We had come down from the mountains where there had been cacti and apples of horse dung on the trail coated with dust. The day had been quiet—almost entirely spoken in the sound of our feet on the gritty trail. Now and then someone’s boot had called out with a raspy slip, when coming down a steep part of the trail, but the others paid no attention. Once, someone said something at a river crossing. Something to acknowledge the beauty of the scene, but the superfluous remark fell under the sound of the rushing water. We reached the trail’s summit around 2 pm. There was snow lying in the shadows of some of the larger trees. It glowed and seemed to give off the buzzing of a florescent light.
We took a different trail back and came to a suspension bridge. Without discussing it, we walked across the bridge one by one, each person waiting their turn, like children waiting to go down a slide. On the other side of the bridge, there was a black mud that was mostly packed and felt like clay to walk on. Each footprint left a vivid imprint of its rubber zigzags, square bumps and raised heel. I stepped off the trail for a moment to leave a footprint where no one would likely tred over it. Maybe it will fossilize.
We came off the mountain around five. The light was blurry and golden. The white insects in the air were singing. The trail ended at the top of a new neighborhood. Everything was walled, but there were vines growing over the walls and the transition from the mountains to the city was gradual. The first street we came to was quiet with large yellow speedbumps and boxy carabiniero vans parked near most intersections. The carabinieros standing outside the vans were friendly, they nodded and said hello to us. Their dark green collars creaked when they nodded, sounding like the insects. We kept in a line as we walked. The sidewalk was narrow and would permit nothing else.
At the bottom of the hill, where the city began, the bus stop was crowded. Those waiting frequently leaned over the curb to see what was coming. Many of them had set their shopping bags on the ground. Two boys sat on a low wall and talked, but everyone else was silent except for the occasional sharp exhalation of impatience.
From a long line of traffic, the bus roared up in its while and orange plastic austerity. The card reader beeped with each passenger’s fare. The back of the bus was slightly raised and we went back there to be out of the way. The seats were all taken. There was an open area at the edge of the raised portion like a dais and we stood in this area, all of us leaning a little to take the strain off our legs. On the turns, the bus swayed violently. It was hard to brace against effectively, especially with some of the mountain’s black mud still on the soles of our shoes. When the bus turned a corner, we swung in tight arcs between our grips on the high railings and our feet planted on the floor.
After two residential stops, a young couple got on and settled in the place beneath where we were standing. The couple was at the early stage in their relationship when they noticed nothing else but each other. When they came on to the bus, they didn’t glance around at the other passengers, as almost everyone who gets on a bus does. They looked straight ahead and when they came to an open area, they stopped and looked relieved when they could face each other again. They looked very warm and clean: the boy in a cotton sweatshirt and the girl in the earth tones of a heavy cable sweater and a thick macramé scarf. They spoke quietly to each other, their faces only a few inches apart. They didn’t tilt their heads and speak into each other’s ears over the roar of the bus, but looked directly into each other’s eyes. The boy did most of the talking. The girl seemed to respond to everything he said with the same sad expression. Not overtly sad, there was no actual pain in it. It was a look that was made to communicate tenderness, but had a wide-eyed, lapine sorrow. It was impossible to tell whether the girl was aware of this. Most of her expression was concentrated in the eyes and the lower lip. The eyebrows, where they nearly met over the bridge of the nose had rounded Q-tip ends; they tapered over the eyes until they were no more than a few feathered hairs pointing to her temples. The way the dark ends bunched together over the nose resembled the eyebrows of a homesick child who is sitting alone somewhere imagining he will never see his family again.
The rest of her face was unremarkable, with the exception of her lower lip that wasn’t quite pushed out, but also couldn’t have naturally sat above her chin so prominently. It was like a roseate pillow on which one would set a ring to be taken to an altar. There was nothing maudlin about her lip. On its own, it probably wouldn’t have been remarkable, but with the eyebrows, it gave her face a look of someone suffering from a fear that had given way to vague but consistent sadness.
It was difficult not to watch the wordless actions of this sad but enamored girl. There was something like spring about her, just after the snows have melted and the smells of the leaves and the grass seeds are tempered by the cold air that conducts them. The boy spoke and the girl returned these sad smiles in reply. She remained perfectly still even when the bus took a turn quickly and the boy had to make a little hop to keep from losing his balance. Neither of them looked away from the other. There was no challenge in looking at them because they gave none of the quick accusatory looks that strangers under observation usually give.
