The radio was turned on full volume, playing “Happy New Year” in the middle of July, but the sounds that came out were squeaky little notes that every regular rider of Bus Number 15 had learned to ignore. The driver sat in the front with one hand on the steering wheel, the other on his heart like he was checking his heart rate. He always smoked a cigarette at the Lilac Boulevard stop and chewed exactly three pieces of mint gum on the drive back to erase the tobacco in his breath because he knew his daughter, whom he had raised all by himself, wouldn’t give him a goodnight kiss if she knew he had been smoking. He didn’t look up when the woman mounted the bus. He only glanced at her hand to make sure she was holding the correct ticket.
The first passenger behind the driver, a young boy whose parents were too busy to pick him up from school, sat staring intently at a comic book. His math notebook sat by his side, unopened and seemingly forgotten. He used to be at the top of his class in all subjects, but then he realized that didn’t make him popular with his peers. So instead, he found companionship in fictional universes far away where he didn’t have to choose between being a student and being a friend. The boy didn’t take his eyes off the drawings when the woman dropped the ticket into the collecting box at the front of the bus, and walked down the aisle past him.
The second passenger, only a few seats behind the boy, with a slightly bent back and greyed hair bun, had one arm around her grocery bag like it was the grandson she used to have five years ago. She took this bus with him every day, dropping him off at school in the morning then picking him up again in the afternoon. Her life used to revolve around the bus timetable, until the boy caught pneumonia and died at eight. For years after his death, she didn’t dare ride the bus, or even look at the number 15. However, one day she got the courage to mount it once more, and had ridden it every day since, sometimes even past her stop, to savor the memories of him. Engulfed in her thoughts, the elderly woman didn’t notice the new passenger.
The young woman passed them by unnoticed, and finally settled on the very back seat of the otherwise empty bus. She gingerly took off her blue surgical mask that protected against the polluted air, as well as her sunglasses to reveal a small face, high nose, and colored lips. But as the driver looked into his rearview mirror, the boy turned back to get a glimpse, and the old lady widened and narrowed her eyes for a clearer view, the bus seemed to fall into a silence it hadn’t experienced in a long time, allowing the lyrics of “Happy New Year” to ring out unperturbed. But no one noticed the music. They didn’t even notice their mouths hanging open, as they looked at the face they had not imagined hiding under all those layers. It was almost not a face at all.
The face was small because it was missing a fifth of the flesh, with skin bunching into a hole on what was left of the right cheek, pulling with it the mouth, misaligning it under the nose. The carefully applied lipstick drew the shape of lips over where they were supposed to be, where there was now nothing more than scarred skin. But one couldn’t look at her face without noticing her eyes, which were so sharp and alert that they seemed to read thoughts. Through those eyes, she had seen all the surprise, curiosity, disgust, fear, and unexplained hatred directed at her misshaped face. Before that, through them, she had seen the same mixture of feelings in her husband, who came home drunk every night and called her by a different name. “Nadia,” he would moan. She had tried to explain to him, whom she had been arranged to marry more than a decade ago, that she was not Nadia, but that only made him more insistent that she was. One night when he was particularly drunk and she was particularly stubborn in denying it, he smashed his wine bottle across her face. She had spent two hours in the emergency room to stop the bleeding, four hours in the surgical room to reconstruct the bones, then finally another three hours to patch up what was left of the skin. After she came home, she spent the next three months in the house alone. Her husband never came back, and no one ever knocked on the door. She didn’t know where he was, whether he was arrested or even alive, but she didn’t care. She was too busy fighting the battle inside herself, her left hand trying to stop her right from taking the blade to her neck. However, today was a day so special it had drawn her out of hiding. Today, three months and sixteen days after she left the hospital, was her wedding anniversary – the end of her sixteen-year childhood. Today, twelve years ago, her mother had given her away in exchange for a thick wad of cash to spend on alcohol. Today, twelve years ago, she finally knew what pain felt like, both emotionally and physically, as her new husband dragged her into his one-bedroom apartment and onto the sheets. But today, the present, she would finally know what relief felt like. For the last decade of her life, she had been running around like a dog, always willing to please but never allowed to talk. She had been so lost in becoming what her husband had imagined that she forgot who she was before she was someone’s wife. Today, the present, when she unlocked the door and stepped outside for the first time in months, she had decided to find that schoolgirl again, the girl who liked to eat waffles for lunch and loved reading haikus. And she would start by discovering who she was not. She would start by finding out who Nadia was.