Published in The Saint Ann’s Review, Fall 2016.
I got engaged on the Fung Wah bus to Boston. At least I think I did. As struggling young artists — still struggling in our 30s — my girlfriend and I were expert users of the discount bus company that left from New York’s Chinatown. We jockeyed for seats as close to the front as possible because fumes from the bathroom made us queasy. (“No Number 2,” the driver barked, suggesting it was the only English he knew.) But we also had to sit back far enough that we couldn’t see out the windshield, because watching the driver slalom up the interstate brought on a different queasiness all together — the kind that starts when you realize life can end at any time. Once when we mistakenly sat in the front row I cringed as the driver cut off car after car till I closed my eyes and made peace with the universe, but giving yourself up to eternity five times in the first ten minutes can make eternity lose some of its power. Still, if you survived the anxiety, and smells, and incidents — like the dad who directed his child to pee on the seat because the bathroom was unusable — and if you avoided a bus that caught fire or careened off an exit ramp into a guardrail, it was a surprisingly good deal. For ten bucks you could make it to Boston in under three hours, then stagger to a bar to calm your nerves and still be on time and under budget.
Eliza didn’t need to drink after trips like this. She had her knitting. The bus was dark enough the night we got engaged that I couldn’t see her expression, but looking back it’s stunning how quickly she ended what had been a two-year debate. First she noted that her friend Laura, who lived in Germany, could only travel the following October or November.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
Then she mentioned that Carlotta could only travel from Florence the following September or October.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“So if we’re going to do anything next year . . . it has to be October.”
I gazed out the window and noticed my reflection superimposed on the landscape speeding by. I wondered how a couple could vow to stay together when everything around them kept changing. Could we afford kids? A mortgage we could default on? How long would we struggle to make both art and money? I didn’t have an answer for any of it, but succeeded for a moment in casting those worries from my mind.
“Okay,” I said. “October it is.”
When the bus stopped for gas in Connecticut, we made a run for the bathroom, then met in line at the Burger King.
“I think we might be engaged,” I said. It felt like one of those intimate romantic moments you enjoy together before ordering cheeseburgers.
“Okay,” she said.
She didn’t mention that she thought we’d been engaged for over a year.
Back when I was twenty four, relationships seemed more straightforward. I’d become engaged to a previous girlfriend the old-fashioned way by proposing to her one night after watching Letterman’s Top Ten. You might not consider that an ideal moment, but it was, because it was the only time I was sure we’d be alone over the holidays. (Her pesky sister kept tagging along.) It turned out to be a brilliant move. You’d be surprised how romantic — and efficient — you can be during a commercial break. My girlfriend responded by flapping her arms and saying “I’m going to be sick! I’m going to be sick!” which, she assured me later, was her way of saying yes. We weren’t a good match, though. One of the only things we shared was an inability to acknowledge our worries, so as our relationship unraveled we just quietly changed our understanding of what it meant to be engaged. First we set a date. When that passed, being engaged meant “being capable of setting a date,” and then finally “being capable of working toward a relationship where you could theoretically set a date.” After a dispute one evening, we noted that while we agreed on what had happened — we could both see a ring on her finger — we no longer knew what it meant, so she gave it back.
Without realizing it, I’d become unengaged to one girlfriend and, years later, engaged to another. I’d been so careful to avoid this. I’d used the subjunctive whenever discussing the subject with Eliza: what we’d do if we were to get married, what kind of ceremony we’d theoretically have, what kind of rings we’d exchange in the abstract. We’d gone to open houses as well — a common hobby in New York, I maintained. The only thing I refused to do was set a date — or a year — or set a plan in motion that would prompt European friends to buy a plane ticket, because after that I’d have as much control as I did sitting on the Fung Wah with my eyes closed. According to Eliza, though, we’d become engaged when she started ignoring my strategically placed verbs, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. Though the moment itself was lost in history, I’d been en route for years. I just didn’t know it.
I first asked Eliza out when she designed a play of mine because she had cool red boots and hipster glasses, and when we met at a restaurant — we still don’t know if it was a date or not — she effused about a Shostakovich opera in which a man wakes up to find that his nose is missing, only to track it down and discover that he’s been divorced. The nose has become much more successful than he is and refuses to be reattached. Afterward I wasn’t sure I wanted to sit through a modern opera, but I did want to sit next to Eliza while she described one.
