At 5:50 in the morning, people at the bus stop are either sleeping, getting dressed, or wide awake. Ailene was one of the latter.
Sweet, round, brassy red hair, Ailene was reading a mystery when I first met her. She lived by herself and probably always would. Ailene took the same two-hour bus ride across town every day, although she announced, “I’m changing shifts. I’m really not a morning person.”
She had me fooled. I don’t drink coffee but it seemed like a good idea. I stretched and rubbed my eyes.
We didn’t sit together on the first leg of our journey. Ailene passed the hour reading a Grisham novel. She had a system and as soon as the bus stopped, she darted out of the exit, across the parking lot and into Dunkin’ Donuts. Ailene didn’t even need to look at her watch. She had the routine down cold and easily made the second connection, a feat I rarely accomplish. I noticed the donuts had been secreted in her purse.
As we rode the next bus, we ended up sitting beside each other. Ailene was in a talkative mood. “When I was sixteen, I spent the summers in Jamaica,” she said.
I really didn’t know Ailene. We had friendly conversations as we shared benches but I could tell this was her defining story. It was important for me to listen and smile. “I know you’ve lived all over, but I lived in Jamaica before it was ‘discovered.’ There were no cruise ships to speak of and there weren’t many tourists.
“My uncle worked for the power company that had the contract for the island and he would invite me to leave New York and go with him and his son and daughter in the summertime. We had a chauffer, a cook and a maid but I loved to drive all over the island with my cousin.
“I remember the chauffer would chastise me, ‘It’s not proper for a lady to go riding around like that Miss Ailene!’ But I didn’t care. We were young and it was fun. I remember rafting down that big river and eating fried bananas. I loved those plantains! They are small and kinda black. You fry them with lots of butter and sugar and some rum.
“But I remember the summer Jamaica became independent. The British Commonwealth Games were held there that year. Have you ever been to Jamaica in the summer? There was no air conditioning and the bugs were as big as B-52s. We would be sitting eating dinner with the windows open. They didn’t even have screens! You could hear a swarm of these B-52s coming and we would dive under the table. Those bugs would raise huge whelps on you if they bit.
“Well, Queen Elizabeth was supposed to come to the games but she had been to Jamaica in the summer and didn’t care to do it again. Instead she sent her sons to attend them. It was a big event and there weren’t many white girls on the island so naturally we were invited to the grand ball. My uncle even sent us to Miami to find a formal dress for the occasion. No such thing as a formal dress on Jamaica!”
The city bus lumbered through the dusty streets of Guadalupe, Arizona but Ailene was sixteen again, a thin, vivacious, “belle of the ball” in a far away land.
“And do you know what happened?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye. “Bonnie Prince Charlie asked me to dance.”
She dipped and blushed and Diana’s rival confided, “He is a marvelous dancer but a very poor conversationalist.” And with that I stepped off the bus and watched Cinderella ride away in her coach.
The memory of that moment defined Ailene’s life. “I danced with the prince.” How wonderful that single moment must have been but Jesus invites you to take his hand and dance into eternity!