Alaa Hlehel | from:Arabic

My Husband the Bus Driver

Translated by : Raphael Cormack

Image: Emily Lau

1

My Husband is a bus driver. He has been for thirty years or more. I met him when he was 24 and he had just finished driving school in the city. On his ID card they had written next to “Occupation”, “Bus Driver”. These words, along with the picture of his handsome face, were enough to trap me in the marital cage that he had built in our lovely, remote village.

Throughout all of our engagement I dreamed – day and night – about the long, wonderful trips we would take together. I still don’t know what my older sister was talking about one summer night on the roof of our house, when she told me in a low voice with a twinkle in her eye: “The back seat of the bus is wide and soon you’ll learn every inch of it, every smell.”

Two days before the wedding, all of my friends came to the village for my henna party. They all sat there, picturing me sitting in the front seat behind my husband as he accompanied me on trips and excursions, wishing that they were me. One of them fantasised about going to Jerusalem, another to Jaffa. A third said with strange certainty, “Baniyas is the most beautiful place in the world. Tell him to take you to Baniyas.”

We couldn’t understand how she was so sure of that town’s qualities, so we asked her if she had ever been to Baniyas. She told us that her brother had gone there a year ago and he had said that it was the most beautiful place in the world. We laughed until we cried. Then my little sister said, with clear envy shared by all in attendance, “We all hear about these places, but my sister is the only one who is really going to see these places.”

I sighed a deep sigh of joy, mixed with fear.

              2

Now, I wake up at five every morning and make myself a small pot of sweet, black coffee and wait for the sun to begin its journey across the sky. It arrives with a deep red colour that reminds me of the figs ripening in my late father’s garden. I drink my coffee; I don’t want to distract the sun from her daily expedition. She must be very tired by now; she doesn’t need some chatterbox like me telling her all about my life with my husband the bus driver. So, I drink my coffee and dream about the sun’s endless journeys. I wish that I could go on just one.

In those early morning hours that I have spent alone, I found out for myself that the sun visits practically the whole world in 24 hours! How strong she is and what a wonderful life she must live, this sun. She travels the whole world alone and doesn’t get tired or bored. She is never worn out. My mother had promised me a life like this an hour before my husband’s family came to take me from my childhood home.  She leaned in towards me a little and made a request I didn’t think I would ever be able to fulfil: “Make sure you tell me about all your wonderful travels.”

As soon as my husband wakes up he receives a new pot of coffee straight off the burner. He never brushes his teeth but they are still as white and strong as a horse’s. My mother always told me that the men in my husband’s family were like horses: strong and healthy, with huge white teeth. Even my late father couldn’t hide his excitement for the grandsons I would give him: “They will be born like horses and will hold their heads up high,” he told me.

Still, I wished he would brush his teeth, especially in the morning. That is the time that he takes an interest in me, if you know what I mean. I wake him up and he drags me by the hand. Then he lies on top of me on the bed and goes at it. He never waits for me to wake up properly or to wash my face. Then, by the time I have woken up properly he has finished his foul-smelling panting and has rolled over to the other side of the bed. He just asks, “When are you getting up?”

But I have brought my sons up to brush their teeth. I won’t have them annoying their wives in the morning or before bed. My sons will be healthy, handsome and considerate to their wives. If I’d had a daughter – as I always hoped I would – I would have made her the best woman in the world. I would have sent her to university and she would have come back to me a doctor, who could heal my broken bones and soothe my painful arthritis. The village doctor told me to give my body some rest and not to do any strenuous work. He’s a fool. It takes more than a university education to make a man a doctor. He also needs some common sense. Who does he think is going to do all the work for the family or around the house? Is he going to do it for me? If I’d had a daughter she would have been a thousand times better than him as a doctor. And she could have taught him some life lessons, worth much more than all that cold equipment he puts on my body when I visit him. He put something on me and then extends it; for some reason, I put up with it.

              3

I’ve had five children and they are all educated men. They are my bright red roses, with a rare purity. When I look at them, I feel no pain – except for the kisses I could have given them but never did and for the times when I was asleep, even though I knew they were awake and studying.

The first is an engineer, the second is a teacher, the third a nurse, the fourth works in the market trading something they call “stocks” and the fifth works in the village bank. There is still one unmarried “nestling”, who hasn’t settles down his own house yet. I am secretly hoping that he waits a little longer, to ease my loneliness in the long days when my husband is away, driving his bus and taking 40 or 50 people on some amazing trip.

