WE ALL HAVE THOSE MOMENTS that stick in our minds for good: brief interactions that sometimes have nothing to do with us, but remind us of who we are and how we should live. This was one of those moments. It was January in Boston. Ice crackled under my feet as I walked to the city bus. The seats were cold, the windows were foggy, and the passengers were freezing and miserable. A teenage girl sat in the last row of seats. She was talking on a cellphone, crying.
“But I don’t understand why,” she cried into the phone. “Baby, please. Come on, don’t do this. . . . Please! I don’t wanna break up!”
The other passengers and I mostly stared straight ahead. A few of us snuck glances at the inconsolable girl being broken up with on a bus. Though we could all hear her, our eyes never met in a silent exchange of “Poor girl” or “How strange.” We just sat, some trying to block out the audible heartache, others possibly recalling times when they, too, had felt just like this girl.
The bus came to a stop. An older woman, bundled tight in a long black coat and wool hat, stood up. She grabbed her two plastic grocery bags and waited for the doors to part. Her back was stooped as she clutched the metal pole. The doors opened and the woman took a step. She stopped and turned around. She faced the crying girl.
“He’s not worth it, honey,” the woman said, loud enough for her voice to reach the back of the bus. The girl flashed her eyes at the woman.
“Shut up!” she yelled. “Just mind your own business! Shut up!”
The woman took a step toward the doors. She stopped, turned back, looked softly at the girl, and said: “One day you’re going to want to apologize to me. And I won’t be here.”
I felt the sharp winter wind enter the bus as the woman got off. The girl went back to her cellphone conversation.
Though this happened years ago, I frequently think about that attempted transfer of wisdom between strangers. While the rest of us ignored the girl’s cries, the woman did not. She likely saw herself in the girl. The woman knew how the story ended. “He’s not worth it” meant “I have been there. Trust me. I know your tears.” It was humanity in front of our eyes.
I often hope that I am like that woman: wise and willing to reach out to a stranger. I know, though, that that’s a tall order. More often, I can identify with the girl. It’s easier to be closed off, defensive. It’s easier to deflect kindness.
We all have our own stories — our own hurts, mistakes, and histories that prevent us from receiving and basking in the grace that is potentially offered to us from the front of a city bus. None of us knew the girl’s circumstance — was she pregnant? Was yet another person walking out of her life? I can’t begin to know the tale behind her tears.
I do know that this moment allowed me to clearly see what it looks like when I choose hardness over vulnerability and openness. It looks jarring and abrasive and juvenile.
I think about the woman’s soft reminder that forgiveness waits for no one. In large part because her words still ring through my ears, I’ve occasionally tracked someone down to offer my sincere apologies for hurting them, for not listening to them, or for being careless with their feelings. Many times, the person I reach out to says that there is no need for an apology — it’s water under the bridge. But I’d rather apologize while the one I’ve wronged is still here. One day I may want to do so . . . and they won’t be.
Sarah Kess, a Boston University graduate, is a writer in New York. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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