Every day, I see her. High Street, northbound, catching the bus just south of Broad. She rides alone, her hand-knit cap worn low over mousy hair, glasses perpetually smudged. I watch as she settles into the first free seat, the backpack on her lap a stockade against invaders. She reads books – Agatha Christie, Margaret Atwood, Murakami, Sun-Zu – but I read wariness in her shoulders.
She is the very image of a girl I knew, years ago. Katie. The misfit. The outcast. Katie the Freak. Nearly forgotten in decades of better memories.
“It’s okay if you don’t talk to me at school.”
They tormented her – spitballs in her hair and books knocked from her arms – and I’d watched, silent. Complicit. I didn’t speak to her, didn’t touch the things she’d touched in case ostracization was an infectious disease. Terrified to have that wrath turned on me.
Not that anyone noticed what I did or who I spoke to; I might as well have been the same faded grey as the junior high lockers. I was isolated, friendless. Invisible.
But Katie saw me.
That day at the public library, she’d noticed The Left Hand of Darkness at the top of my stack. She didn’t mumble, extolling the virtues of LeGuin. I saw the crooked tilt of her front tooth, the dimple in her cheek when she smiled. She slid a different paperback across the table, her phone number scribbled on a scrap of paper tucked beneath the cover. “We can talk about it, after you read it.”
Her expression was one-part hopeful, two-parts pity, and for the first time, it occurred to me that being invisible might somehow be worse than being reviled.
And now, on the bus, the woman who looks like Katie sits in the empty seat across the aisle. I wonder if she, in her tattered jeans and non-descript shoes, would have taken the trouble to befriend a lonely girl who whispered when she spoke.
My hands tremble as I reach across, as I lay the soft-cornered paperback on the seat next to her. She looks up, alarm fading to surprise and surprise melting into hope. She sees me. She smiles.