Sometimes, if you pay real close attention, you’ll catch yourself feeling or thinking something that you don’t recognize at all. Something that doesn’t line up with who you think you are. Like some stranger is living inside of you and working a set of joysticks tethered to your chest, making you do and say things against your will.
In those moments, you can accept that something inside of you has changed, or you can fight like hell against whatever it is you’re becoming.
The one thing you can’t do is pretend you didn’t notice.
I’m driving in to work one day and I keep passing these school busses on the highway. Dozens of them, it feels like, as if every school in the metro Atlanta area has teamed up to obliterate the morning commute. They’re long and bulky and they’re clogging up every lane. I keep getting stuck behind them and they’re spitting hot exhaust out of their tail pipes and stifling the morning breeze I wish was pouring through my open windows.
I pull up behind one bus in particular and I slam on my breaks because all of a sudden, we’re stopping. Of course we are. So this bus and me are ass to nose and these two little boys are peering out the back window at me. And one of them, a mop-headed kid with freckles, leans to his buddy and whispers something and they both start laughing. And they’re looking right at me as they laugh and they’re whispering back and forth conspiratorially. I figure they’re making fun of my glasses or maybe they saw me singing along to my music before I pulled up but either way, I’m pretty annoyed.
Truth be told, I was annoyed long before this. I woke up stressed out, the way people do. I’ve got all kinds of shit on my mind like I’m too busy at work and I’m wondering if I’m on the right path in life and oh, fuck, I have a dentist appointment in two weeks that’s going to suck and cost me money I don’t have.
And now I’m sitting here while these kids mock me and the traffic is so thick that I can’t go around. So I just have to sit there and watch them laugh.
I feel this sort of crotchety anger bubbling up in me. This anger I’ve been feeling more and more as I get older. You little shits, I think. How dare you. I oughta climb up there and whip your asses.
But then I wonder why I even care. I’m 27 years old, for Christ’s sake. In a lot of ways, I’m barely older than these kids. But right now I feel like one of those old men at the beach yelling at children for running and kicking up sand near where he’s swinging his metal detector. And that upsets me more than anything.
But like I said, I have nowhere to go so eventually I take a breath and settle in. A smidgen of space opens up between me and the bus and I ease off the brake just long enough to lurch forward and close the gap and then my foot tightens right back up and I’m sitting still again; hot, smoggy air drifting in through my vents.
The kids on the bus have moved on to better things like trading Pokemon cards or comparing their penises or whatever you do at that age and I start thinking about what it was like back then. Back when just being out of the immediate sight of adults was thrilling and brought out another side of you. When the chaperone would sit all the way in the front and you’d be in the back and it felt like they had somehow granted you infinite freedom. I think about how the back of the bus used to be a magical place. A secret place. A place where you talked about all sorts of things like the girls you had crushes on and what their boobs might look like. I’m sure we talked about other things, too, but those are the main ones I remember.
The back of the bus was where you felt wild and reckless and invincible.
I think about when you get a little older and you don’t ride a school bus anymore but you learn to create that feeling and carry it with you. Because when you’re a teenager it doesn’t matter where you are if you’re with your friends — that’s why you always see kids running amok in the aisles of a Wal-Mart or loitering outside 7-11 like these are the most fun places they can think of to go. You can get drunk in a cardboard box for all you care. You can throw a party inside a hollowed out whale carcass. It doesn’t matter as long as no one’s parents are around to hear what you’re talking about.
I think about how it used to be so simple. When the only thing keeping you from doing everything and anything you wanted was the presence of adults. But at some point you become the adult. Everyone does.
And when you’re an adult, you get pissed off when your neighbor has his TV up too loud or when someone in your neighborhood has trash in their yard or when frozen shrimp starts getting really expensive at the grocery store. You see a group of teenagers hanging out somewhere and, immediately, you hate their guts for no reason.
I think about all of this and I look down and I’m driving with my hands in the 10 and 2 position like some illustrated character in a Driver’s Ed handbook. And I’m ashamed. And a little sad.
In that moment, I want to feel reckless again. But I realize I’ve totally forgotten how.
I think about a few nights earlier, one of those rare nights where my wife and I weren’t falling asleep into our dinner plates or our work laptops. It was beautiful outside, warm and cold at the same time and not a cloud in the sky; everything seems perfect. She asked me what I wanted to do, and I couldn’t think of anything. Not a thing. We were out of TV shows to watch, so the best I could come up with was to take a walk and enjoy the night air. Which we did. And we were back on the couch thirty minutes later trying to come up with something else.
All the freedom in the world and no idea what to do with it.
Suddenly traffic lurches forward again and my eyes are level with the bumper of the bus. I look to my left and there’s a long haired guy with tattoos blaring some kind of hard rock inside his rusted out sedan — with a pressed dress shirt hanging neatly in the backseat, ready to cover up the real him as soon as he gets to the office.
I start to feel like, somewhere along the way, we just forget. We forget what it’s like to sit at the back of the bus. The way Peter Pan grew up in the movie Hook and forgot how to fly, and everyone’s telling him “Just think a happy thought,” and we watch him fall on his face over and over as he struggles to remember how to do something astoundingly simple.
Like him, we grow up and we forget how to just be who we are. And maybe that crotchety anger I keep feeling is just me being jealous of people who haven’t.
But sometimes, when the circumstances are just right, for a split second, or an hour, or a night, or even a long weekend — we stumble upon ourselves again. We stumble upon that recklessness and we act out. We somehow tap into that feeling and we let go of everything and we drink until the room spins and then we drink some more. Or we blow a paycheck on something shiny and exciting that we know we shouldn’t. And then we wake up with a pit in our stomach, feeling like we did something horribly wrong even though we know we didn’t.
Maybe that’s our brain — or heart, or soul, or whatever you believe in — telling us that we can never really go back. That we can pretend — for a second, or an hour, or a night, or a weekend — but now it’s a new generation’s turn to treat the world like a giant playground.
I have to believe it’s telling us that there are bigger and better things waiting for us than just feeling young and out of control.
When the traffic finally thins and I’m able to pull around the bus, a little girl in pigtails leans up against her middle-row window and makes a face at me. And I just wave at her. And she waves back.
She looks over her shoulder, hoping the teacher hasn’t seen and won’t yell at her. When she realizes she’s in the clear, this unmistakable look of glee creeps over her face and her cheeks go red.
I catch my reflection in the side view mirror as I accelerate past her. I’m older than I’m supposed to be, and there’s something below the surface that I don’t recognize. I look tired. Tame. Angrier than I used to. And I don’t like it.
The only question is whether I’m going to fight it, or accept the guy staring back at me in the mirror and try to figure out where he goes from here.
I guess I still haven’t decided.
But as I pull away, I crank my music back up and start singing like an idiot again. Maybe the kids start laughing at me again. Maybe they don’t. I don’t even turn to look.
Because now the wind is whipping across my face and I’m speeding along as fast as the road will let me.
I’m belting out lyrics like they were my last words on this Earth.
And, for now at least, there are no adults around to hear me.