It was a warm spring morning. I was smoking a cigarette at the public bus stop, waiting for the bus that would take me to school. I couldn’t have been more than 17 years old. It had rained during the night. The only evidence was a thick layer of dampness over everything that would be burned off in a couple of hours by the spring sun. The smell of flowers and growth thickened the air.
I wasn’t the only person waiting for the bus. Peppered around the bus stop were fellow classmates, well-dressed people (presumably heading to an office job closer to the center of the city), and an older woman.
I didn’t see her at first. She must have been standing in the doorway, watching me. After some time she positioned herself in my eye line.
“Can I get one of those?” she gestured towards the cigarette hanging out of my mouth.
“Sorry: this is my last one.”
She didn’t say anything. Her face rapidly dissolved from the vagrant face of hope into the indignant face of insult. She took a few steps back from me and continued to wait for the bus.
(Really, I had four cigarettes left. Me, being an underage smoker made cigarettes hard to come by). Safe in my justification, I went back to waiting for the bus as well.
While we all continued to wait, I could feel her eyes on me, digging holes in my flesh from the safety of her doorway. Eventually the bus rolled to a stop at the corner we were all congregating on and we began to board. She stared at me the entire time.
I managed to snag a forward-facing seat relatively close to the front of the bus. The older woman had gotten a seat exactly perpendicular.
She continued to stare at me as the bus passed the local hospital. She stared at me as we passed the grocery store and a slew of still sleepy, residential homes. And she continued to stare at me as I got off the bus, at my stop in front of my high school.
I had managed to get across the street and halfway to the school entrance at the front of the building before I realized that she had exited with us and proceeded to follow me into school.
As we passed through the doors she saw me look over my shoulder. Her face hadn’t changed since I had turned down her initial request.
A cold panic was starting to work its way over my body. It was early in the morning. A fraction of the faculty was in the building but most of them were on the other side of the campus. I couldn’t think of anything else to do but to go about my business. So I went to my locker and got ready for the day. She stopped following me when she saw what I was doing. While I proceeded with my morning routines, I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was still watching me from the opposite end of the hallway.
An eternity passed before she came up to me and asked me a question.
“Do youuuu know what time it is?”
There were four clocks in that hallway. Two behind her, and two behind me.
I stared at her. She stared back at me. I looked at the nearest clock behind her, over her left shoulder.
I resumed eye contact with her, blinked and told her the time.
She turned around and left without saying another word. I am a white male. She was an older black female.
It would be years before I realized that there might have been something more to this interaction. Maybe she saw me put the cigarette pack back in my pocket and knew I was holding out. Maybe she woke up that morning completely sour with where her life had led her. Maybe there was something psychologically wrong with her.
What really matters is the fact that I still think about her from time to time. I can still hear the dull silence and the smell of hormones between her final question and my answer. I still remember how much of an ignorant teenager I was and how easily I shrugged that whole experience off. And I can still feel the cold emptiness inside of me that I saw reflected back in her eyes.