Dances with Words (Beginning)


They formed a small, intimate, incompatible set. Like a family. Mundane/miraculous. Magnificent/toxic. They made a writing group.

They found each other through their commutes. All rode the FS from San Francisco to North Berkeley, an unupholstered transbay bus that only ran every half hour or so, only during the morning and evening commutes, so they became transitorily familiar with each other even before they conversed.

They didn’t have much in common except their commutes. They weren’t all in relationships or property, in money or need. But they were white and roughly of an age. Each read and wanted to write.

It started with a series of casual comments. Most often they saw one another on the 5:20 p.m. from the terminal home. They all liked the back end of the bus, where one was more likely to get room.

Two men, two women. Judd was big and expansive, and Eliot was compact. Karin was brunette and modest; Olivia was brassy both ways. Usually they didn’t talk on the bus; this was just how they looked. Judd tended to sit in the middle of the back seat so he had room to stretch his long legs, while Eliot sat sideways over the back wheels, leg crossed knee-over-knee and chest curved around whatever big book he was reading. He was almost Japanese in his ability to take up minimal space. Karin liked to sit facing forwards but near the back door of the bus, where she could exit quickly if need or desire arose. She tried not to resent it on the rare occasion when another passenger took the seat beside her, but she didn’t like it; it made her feel pinned in position and she usually thought the other passenger was taking up too much of the seat. Olivia always flung herself and her scarves and bags sideways upon a seat, and then arrayed her stuff for the ride. Ostensibly relaxed she nonetheless was in frequent motion, crossing and uncrossing her legs, tucking them under her and stretching them out again, fingering her streaky hair and rotating her neck; somehow everyone on the bus knew not only that she rode it but how she looked and moved.

People usually didn’t talk on the ride. Except for the frequent and inane cellphone hemi-logues, the passengers enjoyed silence. Some dozed. Most read. But occasionally there were comments about traffic or sunsets, and those could lead to a nodding or name-exchanging habit. Sometimes one passenger touched a sleeping fellow’s hand when the bus came to the sleeper’s customary stop, and after a quick “How far are you riding?” and a disoriented “What? Huh? Oh thank you! I’ve been dozing all day,” an acquaintance was born.

So it was with Judd and Karin and Eliot and Olivia. They rode, they read, they commented, and that led to book reviews and exchanges, to a reading group, and finally, when they each understood that the other three also aspired, to a regular biweekly writers’ group. Five pages every two weeks. And they had to find something positive to say about each of the three pieces from the last meeting. It took a bit of stamina.

As well as anyone can remember, the group started when Karin was reading The Bridges of Madison County, in hardback, and happened to recommend it to Eliot. Olivia overheard, and she was wearing five scarves that day, so it was a cold-weather time of year. All four of them were on the bus and no one else was in the back a few weeks later when Eliot made his disparaging review of the little book. He’d hated it. He said he despised that sort of emotional manipulation. He spoke softly but even so Karin was embarrassed. She felt as if by happening to recommend it she became responsible for the style and for Eliot’s loaded reaction. Judd felt protective and Olivia became interested. Someone suggested a third and fourth opinion. Judd and Olivia would read the book too, and they’d all meet two weeks later to discuss it.

Nobody liked the book except Karin. After Judd panned its dialogue and Olivia exclaimed against the heroine’s dishonesty (Olivia was cynical but she hated that woman for not allowing husband and children a chance at the truth), Karin justified her response by pointing out that the book was set in her home state. She figured she liked it because it reminded her of old landscapes but, really, it was the new anti-depressants. Karin had just started taking the pink pills the week before she read the book and, while she noticed herself smiling with sentimental warmth at any TV featuring children or animals, she forgot herself and her attitudes when she read. She liked to read.

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