Helium Lives Longer?
I stumble onto the bus, and let myself drop into a seat near the back, adjusting the flask of Bacardi in my pocket. I look around, trying to settle the shifting of my vision. Some middle-eastern looking young man on my left, probably in his 20s, stares at the snow falling outside the vehicle. On my right, a younger Asian kid, probably fresh out of high school, taps away at a new-looking smartphone in his hands. He catches my gaze, gives me a brief smile from behind his horn-rimmed glasses, and returns his attention to his phone.
An older Asian man gets on the bus just as the doors close, and makes his way to the back. The bus begins to move, and I steady myself by holding onto the seat. A surgical mask, or something of the sort, covers the man’s face. Why did he have it? The air quality here isn’t bad at all. In fact, it’s great! There really wasn’t a need for anybody to wear that kind of thing. I lean over to the kid on my right, and try to say something along the lines of ‘Does he think that will make him live longer?’, but it comes out as
“Helium live longer?”
He looked at me, slipping his phone into one of the pockets of his pea coat.
“Helium lives longer?”
“Um… I’m not really sure what it is you’re trying to say”, he says.
I damn my lack of control, and I try again, re-stating the question another way.
“Do you really think the air quality is that bad?” I ask, nodding my chin towards the older man.
He looks quickly, and turns back to me.
“No, I think the air here is fine, the guy probably just doesn’t want to get sick, or doesn’t want to get other people sick. I doubt it’s because the of the air quality.”
Maybe this guy has never taken a real breath before. Is he even breathing now? I can’t tell under all the layers he’s wearing. Maybe I’ll enlighten him to what real breathing is. It makes me astoundingly happy.
“When you breathe, is it your own breath? Does the air belong to you?”
He looks confused.
“Well, yes, I guess I breathe.”
“Yeah, but, does the breath belong to you?”
“I don’t really think the breath belongs to me… After all, it’s just air.”
He’s not understanding. I can tell. He’s never been in a cabin in the middle of a cold winter night, stepped out, and taken a breath that truly belonged to him. He’s never had the opportunity to. I laugh loudly, feeling bad for his lack of opportunity.
“If you want air that belongs to you, go to B.C.”
“Ah, I’ve never been. You think the air there is nice?”
“Yeah, it’s really nice…”
But B.C. comes with its own problems – notably, bears. I should probably warn him.
“But you know, bears go up and attack people sometimes! I’m about 230 pounds. How much do you think you weigh?”
“Probably somewhere in the region of 130.”
230. 130. That’s… 360 together. That seems like it might be close enough to the size of a bear.
“Okay, so think me – 230, and you – 130, into a bear, standing right in front of you. What do you even do? How do you get him to not eat you? Do you ever think about situations like this? You really should.”
“To be honest, I’m more of a city guy myself. Even thinking about that situation now seems kind of silly, especially because bears are omnivores. I’m sure they’d be more interested in fish or berries instead.”
I laugh long and hard. This guy doesn’t know a thing about bears! It’s a good thing I’m telling him now.
“You think a bear is going to want to eat some BERRIES when he’s got MEAT in front of him!?”
He doesn’t say anything for a little bit, and just looks at me quizzically. His hair seems rather well-kept, and reminds me of the young Hong Kong culture.
“You a Hong Kong kid?”
His eyes widen slightly with surprise.
“I’m surprised you can tell. Sometimes I can’t even tell the difference between people from Hong Kong and mainlanders.”
I try to ask him the difference between the two, but it just ends up being a slur of unintelligible words.
“I mean, you can tell some people are from Hong Kong because of the way they speak English. Not that they really have Chinese accents, but more along the lines of how they were taught English when they were kids – it has different intonation from both American English and British English. Kind of like a little mix between the two.”
Hong Kong people learned British English? I never knew that.
“So can you tell the difference between them and royalty? Like the way kings speak and stuff?”
“What? I’m not really sure what you mean.”
I’m not sure how else to phrase the question. Where am I right now? How far am I from Blackthorn?
“Where are we right now? Where are you getting off?”
