on cheerleading, walking around munching on celery and carrot sticks. I could see over the tops of all their heads. I could see girl with the braids turn around and go at it again trying to light another cigarette. Sad ass bus stop.

Then the bus pulled around the corner, slow. Rodney was driving. I could always tell even from far away it’s him, with his black goatee and different color collar popping outside his brown bus driver V-neck. That day was baby blue. This is the beginning of the line, so he usually took a break first. I guess coming from downtown made it the end of the line, too. When he pulled into the stop, the bus jerked forward then backward like a big drunk lady ploppin’ down in a creaky metal chair. Rodney walked down the aisle, checking the seats for trash and lost things. He found me a nice polka-dot umbrella once. Then he sat in the disabled seats and read the paper with his back turned to us.

I took out my compact mirror to check my face. It looked like gray tree bark. Just two days of sun would make my skin creamy like my mama’s island brown, but the sun never shines out here. That fog stays fog and makes us all gray. I put on my strawberry lollipop lip gloss — three layers — and then blotted it with my algebra worksheet. Smack. At least gray makes bright colors pop. My lip’s probably the brightest thing at this bus stop, next to the stop sign.

Edna and Shy-Shy started crossing Geary Boulevard toward me but got stuck on the island ’cause the light changed. Their slow asses were singing out loud, connected ear to ear through shared earphones, but Shy-Shy’s earpiece kept falling out. “I ain’t mad atcha, I ain’t mad atcha.” They always attached somehow. One hand each deep inside the same bag of hot chips, wearing matching outfits with side ponytails and texting even when they’re right next to each other sometimes. I don’t need somebody always up in my business like that. I need space. I’m an independent woman.  

“Dang, your Filipino side hella comes out when you straighten your hair. Why you all dressed up today, Renee?” Shy-Shy gave me the head to toe and pointed at my long fitted purple turtleneck and gold chain with the cherry pendant, then down at my black leggings and knee-high boots. “I’m about to borrow that little ensemble next time I come over.” She ran her index finger down my sweater sleeve. “I likes.”

“Trippin’, girl. You ain’t got half the goods to fill this with your little bird body. Plus you still got my scarf and my San Quinn CD from before summer started.” I snapped the compact closed and dropped it in my backpack. “I’m going downtown to apply for jobs.”

“Again?” Edna rolled her big brown eyes. “How many you applied for already? I bet you ain’t even really looking. Downtown got cute boys, huh?”

I didn’t answer. Ain’t nobody’s business.

The bus engine started up and Rodney was back in the driver’s seat. He opened the front door. I was first in line. “Hey, pretty lady. Get on board.”

I smiled at him and started walking slowly toward the back, Edna and Shy-Shy right behind me with a line of kids flashing their passes. “Come sit up here and keep me company,” he called after me.

“Mmmm hmmm.” Both Edna and Shy-Shy said it, probably rolling their eyes in the same direction, too. I heard Edna catch her laugh with the palm of her hand, but it escaped out her nose anyway. They must’ve thought he was cute, too, else they wouldn’t have tried to mind they manners.

I didn’t reply to Rodney or turn around; just went to claim my favorite window seat one row up from the back and threw my arm along the back of the seat next to me so no one would sit there. I slid open all the windows in my reach ’cause it always gets funky on a crowded bus. Then I took a book out of my backpack, trying to give Edna and Shy-Shy the cue that I didn’t feel like being all noisy. Sometimes their energy is like a magnet; I get pulled in. Before I know it, we yelling fightin’ words at private school girls out the window or cussing out old white or Chinese ladies for lookin’ at us like we dirty. Edna and Shy-Shy sat in the double seat in front of me facing the aisle, still listening to Tupac and reciting every other line or so of his lyrics under their breaths. Rodney waited for more kids to come down from school until almost all the seats got taken. It looked like we about to start class again, Rodney like a teacher up front and me in the back, looking out the window. Except I wasn't waiting for the bell to ring; I was riding to the end of the line, and if I saw the teacher after class, it wasn't ’cause I was in trouble.

