Skip to main content

The Seat Next to Me

Written by
Posted in

Nobody sits next to me on the bus. Boarding passengers of slender girth or impressive
heft—even those with an enviable and unbounded sexuality—ignore, overlook, or simply slide
by the apparent barrenness of my soul. Today I’m in no mood. I’m nearly forty, and I have a date
for the first time in months. I will make myself approachable if it’s the last thing I do.

A young kid with a skateboard in his hand and a silver piercing in his eyebrow marches
by me in clunky white basketball sneakers and legs so bowed I don’t know how his knees could
ever touch. I have no chance. Behind him an old woman with streaked grey hair talks with the
bus driver while reaching for something in her overstuffed shoulder bag. She walks down the
aisle toward me, and I move closer to the window to make room for her. I imagine myself the
type of man an old lady feels safe sitting next to. Then she passes by. I pretend to glance at my
watch, then at a delivery truck slowing down for a narrow turn, but really I’m just following the
movement of her bulky tan bag with the squint of my eyes.

Soon the bus stops near Loyola University, where a strangely erect young woman with
lustrous hair storks her way up the stairs and into the aisle, her yellow laptop angling from her
backpack as if it’s about to fall. She’s appears East Asian to me, perhaps Korean, yet she looks
nothing like Christina or Fung in my 10 a.m. class at the public Chicago university where I teach,
a place of first-generation college students not nearly as sharp and polished as the young woman
who has entered the bus. I scooch my butt, again, closer to the window. She pauses in the aisle,
lowering her backpack and making quick eye contact with me, her rose red lipstick only a few
feet away. She’s attractive the way young college females often are: boundless possibilities. Then
she takes a half-step back and lowers herself into the vertical handicapped row just behind the
driver. I feel his eyes follow her. The seat next to me remains empty.

In law school, the professors never called on me. “You look like you don’t want to be
bothered,” a professor shared with me the semester before graduation. Then an image of myself
emerges. My civil procedures book spreads out before me as it were a tablecloth; my notebook is
doggie-eared and restless; pink, yellow, and green highlighters sprawl out before me like
crayons. I’m a mess, a young man shielded by his stuff. I try to relax the muscles of my face. I
open my mouth in a fit of oral calisthenics. What kind of stuff shields me now? I drop my bag
from my lap to the floor.

The bus continues, stops again, and I barely notice a young man with tight, faded hair
until he is almost on top of me. He’s not too tall, but so muscular that his shirt hugs his young
chest. He reminds me of the high school kids I coached so long ago. I want him to talk to me—to
sit down next to me and tell me about his life—but I don’t know how that would happen. The
girl with the yellow computer case shifts her body so she can follow his path, wherever that
might lead. I slowly raise my head and look up at this marvelous boy, so close I can nearly reach
out and grab his chin as my grandmother used to touch mine. Instead he pauses and passes by,
perhaps in search of his own image reflected back to him in the window.

Maybe I can look sexy for him, for the girl, for whomever else. I touch the front of my
hair—all in place—and run three fingers over the tattoo on my left forearm. A skinny young
woman with grad-school hipster glasses and red frayed jeans pauses to swipe her bus card. I
doubt I am her type, but I sit upright anyway and puff out my chest. I feel my barely-parted lips
with my index finger, imagining a face far smoother, refined, proportioned, and sexier than my
own. I think I even wink at her. I must look ridiculous, perhaps even grotesque. She talks with a shorter guy behind her, a goatee-wearing grad school clone with a piercing in his nose. They
walk by me without a glance. Still empty, the seat next to me, and I hope no one notices as I
caress the stained blue fabric. Then I rub my fingers together to keep myself busy. I’m not sure
what else to do.

I pull out a book from the bag beneath my legs and start reading. Maybe I’m just staring
at the symbols on faded paper, noticing the emptiness, the absence of contour and meaning I
know so well. But then I turn a page and feel a warm sensation against my leg. Someone has sat
down next to me. I don’t look at the face, but I can see the skin is nothing like my own. A dark
mahogany hue. The weighty leg feels heavy like a man’s body, and the way he presses his upper
leg against my body, unapologetically and attached to no larger purpose, reminds me how
different we must be. Then I imagine approaching someone else—not him, but someone
else—the same way he approaches me. I press my leg heavy against his for the rest of the ride,
so heavy that I imagine missing my stop.

Chris Girman is an associate professor of nonfiction writing at a Mid-Atlantic university, and he’s also an immigration attorney who uber drives during the summer. His books include The Chili Papers and Mucho Macho: Seduction, Desire, and the Homoerotic Lives of Latin Men. His poetry and creative non-fiction have appeared in Salt Hill Journal, Hobart, Dreich, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, American Book Review, The Rumen, Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, and the anthology What I Didn’t Know about Becoming a Teacher.