“We’re at Yonge and Steeles right now. I’m getting off somewhere around Sixteenth.”
“Yonge and Steeles… Okay. I’m getting off at Blackthorn, it’s past Highway 7 but before Sixteenth. Looks like we’re going the same way. This IS the 91 bus, right?”
“Yeah, this is the 91.”
Better call my wife, then. I pull out my shitty Public Mobile Nokia and dial her number. Tell her where I am and that I’m on my way. Hang up, and shove it back into my sweater pocket.
“So what are you studying?”
“I’m in computer engineering.”
“So where’s that gonna take you?”
“Probably an office job somewhere. Writing software.”
Ha! This kid! I laugh again. Is that all he thinks there is to life? When is he going to have time to actually enjoy himself?
“You think that’s going to be FULFILLING?” I ask, eyes wide, smile plastered on my face.
“Well, a job’s a job. It’s not necessarily about whether I actually enjoy it or not, but if I can make the money to do what I want that makes me happy, I think that’s fulfilling.”
“My vocation ” - I emphasize the word because I despise it – “is health and safety, for construction. Thankfully, I haven’t seen someone injured in about five years.”
“Oh, I’d say that’s pretty good, then.”
“Yeah, it is…”
The last accident I saw was a pretty bad one. Some stupid kid was wearing gloves while operating a lathe. One of the simplest rules out there. Glove got caught in the machine. Ripped his entire arm off.
“I’ve got a son – I’ll probably teach him everything I know about safety. How to take care of himself.”
“How old is he?”
“Just turning two, actually. I could teach him everything in the world about it. I could even teach everyone here about it. But I don’t have to.”
Maybe this was too dark of a subject. Maybe I should change it.
“Here, here”, I say.
I pull out my TTC day pass from my pocket.
“How good do you think your reflexes are?”
“Pretty bad, actually.”
“Put your fingers like this –”
I put my thumb and index finger a centimetre apart, as if I’m going to pinch something. This was a trick a buddy showed me some time ago. The kid follows suit, and I put the pass right above his pinch-ready fingers.
“I’m gonna let this drop. Try to catch it. I’ll give you three tries.”
“Three tries? Do I win anything if I can get it?”
I laugh. Even if there was a prize he wouldn’t get it. My friend had said it was something air pressure or other. I don’t really get it myself. All I know is that I was never able to catch it, either. We proceed to the trial three times. He doesn’t get it any of the times.
“So do you know what you can’t catch it?”
“As I said, probably because I’ve got bad reflexes.”
“No, but do you know it’s a FACT you can’t catch it?”
“I’m not entirely sure what you mean.”
Wait, where am I right now? How long have I been on this bus for? Did I miss my stop? I look around, trying to get a glimpse of the surroundings.
“Where are we right now?”
“Steeles and Bayview. We’re turning onto Bayview now.”
“Still the 91 bus, right?”
“Yeah, it’s the 91.”
I fish out my shitty Nokia again and phone the wife. Ask her if she can put the baby to bed herself. She says she can manage. I tell her I’m getting close, and I’ll be there soon. The kid seems the same size as I was when I was 13 or 14. I could probably throw him around like my dad threw me around. I lean in a little close.
“Hey, you know, I could throw you at that guy over there” – gesture toward the middle-eastern man – “and he could probably fight you off.”
Something flashes across the kid’s face, but I can’t tell exactly what.
“Yeah, he probably could. I don’t really know why that would happen.”
“Well, I’m sure if you thought hard enough, you’d figure out SOME reason why it might.”
"Well, I think if you thought hard enough about anything you could come up with any reason for it. You could probably put a guy in a room with a picture of Dick Cheney eating a sandwich and at the end of the day he’d tell you all the intricacies of the picture."
I think I might be scaring him a bit. I laugh.
“Don’t worry, I won’t.”
How old is he? Seems a bit mature for how he looks.
“How old is your heart?”
“What do you mean? Does the heart have a different age than the rest of the body?”
“How old is your heart? Like, 25…?”
He looks at me quizzically.
“I guess if you mean the same age as the rest of my body, it’d be 18.”