The bus slowed just after we had made our third stop. It was being waved over to the curb. There was another boxy van parked on the sidewalk and at least three carabinieros in their dark green uniforms with their golden and red decorations. The bus came to a stop. The carabinieros came up to the plastic windows of the bus, but they made no motion to board. The noise of the engine stopped and no one spoke. There was a quiet sound of someone’s quick breathing, the sound of someone who can’t get enough breath—they keep trying each breath, finding it to be insufficient for their needs, discarding it and quickly trying another: a lonely and terrifying sound. It was coming from the girl with the sad look. Nothing had changed in her expression, only her eyes were reddening around the edges and becoming glassy. Her eyebrows may have been knit together a little more tightly, but it was impossible to tell. Her expression had already been so profound it only required the slightest adjustment to make it convey terror. The girl was not moving with her hyperventilation the way some people do. She stayed perfectly still, only her eyebrows, already seemingly at their apex, crept up her brow as the green carabinieros formed a line outside the bus; their rifles swaying as they walked. A fare inspector in a bright yellow jacket and dark sunglasses, carrying something that looked like a large calculator, came from around the van and the line of carabinieros and approached the bus.
The girl’s face took on a waxier hue and a tear struggled for moment on her eyelash. It filled up like a balloon and then fell straight to the dusty bus floor. Thpp. It was followed by another. She said nothing and made no movement toward the boy. They remained standing, still facing each other. The boy put his hand on her shoulder. More tears fell, but her expression did not change. The fare inspector was coming down the aisle. He didn’t say anything, just turned to the passengers so that his whole body was in front of them, so that all they could see was the expanse of his yellow jacket. They handed their fare cards to him without saying a word. The bus was preternaturally quiet. The girl was now quietly sobbing. She exhaled in a small and scared ahuh-ahuh-ahuh rhythm. Everyone was watching her. The dark glasses of the fare inspector made it impossible to tell where he was looking or if he had seen her. He continued moving down the bus checking the fare cards in complete indifference.
The boy had given up any further attempts to comfort the girl and stood there just looking at her with his head slightly bowed. As the fare inspector approached, the boy raised his face which was empty of emotion. His mouth was a perfect straight line. The girl looked up too, looking as if she’d taken all the fear and panic off the boy’s face and added it to her own. Her nostrils flared and her lips were raised in a strange half-smile. The corners of her eyes were crumbled and shown with tears. The couple stood awkwardly together, like they’d had an argument and one of them said something too cutting to be taken back. Outside the bus, a carabiniero pressed his dark, thumbprint of a face to the window and then, stepping back from the frosted glass, seemed to disappear into a fog.
The fare inspector stepped over to the couple. He raised his fare inspecting device, prompting them to hand over their fare cards. The boy started his story with a shrug as if to say “well, here we are.” He presented his fare card, and, trying to use it to explain the situation, passed it back and forth between his hands, occasionally pointing to it. On the second or third pass the fare inspector reached out and grabbed the card from the boy’s hand and ran it through his machine. The swiping motion caused his head to turn slightly and his dark sunglasses to glint green. The girl lowered her head. The other passengers watched. The back of the bus was mute spectatorship. Their faces were like decorative plates on a wall, expressing nothing as a result of their desire to see a spectacle mixing with their sympathy.
Cars passed outside with commonplace sounds, engines accelerated and radios faded away. People walked by the detoured bus, they seemed curious to see what it was doing on the sidewalk, but when they saw the carabinieros and their boxy green van, they didn’t linger. The late afternoon sun came through the bus windows and put white coins, opals and medallions on the floor. There was a pearl choker of light draped over one of the seats. The boy had finished his story. His expressive hands had fallen and hung at his sides. The inspector wasn’t looking anywhere. He was still standing in front of the boy, but he didn’t seem to be there. The girl’s crying had stopped. She took a glance at the inspector through the curtain of hair that had fallen over her face. He nodded and his glasses gleamed. His mouth opened and closed, but not enough times to have said anything more than a syllable. He took the dais step that led into the back of the bus and left the young couple where they were.
The girl was still crying, but the boy had awkwardly moved closer to her, trying to comfort her. The wet rivets of her tears on the grey bus floor were scattered around her feet. The fare inspector moved into the knot of people at the back of the bus. There was a complaint, someone tried to protest the fare reader hadn’t worked. Couldn’t he see that? He didn’t respond. The back door opened. The protestor was quickly taken off the bus and surrounded by the carabinieros in their moss green uniforms. The other passengers chose not to notice and went on watching the crying girl and her awkward boyfriend.
The door closed and the bus engine turned over beneath our feet. A carabiniero moved the orange cones that he had placed around the bus. We moved into traffic. The bus was totally quiet. The girl cried and smiled alternately, but it was hard to tell the difference between the two expressions. The boy put his arm around her, but his expression remained conflicted.
At the station, when everyone got out, we silently filed off the bus one at a time. It had gotten dark, but there was a bright white corona of light hanging low in the sky at the entrance to the metro and high above it, the grey top of a mountain, floating there in the dark. The light buzzed and the passengers of the bus walked into it and disappeared. The bus drove off. A chime sounded. Another bus drove up. Another silent group of passengers got off and walked into the blur of light. Many of them shielding their eyes.