Summer 2000: I’m living in Medford, not far from the Tufts campus, working for a non-profit at the corner of Boylston and Arlington and playing in a band. I pick up the 96 bus at the corner of Walnut and Summer St., and the bus takes College Ave to Harvard Square, where I catch the Red Line into Boston. The morning driver is often rather dour, and the bus is filled with people heading into offices and labor, thus the commute always has the feel of a death march.
Most mornings I end up sitting across from the same family. The mom is a natural beauty: chestnut hair, high cheekbones, glowing skin and personality. She always reads to her daughter, who is about six and having the time of her life, letting her natural exuberance and curiosity about the world guide her. The father is always set apart, reading the Wall Street Journal or crunching numbers in his portfolio. He looks like a heavier Kotter with a full beard, and he always wears a Rolex, a floppy fishing hat and Joey Ramone glasses.
They’re a striking couple: striking in their differences. Not just in their physical differences, but also in their demeanor. Sometimes the father plays with the daughter, but mostly it’s the mother. Occasionally they banter softly a bit, but it’s always strained and under their breath. The father will whisper and grunt; never looking up from his paper or work, and the mom will look frustrated, and then pull it back before returning to story time. The daughter is oblivious to it all, fortunately, but I can almost physically see the distance between them.
If the morning commute is a pall on the day, the evening commute is an entirely different world. The bus driver on the afternoon shift is older, and obviously loves his work and his friends. Every stop he adds “good old” to the street: “good old Royall Street!” “good old Florence Street!” It’s a touch of Mayberry in suburban Boston; a lovely break in the monotony of commute/work/commute/repeat.
Most evenings I end up sitting across from the mom and daughter, and most evenings the father is absent. Staying late at the office, no doubt. On these commutes, the mom seems freer, more of herself, as she reads to her daughter and points out landmarks along the way.
As the summer goes on, more and more, the father is also absent in the morning. By Labor Day, he’s gone, as is her ring. I have a front-row seat to a slow disintegration.
Thirteen years. A lifetime ago. I think of them sometimes. The daughter would be in college now. What school is she attending? What is her major? How did the divorce affect her? How did the mother make out? Was there one cause for the split, or many over time? Who pulled the trigger?
They were a family, and then they weren’t. I never learned their names, never spoke a word to them, knew nothing of them and still don’t. They had no idea of my existence, and still don’t. Parallel lives, never to intersect. But they remain with me; a vision of heartbreak during a high summer of golden twilights, “good old College Ave” and an unbroken horizon.