The 39 bus is right on time. Slinging my backpack off my shoulder, I climb on board, pay my fare, and head for the back, where I see an empty spot. I flop down at the end of the back row, relieved to find a seat that faces forward, and I slouch, making myself comfortable. My hair is in my face, my baggy t-shirt and jeans are rumpled, unkempt, and I’m feeling contrary, just a touch rowdy. I’ve been roaming this little city all morning, mixing errands with sightseeing, coupling business with casual aimlessness. A warmth is in my bones today, a clean pleasure that savors the friendly weather of this mid-July Saturday. The sun is shining for the first time in days, there’s a breeze to cool the light sweat I’ve worked up, and I have the whole day ahead to spend as I will. I feel fine.
I’ve been drawing looks all morning, as I’ve ambled sidewalks I seldom see on my usual weekday route. I don’t look much like the women I pass on the street. But I don’t look exactly like the men, either. Twice, clerks called me “Sir” before hesitantly correcting themselves. Once, I got cruised by a frantically coiffed teen-aged girl with lacquered nails. When she realized I wasn’t a guy, she still held my gaze for a daring moment before turning back to her gum-cracking friends. She smiled at me.
Now inside this air-conditioned vehicle, my situation seems no different. The son of the woman sitting in front of me keeps turning to check me out. His is not a boy-meets-girl look. His gaze is tinged with is-that-a-boy-or-a-girl wary curiosity. It’s the toss-up between sending a welcoming challenge to another boy, or sizing up the looks of a chick. He looks like he’s 11, maybe 12. Up till now, all his boy and girl peers have probably looked alike. But from here on out, all that will probably matter to him, is that they look different.
As he stares at me, I think, ‘Son, this is the beginning of your education about those other kinds of girls. This is the start of you not knowing what to do with the idea, the presence, of those other kinds of girls. This is where all you’ve been taught by your Mom about boys and girls, no longer applies. Young man, this is where it gets interesting.’
His mother sees him staring, but she does nothing, says nothing. At his age, I imagine, it’s vital to his watchful mother that he learn to tell the difference. From the corner of her eye, she watches me, waiting for my response to his silent greeting. But none comes. I sit motionless, stoic. I don’t respond to his glances. I don’t acknowledge that he notices me. I want him — and his mother — to know I don’t care if they can’t figure me out. I very much want them to know, I don’t care.
It’s more fun this way.
Next stop, more passengers get on. A middle-aged, balding man wearing expensive sunglasses and carrying bags from an exclusive department store makes his way to the back of the bus and sits in the side-facing seat in front of me. As he settles in, I don’t move. I don’t put my foot down from where it rests at the base of his seat, only inches from his leg. I don’t scoot back, giving him the space he tries to carve out of the thin air around him by fidgeting and fussing with his bags. I take up all the space I’m entitled to, and I don’t give way. Motionless, I keep my eyes trained on the streets passing by. He takes his sunglasses off and, feigning disinterest, gives me a look. I glance over at him, and he looks away. For the next six blocks, from the corner of his eye, Sunglasses Man watches me closely, a hint of uncertainty in his manner, taking off his expensive eyewear and putting it back on. Taking off, putting on… He tries to keep from looking over at me, but he can’t seem to resist. Block after block, stop after stop, he just can’t resist. Whenever his look gets too close, or lasts too long for my liking, I make deliberate, playfully defiant eye contact, grinning in the face of his questioning. And he looks away.
Around me, the empty standing room fills up, packing closer with adventurous tourists, single-minded locals, rambunctious kids, and the staid elderly. As people shift to the rear of the bus at the driver’s prompting, they eye me oddly, carefully noting the details of my shape — what details they can make out. I don’t look up, but let my eyes wander across passing points outside the bus, feeling myself the subject of unspoken speculation. Man or woman? Girl or boy? Adult or youth? One or the other? Or a little bit of both? The idea of perpetuating as much confusion as possible in the back of that bus, intrigues me, and a wicked grin replaces the ambiguous smile on my face. I keep to myself, keep my eyes on the street. Smiling. The air around me crackles with building tension, as I find myself surrounded by the intrusively curious. Some of them are all but obvious in their visual search for signs of breasts or hips or testes or facial hair… whatever might identify me as one gender or the other. They fail. Every last one of them. And no one takes the empty seat beside me.
As we approach the center of town, an odd little family unit gets on board and squeezes through the standing crowd to the back of the bus. At first glance, my guess is: two gay men with a young girl (I suspect it’s their niece or god-daughter) whom they’re watching for the day. The larger of the two men speaks loudly and motions to the empty seat beside me.
“Go on, Vanessa!” he says in a high-pitched, feminine voice. “Have a seat beside the cute boy!”
The young girl, maybe eight or nine, doesn’t budge.
“Yes, sit with the cute boy!” he insists.
None of the men sitting near me are much to look at. My guess is, he’s talking about me. My grin widens. This is getting interesting.
Vanessa holds back, hanging onto the pole beside my seat. “C’mon, Vanessa! Sit down — but don’t flirt with him… I’ll tell Brian!”
Self-consciously, Vanessa eases into the seat beside me.
I say nothing. I don’t make a move. I think about whispering to Vanessa, ‘Don’t let him push you around,’ encouraging her to tell the guy to fuck off. But that might give me away. I’m surrounded by an already uncomfortable crowd in that most removed part of the bus, and I wonder if they might feel provoked by my turning out to be a woman.
Would they recoil, taken aback, if they realized this man was encouraging a little girl to flirt with a grown woman?
Would they object, if I corrupted this innocent youngster, encouraging her to use profanity?
Would one of these discomforted bystanders trade words with me over this simple misunderstanding? Past discussions with people who have told me “Queers are perverts — no better than child molesters” echo in my head, and I hold still, very still, looking out the window. My smile wanes as I wait to see what will happen.
My immobility is having its own discussion with the man who was telling Vanessa to flirt with me. Now he seems to have figured out that I’m not the boy he thought I was. I glance over and make eye contact and confirm what his sideways looks suspected. Now he’s shut up, knowing he could be treading on tricky ground. A gay man encouraging a young girl to flirt with a butch dyke — Warning! Danger!
Everyone is silent, the atmosphere taut, uncertain. Nobody seems to know what to do with me — or the thought of me. At least, not until they get more insight into who — or what — I might be. Sunglasses Man is now blatantly looking me up and down, trying to see for certain if I’m a guy or a gal, not bothering to mask the fact. And, emboldened by the adult’s open curiosity, the young boy who I puzzled before, can’t take his eyes off me. I stare pointedly out the window, still sitting splay-legged, solidly in place, still smiling, still not giving way. Still not addressing Vanessa.
The man who’d encouraged Vanessa to flirt with me, has started nervously talking to his boyfriend about his mother having stomach surgery. In the midst of their conversation, Vanessa calls out, “Ma — look!”
He looks over, answering her exclamation with an explanation of what sights we’re passing. “It’s her first trip to a city,” ‘Ma’ explains to an elderly woman sitting in the seat in front of them. As though she was waiting for Ma’s permission to speak to the young girl, the elderly woman turns and strikes up a conversation with Vanessa. About the city. About her school. About her boyfriend.
The attention shifts away from me, with the relief of a drained blister.
A few stops short of the end of the line, the unlikely family files off the bus. They don’t look at me, and I don’t look at them. But the smile is still on my face, and Sunglasses Man and the young boy still stare, unable to figure me out. I ride to the end of the route, then hop off the bus with everyone else, ready to wade into a new and unsuspecting crowd.