The Bolt Bus Was My Biweekly Bardo: Life Between Writer and Daughter
Blair Hurley on the Inability to Sustain Her Writer-Self on Weekends
I got an email recently about the demise of the Bolt Bus, and it sent me back 12 years to the hours of my life I spent riding it. I was part of the loyalty program for the low-priced line of red buses that shuttled people up and down the northeast corridor, mostly between Boston and New York. Every fifth ride, I got a free trip, which was a big deal for a grad student living in New York with a boyfriend in grad school and a mother undergoing chemo, both in Boston.
The trip had the dreamy quality of a mythical journey to the underworld. Most of the time the deep vibrations under my body sent me to sleep by the time we crossed the GWB. I always woke somewhere around the halfway point, always just about to pass or just passing Hartford.
We stopped for a food and cigarette break at the worst rest stop I’ve ever seen, with only a perpetually-closed Edy’s ice cream stand and a Roy Rogers. I always stayed on the bus while it trickled to empty. I pressed my face to the cold glass and watched the driver, along with a few other passengers, stand together in the cold, smoking in the quiet night air.
I had my weekday self, which I spent going to classes and feeling outclassed and intimidated by my cool New York classmates and trying to write; but come Friday afternoon, when my classmates were meeting up or going to readings or parties around town, I’d be standing in a line of lonely-looking students and lovers and grandmas on 34th street and Eighth avenue by the Tick Tock diner, waiting for my bus. We lined up in front of a bronze plaque stuck on the side of the diner that informed us Nikola Tesla had died on this spot. I felt a comradeship with the other passengers, even though we never spoke. Most of us were lost in our little worlds, contemplating the people we were traveling to see.
The Bolt Bus was my biweekly bardo. On one end of the journey I was a New York artist, drinking small batch beers in dark sticky bars and sitting at workshop tables with savagely cool and massively jaded Brooklynites. On the other I was a daughter, my own messy grieving flailing self, making endless bowls of grits, the only thing my mother could keep down, and picking her up off the floor of the bathroom. She kept getting out of bed when she was too weak and falling, and if I was alone in the house I couldn’t lift her myself, and so I’d drape a blanket over her and wait beside her for help to come.
Back in New York in Mondays, my classmates would talk about their weekends, the road trips and parties and readings they’d been to. They talked about babysitting the professor’s kids, eating famous slices of pizza, taking road trips to see David Foster Wallace’s letters at a university in Texas, and attending an experimental party where people weren’t allowed to speak; they could only write true things on typewriters scattered around the room. I stared and smiled and wondered if this was where the real work of becoming a writer began, in all the hidden, exclusive places I couldn’t be.It was a place I had to be, a between-self, a means of becoming one version of myself and then a means of switching back.
I wrote small, melancholy stories about girls riding buses, girls feeling lonely, girls looking out of condensation-fogged windows. They seemed frail and immature even to me, and my classmates smiled indulgent, encouraging smiles as they workshopped them. Once, we were chatting before class about post-modernism, and I said that po-mo stories seemed to lack heart, and I often didn’t understand them.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” said the cool, older male student who was friends with the professor and always got breathless, approving praise for his stories. I still remember the little smirk in the corner of his mouth, the way he turned away from me. And then I took the bus home to Boston, and sorted through jewelry with my mother and sister, deciding what would go to each of us, and slept in my childhood bedroom, my pulse pounding in my ears as I listened to my mother and father arguing. My mother said she wanted to die at home. My father said doggedly, “We’re not there yet,” and my mother said, with a voice of bitter triumph, “You said yet. I’ll never forget that you said yet.”
I was really only half there. If I could have been wholly one person, I felt so sure I could do a better job. I could attend the parties and learn the lingo. Grow up and smoke a cigarette on a fire escape somewhere with writers I admired. But I wasn’t anywhere else either. I could have been a better daughter, too, devoting myself to my mother’s care. When you split your life in two, you only end up with thinner versions of yourself.
You learned bus etiquette, bus strategy. You had to line up on time, lest you get the last available seat on the bus, the one next to the toilet, and ride next to that stink for the next four hours. You made a quick calculation as you mounted the steps and eyed the people already seated, trying to guess who would make the best companion (young men always hogged the foot space with their backpacks; business types talked loudly on the phone for the whole trip; old people brought out sloshing Tupperware of home-cooked food).
Some rides were better than others. I remember wearing a v-neck t-shirt one hot summer ride and the gray-haired man who stared at my chest, steadily, for the entire ride. Then when we arrived in New York and drove down through Harlem, he took a long look out the window, then back at me and said, “They’re like animals, aren’t they.” I was horrified, but we had 20 blocks left, and I was so close to the end of the trip, and I sat in silence. There are things you’re really not ready for at 22.
