by Lana Haffar
The Megabus is always freezing. The frigid air conditioning strikes you as soon as you climb the top step. You shuffle sideways toward the back, and if you’re my height, you smack your head on the overhead bin before settling into your seat. A stranger makes their way down the narrow aisle, greeting you with, “Is this seat taken?” It’s not, except by your backpack, which you move between your feet. By the end of the next three hours, you will know this person as a priest knows a confessor. And they will know you.
You understand what I mean. Whether in planes, trains, or automobiles, we’re familiar with the serendipity of travel. Inside a metal giant, as you hurtle forward from one place to another, things take on a liminality. You doze, wake, look outside. If you’re going between Austin and Houston, endless dry plains roll past like waves. Time seems suspended, not quite real, and our personalities follow suit. Private people can become bolder, looser with words, readier to laugh. The stakes are just low enough that people will risk embarrassment. Oftentimes, it’s worth it.
In the end she’d probably marry, but her husband could never be as dear as this stranger met by chance … this man on a tram in the middle of a sealed-off city … it could never be this natural again.Love in a Fallen City, Zhang Ailing.
Five minutes after I met her, Hiba presented me with a snack bag of vegan chocolate chip cookies. I munched gracelessly on each one, scattering crumbs, while she told me her logistics: eighteen, business freshman, two siblings. I returned my own mundanities, but as Austin fell away, there was nothing to do but pry. The Megabus shuddered like some hollow animal as we spilled our guts. Did you know Hiba comes from the Arabic word for gift? Her parents, though Pakistani, bestowed this on her. We laughed as we shared stories from childhood, pondered the similarities and differences between our Muslim families, and played at solving all the world’s problems through our discussion of literature, culture, youth, aliveness. We were a little council of two, strewn together haphazardly. The hours became shorter.
In perpetuity, we see transportation as the site of encounters. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, trains house rebellion, clandestine affairs, and life-altering tragedy. In the film Before Sunrise (1995), two faltering strangers stumble into love while on a train bound for Vienna. On page and screen, these meetings play out in constructed worlds parallel to ours. But an ensemble cast of travelers need not commit Murder on the Orient Express to breathe excitement into a travel narrative. Even as Buc-ee’s rolls past, we make it known that our everyday personal dramas exist, and, even more, they are worth being chronicled. In weaving this tessellated web of tales, we become characters in the others’ saga. Trapped in that uncanny bus, with the engine sputtering below, you can either read a story, or you can live one.
Of course, conversation can’t always be easy. In the off-season, the bus is emptier, and people aim for single spaces. Even during holidays, when crammed in side-by-side, a simple activation of one’s AirPods is enough to nip introductions in the bud. I’ve been that person, too. Once, a friendly girl named Arya seemed eager to chat, but as soon as the journey began, I fell promptly into a deep, drooling sleep. And sometimes, the conversations just happen around you, as when two wise matriarchs discussed their darling grandchildren in the seats behind me, or when a couple guys my age solemnly theorized about an impending tech war with China. For three hours.
But Bao, from the start, seemed open. Out of all the people hogging window seats in solitude, I’m glad it was me he asked to share. Bao was used to journeys—not only had he traveled nearly an hour to the Megabus stop, but he had also moved to Texas from Vietnam before starting high school. I was practically an interrogator, hungry for details, desperate to know him. Quite generously, he seemed equally interested in my life. We were on the same wavelength: both entirely uncertain about our futures, but determined to meet it bravely. Both trying to worry less about the little things. We talked dramas, language acquisition, comfort food. As the bus slid to a halt, we hastily remembered to share contact info before deboarding. Months later, when I asked if I could write about him, he’d already beaten me to the punch. He had included me in a school essay about meeting new people. The marks we leave are mutual.
As the travel expert Anthony Bourdain said, “One doesn’t take the A-train to Mecca.” There’s no shortcut for time and experience, and a three-hour bus ride can only scratch the surface. Incalculable knowledge is hidden behind the fact that you are, ostensibly, strangers. In this setting, it’s a heavy task to navigate artifice, nerves, and caution. But, those vegan chocolate chip cookies were real. Hiba’s laptop stickers were real. The million times I made poor Bao get up so I could use the restroom: that was real. Their laughs, and mine. Those were real too.
The circumstances have to be just right. People are exhausted, and sometimes you need to stare mindlessly out of a window, unbothered by everyone. Talking is harder than being silent. We’re awkward, jaded, and scared. But people will usually leap to meet you halfway, and I’m learning that bridging the disconnect is worth it, if you get the chance.
We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together…“Small Kindnesses” by Danusha Lameris
At the tail end of the ride, your legs feel like both Jell-O and plywood. You wobble and duck past your seatmate with your carry-on in tow. There’s a look shared, an understanding. For a few hours, those clothbound seats were sacred. You make vague promises to keep in touch, but you both know it probably won’t pan out. And it’s okay. As Bao and Hiba and Arya and the grandmothers and the tech-pocalypse forecasters and every other unnamable stranger filed out of the bus, friends and family were there to greet them. I smiled at people I’d never met before, but about whom I knew cherished details. I rejoiced in the kaleidoscope of things. I stretched my legs, and then I stepped forward into my own pair of waiting arms.