We live in the future, so I’m on a bus in Los Angeles and log onto Twitter to write a note to the author of a book I’m reading: “Loving yr novel. Managing to focus on its pages during a manic bus ride to Venice Beach, during which a drunk guy fell on me”
“Thank you so much,” writes the author, Rabih Alamaddine. “Haven’t had a drunk guy fall on me in ages!”
This is a story about a bus ride on a Saturday night just before sundown. Things get intense. The bus to Venice Beach is no joke. Neither is life, writing, or a good book.
I’ve just finished teaching a day-long class. We meet downtown, because I teach toward a degree one gets by coming each weekend to a tiny campus composed of turn-of-the-century, possibly-haunted mansions repurposed into classrooms. (Once owned by the guy upon whom Upton Sinclair’s Oil! was based, and in turn inspiration for the brutal film There Will Be Blood.)
Standing on the street, dazed, class having concluded, I am wearing a suit and tie, which feels both like a costume and the appropriate thing to wear when you’ve been talking nine hours straight.
At the stop a guy sits on the curb, smoking a joint. He has quite a bit of his joint left, so I figure I’ve got time. Then four tough-looking guys come up and the joint man stands to join them and they’re all smoking the joint, sizing me up. Other dudes drive by real slow, in a minivan with silver rims and dark windows. This is not a good neighborhood.
The bus trundles up, belching and smoking, and I pay my fare. Only one seat is available: half a seat, really, beside the coiled and dust-covered limbs of a man wearing jeans, boots, and a t-shirt advertising a boxing club. He is slamming down a tall boy of beer. I do not want to spend 12 miles standing. There’s a strong stink of piss and warm beer and also whiskey, because the three punk kids sitting to my rear are slugging back a bottle of Jameson.
The book I’m reading is An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. It’s a dense and lovely novel rooted in literature. The main character, an old Lebanese woman, has found refuge in a bookstore, in her apartment, and finally in a sort of lush and odd ritual act of translating books into editions only she herself will read.
I stare at those around me, to construct my own story, but when I take a closer look I see a big bearded guy eying me, and I can feel my necktie tighten around my throat and I’m not sure of the power of this moment, so I look down and decide to read again.
About that book: There’s a thrill to being in a world that treats a Humbert Humbert like an old friend, that refers to Proust not as a relic or punch line but as someone you might have had tea with. Sebald, Thomas Mann, the Brontes — they are people. I’m falling in love with this old narrator and her love of books, where I too feel safe and comfortable.
I try to settle into the seat but it’s hard to sit without knocking into the dust-covered guy drinking beer. “Gimme some of that,” says a very large woman, who at this moment is requesting from the punks some of their Jameson. She laughs as they comply and tips the bottle back and there’s a glug glug glug.
Does the bus driver care? Suddenly he stops the bus and gets out. There’s speculation he hasn’t just quit his job, that either he is using the bathroom or purchasing a taco. A lot of life is figuring out the rules, and the extent to which they apply.
In an early chapter of An Unnecessary Woman, the narrator is recalling the war years in Beirut, when she had to buy an AK47 to protect her apartment from marauding soldiers. I once lived in Beirut. We had no gun but sometimes I wanted one. The narrator’s office is full of books. In her bed is this gun. She’s all alone, but not really. She reads by candlelight.
The sun dips and the light dims and the bus shakes back and forth. About that Jameson: a couple of jolly worker guys in dirty tshirts takes the bottle next. I lick my lips, both wanting a sip and knowing I shouldn’t.
A tall guy folds his body into a too-small seat. A bright carnation rests in the lapel of his rumpled blazer. Meanwhile, a half-asleep woman in headscarf blocks the seat with her many bags. One is leopard-print, held together with a wide stripe of safety pins, like a row of metal teeth. She stirs and I watch her stroke a turtle-shaped bag.
Four young girls gets on; the older two are 11 years old and the younger are four and five years old. There are no adults in this foursome. The fast-talking of the older two is very thin and jaws on about a mom in jail. The other 11-year-old is plump with braids but she is confident and seems fun and silly. They begin to fight over a cell phone and the little girls with them seem frightened. It gets slappy, in that the girls slap each other.
I turn back to my book, but before I can open to the right page the bus lurches to a stop and one of the drunk punks falls right on the thin girl, who is outraged. I wait for her to hit him, but instead she is pinned by his wet, drunk girth. I wait to see what happens. When he gets up, he falls on me. I log into Twitter. I write Rabih.
I hold this book he’s written. I tap into my phone. The headscarfed woman gets up to leave. She makes a pile of her bags on the sidewalk, and then slowly tips over onto them for what looks like a nap.
The bus keeps going, the city skidding by like the background to a story we don’t need or in any case haven’t taken the time to get straight. Then the plump girl joins the thin one, and they enter into a tender hug, almost as if they’re lovers. I look away, embarrassed, confused. They are so young! I look around: The very large lady in back is painting her nails. The drunk punks pour the rest of the Jameson into a bottle of 7-Up, which they pass around. Someone belches. The smell is strong. The guy beside me crushes a can in his hand and opens another.
In the novel I’m reading, the narrator is a widower. War years in Beirut were tough, with scarce water, food, and power. At one point she is put in the situation of offering her body to a man, so that she can take a shower. There were militias who marked territory by spiking heads on poles. It’s an electrifying scene, about the choices we make, and her gambit to get clean, and what feels so real about the writing is not just Rabih’s description of the act – of the joy of showering during a siege, of the simplicity of sex – but of the way any of us might make a decision that seems to make so much sense at the time.
Before I can add this all up, I have to deal with the guy sitting next to me, who has been slamming Budweiser for miles and miles. “Make a hole,” is all he says when he’s ready to get up. Outside, he punches the glass and points at me.
I miss my family and have been pointed at. One of the little girls attempts to comfort the other little girl, while the older two fondle each other, hands in each others pants. In a cheap little purse carried by a girl who must be a kindergartner there is nothing more than an empty Cheetos bag.
At a stop on Venice Boulevard, the drunk punk trio takes a lot of time to help each other not fall onto the floor. Outside, they weave, unable to stand still, until they see a beautiful thing: It’s a giant sign for Howard’s Famous Bacon & Avocado Burgers. The drunk punks enter into a group hug and throw their arms into the air in celebration. A tourist with a big suitcase and wide eyes snaps a photo.
There’s nothing like a good book, or a long bus ride, or an entire bottle of Jameson on a Saturday night. My stop is approaching. The very large woman screams. “The beach!” and she pulls a cord. We get off, heading to where we think we need to go. At home, my wife asks me if anything good happened today.
Nathan Deuel is on faculty at the MFA in creative writing at Mount Saint Mary's University. He is the author of Friday Was the Bomb, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, and has written essays, short fiction, and book reviews for The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times, and The Paris Review, among others.