"Meat people," she says, and I'm breathing through my skin as my mouth drinks the air's moisture: sweat and breath from other people, a luke-warm vapor-of-flesh cocktail. I repeat her words, "Meat people?" And she says, "Yeah," which doesn't tell me any more information. "What?" And she says, "I'd like to meet more people."
Heat wave blows up each pore—hers, mine, all the others on the bus. I'm wearing my button-up long-sleeved shirt and slacks because I always do. Because I'm a professional. And of course, the A.C. is busted because, well, of course. So I'm drenched and wondering if she can smell me and what she thinks if she can. Her braid emerging from my armpit; we're standing so close. Two trees growing from one another, cell married to cell.
But I also realize that she might not be thinking this at all—that we're two trees. She might be thinking: he doesn't exercise because his sweat is foul, which suggests that he doesn't often sweat, and also suggests that he eats too much salt. His sweat is sour, yellow like fermented starch. He's sticky and toxic and gross. A gross, gross man. And because of these thoughts she might be having, I almost feel like telling her what I think she had said: meat people. Edible, cubed flesh like diced pork on toothpicks.
But I won't say that. I won't say: if society told you cannibalism was acceptable, you would eat other people. And did you know, some believe that's what it will come to—cannibalism—once soil fails us, once vegetation can no longer survive, once animals lay down to die in their fields and forests and wetlands, and the seas churn with acid, and the atmosphere dissolves into spotty space foam.
It's always better to tell a person what they want to hear. Especially best not to tell a person something they weren't expecting.
The bus sways in slow-motion violence to the curb. I roll my eyes—as if we could pack on more people. But no one wants to ride a bike or walk in bludgeoning temperatures. When the bus lurches back into action, her face smacks against my arm as I hold tight to an overhead balance bar, the contact causing a surge of joy in my chest. This is how we met: her face touching my body on bus 22, snaking up parts of the Haight toward Fillmore and down to Union Street, our routes crossing for a sacred twenty stops. "I think I know enough people. I'm too busy as it is," I say, which isn't true, but probably is what she wants to hear. And she says, "You've lived here longer than me, to be fair," which is true.
Six months ago she boarded the bus for the first time, two stops after me. I imagine she occupies one of the Victorians nearby. She has a small, clean studio, and each night she returns home, eats tiny dinners while watching The Bachelorette, washes her dishes, wears a matching pajama set, and goes to bed at a decent time, and maybe she does this even on weekends. Maybe she doesn't have sex. Maybe she has never had sex in her entire life.
At first I had watched her from a separate side of the bus. She doesn't demand attention and I like that. I always take notice of people more concerned with their interior lives. I appreciate these people—modest, thoughtful, peripheral. I am one of these people. I had made it my discreet mission to position my body against hers. I like that she's small with little pinkies, little ears. When you meet someone for the first time in your life, sometimes your body remembers theirs as if that person had already existed in some dark mesh of your sleeping mind, and you already know they have slender fingers or their knees are angled inward or that stretch marks reach to their first rib, and you know the sound of their breathing when they're focusing—an open-mouthed blunt release of air—and you know that their spine and toes pop when they wake up in the mornings. Before meeting them you already know how they will feel beside you, to be so close that they are inside of you, and can imagine how they'll grow, with time, into an extension of your own chest.
"Oh, look!" She points behind my head to two long mirrors stretching across some of the bus's ad space. Distorted, like fun house reflections, liquefying bodies. Printed onto one of the mirrors in perfect, small lettering reads: who are you? She says, "Must be an art installation or something," and I say, "Strikes me as mind-bogglingly unoriginal."
Her hair aerates against my face. I smell her hot scalp, bready. In the mirror, she can see my reflection, my profile: aquiline nose pointing to a square jaw which I consider strong. From the wrong angle, my face could be considered bottom-heavy, but my profile is not one of those angles and instead she could be noticing the red glint to my brown eyes. She could be thinking my shoulders have an authoritative shape to them. I lift my chin to better see myself. Eyes like fried eggs.
She says, "Do you ever just think, like, this is my face. This is all I've got?" Her own fried eyes staring at mine. When two people look at each other through a mirror, they're no longer outside of the glass, but within. "You have a beautiful face," I say, my mouth a tongue's length from her humid forehead. She says, "That's not what I meant."
We swing with the bus in silence for a couple stops. I've been wanting to ask her out and maybe she's frustrated I haven't, but since we first spoke, I've been trying to work up the nerve to find out if she's single, because other than the fact that she works as a secretary, I don't know much of her life off the bus. She's never mentioned a relationship, never has mentioned an us, and so I think—I'm almost positive—that she is waiting for me. I'd ask her out now, but because my shirt is super-glued to my body and there is the possibility of my odor, I'd rather wait for a day when I feel more attractive because when you feel attractive, you act with confidence, and when you act with confidence, you are attractive.
If we were to go on a date, would she feel special? Would she let me hold her hand, trace a circle into her palm with my thumb? Would she wear perfume, paint her nails, buy a new dress? When I imagine the moments after dinner—walking back to her studio, she would invite me in, and I wouldn't hold the eagerness against her—I imagine her flesh, hot and depressing beneath my hand. My fingers sinking into her penetrable body.
I take a deep breath and she keeps her face poised toward the mirror—is she admiring herself? Cinnamon hair, and eyes, shallow green. The polite thing to do would have been to accept my compliment when I said she has a beautiful face, but she didn't, and she's saying nothing now, hasn't said a word for many stops, and so I gently squeeze her bicep, say, "Bus riding helps improve core strength. Arms, too, and thighs." I tap her thigh. Her eyes move back and forth across my face, scanning, pupils dilating, and then, blank-faced, she moves her gaze toward the mirror, bunching her mouth into tight silence.
