There Is No Escape

There Is No Escape by J. Kuzmier --  photo by John B. at

Today I sit on a public bus. We are both waiting patiently together as it fills with passengers, brushing by me one by one. I’m glad to be sitting once more. I thought I had a day of freedom today, a day where the chains of illness were gone and I could break free of the confines of my sick room. The pretending I use to forget my pain almost won the battle by killing it for real, for good. But as the pain creeps up on me now, little by little, an inch more intensely second by second, I realize I was wrong. The war is still on, my body the battlefield it scorches, with no exit door for me to escape to.

There is pressure exploding behind my eyes as I sit here on the bus, waiting. It rages, like it wants to break free from the cage of my skull. It’s a demon that’s grown old to me, even as it scampers to my lungs stealing the air from the source. This pain travels with me everywhere. It’s been this way for so long, I’ve forgotten if there even was a time that I lived without it. Sometimes, I even forget it is there.

This forgetting I have from time to time is not a case so much of being free of the pain’s existence. I would describe this forgetting by saying, it’s like the longer you are in prison, the more you will call it home, and take it for granted. This is what it is like for me. The prison of pain I feel is my home. We coexist there, it and I. I take it for granted, like it’s trivia that inhabits the everyday world. So, I forget the obvious, that pain holds me in chains.

Though I know it isn’t the reason for the pain, it doesn’t help that the bus I’m on coughs and sputters as it sits and waits for its fill of passengers. The vehicle’s fumes seem to choke itself, as I hear it gasp for its own version of oxygen to survive the next run through the city. I could leave the bus, but the pain will just follow me. I know that. So I sit, and wait. Any seat in hell is as good as any other, if the exit door to the inferno is locked.

The bus seat I am sitting in provides little comfort to me, which doesn’t come as the biggest surprise to me. There’s something resembling a cushion padding its surface, but nothing in my body registers this sham as being anything but pretense. I believe the seat was blue at one point, but I don’t know how to describe the dull hue it is now. There is nothing physically soothing about this resting place, nothing to take away from the dull ache that seeps through every pore of my body. But it is a change from suffering the same exact pain while on my feet. A change from being locked up in a room, isolated from anything but my own private hell. Perhaps this small alteration is a kind of relief, in its own way.

Bodies trickle onto the bus, one by one. They all seemed tinged with the same concrete lethargy that weighs me down. I am too tired to care that I am not the only one. Maybe everyone suffers together, but everyone lives in a private hell whose walls cannot be breached by another. There is no fellowship in that place of isolation. I know that well. How can I believe in a savior for the masses when this is what life is, in the end game? The weariness that each of the passengers wears as they brush their bodies by me in the narrow aisle, one by one, dropping into their respective seats, tells me that they know this as well, at least somewhere deep inside themselves where the collective soul rots, waiting for death to come.

The driver has been ready to go since I got on, and I was one of the first passengers. He’s one of the impatient ones, the kind that visibly are agitated when someone’s slow up the steps, or tries to pay cash instead of having a pre-paid pass. I’ve seen him like this many times I’ve ridden the bus, and today he’s no less blunt than any other day. He’s scolded four people, just on this run alone. He says the same exact thing to them, in the exact same tone, with the exact same intonations, every day and every time. It’s like he’s programmed like a robot. Does it help him pretend that life is predictable, acting like that?

This is what he says to the guilty ones with coins, with so much exasperation the emotion breathes out of his screeching voice, “You know, it’s much better for everyone if you get a bus pass. They’re easier and quicker. You can get them at the depot. Just about everyone has them. So should you.”

I’ve seen people recoil at this lecture, the shock and hurt registering in their faces. Others, like the quartet today, show no new reaction. I suppose if you’ve been bled out completely, there is no more life to be sucked from you. I breathe the listlessness of the travelers with every movement they make as each one fills the bus, leaving only the seat next to me and the two in front of me empty. The lifelessness of the passengers sinks me even deeper into the bottomless vortex of fatigue that my body and mind are trapped in.

My eyes close with heaviness. But when I give into the weariness, all I am reminded of is the physical prison each and every organ of my body is chained to. Invisible clamps compress everything that is me. This is what I am confronted with whenever I hide behind my eyes, and then I remember there is no escape from my pain. So I open my eyes once more, and the world swims alive once again before my vision. I remember that physical pain doesn’t seem so overbearing when I know others are there. Even when they are the ornery and the difficult, like today’s bus driver. I can go back to forgetting, when I remain awake.