The first time I rode the bus was two days after our wedding. I was still hurting down there from the wedding night. Throughout the trip, whenever I thought about my “first time,” I had to run to the toilet to be sick. I claimed that I had eaten something bad at the wedding. In spite of this, I was still excited to be riding the company bus that my husband drove and excited about all the journeys we would go on together, following the trail of the setting sun, which never really sets. On our first trip we went to a nearby town and had grilled fish for dinner. It was so delicious. It took me a whole week to realise that this “trip” was the honeymoon that people always talk about.

I didn’t really care about having a short honeymoon because I was sure that the coming months would be just as sweet. I had no doubt about that. After four days, my husband went back to work. He said that I should clean his bus after those wretched schoolchildren had filled it with their sweets, nuts and vomit. I did. I cleaned it better than I cleaned my bedroom. It sparkled like a crystal. That night I felt that pain between my legs again, just like I had on my wedding night. But I did not say a word; tomorrow he would take me on another trip.  

              4

Every morning he went off to work – on one of his trips – and he did not come back again until the evening. After he had eaten dinner, I would take the products and the brushes, climb into the big bus and start cleaning until it was back to looking like it did when it arrived from the company. After a while, I got to know everything about the rubbish that I picked up on the bus. I began to use it to figure things out about the passengers: their ages, what they were like and why they were travelling. Sometimes the bus came back clean, except for a few pieces of white paper with writing in a language I did not know. Other times it came back covered with sweets wrappers, old snacks, empty soda cans and scattered flecks of vomit.

As time went on, I didn’t feel any pain when he took an interest in me. That particular source of pain had been somehow disappeared. I was very glad to see it gone and still am.

When I gave birth to the first child, my husband the bus driver promised me a wonderful trip to help me recover my strength and to make up for my difficult first birth. But his mother died three days after the birth of the child and he forgot. I was embarrassed to ask him about the trip that he had promised me, especially since, most days, he came back from work angry and raving. He insulted and cursed the company’s owner, his colleagues and the degrading conditions of his work. When the second child was born he did not suggest any trip at all and I did not bring it up. The second birth was easier than the first and I told myself that I didn’t deserve a trip in the bus after such an easy birth.

After the birth of our third child, I finally realised that the trip I had been waiting for was never coming. How were we ever going to take a nice trip when we had one small baby still breastfeeding and two other children who always cried for one silly reason or another?

I met my excited friends who had just returned from the amazing trips they had taken with their husbands to Jerusalem, Jaffa or Baniyas and I smiled politely. I listened to their amazing stories and I listened to stories so boring they should not have bothered to tell them. When someone asked me, without prompting, “Why don’t you tell us about the trips you’ve been taking in that beautiful bus?”, I ignored her.

Before I knew it, the only relationship I had with the bus was when I came with buckets of water, soap, brushes and dirty old rags. Every two or three days I got into the bus to clean up bits of vomit and the litter that the small children left behind. I knew all the bits of packaging, their colours and the snacks that came in them. I started to buy them for my children when they were getting excited about a school trip. I would fill their bags with all the best snacks and bid them a tearful farewell as they got onto the bus for some school trip, which had kept them awake all of the night before. I could hear them whispering, swapping stories about the place they were going, about the things their classmates bought and how I always bought them the best things. They were always unanimous on one thing, that my husband was the best man in the world because he took them on their trips and always saved them the long back seat.

I tossed and turned in my bed, staring at the ceiling, and remembered that their aunt had loved that long back seat too, even though she herself had never gotten to try it.

Every morning they all went to school in the big bus, which was very run down by that point. They left me waving at them from the entrance of the house, smelling the disgusting black diesel smoke.

After the fourth child was born the company gave my husband a new bus. It was shiny, clean and new. The chairs were wrapped in new plastic covers. I almost fainted from shock when my husband proudly told me that it had a television and video player! In the end I could not stop myself from collapsing backwards in excitement. The bucket of soap and water that I had brought with me to give the floor a good clean fell over too. The floor of the bus was covered in water. Some dirty water splashed up my children’s legs, who were standing behind me. They were rather alarmed by this unexpected spillage. My husband slapped me across the face, as he often did when he was angry, and shouted “You cow! You’ve even ruined the new bus too.”

