I believe in the Russian women on the bus. They ride with me each morning, getting on at successive stops near my neighborhood and traveling all the way down Euclid Avenue until we get off at Cleveland State. I suspect they are all taking advantage of a program that allows seniors to sit in on classes for free. Perhaps they are learning English. But they don’t practice it with each other, not on the bus.
There are five or six of them. They take the available seats up front and nod or quickly smile at those women already riding. There is news in their eyebrows — in the subtle lifting and lowering. As the ride progresses and nearby seats open up, they rush to each other and form a huddle. That’s when it begins: a dust cloud of Russian forms above their heads: decisive and round down-beats, the baffling combination of “sh” and “ch” sounds, the subtle “va” and “wa” sounds, their myriad “o’s” that form a bubble in my throat, like air catching. It makes the inside of my cheeks contract. I want to mimic them, not to make fun, but because their language, the pure sound of it, feels so much more potent than English. if they’re anything like my grandmother, they might be talking about whose son is marrying whose daughter, who died and what sort of assets they left behind, who cheated, who lied. But caught up in the vital music of their language, even the most mundane event is critical. One woman will grip the forearm of another. She will stare directly at her, right into her eyes, noses practically touching. Grunts of agreement, understanding sound regularly from the others. They are in it together. We all feel the gravity.
I’ve lived in this city most of my life, and I ride the bus alone. I read my text books or the newspaper and, very rarely, strike up a conversation. Compared to these Russian women, I am a stranger amongst my neighbors.
Their uniform is plain. A hooded raincoat with fleece lining, sneakers, and wool caps the colors of their pinky lipsticks. Every once in a while, a splash of ornamentation: a silk scarf with the print of yellow rope and carnations, plastic rubies glued to the corners of a pair of reading glasses. One of the women always wears the same pair of dangly amber earrings – frozen globules of honey that jerk and bounce abov e her shoulders with the potholes and sharp turns of the bus. Amber is common to Eastern Europeans; it just washes us on the shores of the Baltic Sea. I see those earrings as relics. Emblems of a far-away place that could swallow this whole city up in its sheer size – that could out-snow this city, out-drink this city. And from what I can gather from these women, it is also a place where people congregate tightly, closely, and speak about their daily lives passionately. I believe in this. I wish it for my own life.
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