"So do you know a lot of other people who have hearts the same age?"
"Well, yeah, I guess I do know a lot of people my age."
I laugh. That was a dumb question.
“Of course you know people your age!”
My vision begins to darken at the side, but I take a deep breath, one that truly belongs to me, and things fade back into focus.
"You ever black out? Like someone choked you, or you fell down, or someone gave you the Vulcan shoulder pinch?"
“I can’t say I remember anything like that happening.”
"You know you probably could choke out anyone here on this bus?"
Same look from before passes quickly over his face. Still can’t really tell what it is.
"Well, yeah, I guess that’s possible, but I don’t really know why that would be necessary"
"Yeah, but you could."
"Yeah, I guess I could."
"So do you ever feel that you can’t control that ability? That you could go and choke out someone at any time?"
"If I can’t control myself now I don’t see why I would be able to at any other point in time."
This kid’s a riot! I laugh so hard it feels I’m going to get cramps.
“Did you… Did you just say that if you can’t control yourself now, you won’t be able to later? Don’t you think you should try to control yourself!?”
"Oh, no, I said I COULD control myself now. I just don’t see what circumstance would change so I wouldn’t be able to control myself later."
That made much more sense.
“So, what do you know?” I ask.
“It depends, I guess. What subject are you asking about?”
“Why aren’t you driving?”
He sits still for a bit, and thinks.
“Well, there’s a few reasons. First, I’m scared I might hit someone. Second, because I’ve actually have to be awake to drive.”
“Yeah, that’s one! You gotta be AWAKE AND ALERT to drive.”
I laugh, churning the rum in my stomach.
“Also, owning a car costs money. Gas costs money. Maintenance costs money. I just don’t have the money for all those expenses right now.”
The guy was right. Had to sell my car because of those reasons, too.
"Yeah… I know exactly what you’re saying. Exactly what you’re saying. Hey, can you put me down?"
“What? Put you down?”
“Yeah, put me down.”
“As in kill you right now? Like putting down a dog?”
I laugh. This guy was full of surprises.
“No! Like press here” – I point to a vein in my neck – “until I pass out.”
“Oh. Well, you said it yourself, I’m sure it would be possible for me to do that.”
Possible, yeah. You don’t have to be a strong guy to choke someone out or to make them pass out. I was starting to sober up, so I pull the flask out of my pocket, and take a big swig. The rum burns my throat as it goes down. I shove the flask into my pants, and let out a sigh.
“I’ve got what they call an ‘alcohol dependency’.”
“Ah. That’s rather unfortunate.”
“Yeah, I need it to even function.”
“So how did that come about?”
I remember losing my first job. Having rum as my meals for three days in a row.
“Maybe when you’re older… You’ll brush shoulders with it.”
It’s a problem. I know it. But I’ve got other things to worry about right now. Like my wife. Like my son. I can take care of this later. But maybe I can steer this kid away from it.
“When did you get your biggest paycheck?”
“Probably a few weeks ago, why?”
“How much was it – 1000 dollars?”
“Probably somewhere in the region of 1400.”
“Here, here, cross your legs like I am right now.”
Maybe if he was sitting like I was he could better understand my message.
“Say it happily – I made 1400 dollars!”
“I made 1400 dollars!” he echoes.
I smile. He looks happy.
“You know, I’m probably gonna get off this bus without even knowing your first initial. What’s your first initial?”
My stop was coming up, and I quickly gathered my things.
“What’s your first name?”
“Do you have a cigarette?”
“No, I don’t smoke, sorry.”
Bum a cigarette off the middle-eastern man on my left. It’s my stop now, and I run to the door of the bus. But I still want to know something.
“WHAT DOES YOUR NAME MEAN?”
He says something but I can’t quite hear it.
“WHAT DOES IT MEAN?”
The bus driver yells at me to get off.
“IT’S THE NAME OF AN AUTHOR!”
I step off the bus. The name of an author. Already, the wind starts to bite at my exposed fingers. I dig around my pockets for my gloves, but half of the pair is missing. I guess I left one behind.
Inspired by a true story.