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I'm in a school bus, towards the back. Brown naugahyde and black enamel are the order of the day, and that characteristic sweat-food-and-exhaust school bus perfume. The bus (much like the school system it belongs to) is a perfectly realized entity, in that it does what is guaranteed and roughly expected, and exactly no more or less.

Samantha and I are talking about something unimportant, perhaps current events as seen through sixth-grade eyes; I don't really remember. As the bus pulls around the bend before the stop, Samantha goes quiet, darkens immediately and perceptibly. She's looking behind me, through the sliding glass windows. I turn to see what she's looking at, what's grasped her attention so quickly and firmly. I see ... nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary, just her house, a few blocks down from my own duplex.

Somewhat timidly, not knowing whether I should really ask or not, I enquire about what's wrong. "Uhh...", she says, "I'm not sure. Maybe nothing. But that's my father's car parked across the driveway, and he's not supposed to visit here any more."

"Oh," I say stupidly, not having dealt with divorce (or more than one parent in general) myself. Looking harder at the scene I can tell what had caught her eye immediately. Her father's car was parked perpendicular to the driveway, but still halfway on it, completely blocking her mother's car between it and the garage. Judging by the speed that Sam recognized what was happening, it must be an abusive asshole trick she'd seen before.

Sam still looks like she wants to say something, but the bus driver doesn't know or care and decides to break hard for the stop, shattering her attention with a hydraulic whoosh. We step off the bus, onto the concrete, and Samantha looks scared, disquiet. Had I been somebody else at the time (with much less shyness, further along in puberty, with a perfect home environment of my own) I would've asked her at just that moment if she wants to come to my place until things blow over. Unfortunately, at the time I am no part of that parenthesized list, so I say nothing at all.

As I walk slowly home, she turns and begins walking even more slowly toward her front door. I won't even figure out to feel guilty about this for a few years, let alone sad.

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These three friends of mine, they live in the archetypical college town apartment, in an archetypical college town. It has all of three rooms, two of which are bedrooms and the other a combo livingroom/diningroom/kitchen. Yeah, real classy I know, but it's what they can afford. Brandon and Rachel take one room, and Jeremy has the other, with additional occupants sleeping on the couch as needed.

So it's winter break, and there's much partying going down at that apartment, just as there should be. All kinds of people out of school to visit, as well as the odd assortment of townies and neighbors. We've got turntables and Nintendo to keep things interesting, as well as a grand assortment of bottles, bongs, and blotters. Finals are over, a month of vacation is ours, and life is good.

Friday morning at around three AM, a week before Christmas, Rachel gets back from work with a young woman and her two very young and very sleepy children. She introduces herself as Janet, one of Rachel's fellow strippers (in this state, we don't have exotic dancers), who needs a place to stay for a while. She also introduces us to her two children, Anne and Michael, ages three and four-and-a-half respectively. I try to smile at them, but they're practically asleep standing up so they don't smile back.

During her introduction Janet tells her story, replete with bounced checks, evil landlords, arrest warrants, and a jailed boyfriend. Janet and Rachel, somewhat against Brandon's wishes, resolve to wake up in three hours and go bail him out, before the kids know their father's missing. I leave in the middle of this plotting, as the party atmosphere has (understandably) died. On my way out I notice that the two children have fallen asleep while their mother's attention is focused elsewhere. Holding hands, curled up on the brown carpet together, jewels in squalor.

I only go back there a few times during the week or two the family stay there; the situation is always much too tense and difficult for me to stay long. Predictably, the boyfriend turns out to be a true blue asshole, constantly talking about drugs and sex, utterly oblivious to his children. He even mentions jail around them, which I only find out when Michael hits me with "You know what? My daddy went to jail!", a fact which he's quite giddy about. Worse still, I later hear that he decided to get drunk one evening and beat Janet, well within hearing range of everybody in the apartment, including Anne and Michael. For this he's forcibly removed from the house, and Janet and Co. go to a Motel Six the next day.

_________________

Ten years passed since I could do nothing to help Samantha. Ten years supposedly making me wiser and stronger, but I still have no idea whatsoever how to (or even if I should) deal with ugly family situations. I often wonder if anybody does, or if we all just have to let bad things happen, hoping the resiliency of those caught in the middle will save them. That, or risk butting in by breaking up a fight or calling the cops, either of which will no doubt put yourself on one or both parties' shit lists, and possibly cause even worse problems for the ones who can't defend themselves. It's an uncomfortable and hopeless paradox, made terribly important by the actual real little humans hanging in the balance.

At any rate, what inspired this worthless introspection was an exchange I heard while I was there that encapsulated everything that was fucked up about the situation. Michael played a mean game of Super Smash Brothers for being four years old. Anne saw him playing, and wanted in on it; the kids only had a couple of lousy toys of their own. This is the conversation that followed:

Anne: Give it to me or I'll spit on you.
Michael: Don't say spit, that's a bad word! I'll tell mommy.
Rachel: Wait a second you, spit isn't a bad word!
Anne: Oh.
Michael: Hah hah.
Anne, proudly, to the room: You know what is a bad word?
Rachel: He he, what?
Anne, to Michael: Punk-ass bitch!

When we all heard her say that, a three year old quoting (no doubt) her parents, who were quoting (no doubt) some bit of popular culture, we all laughed out loud. Laughter that was half uproarious and half uncomfortable, genuine in both respects.

As I remember the laughter, still loud in my head after only a year's time, I wonder when I will start feeling guilty about watching the whole situation play out, when it will begin to just feel sad.

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