The bus hits a pothole, and I jerk toward her more aggressively than necessary. "Oops, sorry about that," I say. She offers a vacant smile, and I'm split between wanting to smother her mouth with mine, or shove her into the crowd, wedge her just-okay-face beneath the passenger's dirty feet.
Yet another stop. She'll be getting off soon. A man in a wheelchair needs to de-board, so a mass removes themselves to make room for him. Tension has been cloying on the bus beyond my own, damp people mortared to one another, all the carbon dioxide resting heaving on our shoulders, and we stand for a minute on the sidewalk which could fry an egg at 7:30 in the morning, sunlight a tactile material, winding around our throats.
When we shuffle back on, everyone is surprised to find that a new woman has boarded and everyone can't stop gawking at her beauty. I notice that though her eyes are too close together, the proximity creates a doll-like appearance, and her hair is alive with curls, and her eyes are the same color as the sky when it's about to ripen. "She's hot," she says. "That woman?" "Obviously." And I say, "Strange," because she has never before commented on any of the others surrounding us. "What's strange?" She says. "Oh," I say, "I feel like you would usually say 'beautiful.'" "Who would—I would?" She says, screwing her face toward mine with an intensity I had not yet experienced from her, didn't know she was capable of presenting or feeling, and though I'm positive that the who is a given, I say, "Women. Women when speaking about other women." Placidly, she says, "Wow, I didn't know I was speaking to an expert."
In the bus, you could slice the air into Jell-O shapes. A star. A heart.
Two stops from her stop. She won't look at me and my chest wants to enter her chest. My hands want to enter her neck. I want to be inside of her, feel what she's thinking. I can't let her go like this—us not on good terms—so I change the subject, because memory is a delicate thing, because if a positive experience follows a negative experience, the positive will overshadow the negative. Does she know as important as remembering is to our survival, forgetting is equally as necessary? I say, "It's just hot on this fucking bus." She doesn't look at me, but says, "You look upset." "The weather is upsetting," I say. She nods, facing the mirror. I can't tell if she's staring at herself, or staring beyond herself. She wants to meet other people and here I am, standing beside her, close enough so that to the other passengers, we appear to be two people who share intimacy. Who have seen each other naked, who have seen each other cry, or have seen the other say unforgivable things. To people on this bus, we are a couple who cannot be broken, who have accepted each other. Even at our worst.
"Did you know that because of the ice rapidly melting, different species have begun mating because they aren't running into their own often enough? A polar bear and grizzly bear mix is called a 'grolar,' or sometimes, a 'pizzly'," I say, because everyone likes an interesting fact. Interesting facts can't fail because when a person learns something new, dopamine is released in the brain. She says, "Cool," and nods at my mirror self. After some silence, I say, "Humans are terrible, like, causing the whole climate change thing," because this is an opinion everyone can agree on, and if I say it, I recognize that all humans—even myself—possess negative qualities, which is a humble omission and humble omissions put people at ease.
But she doesn't say a word. Distortions in the mirror mesmerize her. This is the second time this morning that she has ignored me. The next stop is hers and I won't see her until Monday.
The beautiful woman is suspended in the middle of the bus, steady without holding onto an overhead bar. She's embedded like an organ. The woman beside me, the less beautiful one, could be watching the beautiful woman in the mirror. She could be wondering why her own face isn't as interesting. Why does she act as if I should be grateful that she even stands next to me? As if she doesn't have to acknowledge me when I speak. Doesn't have to laugh when I say something funny.
And like sensing the muscle memory of another body next to yours, moving with yours, a body you've never beheld but have held in your mind, in your lungs, in your stomach—your body can also sense destruction which has yet to occur, as if you know the past, even if it never happened, and you know the future, even if it hasn't happened yet. I can feel it coming—anger—at once compressed, but expanding, now no longer able to stay put, and I can see the image clearly: she's splayed out on the street, anatomy shuffled. Road-kill. Inconsequential. Sorry that she wasn't nicer to me, that she wasn't nicer to other people, that most likely, since she was a child, she has considered herself better than most. Some people enter the world knowing in their bones that they will do well in life, that they will be phenomenal, while other people know in the dense meat of their lonely bodies that they will never be great.
I know it's coming right as it happens, the crash—some sort of shattering act—breaking apart the morning and forcing us to fall up and backward at the impact, floating, suddenly capable of flight. We move as one throng; the beautiful woman as our heart. As we fall my eyes swivel through smoke in dramatic flumes, and I see, at the top of my line of vision, the mirror installation crack and release, bits of angular light raining down.
We're on top of each other, everyone. "There's blood," she screams.
I'm on top of her.
Black liquid trails to her chin where the blood evens out, brightens. I swab her face with a deft hand. "Ouch!" She tries to recoil, but there is no space to recede, and her face, supple with alarm, causes me to smile. Heat drips down my face. Blood leaves my eyes. Blood leaves other parts of other people.
I smile down at her and my smile spreads so wide, I feel that I will become the smile. Small crisscrossing muscles pull my face apart, clean off my skull, and then my body, breaking open, revealing everything—physical joy. Our eyes are locked. I wonder—does she know? Does she know that the very first reflection in history was seen by looking at another person? And the second reflection was an echo, because no one was there in the first place.
There is a degree—intense or subtle—of violence in the act of consuming. Francis Bacon, painter, said, "We are all meat." I saw this painting and wondered about futility. In writing this story, the reds, the compressed puzzle of interiority, and the grotesque vulnerability rendered in the image seeped into ideas surrounding delusion. Why does physicality purpose ownership? When there is no green light, why do we keep moving in its imagined direction? Also, for about two years, I rode the number 22 bus in San Francisco to work at a gourmet burger restaurant. I've been a vegetarian my whole life.