I was waiting for the bus this afternoon in the cold (-13° C, or about 8° F) on my way to run an errand. As the bus approached the stop, I watched as a young girl sprinted across the crosswalk in front of the bus and a car, long blond hair streaming. It was obvious that she was running for the same bus, which had to stop for her. I also knew that her lungs must be burning, as I had tried running earlier in the day and ended up coughing and coughing after I stopped.
The girl boarded the bus close behind me and then followed me to the very back, and sat in the seat next to me, very close. She then pulled out her iPhone and plugged in. I looked to my own phone (I am addicted). It was as if we were traveling together, a girl old enough to be my daughter, pre-teen, plugged in and annoying, only she wasn’t mine, so it didn’t matter.
And then an older man got on the bus at the next stop and sat in the seat directly in front of me that faced toward the center of the bus. I was looking at him in profile. He appeared slightly nervous, with sallow pale skin. He wore a sad gray knit cap, and I noticed the gold band on his wedding finger as he pulled off his gloves.
I also noticed how he kept taking furtive glances at the girl next to me. His hand kept creeping to the back of his neck. He would glance over, stare, then look away, seeming to try to appear casual.
I thought about the young girl next to me: I realized suddenly that she must be very pretty. Young, with long white-blond hair and perfect pink skin.
I suddenly felt revolted and began looking surreptitiously at the Humbert Humbert in front of me. I pulled out a paper I was reading and tried to hold it up between the man and the girl, who seemed blissfully unaware of her observer. She called someone on the phone to tell them that the metro wasn’t working and that she had to run for the bus, and was heading back to school. I started to openly stare at the man, who seemed to be hungrily taking in her every word, so that he would look away.
Finally, he got off the bus.
I felt relieved. I wanted to ask this girl if she had noticed, and beg her to be careful. But how could I say that to her, to be careful of what? How could I be sure of what he was thinking? Perhaps he was reminded of his own daughter, now lost. Or perhaps I was right and he was thinking lascivious thoughts. What harm is a creepy old man who is just looking? No harm, but a warning sign of something?
And why was I reacting this way, with protective instincts? Perhaps a girl who could have been the age of my hypothetical child triggered maternal instincts to protect her. Perhaps I felt for my own small clueless self, so long ago.
When the young girl sat down close to me at the back of the bus, I noted it, but didn’t think about it carefully until the man got off — how sitting next to an older woman was somehow protective for her. Perhaps she is used to be an object of the male gaze.
I thought about how we used to joke, my high school friends and I, about how girls always went to the bathroom in “buffalo herds.” Of course we did. Animals flock together to feel safer, even if the weak around the edges can be picked off. There’s safety in numbers, and women tend to need safety, even in safe placid Sweden.