The boys did nothing. They hung their heads and got off the bus in silence, leaving me to wipe away my tears and then wipe the water off the floor quickly and vigorously so that he would leave me alone. Children see everything.

From that day on, I came to hate that bus. I was forced to clean it but I did so with undisguised laziness. I “missed” lots of little wrappers or spots of vomit that I knew he would smell the next day. If he had bothered to clean his teeth, perhaps I would have cared a little more.

              5

The children soon began to leave home for their studies. By then, I had a lot of experience in sitting outside the house, waiting for the phantom of the new bus. My first-born son did a great job – it could be called an act of charity – when he attached a large, round dish to the roof of the house. He said that it would add more than 100 channels to our television. I didn’t believe him until he started to flick through them. My husband and sons all stood around. They wanted to see a channel with their own eyes. They just stood there looking until my husband complained. Then my son began to skip through the channels again until he reached a show with two men shouting at each other. After a little while, our youngest son said, “This is Al-Jazeera, a news channel.”

I never liked al-Jazeera. All they ever did was shout at each other. I liked watching music channels, shows about herbal medicines and Arabic soap-operas. I still don’t know how I survived so long without the soap operas. I swear that I can remember whole episodes of “Mufid al-Wahsh” and “al-Jawarih” by heart. As soon as one channel had stopped showing a series, another channel would replay it. Then it went back to the first channel, which would show it late at night, and then to another and so on and so forth. I lost any connection with the world around me. The big round dish and I became the best of friends. I kept him company in the living room and he took me on trips that not even a bus driver could dream of.

Every time I saw my husband, I was reminded of that horrible pain I felt on our wedding night and I had to go and throw up behind the house. After this, the doctor told me that I had a stomach problem caused by the cleaning products I used which was making me vomit all the time. He advised me to change them, so I did. When I did not stop throwing up, he told me with a pained expression, “You shouldn’t eat so much, then you would throw up less.” So, I started to eat less. I threw up less and weighed less too. I began to let the doctor put his instruments on me however he pleased. Sometimes he would give up with his instruments all together and just use his hands, but it would take him a while to stop trembling.

              6

Once I saw a long bit of rubber in the bus and I had no idea what it was. Nor was I sure what the thick, gloopy liquid trapped inside it was. The bit of rubber had been tossed to the end of the bus, on the long back seat, the same seat whose scent my sister had told me many years ago I would not forget. When I recognised the smell of the sticky mess inside the rubber, I couldn’t contain myself; I threw up on the chair and made a horrible mess. After that horrible experience, I started pretending to be asleep every time my husband came up to me from behind in the mornings. His desire only increased when I was “sleeping.” I just stayed there, calm.

              7

Now, at five o’clock every morning I sit by myself in silence and ask the sun about her long journey. I look at the bus that my husband drives on all his trips and wish I could ask it about the places it has visited and the people who dance and sing on its seats all day long. Even my darling sons have stopped visiting as much. They have given me up for their wives and my grandchildren, whom I long to see.

Since my grandchildren were born, my sons and their wives are always away on long trips. They can’t get enough of travelling. I am just here, hoping they come back to see me with a nice veil for winter or with a piece of fabric that I can sew however I like. My sons are travellers, they love travel more than anything in the world. I taught them when they were small: “Never miss a trip in your lives and never pass up the chance to travel, whatever you do. Take it from me.  I’m your mother and I know more about travelling than you do.”

I too began to travel wherever and however I wanted, sitting in front of all those channels. I came to hate actual travel, that bus and my husband. In fact, I hardly ever went out onto the balcony any more or even left my place in the living room. I was weak with arthritis and illness. The government gave me a woman who came to give me a hand with chores and to help around the empty house. Our youngest son had decided to go live in the city with his big brother because “the job opportunities are better there.”

For hours and hours I just sat in front of the TV. I could go on any trip I wanted, on any bus I choose or in any soap opera I decided. Even when my sight began to fade, and my hearing even more so, I could still make out what was going on and all the images and places on screen.

Sitting in front of the TV like this, I heard a voice calling from inside, “Come here quickly, I think I’m dying.” But I didn’t come. I didn’t do anything. What did he want me to do? His voice has started to fade now. In fact, it has totally stopped. I guess he is sleeping. Let him sleep. What does he want me to do? Let him wait. I’m off on a trip right now and he needs to wait for me to come back.

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