Then a little shiny brown bird flew inside the bus through the window I just opened and landed on the metal handlebar across from my seat. Its head twitched around like a crackhead checkin’ out the bus. “Git it, git it!” A kid sitting behind me jumped up to grab it, but as soon as he opened his mouth, the bird flew down the aisle. It tried to land on different parts of the metal handlebar and kept bumping against the roof and chirping. Some people covered their heads, afraid to get shit on, some jumped up out their seats and tried to swat it. Edna and Shy-Shy didn’t even look up from their iPhone. They think they seen everything. I took my arm off the back of the seat next to me and stayed perfectly still. Come here little bird. I ain’t gonna hurt you. I wished it would come back and land on my shoulder. I sweet-talked to it in my mind. When it came straight toward me and perched right where my arm had been, my eyelids fluttered just like its pretty wings. See? Saved this seat just for you. It didn’t look at me — it just faced forward, still twitching. Are you lost? Are you mine? I thought if it stayed for more than five seconds, then that meant it really could read my mind.

“Hey!” Rodney’s deep voice cut across all the commotion. “Open up all the windows right now.” He paused, looking at a couple of the older ladies sitting up front. “Please.” He winked at them. “Thank you.”

The windows slid open, the bird flew out and Rodney sat back down to pull the bus out from the stop. He was just doing his job, but my heart still dropped a little bit. Not too much. Not like when people forget your birthday or your best friend moves away. Still, it’s hard to make the sweetness go back inside once it’s seeped out. Even if me and a little lost bird were the only ones who knew it did.

Edna and Shy-Shy got off on Sixth Avenue to get pork buns and bubble tea on Clement Street, which probably meant they would go by KFC afterward to see if any cute boys were there. They asked me to go, but that routine got old for me a while ago. I was a junior now. I needed to get me a real J-O-B or else I’d get stuck helping my mama at the daycare with a dozen snot-nosed babies.

I usually took the 38 Geary and then the 49 Van Ness to get home. But since I started taking the 1 California looking for a job, I seen a whole other side of the city. Prettier and quieter with cute little cafés everywhere. There’s a bunch of hills and parks right in the middle of neighborhoods with people doing all kinda healthy shit like running and walking their dogs. White people stuff. Some of the neighborhoods got fancy houses with balconies and big windows and pretty flowers hanging over the edges. Next time it was sunny, I thought, I might just get off the bus and walk around to check it out. But that day was gray, so I just opened up my book for English and got to reading for the next 45 minutes, every once in a while lifting my head when I heard Rodney’s deep voice. His voice made me want to slow dance.

There were only three of us left on the bus by the time we got to the skyscrapers. Me, the Velcro nerd and a business lady with frosty hair and an ugly pantsuit. The bus seats rattled without the weight of people sitting in them, and Rodney sped through a yellow down a steep hill. I almost fell and had to grab on to the seat in front of me. I looked down the aisle to shoot him a dirty look. He was looking at me through his rearview mirror, laughing quietly. Once he caught my eye, I looked away and shook my head. You are too much, Rodney.

He raised his eyebrows and tilted his neck in his direction. Come closer. I didn’t move at first. Fuck him and his driving. Then he stopped at a red light and the business lady got off. The Velcro nerd started packing up in the middle section. I picked up my backpack and walked down the aisle, slow, as the red light counted down. Eight, seven, six. I didn’t hold on to any of the bars. Five, four, three. I was just passing the back door. Two, one. The light turned green and I kept my pace, staring Rodney down in the mirror. I dare you to start driving again. Watch. I sat down in the first disabled seat across from him, crossed my legs and folded my hands in my lap. I looked at the light and then back at him. Green means go when I say so. He just smiled and hit the gas real slow.

He drove to the last stop in front of the Embarcadero Center, where I had first started looking for a job. He looked in the rearview to check out the Velcro nerd, who stood by the back door, and then he looked ahead to the street. “So pretty lady, how was school today?”


“No job yet?”

“No.” After all that, I got shy again.

He lowered his voice. “Well, I can’t say I’m mad about that.”


“Come on now.”


“I like your company is why.”


He didn’t answer, just pulled in to the end of the line and opened the back door for the Velcro nerd. He stood up and stretched, reaching up to change the bus sign.

“Can I do that?”

“Why?” He mimicked my voice. He got the attitude down pretty good.

“Shut up. ’Cause it looks fun.” I stood up. “Well, can I?”

“You wanna be a bus driver, pretty lady?”

“Maybe. I know y’all get paid.”

He laughed. “C’mere.”

