Tethered by large rubber wheels and the tenuous attention of a union driver, our commuter bus pulled out of the park-and-ride lot with relative promptness each morning at the unholy hour of 5:30 a.m. Each morning we acknowledged sleepy gazes and each evening equally dazed states of exhaustion. Deep in my heart I was certain we were not born for this. Otherwise, I would feel joy. Joy is not arriving home from a hard-driven city in two hours because there were no accidents or weather delays. I had been keeping this routine for twenty years advancing toward the glory of my middle years.
Miriam stood out from the crowd immediately. She was a new commuter with a smile for everyone before the sun had the decency to rise. Nothing else distinguished her: straight, brown hair in a clip, pale skin, fine but plain features and drab, inexpensive business attire. She carried a lunch tote and folding umbrella. Her vibrant morning greeting to the bus driver shocked him into a semi-conscious state.
One morning Miriam found an empty seat next to mine. She introduced herself explaining she was a “city transplant” like most of us. Though we’d grown up in the boroughs, most of us became financially disenfranchised from living there with any quality of life. We were priced out of our homes by the nouveau riche, Ivy executives from the right clubs, and foreign nationals who seemed to own more and more of a Manhattan I was convinced the Indians did well to have sold off. So we migrated to upstate New York. The Hudson Valley was scenic and fairly rural compared to the concrete blocks of Brooklyn and Queens. But there were no comparable jobs.
It was a conundrum of distance for quality either way you sliced the suburban pie. Miriam hadn’t been worn down enough by the long hours and potholes which accounted for her enthusiastic demeanor.
Reluctantly, I responded.
“I’m Janine,” I said, “welcome to the Netherworld.”
“Here we go again!” she said, settling into her seat.
“Indeed,” I replied, leaning back and closing my eyes. She didn’t take the hint.
“Well, the time change will be helpful,” she said cheerfully.
The clocks would spring ahead on Saturday garnering more daylight during our morning commute.
As Miriam beamed at me, I noticed her clear and compelling blue eyes.
“It beats tomb-like darkness,” I replied.
“Well,” she said pensively, “everything is relative. Imagine people in Scandinavia. In winter there are only a few hours of daylight.”
“And they have the highest suicide rate and have probably cornered the market on alcohol consumption,” I responded.
Miriam laughed. “That might be true. I guess we are luckier.”
She simply had not endured enough hardship to appreciate that if anything was relative it was luck. She reached into her bag and pulled out a small skein of knitting and began manipulating two long needles through a small square of periwinkle colored patch. Once in the city Miriam wished me a wonderful day and disappeared into the massive crowds pushing toward the streets.
On Monday morning our group clustered in the park-and-ride lot once more discussing a late season snowfall that was anticipated during the evening commute. That meant traffic delays and arriving home even later than usual.
“This winter just won’t quit,” someone remarked, and we all agreed.
A small, brown car pulled into one of the remaining spots. Miriam stepped out, gathered her things and put a key in the driver’s side door. Most of us hit the automatic lock button on our key chains. This often caused a synchronized cacophony sounding like small dogs barking.
Miriam smiled and glancing back at her car sighed,“Well, it’s an old model but very faithful. And I don’t have to worry about anyone stealing it!”
We all smiled politely. Someone noted the bus was unusually tardy. Our regular driver was likely out, and substitutes were typically bad news.
“Well,” someone piped up, “be prepared for a long haul tonight.”
“That’s why it’s good to bring knitting or a book.” Miriam said this as if it were the first time anyone would have thought of this.
Later that afternoon I glanced out the office window. A light snow began drifting and growing heavier within minutes until a steady, white brew began sweeping by enveloping the streets and pedestrians below. I noticed a familiar tightening sensation in my stomach and began planning an escape before the five o’clock hordes emerged and descended the subway.
I left around 4:45 and navigated slushy streets down into the musty smelling platform where a train was pulling in. The crowd surged propelling me as the doors opened. We unloaded at Port Authority making our way through turnstiles and ramps. I joined the end of a very long line hoping I would make it onto the 5:20 bus.
“Oh, you had the same idea,” a familiar voice said behind me.
I turned to face Miriam whose smile was barely diminished from a full day and a rush to the Port.
“Yes,” I responded sarcastically, “you, me and several thousand others.”
A garbled voice began announcing unexpected delays due to bad weather. I marveled at how it was always “unexpected” when I expected it daily. Fortunately, the 5:20 bus pulled in by 5:30. Miriam and I got the last two seats in the back amidst grumblings and complaints of those who would have to await the next bus.
“That was lucky,” she said, patting my arm.
“Absolutely,” I sneered, “I think I’d better buy a lottery ticket as soon as possible.”
She laughed as the driver gave a honk and maneuvered his way toward the Lincoln Tunnel.