A fellow commuter in my MFA program, a long-faced, mournful man who was making the trip to DC twice a week, came to class one day and told me how a passenger on a long-haul Greyhound somewhere in the Midwest had pulled out a giant blade from a backpack, beheaded the perfect stranger beside him, and held up the head for the passengers to see.
I don’t know if it was just urban legend, or horrifying reality; I’m afraid to do a Google search and find out. When you become a bus person, you learn bus lore, but you never want confirmation.
The Bolt Bus didn’t hold such horrors. It was relatively clean, and the fleet of brightly painted red buses seemed — almost — cheerful compared to the subterranean trip to Port Authority to ride a Greyhound on the days the Bolt Bus sold out. It was a place I had to be, a between-self, a means of becoming one version of myself and then a means of switching back. It was a shackle and a comfort.
On a few of those weekend trips, I didn’t tell my mom I was coming home. I stayed in Cambridge with my boyfriend instead, and we watched movies in his dorm and walked around the city without ever taking the T ride out to the suburbs where my mother lay in bed. It felt like a betrayal every time, but they were also times I needed, so that coming home was not always a descent into tragedy and pain. It was a relief, to be a bad daughter and allow her to not exist for a while in my head, and take a trip to be with my boyfriend, to do silly young people things, eat pancake brunch at the popular place in Cambridge on Saturday and laze around the day.
I sometimes felt, returning to New York, that I was returning to some kind of battlefield, the plain of Golgotha on which I was trying to become a writer. The ride on the Bolt Bus was my buffer, my de-militarized zone. There was a war waiting on either end.
Once the professor asked us to write a one-hundred-word autobiography. In a moment of ferocious anger, I typed out the words “Blair is strange” again and again, enough to fill 100 words. In the sixth grade, a girl who was bullying me had written it all over the chalkboard one day, and it had always haunted me, as though the girl knew something about me that I did not. But now I was writing the words, embracing them. It felt like a glorious expression of anger, a searing moment of honesty, to put the words down on the page myself, to say, Here, I am 22 and this is my life, this is all I can say about my unformed self.
A few students emailed me privately, telling me how much they liked the piece. In class the professor held up the one-page document. “The truth here—it feels revealed,” he said. “This is what I was talking about.” I was baffled, embarrassed, a little thrilled. It was one of the first times in my writing life when for a moment, alone in my apartment, I felt the anger of my mother’s impending death surge over me, and I wrote without caring about pleasing anyone, without being pretty or correct.
I still remember that feeling when I write. Sometimes I try to summon the will to write fearlessly by drawing out images of my mother, remembering how I returned each week to see her wasting away, becoming nothing but bone.
What am I really holding onto these loyalty points for, anyway? They’re just bits of data that mean nothing, that dissolve into nothing. I can still take the journey from New York to Boston; but there is no way to go back to where I returned each week. The girl I was, and the mother I had, have dissolved into nothing, too. I’d step out of South Station and find a changed life on either end.
People talk about Sunday grief; that particular gray mood that creeps up on us as we realize the weekend is coming to an end. For me, Sunday grief took the form of saying goodbye to my boyfriend, and to my mother, and riding the escalator back up into the bowels of South Station, knowing I’d be heading back to my other life in New York. Now my boyfriend is my husband, and my mother is gone. I have a child born in the pandemic who will never know her. The first long car trip we took with her was to Boston, more than a year after she was born. The person I wanted her most to meet, of course, was not there.
I think the journeys I took, again and again, will form part of the stories of my youth that I’ll tell her. And I’ll tell her about her grandmother’s trips on the LIRR into the late nights, when she was dreaming of what kind of adventures she’d have. These journeys we take, when we’re young. And the people who send us on them, knowing what we don’t.
It was my mother who insisted I not take a semester off or come back home for good. When I suggested it she said with a quiet ferocity, “You’re not missing a day at that school. Not a day.” And I didn’t. Every novel I’ve written contains a scene of someone on a bus, traveling to an uncertain destination. All that waiting and dreaming becomes life.
Each time I went back to my mother, I’d bring the latest pages I’d written that week of a short story or the tentative beginning of a novel. I’d sit by her bed and read her the pages aloud. Always I waited for her thoughtful silence, and the measured pronouncement that always came: they were my best yet. “I’m listening to a real writer,” she’d say. And she’d send me off, with that steady blessing. She was giving me a way forward. Sending me on a journey into my future life.
For now, the only way to keep those rides alive is in my memory, and the promise of telling stories of them. I can bring myself back to the wobbly line of people in South Station, feeling the Sunday grief, having just said goodbye to my mother, promising her I’d be back again soon. Each time a little closer to when it could no longer be true.
But for that time, it was still true; I was coming back, and she’d be there waiting for me. The same people I’d seen on Friday waited with me, everyone subdued, munching fries morosely out of soggy bags. We’d all seen the people we came to see, and now we were headed back out into the world.