In the present, while they wait in the bus shelter, Beth tells Rachel about Cliff, a new driver who races cars in his spare time. He’s her new favorite, even more than Rodolpho, because he has a Mustang, treats Beth well, and is “fine-looking.” But Rachel thinks about all of the men Beth has had crushes on. She always obsesses over them, which drives them away.
Rachel acknowledges that it’s challenging for her and most of the people she knows to think of Beth as a romantic and sexual being. But she also emphasizes that this is a key part of taking Beth seriously as an autonomous person with the same rights and dignity as everyone else. Beth’s interest in Cliff raises many of the same thorny questions as her relationship with Jesse and her earlier crush on Rodolpho. For instance, should a different standard for appropriate and inappropriate behavior be applied to Beth? And when she crosses the line, to what extent is she responsible for her behavior? What should others do when Beth starts to fixate on a driver who will likely never reciprocate her feelings?
The bus drivers have also started to run out of patience—especially Claude, who has started telling Beth that she ought to get a job. Beth talked about Claude’s comments with Cliff, then told Claude that Cliff doesn’t think she should have to work. Beth and Claude don’t talk anymore. The Halloween song “The Monster Mash” comes on in the bus shelter, and Beth sings along, as always. She pulls out a Mountain Dew for Cliff and gets on his bus. Suddenly, Rachel is scared: she sees the past repeating itself.
Rachel and the bus drivers are frustrated about Beth’s seeming inability to change. While Rachel’s internet research taught her that people with developmental disabilities can change, if they get significant time and support, Rachel wonders whether Beth will ever reach this stage. Specifically, she worries that Beth will continue to mistreat and alienate people because she will never get around to acknowledging their rights or feelings.
Chatty, good-looking Cliff tells Rachel about the “grudge” races he drives in on Saturdays. They’re like drag races, held on the local racetrack. Beth tells Rachel about Cliff’s green Mustang, and Cliff jokes about Beth flirting with him. Beth replies that she’s already with Jesse, and just trying to set Cliff up with Olivia. Rachel remembers that Beth is doing the same thing with her and Rick. Beth prattles on about Mountain Dew, her conflicts with the driver Albert, and the drivers’ lounge. The critical voice in Rachel’s head screams, “Damn it Beth, shut up!”
Rachel can already see the past repeating itself: Beth is obliviously blathering on about things that her audience plainly doesn’t care about. She hasn’t become any more considerate or respectful, despite everyone else’s best efforts to help her change. This leads Rachel to worry that all her dedication, effort, and patience have been for nothing—which, in turn, tries her patience even further. In other words, she starts to lose faith in her ability to ever help Beth.
Cliff explains that his mother used to race cars and his grandfather was a mechanic, so he grew up with a love of driving, which eventually led him to his bus-driving job. Beth cuts off his story to talk about how drivers and passengers are mean to her. Rachel tries and fails to keep Beth on topic, and she starts to understand why so many people can find Beth intolerable: “She is so loud. And she talks all the time. About nothing. […] Over and over and over.” In fact, Rachel and Beth’s dad started to hate driving to work with Beth for the same reason.
Cliff loves driving buses for very different reasons from all of the other drivers whom Rachel has met so far. For the rest, their primary motivation is serving or connecting with others, and actually operating the vehicle is secondary. But for Cliff, it’s the other way around. Needless to say, Rachel finds Cliff’s story far more interesting than Beth’s—and her frustrations continue to mount. She wonders how to balance her empathy for Beth with her empathy for all the people who have to deal with Beth on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, as with most of her dilemmas, there’s still no clear answer—Rachel still doesn’t have the “guide to being a good sister.”
Cliff tells Beth to chill out—she stops talking for a second, then starts up again. Rachel is furious and nearly screams at Beth, but she catches herself and walks to the back of the bus instead. She wishes that she could more easily accept Beth’s faults and lower her expectations for Beth. Rachel and Beth stare at each other across the bus, both filled with pain. Jesse compares Beth’s brain to a clock that nobody else can reset, and Rachel thinks the metaphor is apt.
Cliff and Rachel respond to Beth’s worst traits in opposite ways, but neither of them gets her to recognize those traits—never mind to change. Rachel recognizes that she needs to change, too, but she understandably finds it frustrating that she must put in all the effort to build a connection with Beth, while Beth puts in little to no effort in return. Jesse’s metaphor reminds Rachel of the inconvenient reality that Beth will only change when she’s ready to do so.
When Beth leaves the bus to use the bathroom, Rachel takes Beth’s seat. She’s embarrassed to rely so much on life advice from bus drivers, but she talks to Cliff anyway. She asks how he deals with not getting something he wants. He mentions taking up bowling instead of sports in high school because of scoliosis, and he declares looking for alternatives is the only way to deal with disappointment. Meanwhile, Beth sprints past a family of five Halloween-costumed kids and boards the bus.
While Rachel isn’t proud to ask Cliff for advice, the fact that she’s willing to do so at all shows how far she has come since the beginning of the book—when she was far more afraid of admitting her vulnerability, especially to strangers. In fact, this is due to Beth’s influence: Beth has helped Rachel become more spontaneous and shown her how much wisdom and life experience the drivers have to offer. Cliff turns out to be no exception: his anecdote shows Rachel that, rather than giving up on helping Beth, she should stay patient and look for other, more creative ways to help.
Rachel gives Beth her seat, and then she realizes what she really fears: Beth has only ever changed after “cataclysmic event[s],” and Rachel worries that Beth will never change again. Rachel also realizes how her solitary writer’s life has changed since she started riding the buses. She resolves to stop being “a clock that nobody can reset.”
Rachel calms down and starts to view the situation in a more objective, balanced way. She realizes that her frustration with Beth ultimately stems from her sisterly love: she doesn’t want Beth to have to go through anything “cataclysmic” because she refuses to change. Rachel also realizes that Beth isn’t so different from most other people—her problems are just more pronounced. In fact, if Rachel isn’t willing to change, she can’t fairly expect Beth to change, either.