I live in one of those fancy parts of town where the buses only stop by every half hour or so. So most afternoons I'm on a tight schedule: Change at work, dart to the gym and 45 minutes later leap off the treadmill just in time to mop off, grab my bags, sprint to the bus stop and climb on board. Without time to cool down or change, I am at my ickiest on these post-workout rides home -- still panting, still schvitzing, clothes damp and an old sweatshirt laid down between the blue plastic bus seat and the backs of my bare thighs. I'm not a stinker but just in case I'll pick a seat near an open window.
While I marinate in sweaty gym gear, the iPod is shuffling along, and I drift between daydreams. To the other commuters, ignoring one another (as is The Law), I'm just a sweaty splotchy frizzy pigtailed girl, staring dully at protesters outside the Turkish embassy. But on the inside... on the inside I am starring in "Guys and Dolls," owning Chopin's second piano concerto, or having the best sex of my life, depending what the playlist yields.
A few stops before the end of the line, an older woman labors up the bus steps, leans heavily on her cane with a deep sigh, then pivots and tips backward into the seat across the aisle, spreading into the space with an airy thud. She's heavy-set, dressed in purple velvet from head to toe, bright eyes peering through the shade of a broad-brimmed hat. The woman beams smiles all around as she addresses her fellow citizens. A chit to her left, a chat to the driver; nobody pays attention. Their dismissive silence is a judgment: "Crazy."
I'm turned halfway around in my seat struggling with a stuck window when I feel something poking at my sneaker -- one, two, three times. As the rubber foot on the chatty woman's cane nudges my big toe once more, I turn around with my eyebrow cocked and loaded.
"You have very long legs!" she chirps in a thick French accent, grinning from ear to ear. I am caught completely off-guard; a half-assed smile is all I can muster while I grasp for an appropriate response. "Oh... um..." I stammer a bit, almost point out that I'm only five-foot-three, so how long could my legs really be, then I think better of it. (I'm still working on my compliment acceptance skills.) Another passenger grins sympathetically -- "That's what you get for sitting up front" -- so I shrug and say, "I'll take it!"
The French woman accepts my humor as a green light and launches into a monologue. "Oui, very nice legs indeed. Strong! Long! I see you do much exercise!" It's not as weird as it could be, I guess. Coming from a man, or from someone younger, the attention might cause me to change seats. But this lady... she's a little eccentric maybe but she's not crazy. Maybe a little crazy. But more importantly, she's one of those precious jewels who makes it her business to spread warmth and cheer in the form of compliments wherever she goes. (D.C. locals, you know the sort of person I mean.)
You know, commuters work hard to look absorbed in their lives; you don't realize how bored they are until something interesting happens on the bus. As Frenchy loudly waxes lyrical about my gams, people start to pay attention. The woman next to me discreetly plucks out her left earbud. A young man across the aisle and a few seats down emerges from his nap one eye at a time. Their heads are turning now, one by one. They're all listening to this lady, trying (but not really) to pretend they're not interested in the spectacle, and each of them is stealing glances at my legs. It's not that there's anything much to see down there. My lower limbs are a bit doughy, really... white, vaguely bruised, scarred-up knees and three-day stubble. But the woman won't stop talking about them. Even I can't help but check out my lap, if only to see what all the fuss is about.
Finally she switches gears. "Pretty smile, too! Very bright. Your eyes, they are smiling eyes. It reminds me of some classic paintings. Like a Renoir, maybe..." Happy to have changed the object, if not the subject, I continue to flush and blush and stammer thank-yous each time the woman pauses to breathe, which isn't often. She never stops smiling. Every single person seated toward the front of the bus is grinning at me now -- except the driver, who's scowling in his rearview mirror. But even he, like the others, is enjoying my flattered embarrassment. They are laughing at me and with me; kindly, sympathetically. It really is rather funny.
Two stops later the lady yanks the cord, gathers her bags and hobbles off the bus, still smiling from ear to ear. I call after her, "Have a nice evening!" Talk about a mood boost; I feel like I just had a V8.
Just before the bus reaches my stop, a man across the aisle calls out to me, "She was quite a fan!" I grin sheepishly and turn pink again, while five other people chuckle in agreement. The bus stops a moment later and as I stand to leave the guy adds, "Another minute and I was sure she'd have asked for your number!" And with that the entire front half of the bus cracks up. It's a rare moment of fraternity in a place where, most days, the only sign we're even cognizant of other humans is the fact that we avoid stepping on one another's toes.
I wonder if the French woman knows the sort of power she wields. I stepped on the bus starving, wet and cranky; I stepped off still damp, still hungry, but feeling like a million bucks and change. For the first time in a long time I slowed my sprint to the apartment to a stroll so I could chat with one neighbor. I held the door for another. (Actually I always hold the door, but I did it cheerfully this time.) I hope I see Frenchy again soon; I want to tell her how much I love her hat.