Once on the highway it was obvious the trip was going to be long. Various vehicles crawled along slippery roads as heavy snow fell. I noticed Miriam was not doing her knitting but was staring through the streaked window. Her reflection was pensive amidst the cascading precipitation. Her eyes had a faraway look. She turned to me.
“What do you do?” she asked politely.
She clarified. “I mean what kind of work do you do?”
“Oh,” I replied, “I’m an office manager for an investment firm on 50th Street near Third Avenue.”
“You have to get across town then,” she replied.
The Port was west on Eighth Avenue near Times Square.
“Yes,” I answered morosely, “adding another hour onto this trip.”
Miriam nodded sympathetically.
“And you?” I asked.
She paused letting out a breath of air, looking straight ahead when answering.
“I’m doing something temporarily also on the east side,” she said.
“I did temp work in my teens. You’d be surprised how often that leads to permanent offers,” I responded.
She smiled but became quiet and took out her knitting. I leaned back as the snow turned to a pounding hail.
Despite a grueling ride home Monday, we awoke Tuesday to sunshine and warmer temperatures that miraculously melted whatever snow remained. Warmer air mixed with aromas of new foliage producing a fragrant atmosphere. It was the first sign
of spring and a morale booster as we boarded the bus only two minutes behind schedule.
Miriam was missing that morning. It occurred to me that I felt an absence of hope. How ridiculous, I thought. I leaned back dozing and found myself thinking of my childhood and memories from years ago. I woke with a start when we pulled into the Port.
“I’ve never seen you out like that before,” said Jim, smiling as he walked past me. Jim was a long haul commuter like me.
I rubbed my eyes remembering not to smudge my make-up and, gathering my things, I pushed toward the escalator and marched to the turnstile only to realize my metro card had expired. I waited in line five minutes to reinstate it.
When I arrived at my desk I was still the first one in the office. I wondered why I was so upset to have “wasted” five minutes.
All of that week Miriam was not on the bus. Her absence left a subtle void. One day at lunchtime I took a walk and spotted a shop with knitting and needlepoint. On impulse I stopped.
“May I help you?” asked a salesperson.
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “I have no experience with this stuff.”
This seemed to delight the woman, an older lady in her late sixties, who advised I was about to enter a world of calm and meditation. I laughed.
“No, really,” she smiled, “it’s always good to open up to something new. We have classes here, too.”
It seemed I could fit in classes on my lunch hour a couple of days each week. Inexplicably, I signed up.
That night at the Port I looked for Miriam. I felt compelled to tell her about the class. I had a momentary vision of both of us flipping needles around on the bus while passing the commuting time. But she was nowhere to be seen.
I began my classes the following week. At first I felt as if I had two left hands. Gradually a rhythm came in the thrust of needles and spinning of the colorful yarns and a satisfaction in its practicality. It gave me a focus during the ride.
One evening, two weeks later, I boarded the bus and, once seated, saw Miriam hurriedly enter the aisle. She saw a seat next to me and sat down with a large sigh.
“I thought you were on vacation,” I said.
She caught her breath and turned to me smiling faintly.
“I wish,” she said, “no just some things to take care of.”
I reached into my bag for the knitting I was working on as the bus backed up. Miriam turned to me and caught her breath slightly.
“How wonderful,” she said, “you’ve taken up knitting.”
I explained my chance lunch-time walk and the class I was taking.
“I can show you some pointers, if you don’t mind,” she said.
“Sure,” I responded, “after all you’re the expert.”
She showed me some movements with the needles and different stitches. It seemed to lift her spirits that were less than exuberant when she boarded the bus.
On Monday I looked for Miriam to arrive. She had given me excellent advice on my knitting, and it was coming along much better. In class I had been complimented on how quickly I’d progressed. I was making a sweater for myself and was proud of making something by hand on my own.
That evening on the bus I fussed at the seat next to mine, realizing I was trying to hold it for Miriam. I glanced out the window and saw her approaching just before the bus was leaving. I motioned to her as she boarded.
“Oh, wonderful,” she said looking at my progress in knitting.
“Do you think so?” I asked.
“I can’t believe how good it is for such a novice,” she said then looked at me and smiled.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, “that must seem terribly condescending. We never know our talents until we explore them. There are many stories of students excelling their teachers. I’m jealous!”
We both laughed.
“You’re just being kind,” I replied.
“We don’t have to be kind,” Miriam said, “we are kind.”
I felt my eyes well up, as if she’d touched on my forgotten humanity diminished by divorce, supporting children, growing older and taking care of mundane things that had a way of taking precedence in our lives.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Miriam said. “we’re all hard on ourselves, especially women.”
I don’t know where it came from but I replied, “We forget ourselves, living for others and obligations.”
