Every day at rush hour, every car of the red Transmilenio bus is always beyond full. The bus pulls up to the station and hoards of people push themselves into each other: the masses can always give a little bit more. When there are that many people– tired from a long day at work– you don’t need the hand rails; the spongy crowd puckers and holds you. The sea of transit-goers is a patch of sea anemone that blushes and sways when the bus hits a bump. Lately, the public has been complaining: there aren’t enough buses, delays cost people their jobs, incidences of pickpocketing and women being accosted are becoming more frequent.
Taking the L18 Transmilenio back home from work at rush hour, there are six stops between the station I got on and the station I will get off. I think about how I’d react if a stranger on the bus would try any funny business with me, imagine cowboy-like reflexes springing my right hand over the hand of an ill-fated, grazing palm; fracture a finger or two without blinking, but when I actually feel a caress on my backside– so casual that it could easily be attributed to the too-close-for-comfort quarters, so casual that I could easily be inventing intentionality out of casualty— I ignore it, shift my body to the right.
Five stations left: I take a deep breath of sweat condensed in the hot air recirculating through the car. Rain and headlights upon the sealed windows of the bus make tiny yellow streamers ripple down the glass, echo faint shadows of urban celebrations onto the faces of the passengers. I try to focus on the Salt-N-Pepa plugged into my ears, Whatta man, whatta man, whatta man, whatta mighty good man… I shuffle to the left. Maybe it’s someone’s purse? Maybe I’m fabricating a fictional situation out of stress or claustrophobia? I look back at the man standing behind me. He is a man around the age of 45, wearing a dirty, denim jacket and a standard pair of rectangular glasses. His chin is down. He does not make eye contact. His hand is wedged into his pocket. Four stations left.
My friend and I had a conversation about this very topic just days earlier. He explained that when women tolerate these kinds of transgressions, the offenders learn that they can get away with such behavior; whether it be a full-on, stuffed animal claw machine-style grab or a repeated, “accidental” graze with the back of one’s hand. My friend says that some men bury their hands in their pocket, meanwhile rubbing this hand against a nearby passenger and themselves; as if the fact that his skin never makes contact with the other individual makes him innocent; as if the thin layer of fabric wasn’t just a thin, cowardly layer of himself.
I jolt again. “Quite la mano;” Move your hand, I say finally, firmly, turning back for only a moment. The man responds with various comments, but— headphones in— I cannot hear what he is saying. I don’t want to. His negative tone murmurs indistinctly from behind the music… Whatta mighty good maaan… I want to go home. I do not want to listen to him, do not want any more of his existence on me, but on this bus I am a sponge; puckering indiscriminately, taking in rain and sweat and saliva. There is no room to move. You can always give more of yourself to make room for more of someone else. The masses can always give a little bit more. We are stopped
at this point, enveloped in rush hour abandonment; the bus spewing futile smoke signal pollution into the night. The bus is running, but unable to move. I am unable to move. The traffic jam of Bogotá’s tightened chest both cradles and deserts our red bus. Air deserts my lungs. I am torn between wanting to stand up for myself and fearing that my foreign accent will dub me a liar. I am torn between worrying that I am accusing this person of something he didn’t actually do and letting my body become some man’s handrail because I choose to see (Whatta miiiighty miiightayyy) strangers as good. I choose to not be afraid, but avoiding fear does not mean bravery. If you are afraid of the dark and close your eyes, that does not mean bravery. Closed lids shut out darkness but they don’t make it go away. Closed lids are just thin, cowardly layers of yourself. I count the remaining stations of my pride, one by one.
Ventriloquists try to trick their audience into believing they are not there, that their doll is twitching or talking or cracking jokes on its own accord. Even with the interrogating spotlight, their hand embedded into the doll’s back, they swear before the world they have nothing to do with that thing.
The pole nearest to the door of the bus looks like a vertebrae made up of the hands which grip onto it. I stretch my arm over the shoulder of the woman in front of me to reserve a small property for my clenched grasp on that pole. The woman is somewhere between the age of 30 and 35, I’d guess. She wears a navy cardigan over a white button-down shirt. Her brown hair is tied back into a businesslike bun. Two creases drape around the stage of her rested lips. Two stations left. I focus on her, to not focus on him, but her eyes—two brown bullets– are on the man behind me. Center stage, her lips fold into a trap door of rage. The curtains on her face open and, responding to the man, she yells, “Cochino!”
Filthy pig! And I wonder if she is responding to whatever he had been saying or responding to me telling him to move his hand; if she is reacting to my possibly unwarranted response or actual profanities. People start backing away as much as they can. The battery on my mp3 player dies and the rain pummels the windows. The bus hits a bus and a wave of sweat rises up my back and curls over my head. The sea anemone fan back and forth wildly. The man yells, “¡No hice nada! ¡No hice nada!” I didn’t do anything! and my lungs are full of water or doubt or fear because maybe I was wrong. Maybe the doll sitting on its master’s lap really is crying on its own, warping its own wood with its dummy tears. Maybe it wasn’t sleight of hand. The best puppeteer or magician is one that makes its audience believe that everything they felt to be true could be wrong. Even the worst abuser can do the same.
Suddenly, a man leaps out of his seat, grabs one of the horizontal bars attached to the ceiling, swings from it and lunges his boot into the belly of the screaming man. I imagine we are underwater. Limbs flail inches away from my body and I can feel the bubbles rushing off of them. Someone grabs me by the shoulders to pull me back. Two police officers in neon yellow vests over dark green uniforms, who had been posted at the front of the bus, push their way through the crowd with difficulty. They pull the men apart. The man who had been sitting yells, This guy touched the girl! as the other man continues to yell, “¡No hice nada! ¡Preguntale a ella!” Ask her! “¡No hice nada!” The man in the denim jacket outstretches his arm, the harpoon of his pointer finger directed at me. Everything stands still. The rain hushes the crowd. The police officers look up while restraining the two men. The restrained men stare at me. The woman with the whirlpool bun stares at me. All the passengers stare at me and the ones who are too far back stand on their tip-toes.
And I say nothing. I don’t move. I just hold my breath because it is the very last thing that is still mine.
Her eyes fixed on the man who stood behind me, the woman snarls, It was him! Take him out of here! So they do. They pull him to the front exit of the bus and the police and the man
get off. We start moving again. A wave of quiet chatter flows throughout the two connected cars of the bus. Just before arriving to the next station, the one before mine, the woman turns to me and says, “Tienes que defenderte.” You have to stand up for yourself. I don’t respond. The doors open. Cowardly clutching my backpack to my chest, I exit the bus and walk home.