I leaned up against the metal bar that separated the driver seat from the aisle. I raised my arm, and he grabbed my hand to guide it to a little black lever above the front window. I pressed it down and saw through a little hole that the sign flipped from “1 California Embarcadero” to “1 California 32nd Avenue.”  

“Was that fun?” He grabbed his brown Muni driver jacket from the corner hook by his seat. I moved back as he stepped into the aisle with me.

“Not really.”

“You’re a hard one to impress, Ms. Renee.”

“Well, now I’m impressed. You remembered my name. ’Cause I know I ain’t the only one you call pretty lady.”

“Of course I remember. Now you gonna join me again on my break before your job search down here where the sun don’t shine?” He held out his hand and I took it as we walked down the steps, but he let it go as soon as we both landed on the sidewalk.

Everyone on the street walked fast past us on their phones, making straight lines and sharp turns. We weaved through them to get to his little break room closet on the ground floor of the Embarcadero Center. My second time inside. Just one office chair and a desk with some papers and magazines, a little radio, a clock and a mini fan. The place was narrow and yellow and dark, kinda musty smelling. It was for all the 1 California drivers, but Rodney said most didn’t use it. They’d rather grab coffee or a sandwich at the café on the corner — the first place I applied ’cause they had a help wanted sign. They never called me back. Rodney kept a change of clothes on a hanger on the door hook. A black leather jacket and a pair of blue jeans with crisp creases that I wondered who ironed for him. I watched him open the door with one key turn and a push. No wedding ring.

When we got inside, he closed the door behind him, lifted my backpack off my shoulder and put it down in the corner. He turned on the radio to some oldies station and took off his sweater. I smelled his cologne, clean like rain. He put both hands on my shoulders, pressed his forehead to mine, then moved his hands down to my hips. I wanted to pull away so he couldn’t see my face so damn close up, but I just closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to think about it. I liked how his hands grabbed on to me, that I had something for him to grab.

“You wanna be grown already don’t you, Renee? High school all played out, huh?” He kissed me light on the lips. I kissed him back, but he stopped, reached in his pocket for a tissue and held it out to me. He must’ve felt my face get flushed ’cause he rubbed my cheek soft and gentle with his knuckle. “Now baby, those pink juicy lips of yours looked so good sitting back by the window. With those pretty Asian eyes and those curves just calling my name, you know I was watching you the whole time, just waiting to get you back here again?”

I wanted to look him in the eye and say, “Yes I knew. Who you think I wore this outfit for today?” Instead, I shook my head with a small no.

“But when we close like this it’s all about tasting the real thing under there.”

I paused. For a minute I couldn’t decide if it was a compliment or an insult. I took the tissue. My lip gloss wasn't what got us here. I wiped it off.

“Now that’s what I’m talkin’ bout. Relax darlin’. C’mere.”

He kissed me harder, pushing my lips apart, and I gave him my tongue. His lips were soft and made my heart beat kinda fast. The man could kiss. The first time, that’s all we did for 15 minutes, but it was damn sure enough to keep me daydreamin’ in class all week long. His hands made his way to my ass and my body started heating up inside my turtleneck. What was I thinking? Turtleneck. I tried to ignore the sweat drippin’ down my spine that would probably leave marks on the desk. He pushed me up on the desk, knocked over the radio and reached over to turn the fan on full blast. The breeze came just in time and let me catch my breath. He ran his hands all over me and I leaned back, wrapping my legs around his waist, but they were hard to bend with boots on. I could feel him hard against my thigh and tried to play it cool even though I let out a little gasp that I tried to pass off as a moan. This wasn’t the first time I felt a man’s penis on me, but it made me shiver. I pulled him closer to feel it again. His baby blue collared shirt, his rain smell, the song that went “la lalalalalalalalaaaa means I love youuuu” from the radio on its side and his good strong kisses stirred me up inside like fresh cotton candy.

Then he started grabbing at my leggings waistband. “Baby, help me out with your pants. We ain’t got much time to do this.”

I nodded my head up and down. I was a damn fiend for those kisses. I didn’t want them to stop for nothing. His weight pressed down. His thumbs reached alongside the elastic of my leggings and my panties and peeled them down until my bare ass rubbed against the cold metal edge of the desk. My whole body froze.

