For the first few years I worked in Chicago I took the bus. It picked me up at the end of the block and would make its way through the south suburbs where our family lived, picking up passengers along the way before eventually merging onto the expressway and then Michigan Avenue. My friend got picked up before me and she would save me a seat next to her towards the back of the bus. Three blocks past my stop was an older man who boarded the bus each morning - a man relatively unknown to me but friendly with both of my parents. He would also sit near the back towards me and my friend and spent his bus ride reading the Chicago Tribune.
Riding the bus back and forth to Chicago was not the preferred method to get to work. In perfect weather anything could make traffic back up, and if a little rain or a few flurries fell during rush hour it could easily double the length of the trip. If there was an opportunity to get downtown fast a working guy/gal would always take advantage of the offer.
And that is how I found myself in the front seat of a gas guzzling Buick with the guy from the back of the bus who lived on Elm Street. He had called my parents house and told my mom that he was driving to work later that week and would be happy to take me. There was no question I would go to avoid another long bus ride and so at 6:45 a.m. he picked me up. I can't remember what we talked about on the way down since he was my dad's age (late fifties) to my early twenties. I don't, though, remember it being awkward or uncomfortable.
We sailed through every usual bottleneck and in no time he was stopping in front of the Art Institute to let me out. As I gathered my purse and my lunch he said, "Don't I even get a kiss for giving you a ride downtown?" And I thought, oh yeah, sure, geez where are my manners because I guess that's what you do when somebody does a favor for you. Right? You give a kiss to the guy who is as old as your father because he let you ride along to the same place he was going. And so I leaned over to kiss him on the cheek (because that's what he meant, right?) and he maneuvered his head until his lips were on mine and he was putting his tongue in my mouth and in the front seat of that Buick I could not register what in the hell was happening to me.
I pulled away from him and said "thank you" again because if I was anything it was polite when somebody did me a favor. I got my things and got out and watched the car of a man who was friends with my parents pull away. Under one of the lions that flanks the entrance to the Art Institute I stood on the sidewalk watching the "walk" sign change many times over before I remembered I had to cross the street to get to work.
My mom would ask that night how my ride was and I told her it was fine. "He said he's going to start driving more and that you could go with him anytime," she would tell me and I never, not once, even considered it. I would have inhaled toxic, choking bus fumes on a completely stopped Dan Ryan Expressway every day of the week rather than get in that Buick again.
A few years ago Mom called and told me she had gone to a wake for So-And So. "I don't know who that is," I said. "Oh you know him, Kath. That nice man from Elm Street that would drive you downtown sometimes."
Once, Mom. He drove me once.
"He always asked about you when I would see him."
Everything from the moment the car stopped remains vivid in my memory but I never talked about it. After hanging up the phone, though, the same question rolled over and over in my mind.
What kind of man makes a mother believe that her daughter is perfectly safe with him when she's anything but?
And over and over in my mind the same answer rolled back. The kind that is better off dead.