Circa 1975, it was, I think. I was seven years old, on an Arkansas-bound Trailways bus with my mom and little brother. My mom sat next to John, and I sat across the aisle from the two of them, stretched out between two seats and looking out at the deep indigo sky as the silhouetted landscape zipped by.
At some point the bus stopped to pick up more passengers at a brightly-lit terminal somewhere around what I think was Idaho, and my stretched-out reverie was broken when a woman stepped on to take the second seat on my side. I politely shifted to the window seat while she took the aisle.
She made me nervous at first; just because I was a shy kid, too young to understand females in general. Strange, floral-scented aliens, they were, I thought. But after a few minutes of silence she noticed the book in my lap--Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea--and asked me how I liked it. I started talking to her about how full of strange and wonderful things it was; how different it was from the Walt Disney movie I'd seen a few weeks previous, and yet how similar it was. And she responded in kind by talking about that book and other science fiction books she'd read. She was going to college, she said, and loved sci-fi.
After awhile my shyness began to thaw some, and I looked up at her. She was slender; with long, straight blonde hair and alert-but-kind green eyes. She wore a pink T-shirt and faded bell-bottoms, and laughed a lot. She was older than me, but younger than my mom and most of the other adults I knew. In the course of a few minutes time she was talking to me like an equal, engaging me in conversation and addressing me in a way that no adult before ever had.
She began telling me stories about the highway down which we sped. At one point, an illuminated cross pierced the night horizon, glowing about a mile away from the road; and she told me how it had been erected to commemorate the passing of a sports star who'd perished in a plane crash. She told me a lot of other stories, too; about places she'd seen, books she'd read, people she'd known. She looked young, yet seemed to know so much about the world.
Every now and then, she'd lean over me to point out some building or unusual tree. My eyes would follow her finger as it pointed against the window, and occasionally I'd find myself looking at her as she described the world beyond that glass. Little kid enthusiasm would play against her features, and that exhuberance was infectious. It was the first time I'd met a (pretty much) grown-up who possessed that kind of energy. After what was probably a good couple of hours I began to get drowsy. I stifled a yawn, and she smiled. "If you're tired, you should go to sleep," she said serenely. Truth be told, I wanted to talk with her some more; but exhaustion overtook me and I drifted off.
The next morning I woke with a start. In the place of the blonde girl who'd kind of enchanted me was a heavy-set Mediterranean-looking man with a jet-black cookie-duster of a moustache. The blonde girl was gone.
My mom gently needled me at breakfast about chatting up the girl the night previous, a concept that made my seven-year-old face flush slightly. That flush turned to full-blown tomato redness when a middle-aged African-American woman who'd befriended my mom on the bus said, "Tony found himself a girlfriend!" with a restaurant-filling chuckle. Of course I was embarassed: I was crushing hard on a girl--a woman--for the first time, and it was pretty uncomfortable being outed.
Days went by. My mom reconnected with close family, and my brother and I experienced a humid, fulsomely green land of adventure. We stayed at my great-grandparents' house, a two-story white structure that looked big as a southern plantation to my child's eye. Katydids chirped deafening choruses amongst the trees at night; John and I walked along the sidewalk shaded by oak trees as the sky drenched us with warm rain; my great-grandma fed me beefsteak tomatoes the size of my head; and my brother and I sat in a paddle boat with our Uncle Dane one hot spring night, watching a creek bed that teemed with masses of tadpoles and watergrasses that seemed to descend to infinity.
Then one morning my Aunt Brooke packed my brother and I into her giant station wagon, and she drove us to a burger place for lunch. On the way, a song came on the radio. And for some reason, that tune instantly took me back to being on that bus several nights previous. In about two-and-a-half minutes I found myself reminiscing on the conversation, on the world that stretched beyond that bus window, and on the pretty college girl who'd opened my eyes to that world for a couple of hours.
The song that played on Aunt Brooke's AM radio was "To Sir With Love" by Lulu. And long story short, it still makes me think of that girl on the bus every time I hear it.