On my lunch breaks i walk two blocks north of work to a corner store that has obscenely cheap deli sandwiches and 2-for-$1 packs of cookies. On Tuesday i was walking out with my sandwich and a quart of lemonade when two giggling Hispanic girls brushed by me to get into the store. I glanced back at them, perhaps to admonish them for their rudeness with a cross stare, and it was then that i noticed – round biceps connected to sturdy shoulders, lips widely enhanced with liner and gloss, and what was surely a painted-on Cindy Crawford mole. Neither of the two caught my glance as they moved deeper into the store, and i headed back to my daily grind of endless vinyl records.
It had just started to rain on Friday when the bus pulled up to the corner of eighteenth and Walnut streets, and clutching my brand new sheet music book underneath my decidedly non-waterproof jacket i stepped on to the crowded vehicle without taking much notice of what route it was. Only after i had dropped my last token into the machine and started moving up the aisle did the electronic announcement from the PA proclaiming the bus’s route number register with me: it wasn’t my bus, but it would get me to within two blocks of my apartment. A quick mental comparison of waiting in the rain for the next bus crowded with rush hour passengers or just sprinting two blocks after i got off left me resolved to stay on the alternate route.
The slight blonde girl in front of me smirked apologetically as the momentum of the bus forced her to lean back towards me; she was shorter than me, and pretty despite the dull red sheen of acne that followed her low cheekbones. She was too short to reach the over-head rail to steady herself, and so she gripped the back of the seat next to her for support. The bus was one of the new ones, with their strange dais of seats in the back, and i discovered that i was just barely tall enough for my hand to get a solid grip on the stainless steel bar that ran parallel to the ceiling. Sans my inhumanly large headphones and pressing the book against my chest with my left arm, i averted my gaze from the precariously balanced girl in front of me – letting it rest on the floor by my feet.
The shoes were wicker, like lawn furniture, with a chunky heel and an open front to reveal toes painted a shade somewhere directly between red and pink. My attention was drawn back up as the blonde girl excused herself again, this time to the woman whose seat she was standing next to, and when i swung my gaze back around i was confused. Confused, because it was the tired face of a man that stared back at me from the space approximately above the reddish hued toenails. His hair was a faded red and hung just below his ears, tucked back behind the left one. His shirt was tie-dye all in shades of blue and had a scooped neck that revealed skin once-fair but rendered ruddy from exposure to the sun. He was crammed into a pair of jeans that cinched him tightly at the waist, which created an illusion of the hips that he sorely lacked. My confusion was alleviated, for the most part, when at the tapered cuffs of his blue jeans i found the ankles that lead to those familiar toes sitting upon their wicker thrones.
They were the feet of a man, obviously, although i had chosen to ignore it when i examined them previous to give their owner the once over. My gaze swung back up to his face, sad and tired as he clung to the same overhead bar that i was using to steady myself. I imagined that my face looked not entirely different from his at that point, wearied from the day that had preceded it. That was all i had to be weary about, though – my slim frame and curly hair rarely draw any prolonged scrutiny from passers-by. His face, i suspected, could have been equally as weary of this as it was of the long week that was coming to a close.
With some amount of apology in my eyes i turned my face back towards the blonde, who was precariously advancing on a seat that had just been abandoned. I followed her towards a second empty seat across the aisle, forgetting for the moment about the painted toenails and their owner. When i finally took my seat i slid my cd player out of my bag and rested my giant headphones over my ears, and when i glanced up from my hands’ sure operation of the walkman i was encountered again my the man, this time with his back to me. His blue shirt had a similar scoop on its back, and it revealed a set of undisguisedly wide shoulder blades. His illusion was not as solid as the girls’ from the corner store… only as deep as his clothing, and his toenails.
As far as i’ve ever known, Philadelphia isn’t exactly renowned for its gender-bending community. Every so often i pass by a man with impossibly nice cheekbones or women with too-wide shoulders, but no so often that i’ve ever stopped to recollect it afterwards. I welcome the sight without any prejudice, but my reactions are inevitably bi-polar in nature. The girls left me grinning widely at their oblivious slide past me while glibly chatting and smiling; after all, i immediately pegged them as girls, and so they should be happy.
The man on the bus left me somber as i stepped off into the light rain, forgetting entirely about my planned sprint back to the apartment. There is something especially tragic about not being who you want to be to begin with, and not being able to turn yourself into that person even when you try. After all, i’m still mentioning him as “the man on the bus” when that was obviously not his intention. It was an inward sigh that greeted my smug thought that he might be happier with my malleable frame to work with rather than his own; just because i am not met with scrutiny doesn’t mean that people aren’t assuming i’d rather be in their place or shape if given the choice.
I’ve noticed that the ones that show you that they’re thinking it are usually the most wrong. My sprint began.