The door to the bus begins to shut, but I’m close enough to it that I can hear a shout coming from outside, crying “Wait! Wait! Wait!”. The driver swears without hiding it. An old lady in the aisle seat that’s diagonal to me, on the front right scowls at the driver in reproach, puckering her lips and glaring at him. She wears a red blazer with a long matching red skirt, with bright red lipstick to match, and a double pearl white necklace. Her white hair is coiffed into a neat bun, and she has her hands folded around a white pocketbook that sits in her lap. The bus driver ignores her silent admonishment as he opens the door so the latecomer, in this case, latecomers, can board.

Two tall burly bearded men climb the stairs. They almost look like fraternal twins, except the first one is dark haired, and the one following him is light haired. They are dressed in flannel jackets, jeans and work boots. I recognize the voice of hailing the bus as being the dark haired one when he says to the driver, “Hey, thanks a lot for stopping. Sorry to hold you up.”

“Can’t you be on the bus stop on time? I don’t like to be late. Some people have a schedule to follow,” the driver snaps. The old lady diagonal to me glares at both him, and the passengers.

“Well, I hope you have a nice day too,” the dark-haired one says with a toothy grin as he swipes his bus pass, and sits in one of the two seats in front of me. The light-haired one is counting out change.

“Oh for crying out loud,” snaps the driver. “You hold me up, and you don’t even have your change figured out? I need a f%@!–ing raise.” Well, I think with some irony to entertain myself, at least that particular outburst proves the driver isn’t a robot on automatic. The old lady glares at the driver, but he apparently doesn’t get the hint as he continues, “You know, it’s much better for everyone if you get a bus pass. They’re easier and —”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. They’re easier and quicker. I can get them at the depot. So I’ve heard. Whatever.” The light-haired one says with a dismissive wave of his hand as he drops the change into the bucket. The driver’s mouth moves, I can see in the mirror. I can’t hear him, but I see the rage in his face that goes nowhere because it’s ignored. The old lady looks at the light-haired man as though he is a curiosity at a zoo. He gives her a small wave, then drops into the empty seat next to his dark-haired companion. The old lady wears a small smile as he passes her. “Some things don’t change,” he says to the dark-haired guy, nodding his head towards the driver.

“Too true, too true,” the dark-haired one replies, with a sigh.

The bus driver slams the door shut as vehemently in some kind of response, but no one pays him any attention. Finally, we begin moving. The jolt of the bus pulling out of its parking spot makes me briefly nauseous, but I manage to bring it back in check. I sit back as comfortably I can, considering it feels like the bus is gunning for every pothole in existence. I’m glad for the only empty seat in the bus next to me. I’m too exhausted to even want to participate in any chatter or conversation. I look out the window, watching the world spin by me in a blur. This makes me dizzy, so I look ahead, to the two men sitting in front of me.

The dark-haired guy looks out the window, smiling and squinting like he’s looking for something but can’t quite find it. The light-haired one sits back as far as he can in the tiny seat, but it seems to crane his neck. He sits forward instead. “Why are we taking the bus? Everyone has a lousy attitude.” The old lady in the red suit raises her eyebrows as she gives the light-haired one a quick glance.

The dark-haired one looks over to him, then asks, “Really. Unlike you?”

“Hey. I only call it like I see it. And who better than an expert?” The bus driver glares in the mirror at him. The light-haired one seems to sense it, his head still and forward. “Nothing like customer service.” The driver looks back to the road, and the light-haired one shakes his head.

“You’re an idealist. You think one day, things will magically change. That’s your problem.” The dark-haired one smiles widely as he delivers this wisdom.

“Oh, stop it. I hate it when you get on your positive spiel.”

“Well, that’s ironic, isn’t it? You’re the one who expects people to change into something better. I don’t. They are what they are. Yet you’re the grumpy one. Right?” The dark-haired one smiles up at the driver, who still is staring straight ahead. The light-haired guy shrugs his shoulders, as someone sneezes behind me, and someone else coughs. The bus stops short at a red light, and everyone is jostled by the abrupt halt. My temples feel like they are being stabbed, and my vision feels blurred again. I see the outline of the light-haired one turn around, facing the back of the bus.

He issues a statement. “I’m going to get sick on this bus. I know it.”

