Another One Rides the Bus
No matter what Napoleon said, Illya liked riding the bus. It gave him time to think, time to wake up, and time to pander to his greatest pastime, people watching. Behind the protective cover of his tinted glasses, he could observe how people moved, how they interacted. When he'd first come to this country, it permitted him to see how Americans interacted with their own and what they had for personal space needs. In the USSR, there were rules and each person stayed well within their protective shell until a stranger could be observed, decided upon and finally approached. Even then, it took time to open up, but once they did, you were a friend for life, unless you betrayed that friendship, such as by moving to America.
Illya had suddenly found himself very much an island surrounded by a sea of strangers. His friends back home — they immediately broke from him, not understanding that he was here at the orders of his government. They simply saw him as a defector and no one wanted to be associated with a defector, not now. The Americans — they saw him simply as a Soviet, a Communist, less of a man and more of a threat. If it hadn't been for Napoleon's easy and nearly instant friendship, Illya wasn't sure he would have survived the first six months here.
All that said, Illya was now comfortable here. He liked his job and he was good at it. People respected, if not necessarily liked him and that was enough for Illya. And there was Napoleon, warm, affectionate, his partner, his life.
And still Illya rode the bus. It would be easy to ride in with Napoleon each morning, grab a bit more time together before they were forced apart by a homophobic world. He rode the bus now as part of his transformation from life partner to work partner, reining in his passion until it came across as indifference.
After awhile, you got to know the people who also frequented the bus. There were the crazies, of course. The ones who chatted with invisible people, fought unthinkable terrors; they were everywhere, even back in Moscow. Illya watched them, and occasionally found method in their madness, sense in their ravings.
There were the people like him, opting to use the bus as opposed to burying themselves under tons of earth as they barreled through subway tunnels. The subways moved too fast for Illya. He didn't trust them, didn't like the closeness of everything down there. Up here, a man could breathe, a man could escape with one quick tug on the cord.
And there were the visitors, as Illya referred to them. Not just the tourists, although you could see them occasionally at this time of the morning. Night was usually a better time to tourist watch, but Illya seldom took the bus home. No, he used the term 'visitors' for those people who were here out of desperation—a malfunctioning car, the loss of a ride elsewhere; people who weren't comfortable riding the bus, but who'd been forced into it. They watched constantly, eyes darting to and fro as people passed by, belongings clutched to them, both protecting and being protected.
That's what Illya thought he was at first, the young man. He hesitantly boarded and slid into the first available seat, looking both terrified and miserable. Illya watched him, almost moved to approach him and ask if he could help. He looked so lost. Illya wondered if he'd looked that way when he'd first climbed on board. He got off a block before Illya's stop, tumbling out onto the street as if surfacing from an escape tunnel, delighted to once again have ground beneath his feet.
What surprised Illya was that the next morning, the young man was back and then the next. Soon he became a familiar face and with that came nodding acquaintance and the easy acceptance of a fellow traveler.
Yet, it always struck Illya that no matter how crowded the bus was, a space always seemed to open for him. People would shift aside, uncomfortable as he passed. It didn't make sense, nor did the feeling of relief that permeated the bus once the young man left.
Illya was staring at the pages of his book, not seeing the words. That was nothing unusual in itself; Illya would frequently use a book as a ruse in his observation game. Today was different; today he didn't see the words because his heart ached.
They were fighting more these days. Napoleon was becoming more proprietary , more demanding. Illya didn't mind the physical demands, quite the contrary, but Napoleon wanted to know where he was all the time, when he was leaving, when he'd be back. At first Illya had been flattered, but he was find himself champing at the bit now, chaffing under Napoleon's constant need to keep tabs on him. He was used to being his own man and he could certainly take care of himself. The fights seem to be the only way to gain a bit of freedom, but they left Illya a bit queasy in his stomach.
Of course, it could also be the iron shots he was being forced to take. His anemia was back, no big surprise, although Illya had been careful not to say anything to Napoleon. Most days it was all he could do to drag himself through the door and then Napoleon was on him. When he felt good, Napoleon's sex drive wasn't an issue. To refuse Napoleon wasn't even something he would consider. The last thing Illya wanted Napoleon to do was feel the need to look outside their relationship for sex.
They'd sworn their loyalty to each other and Illya took that oath seriously. So he always said yes even when his body ached to the point of where he felt like screaming at Napoleon's gentlest touches. He would not deny his partner. It was his duty, and his obligation. But he was just so fucking tired and Napoleon didn't see it.
A presence shook him from his thoughts and he glanced over at the young man. There were plenty of empty seats and they'd never sat together before.
"Hi." The smile was hesitant, but genuine.
"Good morning," Illya returned politely. There was a sense of good will about the young man. He just seemed to radiate goodwill or Illya was much more tired than he realized.
"I've seen you before."
"And I ,you."
"But I've never seen you look this sad... or tired. "The comment took Illya by surprise, but it only made sense that people would be watching him back. "Is there something I can do to help?"
That made Illya stop. "I am a stranger to you; why would you offer such a thing?"
"I may not know your name, but we are hardly strangers. I see you most mornings. You usually sit towards the back of the bus so you can keep an eye on things. You have a book, but you never seem to turn the pages. You watch us, not from fear, but from open curiosity. I see you as a man apart from other men."
In more ways than one, Illya thought. "Who are you?"
"No one, except to recognize a fellow wanderer, someone who wants a place, a person, to call home, but can't seem to find it even when it's right in front of him."
"You are extremely perceptive for someone so young."
"I have an old soul, or so I'm told." The shy smile was back. They rode for a couple of blocks in silence. Then, "You should tell him."
"Whoever is making you sad."
"How do you know it's a he?"
"Again, I just have a sense about such things. I know you're caught in a relationship that was once right and has taken an odd turn. You're unhappy and don't quite know what to do about it. Leave."
"Also not an option."
"Then talk to him, really talk to him. Don't yell, don't get pissed, just talk. Come home early tonight, surprise him, and just make an effort. You might be surprised at the outcome." They were nearing his stop and the young man stood, smiling.
"Perhaps I shall."
"You should. It would open your eyes to the infinite possibilities." He patted Illya on the shoulder and climbed off the bus. People just seemed to move aside for him without even acknowledging his presence.
Illya watched him for a long moment, his hand raised in a half wave. Perhaps he would leave work early tonight and surprise Napoleon.
He watched the bus drive away and smiled to himself. A sly, mischief done smile. And to think Lucifer told him he lacked imagination...