He didn’t even notice, just kept at it. All I could feel was that cold metal edge and my own juice about to drip down my left thigh. I thought if we kept on kissing it might unfreeze me, so I closed my eyes and concentrated. I could smell the wetness between my thighs rise up like sweet rolls just out the oven, the fan spreading it all around us. Then the smell of cigarettes seeped in from just outside the door. Menthols. Was someone out there waiting for us to finish? What did they want? Who was out there?

I turned my neck to look at the clock and when I turned back his head was buried between my breasts. Couldn’t he feel my softness go frozen? Why couldn’t he stop all that business below and just kiss me again? I wished I could see my face in the mirror to know if I was scared, pissed or turned on. All them feelings huddled frozen together inside me, and I couldn’t tell them apart. Never even knew they were that close. I knew I would ride one of them until the end — I just needed a sign.

Rodney pulled down his zipper slow. I felt his thing on my skin trying to find a way in. My anger got caught in his zipper. I cupped my hand over his buckle and when he raised his head I looked him straight in his 40-something-year-old face. “You really tryin’ to fuck me in 10 minutes? In this janky ass closet? Oh hell naw. You know this would be my first time, right?”

He blinked and cocked his head to the side. “You sure about that, baby? You seem to know what you’re doing. He guided my hand around his waist. “Don't fret about the time. I got all the time in the world for Ms. Renee.” Then he kissed me with his eyes wide open and reached over to tip the clock on its face.

I turned my neck to the side and arched my back, but he kept on with spreading my legs. I froze up again. I could still hear his unzipping in my head on repeat. I didn't even realize there was a stupid ass smile on my face until he traced it with his finger and whispered in my ear.

“I knew there was a pretty smile underneath all that attitude.”

I pushed him away so hard, I almost fell on top of him. His back hit the wall, then his head. I pulled up my leggings as soon as I got my balance. He looked at me all puffed up, something like anger in his face. Now he was all worked up with nowhere to put it. I knew because I was, too.

“The fuck is wrong with you, girl?” Rodney rubbed his head and dogged me from head to toe.

As soon as he stepped toward me, I folded my arms in front of my chest and moved closer to the door ’til my hand was on the knob. I was glad at that moment that I was as tall as him and at least as wide. “You need me to leave so you can handle your business, now that you know it ain’t goin’ in me?”

His eyes got big. His fly was still open, and he was still hard. I kept quiet and stared down at his pants.

Rodney looked away. He exhaled twice. On the second breath, his whole body went soft. He turned his back to me, adjusting his pants and patting his hair even. “Renee, damn. Damn. What can I say? I thought if you were freaky enough to mess with an old bus driver, then that meant…” He turned around to face me. “I stand corrected.”

“Good.” I picked up my backpack and opened the door a crack. “That makes me feel a little better. But I ain’t messin’ with you no more.” I walked out and shut the door behind me. Fuck Rodney and his 1 California bus.

Outside it was still busy and crowded and gray. Felt like a couple hours went by, not 10 minutes of hot and then mess. I stepped away from the break room door and hopped closer to the curb like I was crossing a damn river. People flowed up and down, pulling me, and I was tempted to step in. Then I wouldn’t have to stress about seeing Rodney’s ass walking back to his bus. Maybe a good walk in a crowd of gray would set me straight. Maybe there really was a good job waiting for me around the corner.

Instead, I just stood there at the curb, holding on to my backpack strap and looking at one thing at a time. Tree with no leaves. Green light. Closed, dusty table umbrella. Chair bolted to the sidewalk.

The menthol smoke again. My eyes landed on the only other person nearby standing still, a skinny brown woman a few feet to my left at the curb, taking her last drag. A tight string of pearls around her neck. She turned to glance at me as she threw her cigarette down and blew smoke out her nostrils. Not long enough for a smile or a frown, but I could tell she still seen me, and I wondered what she seen. I had half a mind to just walk up and ask her.

Read more from Issue 27: The Sex Issue, available now. Subscribe to Hyphen or pick up a copy at a newsstand near you.

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Tina Bartolome

Tina Bartolome is a San Francisco native and daughter of immigrants from the Philippines and Switzerland. She writes for the page, stage and screen and her work is included in the anthology “WalangHiya: Literature Taking Risks Toward Liberatory Practice” (Carayan Press). An Omar S. Castaneda Fellow, she received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Indiana University and her B.A. from San Francisco State University.