“Obligations.” She stated flatly. “We all have them. Nothing wrong with them, except when they make us forget everything else.”
“Everything else?” I asked.
“Like our daily lists of what needs to be done,” she said “instead of getting on with what is practical but remembering our connections to one another and to life itself.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, adding, “it’s unfair to be so judgmental. We should never judge, but we do need boundaries. It took a long time to realize the difference.”
“Boundaries?” I asked.
“We give so much to others,” she said, “spouses, children, parents and friends.”
“Is that wrong?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “but if we don’t consider ourselves part of the circle of life what right do we have to worry about others?”
I thought about this. I’d raised three sons after my divorce and tried making amends in many ways for perceived deficits.
“We can’t compensate for all the losses in the world,” she continued, “each life makes its own way and its own difference.”
I took a deep breath. She touched my arm in a comforting gesture.
Miriam’s words reverberated in my mind the entire weekend. There was a wistfulness about her, something transitory that disturbed yet comforted me. After all, everything is very fleeting. I recalled the words of my mother when I was in my early twenties saying I would blink and be older and all would seem like a dream.
That reminder jolted me back to the moment. When my youngest returned home that evening I hugged him hard. I felt time pass as I held and then released him from my grasp. He would start college that fall, the last to leave home. I would have to re-define the meaning of home.
I settled myself into the seat on the bus the next morning and anticipated Miriam’s arrival. She wasn’t on the bus that morning or the rest of that week. I thought it odd since she had been out the week before.
I continued my knitting and was pleased with it. I found those lunch hours in class truly enjoyable. I wanted to share this with Miriam. There was no way to be in touch with her other than the bus, so I waited. She showed up the following morning. She looked pale but gave everyone her cheerful morning greeting. I assumed she had been ill with some bug that was going around. We weren’t able to sit next to one another, butshe was one row opposite me and gave me a thumbs up on my knitting as I held it up.
“Keep up the good work,” she said encouragingly, adding, “and you’ll be just fine.”
I thought that an odd comment and meant to ask her about it.
When we arrived at the terminal Miriam got off the bus before I did. I lost her in the shuffle but then caught sight of her as she stepped onto the escalator. I noticed she had a small overnight bag and guessed she must be visiting someone. Then I saw her getting into a cab. I rushed over and stuck my head in the window.
“Since we both go to the east side,” I said, “do you want to split the cab with me?”
Miriam hesitated. After an awkward moment she said, “Sure,” and shifted over in the seat.
During the ride we commented on the great spring weather and talked about our knitting projects. As we approached Third Avenue I asked where she needed to stop.
“Oh, you first,” she said, “I need to go a little further today.”
“Okay, thanks,” I said handing her some bills. She stuffed them back into my hand.
“No,” I protested, but she cut me off.
“It’s fine,” she replied, “you can get the next one.”
“Okay,” I said reluctantly, “but that’s a promise.”
I closed the door and watched the taxi pull away. She gave me a slight wave.
I didn’t see Miriam for the rest of the week. By Sunday evening I had completed my sweater. On Monday our usual group waited for the bus but Miriam wasn’t there. Just as we boarded Jim came dashing onboard. He put his briefcase down and reached inside taking out a small brown bag. He spotted me and made his way down the aisle.
“Hi, Jim,” I said.
He held out the bag.
“What’s this?” I asked curiously.
“It’s from Miriam,” he said slowly.
I looked perplexed.
“Janine,” he began then faltered, “Miriam passed away this weekend.”
I stared at him as if he’d just announced something utterly preposterous.
“She belonged to my church,” he continued. “She gave this to me and said I should give it to you after.” he stopped.
“What happened?” I asked incredulously.
“After she moved here and joined the church we found her name on the prayer list. She had cancer and was going to the city for treatments. She didn’t want anyone to know.”
I felt as if I was about to be sick.
“No,” I said helplessly, not making any sense.
“I’m sorry,” Jim said and returned to his seat.
I sat holding the bag, my hands trembling. We were on the highway before I opened it. I pulled out a pair of knitted mittens and a scarf that matched the sweater I had made. I stared at my lap. Involuntarily, tears welled up. Then I saw white paper sticking out of a mitten. It was a note from Miriam: “There are no good-byes only bridges to the future. You are gifted. Be joyous every day.”
I stared out the window. I knew I did not feel joyous but I felt an obligation to feel joy.
We arrived in the city and I decided to walk amid the bright spring morning of the bustling streets. I stuffed the note and gifts into my knitting bag and looked up to see patches of angel blue sky peek between the buildings. I clutched the bag against me and made my way through the crowds. I thought how warm I would be in my sweater, scarf and mittens when the skies grew dark and cold and I waited for the bus next winter.
First published in CHRYSALIS MAGAZINE 2013
Knitting in Transit