When I was in my early 20s, I lost my grasp on what I was doing in this world. I lived in a city that didn’t fit me, a life that didn’t feel right. Often in this life, there were conversations about weather and road construction. Long, extended conversations on these topics. Traffic. This kind of talk would sink me. I noticed that the food we ate when we went out was increasingly square, increasingly marked with char lines, magic marker stripes of something desired but not real. Our friends were going to have a baby; we talked about that, too. Other friends wanted to buy a house; we talked about that, too. And better jobs. And saving money. All of which were things I felt I should want, being in my 20s. But I didn’t. What I wanted wasn’t easily squared or marked or had.
I was trying to be a writer. I lived in a small apartment with my boyfriend, and he missed me when I wrote. To avoid his loneliness, I made a cardboard box desk in the closet, took my notebook in, sat among the empty clothes and gaping shoes, and wrote. I worked at a bookstore because it seemed like it made me closer to the books I wanted to create, but ultimately, it meant I was in retail, ringing up purchases and writing poems on receipts. I was willing to try things, to squeeze art in the cracks, but still. Things always seemed slightly off to me. Slightly not right.
One night after work, I walked from the bookstore to a place in a mall where the buses came. I boarded a bus. It drove down the long straight driveway of the mall and turned left. My bus would have turned right. I had boarded the wrong bus. Suddenly, my heart filled with joy. I was on the wrong bus! And I was going to stay on the wrong bus! I could have stood and rung the bell and walked back down the long driveway, but no. I was going to stay and see what happened! Finally! Something happening! I was in the wrong place! I was on the wrong bus! I beamed at my fellow passengers. I thought, Let’s get fucking lost. I got out my notebook. We drove into the heart of the city, where I’d only been once or twice. I scribbled descriptions of the city, thoughts, I made up narratives about the other riders. People got on and off of the bus. We drove all the way through the city and into the outskirts, into poorer neighborhoods where there wasn’t grass or color. I stared out the window at other people’s houses and wondered what they dreamed.
Abruptly, the bus pulled over and the bus driver shouted, “Everybody out!”
I was beside myself with joy! We were being thrown off the bus! All of us, onto a patch of dirt in the middle of nowhere! The strangeness of it! The others were angry. They complained, and then we stood in silence, craning to see down the road together. I could barely contain my pleasure. How had it come to this? I had no idea where I was.
The next bus came and the driver cursed each one of us as we climbed his crowded bus. “You! Another one! You! She don’t want to be late,” he snapped, “so now I’m gonna be late.” It was crowded, and we hung from straps and took the open seats as we drove back down into the city and people got on and people got off.
I was daydreaming when the lights went out, the bus went dark, and I realized I was alone in the seats. I asked myself, Stay and hide? See what the Bus Depot is like? Go? I tried not to sound like I was happy when I stood and told the bus driver I was there. “Of course you are.” the bus driver said, shaking his head. He hurled the bus to the curb, gave me cursory instructions, and clanked the doors closed. It was dinnertime and I was on a strange curb in a strange city in the dark!
I won’t belabor the finding of the next bus stop, the woman’s long storied troubles with alcohol and her mother, the two men squinching one eye shut and asking for money claiming to be the “One-Eyed Brothers,” the man sweeping at my shoes, and so on. But it was a bus stop of many stories, and I was there, happily, for a long time.
The next bus came and I greedily wrote the world! The big guy in the Hawaiian shirt and the woman reading a book on empowerment, the sharp little moustache of my seatmate. This bus broke down right in the middle of the road. All went dark and we sat there a moment before the complaining, before the apologies, before people began scurrying on and off to go to the bright convenience store near our broken down bus. I hugged my pages, looked around wildly, suddenly frightened. We broke down! My third bus! In the middle of a dark street, with people like little bugs scurrying on and off! I was alone! I could be this alone! The world could be this big and busy and I could vanish! Or I could be right here and write! Be anywhere and write!
In the dark, I broke, too. I broke from the wrong life. I broke from expectations and assumptions. I broke from the knowledge of how things are.
Finally, a new bus came and eventually delivered me to the same place I’d started from, hours later. I used a payphone to call my boyfriend who was just getting off of work. He came to get me and we went for Chinese food, and breathlessly I told him about everything that happened. He listened and he became increasingly afraid, in awe. I had crossed some invisible border inside of myself and there would be no going back. We could both feel it.
For the next couple of days, I wrote incessantly. I filled notebooks with emphatic, clear, feverish pages of text, and I read. In Robert Boswell’s Geography of Desire, a wonderful storyteller, Ramon, decides he must give up storytelling. In the beige-carpeted bedroom of a faux-wood apartment complex, the spark of light of water he saw as he gave it all up flew straight through the pages of the book into me. Through ink and paper, through a time space continuum of one writer’s imagination to another, it hit me like a bus. I wasn’t just trying to be a writer, I was a writer, and I simply wasn’t living the right life. I didn’t want, like other people wanted, a job and a family and security. I believed in getting lost, getting on wrong buses, hearing stories, telling stories. I wanted to accept the darkness, the strangers, the unfamiliar city streets. This, to me, was the sacred fabric of life! I would get lost. Often. I would embark on stories, and then novels, where I never knew what would happen. I would live with and in the unknown. I would anchor my life not to the security of tradition, but rather, to the making of narrative in human life. I would translate the world into stories, and in this way I would always, always be found.
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6 thoughts on “Guest Post, Elizabeth Frankie Rollins: How Getting on the Wrong Bus Taught Me to Be the Kind of Writer That I Am”
magical unicorn writer/teacher/lover of life. You inspire!
I love this. I just got lost in your writing. Thank you.
Isn’t that one of the best feelings?
Thanks for reading!
I connected to this post instantly. Living in a small town where everything is constantly the same can be a little much at time. Sometimes you just want to break out and do your own thing. Although we do not have metro buses in my town it is always fun to venture out. When I do go to the city I find myself getting lost; mostly on accident. However, each time I am lost an everlasting story is made. I appreciate getting lost and exploring my surroundings, and at the end of the each adventure I go on is a story to write about.
Wow! I definitely admire your bravery in this piece and that you used what may have been a very inconvenient turn of events to refuel your writing fire. Public transportation is a great place to find inspiration because there are so many different people from all walks of life interacting. I enjoy creating narrative for them as well. I love your line at the end, “I wasn’t just trying to be a writer, I was a writer, and I simply wasn’t living the right life.” It definitely opened my eyes. How many times have I said or thought, “I want to be a writer” when I meant, “I want to be a recognized writer?” To accomplish the goals of writing successfully, I need to change my habits and environment. Thank you for sharing your transformation experience and prompting mine!
Oh wow, I wish I had this kind of enthusiasm when I miss the bus! I’m so used to living with a “I need to be at this place at this time and absolutely nothing can go wrong” mentality that if anything like this happened to me, I would panic! I enjoy her writing style and the idea of living and writing the unknown. I’ve always been told not to write what I know and Frankie Rollins lives that way. I would love to try this someday, it sounds like a great writing exercise!
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