There’s the Chinese woman again. Gabe grinned to himself, happy to see her, as he was every day at their bus stop.
He’d never spoken to her. Long ago he’d learned that not everyone had his sense of nostalgia or longing for community. In his heart he’d forged bonds with complete strangers that, when acted upon, were at the least off-putting but usually frightening. It was one thing to say a warm hello to the stranger walking her dog, the woman you saw every day at 7:40 a.m., who nonetheless never recognized you. It was something else entirely to try to foist upon her a to-go cup of coffee and wrap a hoodie around her shoulders, because it was getting colder and she wasn’t dressing for the weather. She screamed, her dog sawed through his pantleg and deep into his Achilles tendon, and he learned a little lesson.
Even if most people blocked out the world around them, Gabe couldn’t help noticing people. The tall heavy metal dude was easy to remember; the short, fat, young woman who always wore a tweed skirt, she stood out after a while; the older woman with the haunted eyes, she was noticeable only because she always sat in the same seat, before he got on the bus. And these people would change slightly: the fat woman gave herself a makeover with satin pants and bottle-blonde hair; the older woman looked much less haunted one week, even smiled. He made up little stories about them, watching their progression, guessing at their larger worlds…
But he was alone in this, he knew. It was just Gabe and Gabe alone, watching a blind and uncaring world, observing.
So on this gray morning it gave him a little, private pleasure to see the Chinese student walk up to catch the bus. Mostly she was a bundle of layers and fabrics, modestly hidden under a pillowy magnolia jacket and beige infinity scarf, threadbare flats that must have been black ten years ago, but there was always a splash of color in there somewhere. Bright red jeans one day; huge yellow plastic earrings another day; once, even, an oversized jacket in deep eggplant. It was gorgeous and he wished he could tell her so, but he’d learned that most people didn’t like to receive compliments, however carefully worded.
Like everyone else, she was wrapped up in her little world. She walked up, digging in her drab Tibetan shoulder bag, her black hair pinned up in unraveling whorls, her eyes studious behind large glasses. Not hipster-large: actual, functioning glasses that served a purpose, just with large lenses. She never wore lipstick; her eyes were sometimes sleepy behind her glasses; her lips were full and pale, relaxed in a frown of vague discontent, rising up just below her button-nose.
The story Gabe made up for her was that she never wanted to study in America but her family made her. While she was here, she was determined to enjoy herself or at least find some comfort: thick clothes, a couple pieces of fun accessories. He told himself that she never went to a Chinese restaurant: not only were they never up to her standards, but they still reminded her of the home she left unwillingly. He made that up when she brought a to-go bag from Burger King one morning.
Today, though, he was feeling restless. He was going to try something daring: he was going to smile at her. He didn’t know if people in her town smiled at each other on the street, and he didn’t know if there was a stigma against gwailo smiling at young Chinese women, but he didn’t care. His heart was lonely and tired of being repressed. It couldn’t hurt anything to just give a friendly smile to someone you see every day, even if she had no idea who he was.
Gabe half-turned toward her as she approached. He ducked his head slightly, in what he hoped was a gesture of friendly submission. The saliva clicked between his teeth as his lips slowly parted in a mild smile.
She hardly glanced as her arm shot up out of her shoulder bag. A small cloud erupted from her hand into his face.
One hand clutched to the stomach of her puffy coat, Xiaofan paid her fare and hustled to the seats just behind the handicapped section, near the front. Very unpopular to sit here: Americans found it much cooler to sit in the back. She waited for the bus to hit its last two stops before taking the highway, and when she was quite alone, only then did she open her palm.
She grinned at the little man, passed out upon her thin fingers. The tall white guy at the bus stop each morning, always with the heavy gray jacket, always with his short hair pulled to the side like a small child. When the bus was full and he had to sit in the front, she’d stare at him as much as she dared, quickly looking away with her practiced expression of boredom whenever he moved at all. He had kind eyes, when everyone else here looked furious or defeated. Mostly he listened to music, sometimes he read, and then she could stare at him all she liked.
It was very difficult for Xiaofan to meet new people in the States. She was ashamed of her broken English, no matter how her tutor praised her. Most people in this city seemed unable to understand her accent, so she only socialized with other exchange students, wherever they were from. They understood. She told herself the tall blond man might understand, but it wasn’t worth finding out and getting disappointed.
But that wasn’t an issue now, was it? His long legs curled slightly from within his heavy gray coat, and his short hair fell lighter than silk upon her knuckle. Xiaofan could feel the heat in her cheeks as she grinned upon him, her other hand cupped around to shelter him from… she didn’t know what. She just felt very protective of this tiny man in her palm. This tiny man that was now hers.
Carefully, she reached down with one finger and nudged at one of his tiny black shoes. It felt like nothing at all, as she watched it swivel under her fingertip, then fall back into place. Very carefully, she plucked at the hem of his pantleg, lifting one leg up and letting it fall against her skin. It lay straight, his other leg was slightly bent at the knee.
She licked her lip. He was so adorable! It was so hard to resist poking him in the stomach or messing up his hair! How long would he−
There, his head turned. The gray coat rose and fell. His other leg straightened out, and one arm slid over her smooth and pale palm. His face turned up to her; reflexively, Xiaofan nearly snapped her head away, but how could she pretend not to be staring at him when he was lying in her small hand? She giggled slightly, finally meeting his gaze, watching his tiny dark eyes blink slowly, running up and down her face… She must’ve seemed huge to him, he had to turn his whole head to look at her forehead, her nose, then her chin, then back up to his eyes.
She brought her free hand up to her cheek, fingers curled, and wiggled one little index fingertip at him. Hello, she mouthed.
His face slowly melted from confusion into a warm and gentle smile. Xiaofan gasped three times in a row, and there was just a little wetness in her panties.