The initial interaction is perfectly innocuous and, in my mind, not an invitation—as it almost always is. The man standing in front of me is transporting a guitar. It is held loosely on his shoulder by a thin strap, threatening to collide with the face of the woman behind him should the bus lurch just the wrong way. Perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties, he is tall and broad, occupying most of the little nook created by the horseshoe of hard, plastic seats. Without thinking, I offer him my spot. He insists that the instrument is light and that I remain seated. I nod and turn my head toward the front of the bus, absentmindedly shuffling through various applications on my phone. Minutes later, the man removes one side of his headphones and begins the sincere-yet-intrusive sort of examination that I am incapable of shutting down. I cringe and chide myself; some indefinable characteristic of my demeanor always leads me here, and I regret opening myself up to his questions, however inadvertently.
“Are you a student?” he asks, and I immediately burst out laughing.
“No. No. No. Definitely not.”
“So you must be an artist. You definitely look artsy.” This is a comment I have heard countless times, particularly when my tattoos are visible (though today, thankfully, my leather jacket conceals them). It is usually used as a pick-up line or a backhanded insult, depending on context. I am instantly uncomfortable, aware of the teenaged girls to my left, who are now leaning in to find out whether I will reject or accept this stranger’s label.
“Um, yeah, I do stuff sometimes,” I stutter. “I’m not, like, you know, trying to get rich and famous for it or anything. I mostly do it for myself.”
“What do you do—like, painting? I bet you paint.” He’s stuffing his earbuds into his pocket. He’s in it for the long haul.
“No, I don’t really know how to paint. I draw and write.” I wonder if he can see through my sunglasses enough to know that my eyes are darting about, glancing nervously at the surrounding passengers.
“Oh, cool. What kinda stuff you paint?”
I just said I don’t paint! I want to shout at him, but my people-pleasing side has me on autopilot. “Animals and people, mostly. But you know, like I said, it’s not a big thing, just something I do sometimes. I’m not, like, crazy good or whatever.” He wants to know if I have any paintings up anywhere, or if I have a website. I chuckle half-heartedly. “I have a blog that I haven’t updated in a long time. And I don’t really promote myself because, like I said, I’m not trying to make a living being an artist.” I pause. I awkwardly utter a few vowel sounds, trying to figure out how to describe my marginal artistic ambitions without sounding like a total loser. I lower my voice. “I know a lot of artists. All of my friends are artists or musicians or whatever. I could probably do more if I wanted to, I just… I guess my focus is elsewhere at the moment.”
“Gotcha. So which art school did you go to around here? Mass Art or somethin’ like that?” I’m starting to feel panicked. Why does he persist in identifying me this way? Is he that desperate to connect to anyone, even a random woman on public transit, or does he simply refuse to acknowledge that people aren’t as one-dimensional and easily-categorized as we’d all like them to be? “No, I went to Northeastern.” His face contorts into an expression of great surprise. He echoes “Northeastern,” his tone both declarative and interrogative. I shrug. “Yeah, a lot of people expected me to go to art school, I think. But I didn’t really know what I wanted, and I guess I thought I should try to be more practical. So I ended up trying to establish a traditional career path.” I cannot stop myself from rambling. I am aware that my cheeks must be pink by now. “I guess, you know, it could still work out…”
He interrupts with a laugh. “Gotta make that paper!” He teases me by rubbing the thumb of one hand across its fingertips. “But you’re still young, right?” I chuckle again, unenthusiastically. “Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I’m 29, but... Well, you never really—” He interrupts again: “Lots of great artists did their best stuff when they were older. It’s not too late. Never too late. You know?”
I notice with great relief that the bus is approaching my stop. As I ring the bell, I quickly add, “Yeah, I mean, I guess I could do more. I’ve just, you know, I’ve got a lot going on right now. But I should do more.” He is grinning now. He raises his eyebrows and asks, “Hey, do you have a website or somethin’? Or can you give me your name, so I can find your blog? Can I get in touch with you?” I’m slipping toward the steps that lead to the rear door of the bus, unintentionally tapping strangers with my purse, scrambling to escape my vulnerability and confusion and unease. “I’m sorry, no,” I call over my shoulder. “I don’t give out my personal information like that. I’m sorry.”
The breeze that greets me as I stumble onto the sidewalk is having an identity crisis of its own, caught somewhere between warm and cold, wet and dry, fall and winter. I jaywalk across Mass Ave and think of all the labels I’ve been given over the last 29 years: Child. Adult. Girl. Woman. Dancer. Writer. Artist. Editor. Massage therapist. Student. Intern. Professional. Lower-middle-class. Unemployed. Southerner. Yankee. Christian. Agnostic. Atheist. Single. Partnered. Dog-owner. Car-owner. Commuter. Permanent. Temporary. Freelance. Hippie. Hipster. Dork. Snob. Cheerleader. Flautist. Bitch. Virgin. Prude. Slut. Feminist. Feminazi. Idiot. Smart. Advanced. Late bloomer. Bookworm. Space cadet. Short. Skinny. Squishy. Cunt. Cute. Average. Desperate. Crazy. Bitter. Romantic. Naïve. Self-absorbed. Self-aware. Self-flagellating. Neurotic. Lazy. Depressed. Anxious. Effervescent. Straight. Bisexual. Experimenting. Alcohol dependent. Co-dependent. Independent. Overreacting. Overly compliant. Inconsiderate. Ungrateful. Attentive. Avoidant. Irresponsible. Cowardly. Brave. Weak. Strong.
I clench my jaw. I shove my hands into my jacket pockets.
I think of all the times I’ve been asked, “What do you do?” and all the implicit follow-up questions that weigh it down: How much money do you make? How competitive is your industry? Were you smart enough to get into one of the good schools? How hard do you work, really? How connected are you? How much upward mobility does your future hold? How much time do you waste on activities that are beneath me? How can you help me promote my brand? How visible are you on Facebook? How many times have you been featured on someone else’s website or published in an indie rag? Are you an ARTIST, or just an “artist”? No, seriously, how hard do you work? How dedicated are you to what you profess to believe in? Are you a sell-out? Are you above or below me on the talent scale? How likely are you to recognize all my semi-obscure cultural references? Should I feel threatened or smug when I think of you? Could you play the role in my personal narrative that I envision for you, or will you disappoint me?
I shudder as I step onto my partner’s front porch. As I fumble with the house key, I think of my dog and the way he emerges from a heavy pile of blankets, sending assertive ripples down his tiny body from nose to tail. He needs to be walked—another bullet point on the evening’s to-do list. I think of my bank account and its dwindling numbers. I think of Monday night’s refrigerated leftovers and my unopened box of whole-grain cookies. I take a deep breath and walk through the door, rushing up the stairs to the steady embrace that awaits me.