My walk to the bus stop is almost always cold, and fresh. It fills my head with dewy, icy air that smells clean, like pine needles soaked in rain water, evergreen trees, and the salt water nearby. I stand at the bus stop kicking pinecones and breathe in deep, wishing I had a second set of lungs to store an extra supply, an emergency ration for the stink ahead.
Within a few minutes I see the yellow dot of the school bus. It seems to slow down as it gets closer. I shiver and my teeth start to chatter as I grow impatient.
“Hurry up you stupid frickin’ bus!” I mumble, wiggling my toes in my squishy, wet socks, wishing I hadn’t stepped in that puddle at the end of the driveway.
By the time the bus’s folding door creaks its squeaky way open for me, I’m happy to trade the chill of the morning wind for warmth, despite the stale, metallic, exhaust and fart-fumed air that wafts through the bus. My stop is about halfway along the route to the elementary school, but the bus is already pretty full. Even in the morning, little kids stink. With their mouths wide open, the boys burp as loud as they can. My friend Carrie brags that her mom forgot to check whether she brushed her teeth as she blows her omelet-infused morning breath into my face.
“You’re nasty,” I say, wondering what it is that makes some kids hate brushing their teeth, and others love doing things that stink in public. I pull my hair across my face and over my nose. It smells like coconuts. It’s not long before the bus stench weasels its way in though. I wonder if I washed my hair and carefully brushed my teeth for nothing – will we all smell like the bus when we get to school anyway?
The afternoons are worse. Dust from the soccer field clings to the P.E. and recess sweat. A musty odor hangs in the air - dirty feet and hair mixed with grass stains, spilled pickle juice, and breath that stinks like Sloppy Joes. The rule is no eating on the bus, which only makes it more fun to save as much as you can from your lunch box for the ride home.
“I’ll trade you half my tuna sandwich for half of your Ding Dong,” my friend Carrie says.
“Are there pickles mixed in?”
It’s not a good trade. The lettuce is wilted and the Wonder bread is soggy. The fishy mayonnaisey tuna air drifts first out of the plastic baggie and then out of our mouths. It swirls around the bus with Cool Ranch Doritos, and Cheez-It crackers, and peanut butter, and the tiny, warm carton of chocolate milk that Johnny Delano always drinks on the bus. Haylee Lee is on the bus today. She lives on the other side of town, so she must be going to a friend’s house who lives along my route. I’m glad Haylee doesn’t live near me because I wouldn’t want her to be on my bus every day.
“What the heck is Haylee eating?” Carrie asks.
Haylee’s in my class so I know all about her smelly lunches. “Seaweed and kimchee.” Haylee’s parents are Korean. They own a tofu factory.
“Gross,” Carrie says, scowling. “Why is she eating that on the bus? It reeks.”
The fourth grader sitting across from us picks his nose and eats it. He thinks no one saw but I did. Derek Nelson makes fart sounds with his armpits. It smells like he’s trying to cover up the sound of a real one though. Tony O’Keefe slugs a nerdy kid in the gut and threatens to draw blood. Jerks. I roll my eyes and take a bite of my Ding Dong, sniffing the cream filling a little too closely; a bit gets on the end of my nose and I wipe it off with my sleeve. I love the smell of chocolate. There’s nothing better.
“Why are Ding Dongs so good?” I ask Carrie.
“They’re the best, huh?” she says as she takes a bite of her half. The rest slips out of her hand and lands on her dress. “Dangit!” she says, grabbing the dropped bit and plopping it in her mouth. Then she lifts the bottom of her dress up to her lips and sucks up the spilled cream filling.
The fourth grader picks his nose again and wipes it on his jeans. Marni Metzler drops her giant jawbreaker on the floor of the bus. Two seats up, Jenny Townsend reaches down to grab it. She hands it to Kristina Kelly, who passes it back to Marni, who licks it as if nothing happened. As I watch her tongue sliding across the sticky jawbreaker again and again, I smell the sour mud puddle I stepped in that morning coming off the jaw breaker. I wonder if she can taste the dog poop that someone traipsed through when running across their yard, late for the bus. I see bits of hair and dust and spider legs swirling their way down Marni’s throat as she licks and licks and licks, laughing, obviously unaware that she’s just become the most disgusting kid on this bus.
Ben Larsen is picking at a scab on his face and it starts to bleed. He keeps playing with the spot as reddish pinkish dribbles make their way down his cheek.
“Dude, you’re disgusting,” my friend Carrie says to him. “You’re bleeding everywhere.
Instead of using his t-shirt collar to wipe away the blood, like I would do, Ben rubs his hand all over his face, spreading the blood around. He looks like a scary clown.
“Don’t let him touch you,” I whisper to Carrie. “Don’t even look at him or he might try to wipe his blood on us.” My mom said to never let anyone’s blood get near me.
Most days the driver pulls over at least once along the route home to hand out a pink slip, the worst kind of punishment you can get on the bus. That’s why getting home always takes longer than going to school. Carrie and I usually spend the whole ride home slouched down in our seats scarfing down the room temperature remains of our lunches; we never get pink slips though. I don’t think the driver really cares all that much about the food rule. I feel bad for whoever has to clean our bus, but I drop the crumpled up foil from my Ding Dong on the floor anyway.
- Krisa Bruemmer