The Odd One Out
The man on the bus had a mop of unkempt brown hair, a green jacket and headphones, always headphones. He mumbled to himself, and his hands twitched. He never looked at anyone. On the mornings when the bus wasn't early, when we didn't have to sprint frantically down the street to catch it, a handful of commuters would wait in a group near the covered benches.
He would hover at a distance, restlessly shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
The strange man's schedule was unpredictable. Sometimes he was there, and sometimes he wasn't. I found myself relieved by his absence. He wasn't threatening, just somehow disconcerting. Always fidgeting on the periphery, avoiding the rest of us -- and we avoided him, leaving the blue plastic seat beside him empty on the rare mornings when he boarded before we did. He stayed on the bus after I got off, sitting with his forehead pressed against the window and his backpack clasped tightly to his chest. I never saw him elsewhere in the neighborhood.
I rode the bus to the Metro for two months before my inevitable surrender to parking fees. The short-lived experiment in public transportation began after I moved to a neighborhood just inside the Beltway, a sweet community with tall trees and a park filled with honeysuckle bushes and little kids and dogs. I arrived at my new garden apartment with Maggie, a smallish black-and-white hound mix I had adopted from a rural high-kill shelter two years before. She was a young pup when I took her in, and the first few months of her life remain a mystery. She was brought to the shelter with her mother and littermates, a skinny, submissive thing with a broken tail and big, smart eyes. Maggie brimmed with playful affection for her trusted friends but was perpetually suspicious of strangers; every time a kind passerby or over-enthusiastic child bent to pat her head during our evening walks, Maggie barked or ducked away, trembling. I wondered what had happened in her life before I found her.
My roommate, Leah, an eternal optimist, tried to put a positive spin on Maggie's shyness: "She knows who she likes and who she doesn't," she said. "It's good to be picky!"
A couple of months after I gave up on the bus, I dressed for work and, still half asleep, took Maggie for a walk. She was taking her time as always, meticulously inspecting each dandelion stem and clover patch along the way.
When the man from the bus rounded the corner, Maggie stood up straight, her ears cocked forward. I saw her muscles tense; her thin tail arched over her back. She watched him intently. I tightened my hold on the leash, worried that Maggie might bark. I wanted to look away, to avoid acknowledging him, but without the self-imposed distance the man maintained at the bus stop, it felt unkind to ignore him.
So I nodded good morning with a half-smile, but he didn't look at me. He looked at Maggie, lowered his headphones, and changed his course slightly to head our way.
"Can I pet your dog?" he asked, still not meeting my gaze. It was the first time I'd heard his voice beyond his indecipherable mumblings on the bus. It was low and melancholy, as if he expected a certain answer.
I hesitated, and then issued my standard disclaimer. "She's a shelter dog, so she's a little scared of people sometimes," I cautioned.
But he walked toward us anyway, knelt down a few feet away and held his hand out to Maggie. I waited for her to flatten her ears and cower against my legs. Instead, she approached him immediately. She sniffed his outstretched palm gingerly for a moment and then, to my astonishment, suddenly moved close to him, stood on her hind legs and put her paws on his shoulders. She nestled her nose against his cheek. Her tail wagged.
"Oh, wow," I said, "She really likes you." I couldn't think of how to explain to someone who didn't know her that this was extraordinary. I'd never seen Maggie react to a stranger this way.
He shrugged slightly, stroking Maggie's back and scratching gently behind her ears. "Animals like me," he said softly, "because they know why I'm sad."
I stood quietly at the end of the leash, awkwardly tethered to a connection that had nothing to do with me, and watched my timid, picky shelter dog with an unknown past embrace the odd man from the bus. They leaned into each other for a few moments, tender and still. Finally, carefully, he set her paws down in the damp grass. Then he stood up, put his headphones back on and walked away.