I have known her for two years now, but I don’t know her name.
I imagine it would be Maria or Antheia; a name that speaks of her Greek heritage; a name that describes how long the wrinkles have lived in her face; a name that hints at a traditional Orthodox upbringing in the 1930s.
I assume I know more about this eighty-three year old woman’s life than her grown adult children do. But I can’t tell you who she is.
That’s a rare kind of beautiful: to recite a story off by heart without ever knowing the author’s name.
“It’s cold outside, no?” She rubs her palms together as she squeezes her fingers over the creases covering the back of her veiny hand. She hasn’t worn gloves today.
“Yes, very cold!” I say. I’m overly enthusiastic like always, consciously aware I’m mimicking her hand movements too; the unspoken gesture helps fill in the silence before she asks me where I’ve been.
This is our Saturday morning ritual. She greets me with her weather report in four short words and I agree and repeat her action. Palm squeezing means it is cold. Sweeping the pointer finger across the eyebrow means it is hot. Crossing arms and touching opposite elbows means it is raining. Last Saturday we cupped our palms with our hands slightly apart: it’s good outside, no?
The white-haired woman and I have waited for the same 8.25 City via Buckley Falls bus most Saturdays since 2012. Well, her frequent ‘you no work last week?’ tells me my familiar stranger has caught this bus every Saturday for a very, very long time. My guess is that she wears the same outfit on the Saturdays I see her and the ones I don’t. In the years since I’ve sat beside the short nonna, she has always worn her ‘day out to walk and look in ze windows’ attire: an oversized black jacket buttoned all the way except for the two underneath her lapels, allowing the tails of her neck scarf to dance; a three-quarter length neatly ironed black skirt, leaving just-enough room for grey stocking socks to be seen disappearing into simple black grandma heels; and dark-framed sunglasses, which she uses to protect her eyes from the wind, to hold when her fidgeting hands don’t quite release her fury or, on the sad occasion, to hid her tears when she can’t. On those Saturdays her handkerchief darts back and forth between each corner of her eye tucked away behind her opaque lenses.
“He still with the bloody Pilipino bitch! I good person: good wife, good worker, good mum. I clean house, be a good person and he still leave me. Threw me out like a dog!” She wipes away the bubble of spit that’s escaped onto her lip with the back of her handkerchief. Her eyes are staring at the fence ahead of us, but she is somewhere else.
I stare at this old, broken woman who constantly insists I ‘find good man’ when I ‘get boyfriend’ and I recognise the pain she has buried for decades; the sorrow she has kept silent for so many years. I try to imagine what it would be like to come to a new country at twenty-one with no family other the man in my village I married and the baby girl growing inside me. I try to understand what it must have been like to sell bread rolls in a language I barely recognized to foreign faces who pointed in the basket instead of meeting my eyes. I try to feel what it must of felt like to have my husband divorce me at 58, when my two children were adults who no longer needed me, when I didn’t have a business to take care of anymore and all I had to hold onto was resentment; was abandonment; was the shock of being replaced by another woman twenty years younger ‘becoz my husband want someone young, beautiful’.
“Sorry about ze swearing.” She rests her handkerchief beneath her nose now. “I’m so sorry. I just get angry, you know. So mad at the bastard who hurt me. Stupid bastard.” She takes off her glasses and her eyes meet mine. There is kindness in them, an apology swimming in her tears.
“It’s okay … really. It’s … wow. What an arsehole.” I want to comfort her, cuddle her as if she was my own nan or pat her on the arch of her back to release the burden she obviously carries there. But I don’t. I know that there is little I can say to reassure her … what is there to say to someone who has lived nearly sixty years longer than me that she wouldn’t already know? We are perfect strangers, my familiar stranger and I, and bus buddies listen but do not touch.
“He comes over, he wants to be my friend. But I don’t like him. I only polite for the sake of the children.” She says it with such heartfelt conviction that I wonder if her 58-year-old daughter, now divorced, and her 48-year-old son, still married, would stop visiting their mother everyday if they knew how much hate she still had for their father. Or if they’ve heard the same story so many times they no longer listen to her. I want to tell these people I’ve never met how lucky they are to have a mother who survived stage four-breast cancer, a melanoma in her nose and a ‘constant ache in her head’ after she ‘worry so much’ when their father left that she ‘get sick’, how fortunate they are that their elderly mother takes herself out of her one–bedroom unit at least once a week ‘just to do things’ and how incredibly lonely their mother must be if the only person she can reveal her soul to is the stranger who sits at her bus stop.
“I believe in God—very much. So now I say ‘no worry’. We die; we go to God. No need to worry.” She smiles, lets out a little chuckle and makes the it’s good outside hand gesture. A laugh slips out from my lips and, before I’m aware of it, I’m mimicking her gesture too.
The elderly woman, dressed in her best oversized black outfit, and I share a warm, grin-filled moment until she says, “Well, where you been? You tell me about your uni.”
We pass the next five minutes with her listening intently to my polite ramblings; what I learnt this week, what job I ‘get’ when I graduate and if I still think my mum’s partner is ‘a good man’.
The bus eventually comes, as it always does. The Greek migrant woman and I sit apart from each other when we get on, a seat or two respectfully keeping the distance between two perfect strangers.
We know each other, this woman and I. But we don’t know each other’s names.
I like it that way; I feel like it makes me know her more. She’s the stranger I know who has learnt to tuck many things away.