In the present, Rachel and Beth run from one bus to another. Out of breath, they sit down and greet the driver, Estella. She looks wise, composed, and attractive. She talks to a passenger named Josie, who gets off the bus while explaining how her husband got sick and ended up in the hospital. Meanwhile, Beth talks over her, explaining that a driver named Keith has started being nice to her. Rachel silently wishes that Beth would stop talking.
Rachel’s frustrations with Beth continue to mount: Beth is completely oblivious to the fact that Josie’s issues are far more serious and pressing than her own. Just like Rachel’s worries about Beth’s health, these concerns raise a difficult moral conundrum. On the one hand, since Beth’s disability contributes to her ignorance about other people’s needs, it would be unfair to expect Beth to fully respect others. On the other, Beth is capable of learning to treat others better, and her refusal to do so upsets Rachel.
Estella drives on and explains that her job requires dealing with lots of other people’s stress. Beth goes on talking about Keith, and Estella tells her not to worry. Rachel realizes that Estella helps everyone this way, by simply listening to their concerns. In fact, a block later, a man gifts Estella a plate of his wife’s roast chicken as a thank-you for being a “great sounding board.”
Like Tim and Jacob, Estella finds a greater moral and social purpose in driving, which connects her to a wide cross-section of her community. She is an excellent listener, largely because she understands how it’s possible to help people by simply acting as a “sounding board.” Rachel obviously wishes that Beth would learn from Estella, but she can also apply Estella’s wisdom to become more patient with Beth.
One night in May, Rachel asked Beth if they could start riding at 7 a.m. instead of 5:30 the next morning, so she could have time to pack her things. Beth refused, and at 5 a.m., she woke Rachel up and insisted on going to ride the buses. She reluctantly came back to help Rachel pack at 6:15, and then they set off again at 7:00. But all day, Beth avoided talking to Rachel. In the evening, she left the bus early, without saying goodbye. Rachel asks, “Did being a good sister mean having no needs of my own?”
This anecdote again reflects Beth’s total ignorance about other people’s needs—including her sister’s. While Beth resents having to change even a minor detail in her routine, she never appreciates how Rachel has committed to consistently interrupting her routine for an entire year in order to reconnect with Beth. Just like her health crises and love life, Beth’s selfishness raises the difficult moral question of how responsible she truly is for her behavior—and whether it’s reasonable to ask her to change.
Meanwhile, on Estella’s bus, a young woman is talking about her boss has sexually harassing her. She wants to quit her job. Estella tells Rachel that when people have serious problems like this, they often see bus drivers like her before anyone else. Rachel realizes that this is why bus drivers have to act like healers, helping their passengers cope with suffering.
Estella’s comments again show that public transit connects people not just geographically, but also socially and emotionally. In fact, the way that Americans turn to bus drivers for comfort suggests that such communal ties are hard to come by in the contemporary U.S.—it seems that Rachel is far from the only person who lives with an overwhelming sense of loneliness and despair.
Next, Estella tells Rachel about her own hard life. As a teenager, she got married to run away from her abusive stepfather. Then, she got divorced, had several children, and moved through a series of failed relationships and unfulfilling jobs. Eventually, she became a truck driver, which let her have interesting adventures all across the U.S. She went to therapy, stopped dating abusive men, and finally built up her self-esteem.
Estella’s difficult life helps explain how she manages to find so much empathy for her passengers. While she lived through even more personal turmoil than Rachel, their underlying issues appear to be similar: both of them struggle to find meaning in life through their relationships and work. So, the fact that Estella overcame her issues by learning to love herself offers hope that Rachel will be able to do the same.
Estella’s experience is the basis for her advice to passengers: she knows that everyone can always change their lives for the better, as long as they admit “that [they] might have to lose to win.” Rachel admits that she’s struggling to accept her own insecurities—she can’t stop thinking about Sam and wondering if they should try to get back together. One day, she calls him, but she can’t find the courage to speak, so she hangs up.
Like Jacob, Tim, and Rodolpho, Estella has learned her particular virtues because of her own trials in life, and she uses her powerful social position as a driver to pass on these virtues to others. Her central message is that people have to accept risks and vulnerability in order to gain the benefits of relationships and love. Rachel immediately sees how this speaks to her own situation—in fact, she has even more to learn from Estella than Beth does.
As Rachel listens to the bus passengers’ conversations, she feels her fears and frustrations briefly melt away. Then, a woman boards and asks if her ex has ridden the bus—he still harasses her whenever they ride at the same time. Beth explains that he already got off, and Estella offers to help set him up with someone else, but the woman says she wouldn’t want anyone else to have to deal with him.
Rachel’s feeling of comfort and camaraderie suggests that Estella’s bus serves is a valuable public space. But the woman who worries about her ex shows that there’s also a downside to public spaces—they aren’t always safe or inclusive unless the people who run them deliberately make them that way. (This is true for people with disabilities as much as it is for women.) This passenger’s concerns echo Rachel’s own fear of failed relationships and foreshadow the series of conflicts that she recounts in the next few flashback chapters.
All the passengers are women, and they all start talking about men and relationships. Rachel wonders if this is the kind of communal life that Americans used to have in the past, and she realizes that she doesn’t want to go back to her lonely writer’s life in her empty apartment. But at just the same moment, Beth tells her it’s time to get off, and they descend catch their next bus.
The women’s conversation clearly shows Rachel why public space is so valuable: it gives people the opportunity to share stories, make connections, and empathize with one another. In other words, buses are an antidote to loneliness—and they also give Rachel the context she needs to truly see how she has chosen loneliness over community.