There, on our side of the river, a woman stood by a guardrail, tears streaming down her face, frantically throwing papers into the wind. She was flinging these papers--not triumphantly but in real anguish--so that they were wafting everywhere before disappearing into the waiting waters below.
I remember the woman was well-dressed, maybe in a suit, and her straw-colored hair was slipping from a loose knot at the base of her neck. What I really remember, though, was her seeming oblivion to the row of faces staring at her as we rolled slowly by.
I’ve thought about this woman many times over the years. What motivated this act? Fear? Revenge? Anger? Despair?
Fear. Back then--my head clouded with Tom Clancy and John Grisham thrillers--I imagined the woman had become embroiled in a massive cover-up at the corporation where she was employed. Literally running for her life, this was a last-ditch to be rid of the files she'd stolen in a misguided whistle-blowing attempt.
Revenge: Later, I thought maybe the woman had discovered she’d been on the wrong side of an affair. Casting her philandering husband's legal documents into the water, on the eve of a case that would make or break his career as an attorney--was her way of ruining him.
Anger: When I was in grad school, I re-imagined her story again. She was an embittered doctoral student, and those scores of papers had to have been her failed dissertation. Dumping the manuscript in the water was a final ‘stick-it-to-you’ gesture to grad school committees everywhere. (I’m sorry to say—that actually happens).
Despair: Now, of course, along the same lines as the angry grad student, I can see the woman as an author, and the stack of papers as the woman’s novel, rejected for the 37th time.
So I, and my fellow bus passengers, witnessed what may have been one of most traumatic, possibly cathartic, moments of this unknown woman’s life. We knew nothing of her, other than that oddly intimate experience. I've wondered too, whatever happened to her after that?
I suppose it depends on whether she’s the hero of her own story, or a minor character invented by me. If she’s the hero, I’d like to think she triumphed over adversity, and has long moved on past that terrible day on the bridge . If she’s a minor character in my life story, I’m rather afraid she didn’t make it. Right now, she’s just a plot point, a no-name character who's still hiding her story.
One day, though, maybe she’ll make it into one of my novels. Then, I’ll know why she did it.
What about you? What odd little glimpses into strangers' lives have you witnessed? Have you ever created back-story for these moments, in an effort to understand?