Sunday, September 25, 2011

BUS STORY # 255 (Portrait # 14: Adolescent)

For several weeks, I couldn’t tell if she was 14 or 24.

I know, I know: there are several universes between 14 and 24. You would think it shouldn’t have been that hard to figure out.

She has that androgynous, Twiggy look: boy figure and all girl face. No makeup, though, and none needed. Her hair is cut in that same short, mod style, parted on the left. But it’s no-additives-black, not blonde. Sometimes her hair looks wet, as if she’s gone straight from the shower to the bus stop.

She wears skinny jeans, some with small holes that are not at the expected stress points and that were likely put there by the manufacturer. Her tops are modest, unisex T-shirts or sweaters in muted colors and with long sleeves. No frou-frou, and none of that bare midriff stuff. Not a tattoo in sight.

All of this says 14.

On the other hand, I’ve never seen her with books or a backpack or an iPod or a cell phone.

That says out of high school.

When she boards the bus, she looks for an empty aisle seat. Never a window seat, even if the pair of seats is empty. There is an initial tentativeness – you can see a barely perceptible pause during which she will decide whether she is going to sit down beside that person in the window seat or go stand by the back door. Once she decides, her movements are cat quick.

If she sits, she keeps herself skewed away from her seat mate, so that at least one foot is in the aisle. If she takes a seat on the bench in the back of the bus, she sits forward, one foot in front of the other, and keeps one hand on the pole. Wherever she sits, she looks ready to bolt.

This is more complicated. It could be nothing more than adolescent estrangement. Or it could be a conditioned wariness. And if the latter, having no books or backpack keeps her hands free; having no iPod and no cell keep her undistracted from what is going on around her.

I’m hoping for ordinary adolescence. Even the worst of ordinary adolescence – parent trouble, boyfriend trouble, sexual identity trouble, something-in-my-life-just-isn’t-right trouble – is better than the much darker alternatives.

I learned she is on the 14 side of the spread the day I saw her sitting straight in her aisle seat, with both feet on the floor in front of her. I saw her seat mate, a small, slightly overweight, nerdy-looking kid with glasses who looked like a seventh-grader. Ah, a safe seat mate, I concluded.

He began talking to her, and I leaned forward in my seat to hear what she would say. I’d never seen her talk to anyone, and everything I’ve seen of her signals she’s not looking to talk with anyone.

I saw her incline her head toward his, and then I heard her complain about the grade one of her teachers had given her on a report she’d turned in the previous week.

Wouldn’t it be great if grades are all it is? Is that even possible in this day and age?

Who am I kidding? Was it ever that simple at that age?

The photo at the top of this story is untitled, © All Rights Reserved, and is posted with the kind permission of kate flood. You can see this and all kate flood’s photos on Flickr at:


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