“Oh please, it’s flu season. People sneeze during flu season. Don’t get so uptight,” his companion admonishes. My vision clears up for a moment, and see the light-haired one glaring at him.

“You know, when you tell someone not to be uptight, it has the exact opposite effect. It’s arrogant to say that crap to people,” snaps the light-haired one to his seatmate. Someone else sneezes in the back. “Listen to that. I’m supposed to relax?”

“Well, you got your flu shot, right?”

The light-haired one looks at his companion like he’s crazy. “Trust the government and big business to dispense medicine and physical health? Are you nuts? They’re probably collecting DNA samples for Homeland Security with those shots.”

“You’re too paranoid, you know that, right?” admonishes the smiling dark-haired lecturer.

“And being paranoid in this world is a bad thing?”

“Well, is it making you happy? That’s what I would like to know. It’s not like it changes anything, right?”

“Oh man, you drive me crazy with this ‘think positive’ stuff. There’s no arguing with you, is there? No one but you is ever right. That’s why you keep saying the word all of the time. Right? Right? It seriously drive me nuts…”

I feel the glands by my throat tighten as the light-haired one continues to squabble, my body constricting with the pressure in my head. I feel like I am breathing in a room that is losing oxygen, and switch my seat to the window seat so I can sit leaning on the wall. It’s not comfortable, but I can stretch my legs, and I revel in that positive fact. The thread of positive thinking seems to have seeped into my mind. I don’t feel any happier, but my legs like the new position I’m in.

My movement seems to have triggered the attention of the light-haired guy, even as his companion speaks. The light-haired one stares, right at me. He’s good looking, in a unique sort of way. Straw blond hair with darker highlights and long bangs that seem to enjoy flopping in his face, a goatee with two-day stubble on the rest of his face, blue eyes. Stocky in build, with a round angel face, he seems to embody both ruggedness and vulnerability in perfect balance. I blink at him, and my vision gets blurry again as my eyes begin to hurt.

“Hey lady!” The light-haired guy’s outline is still facing me, so I believe he’s speaking to me. “You okay?”

I sense his companion turning towards me, and the old lady’s head as well. The air I breathe feels even more constricted with the unwanted attention, the pressure of their focus materializing in a chokehold on my ability to breathe. Although I can’t know for sure what provoked the question, my blurry vision feels like a clue.

I try to swallow away the terror I feel, to remain calm. But it’s hard to gauge myself when everything is swimming in ambiguity. Especially hard, when it feels like I am being slowly executed by weight added by the ounce to my chest. My face trembles, but whether it’s the terror or my body betraying me, I don’t know. I focus on my answer, hoping to bring things back to some kind of balance.
“Yes. I’m fine.”

“You’re eyes are all bloodshot! That’s fine?” he exclaims.

“Oh, leave the lady alone already.” his dark-haired friend lectures him. “It’s the city. Pollution does that to people.” I sense him turning around to face me. “Sorry about my friend. He overreacts to everything. But that’s just him. He was that way when I met him in the third grade. He doesn’t mean it.”

“Yes I do!” snaps his friend. I sense his eyes glaring at me. Blinking, my vision clears up enough to confirm this intuition. “I’m going to die.” he states to my face while staring right through it.

“Oh stop it. Of course you’re going to die. So will everyone else. Stop being a drama queen about it.” the dark-haired guy says, laughing.

The light-haired guy gives me another look before turning away as he snaps, “Dumb drunks and addicts. I hate the city. I don’t know how you managed to stay in this place.”

Another laugh from his friend. “Oh. There’s no dumb drunks and addicts in the countryside?”

“Sure. But there’s half a mile in between them. Not six inches in either direction.” Someone else sneezes from the back, and I hear two distinct coughs as well. “I’m going to die,” the light-haired one states again.

I feel throbbing pain that is so pervasive I can’t pinpoint where it starts, or what it’s attacking. I just know it’s there, and can’t help but empathize with the light-haired guy. I feel like I’m going to die, as well.

“You know,” the light-haired guy says to his friend, “you like to write me of as a paranoid. But we’re really overdue for a pandemic, as a species. That’s what history teaches.”

“Oh, so sit around and worry yourself to death in the meantime, waiting for the day that you can tell me ‘I told you so’? That’s your solution?” The dark-haired one is still laughing.

