The No Stop Bus Stop

Thirty years ago, I stepped off an Aeroflot plane into the 95-degree August of Washington, D.C.  The most shocking thing – after I recovered from a ride in an air-conditioned car on a 5-lane highway – was the absence of smells.  The air wasn’t heavy with the sweet, sickening fumes of unleaded gasoline; grocery stores didn’t reek of rotting potatoes and milk turning sour; and crowds in museums smelled of soap and deodorant instead of unwashed clothes and sweat.  The weather itself was foreign, too – a familiar dampness borne out of the proximity to a vast body of water oddly mixed with stagnant southern heat.

A few days later, after my first trip to a shoe store for a pair of sandals, I stood alone at a bus stop waiting for a bus that would take me to the Soviet Embassy to register my arrival and have my passport stamped with the words “admitted for permanent residence.”  It was late morning, and the bus shelter was empty.  I sat down on a bench inside, then got up and stood outside the glass wall, hoping to catch a limp sigh of hot wind.  A bus heaved from around the corner and roared past without slowing down.  That seemed odd, but maybe it was off duty, I thought.  Ten minutes later, another bus appeared and, just like the first one, rolled past the bus stop, washing the little shelter with scorching fumes.  A doubt crept into my head that something was wrong.  Was this really a bus stop and not simply a rain shelter?  Did American buses make their usual rounds on off-peak hours?  Did I look so different they didn’t want to allow me onboard?  When the third bus left me there standing in its wake, I felt desperate and defeated.  I thought I’d never make it to the Embassy to have my permanent status validated.  I saw myself wailing and kicking, being forced on the return Aeroflot flight to Moscow.  I imagined those bus drivers taking one look at me – standing there alone in a sundress my sister had sewn out of a batch of Soviet cotton with a corn flower print – and knowing immediately I looked suspicious and undeserving of being allowed on a good air-conditioned American bus.  Could they tell I just arrived from the USSR?  The word “alien,” or even worse – “enemy” –  might as well have been burned into my forehead.  Hot and hopeless, dripping with un-American sweat, I stood there and cried.