Later, when a blackout hit the northeast in the summer of 2003, Eliza decided on instinct to pack a flashlight and leave her Lower East Side apartment. Less than two years earlier she’d watched the Towers fall from her rooftop, and didn’t want to be alone. A throng of pedestrians swarmed the roadway near the Manhattan Bridge, which was closed to traffic except for vans ferrying long lines of the infirm and out-of-shape across. She caught a glimpse of a woman hunched over a guardrail, keening in labor, and then ended up at my Brooklyn apartment four-and-a-half miles later. Unprepared as usual, with no way of getting news, I’d wandered the neighborhood, listening to people on their stoops listen to battery-operated radios, taking comfort the way I most like to be comforted — from afar. It was too soon after 9/11 not to be thinking about it, yet people tried to reassure each other without acknowledging the faint whiff of danger that clung to the air.
Eliza knocked on my door shortly after I returned. My phone was dead, my doorbell broken, but she’d figured, with a faith that has never made sense to me, that she’d be able to talk her way into my building and that I’d be home. Incredulous, I asked what her backup plan was, but she didn’t have one. She would’ve sat outside, I guess, wondering if I was stuck in rehearsal in Manhattan and then, as it grew late, making one of those impossible calculations we make when we don’t have enough information and don’t know how things will turn out, deciding whether to stay or hike home with a dying flashlight.
Seeing her in the doorway, drenched in sweat, I made a decision on instinct as well — that I’d be crazy to let her go. We walked down Seventh Avenue and bought Thai food from a restaurant that had set up a sidewalk buffet, then gazed that night at the skyline from my studio, a view that extended from the Statue of Liberty in the harbor all the way up to the Chrysler Building in Midtown, the giant torch and the famous spire and the windows of the financial district now unrecognizable in the dark. It’s like being on top of the world, I remember thinking. And we can see none of it.
Sometimes, during our trips on the Fung Wah, when the driver took the onramp at high speed I’d recall the anxiety I felt the first time I drove on a highway. My instructor, a stern woman, warned me to never look at the guardrail or oncoming traffic, since our bodies inevitably follow our gaze. The edge in her voice — which continued at the end of each session when she tried to sell me vitamins — suggested she was trying to save my life by insisting I could lose it any time.
If our bodies follow our gaze, though, how do we approach something we can’t bear to look at? This is how unbelievers sidle up to faith. We use the subjunctive. Keep close to someone while wrapped in the illusion of distance. Avert our gaze just long enough, in a kind of fraught choreography, to be drawn into our lover’s orbit. And we realize, long after the decision’s been made, that we’ve chosen to be the reliable thing in someone’s unreliable world.
The Fung Wah’s safety record was harder to laugh off once we were bringing a baby onboard to visit grandparents down in Philadelphia, so a few years ago we started riding another discount bus line with cleaner bathrooms. From afar, though, I maintained a soft spot for the bus company, which led an improvised, meager existence that shouldn’t have worked and yet worked over and over again. At some point it became a saint on the dashboard of the car I don’t own, so I was shocked to read how many risks the company had actually been taking – it lost its license a few months ago after a surprise inspection revealed cracks in the frames of three-quarters of its fleet.
For those of us whose daily routines seem duct-taped and jerry-rigged, there’s a fraught choreography in the kind of worries you can allow into your mind, because the line between productive, paralyzing and lifesaving is hard to see. Seven years after getting engaged on the Fung Wah, we have a second child on the way, not because we can afford him but because biology suggests it’s now or never. I can envision the birth this coming summer, and some of the juggling that will be required to balance infant care, work, and an older son in preschool, but if I gaze too far ahead I realize we have no plan, and no money, for childcare for this little one, and I start to feel queasy.
If I could have understood the Fung Wah driver, I might’ve asked how he managed it, day in and day out, weaving through traffic, knowing he’d never make the schedule he was given but trying anyway. Unable to see far ahead, or glance at the Jersey barriers beside him, he would’ve had little besides faith that his eyes would keep falling, over and over, on some middle distance that would see him through.