This morning our mission was simple: a sojourn to the local pet store to do some homework. My daughter has been persistently requesting a new pet: lizard or turtle. Today we went to find the appropriate animal for her care (verdict: leopard gecko) and price all the accessories we’ll need for said animal. Sophie brought a clipboard and pen for our research. After we move into our new place I’ll venture out again to acquire the animal (hopefully from a home that no longer wants their wee lizard).
It was a snowy walk to meet the bus; slow going, as the roads were still icy and treacherous. After boarding (fare is free most of this month for Christmas) we head to the back of the bus; I get violently carsick on most public transportation unless I’m assiduously facing forward. We sit next to a grown man in scuffed leather coat with a coarse dark beard and skull-printed do-rag. My daughter looks out the window at the snow; there’s never been a child more interested and invested in finding ice to crunch with her boots. My son takes up Sophie’s clipboard and flips the page to the lyrics for his Christmas concert (tomorrow night) which he’s been practicing. In a clear, measured voice he sings the versus of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”.
After my son concludes this recital the man next to me leans over. “Thank you for the carol,” he says, holding up two shiny quarters for the children (even though Sophie hadn’t sang). “Oh, thank you!” I say. “I didn’t know that was part of the deal.” The man apologizes for what he now perceives may be an intrusion. “I hope my tattoos didn’t offend you, ma’am,” he says, showing me two very homemade-looking on the back of each hand: “JESUS IS KING” and “JESUS IS LORD”. Tattoos don’t offend me; neither does passionate Christianity. With his long hair and dark beard he reminds me of my father and brother, of company my family used to keep when we lived in Southern California. I talk to him a bit more, sharing a story about walking a long distance the day before because I didn’t have bus fare, not knowing that fare was free this month. I enjoy talking to strangers and I am somewhat eager he sees I do not scare. I see his jeans are torn and underneath he is wearing bathing trunks, presumably against the cold. Where does he live? Where is he going? The words stick in my throat; I don’t want him to think I’m intruding.
Across from Swanson’s he rings the bell to exit the bus. “Have a nice day,” he tells us, and unless I’m mistaken there is something guarded in his tone. Does he regret offering the quarters? Does he think I scorn him based on his appearance – as so many before me doubtless have done? Is he just lonely?
“You too,” I say warmly. “Thank you.” I’m smiling as he leaves and my eyes feel wet, grateful for the contact between strangers.
We chug up the Simpson Avenue bridge on the bus, only blocks from our destination now. I think to myself how much the human soul wants connection, wants to be seen and not judged, wants to strike up a conversation with someone they’ve never met and likely won’t see again. I also think to myself that when I’m out on foot, on the bus, on the bike, I am so much more likely to experience the expansion of the soul, the pauses that end up in their way more rewarding and real than the rushing about I am wont to do in my many plans and errands.
My children in the pet store are perfectly behaved; their tender handling of the fragile, small reptiles betrays their gentleness. The lizards themselves, animals I hadn’t been prone to notice before, are amazingly beautiful; looking as if made of glass, but soft, barely warm to the touch. A delicacy in each face as if it were formed by an expert craftsman, which indeed many think is the case. Sophie asks as we leave if I’m going to indeed bring a lizard into our new home. “I promise I will take good care of him,” and I believe her.