“I’m serious. With all the overpopulation, the overcrowding, all the mass transportation? Plus all the natural disasters and refugee camps in this world? It’s a recipe for disaster. And don’t get me started on all the crazy people with their finger on the bomb.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t.”

“You know, I feel like the prophet Cassandra. I’m seeing the Greeks breach the walls with a Trojan horse, but no one listens to me. I feel invisible.”

“Yes, I know you do. You’ve told me so.”

“And you ignore me. Just like the Trojans did to Cassandra, to their peril.” The light-haired guy sighs loudly enough that I can hear him over the bus engine. “And you know I’m not the only one who feels this way.”

The dark-haired one nods thoughtfully as he speaks. “I know. The Mayans, Nostradamus, the Hopi, they’ve all said stuff like you do. I do read the books you send me, you know. Out of the goodness of my heart.”

“Not just them. The Dalai Lama suggested that we need to get attacked by aliens.”

“The Dalai Lama said we should get attacked by aliens?” The dark-haired one starts laughing again as he replies. “Okay, I really have trouble with that one. Where did you see that, on some You Tube video? Next thing you’ll be saying is that Mother Theresa’s dying words were that India should nuke Pakistan over Kashmir and sing Kumbaya when the radioactive dust settles.”

“I’m serious. I read it in a book he did with this psychiatrist about happiness.”

“You read a book on happiness? Wow! Maybe the end of the world is coming.”

The light-haired guy rolls his eyes. “I’m serious! He was saying that mankind doesn’t seem to realize its common humanity until it’s pushed to the brink and some crisis smacks us in the face. Maybe we need something like that. Maybe we’re in need of a really good disaster to wake us up as a species. All the destruction we do to this planet, to each other?” The light-haired one waves his hand towards the window. “Look how this city has decayed, just in the last thirty years. It was bad when we were growing up, and it’s only gotten worse. Here, and everywhere else. And we keep barreling blindly, running over everything and everyone in our way. You know how it’s supposed to be the end of the world soon? They’ll probably hydrofrack Old Faithful just because it has two gallons of natural gas there and then dump radioactive waste there, and thar she blows! Bye, bye world! That’s how pathetic we are as a species. We’ll be the ones who will do ourselves in. And we’ll do it while thinking we’re making progress.” The light-haired one shakes his head. “We need something to wake us up. I really believe it.”

The dark-haired one sighs. “Well, be careful what you wish for. You might get it.”

“I hope so. I really do.”

I feel a spasm rising up in me, as the light-haired one sits back once more. The world he inhabits, the one with his friend, the old lady, and the cranky bus driver seem suddenly vague to me, as though I am slipping from them. They all seem so far away, as the pressure in my chest dispels a strange vertigo throughout my body. I can physically feel my chest drowning in some liquid that it finds foreign to it, and a strange dread rises with the volatility that is stirring in me. Seeking relief, I can feel the liquid raise up through my throat.

I reach for the tissues I hoped I wouldn’t have to use, stuffed in my pocket, afraid of what will happen next. Think positive, I try to calm myself, thinking of the dark-haired one’s sunny advice. Maybe it is nothing. Why sit around and worry myself in the meantime, right?

I cough, spitting up the offending liquid. Yet my terror lies in what I will find when I finish convulsing. Perhaps the liquid will be clear, or yellow. I hope it is. It will be nothing to worry about, then. It is flu season, after all.

My heart pounds as the explosion within me ends. I am out of breath like I’ve run a race, one that I feel I have lost. The light-haired one is looking at me, once again. “We’re all going to die,” he says.

I look at the napkin, low enough that he can’t see it. Red globes of clot are mixed in with the sputum. I put the napkin to my mouth once more to wipe away the stench of death, but I can’t help but meet the eyes of the light-haired one as I do. Cassandra was right, once again. There is no escape from the judgment.

As the bus abruptly comes to a full stop, I have to flee as quickly I can from the eyes that stare through me. I know there is no escape, no matter where I run to, but I decide to abandon the bus anyway. As the bus pulls away, the limit of my existence is forced upon me. I am condemned to the disease that rips the community from me. The illness has made me one with it once again, and there is no escape, even in the world of the living. Now what?

2 Responses to “There Is No Escape”

  1. I loved and felt for the protagonist in this story. I imagine if I were that ill and taking a bus, I’d hear and see all the things she did. And that deadly blood coming out of her cough.

    Very well done.

    Patricia A. Guthrie