It is one day since he’s slept, and two since he’s eaten.
It remains a mystery to him how he is still capable of motion. Walking comes rather mechanically: he puts the left leg forth then the right one and repeats that tedious activity all the way. All the way to what, he does not know; it is the way that always stretches endlessly before those who have no destination that matters, and not what is awaiting him by the end of it.
Strange memories are flooding his mind; memories that have the odor of things long forgotten and dead it becomes perturbing when they appear again. Amongst them is a vow, made too many years ago, by somebody who is strangely him: he vowed not to leave a street in Cairo unvisited. He also remembers that by the first week he started fulfilling his vow, he gave it up. He remembers why. It was painful to see the same scenes and faces, with their old corners and creases reiterated with different decorations. He came to the conclusion that it would suffice to look out of the window and see specimens of that big thing called life.
He feels that his legs are going to give way under him. Physically, he can walk no more; mentally, he cannot but walk. And now, it is his desire to escape feelings he can find no name to that propels his legs to keep their activity. And with every step, the objects are sinking further into a haze; all things melt into each other. The deep blue color of the sky suffuses the clouds; people fade into the grey of the asphalt; and the horizon…it lies lost in the hues of brown of autumn’s leafless trees.
But then, he decides to keep on walking. He lifts his gaze from his shoes and notices that the night has befallen his side of the globe. It seems peculiar how last time he looked it was day and now it is not. It is peculiar because his shoes are still the same, and the sky is different .His eyes look searchingly at everything and it is unchanged. It is like the sun and the moon and summer and spring and fall and winter all are backgrounds that shift and change to the monotonous theme of our lives. But perhaps it is not so; we do change. We do; only it is not as systematic and predictable as the seasons. He himself has changed.
He starts thinking of himself. He does not stand and analyze like everybody else would do; he is questioning the very essence of being. What proof has he that he is him? Him? And he keeps on repeating his name. He is detached from all it is that is him. He focuses on the sound of his name. He has said it all his life but now, now it is anything but familiar. He repeats it, nervously, and it turns from a murmur to an almost angry shout. “I am me!” he exclaims, laughing hysterically.
On this very moment, his eyes fall on his shadow. It is taller than he is; yet, it retains all his basic features. He stares at it; it stares back. He runs; from the corner of his eyes, he sees it following with the same pace. He stops, panting and feeling more fatigued than ever. He curses himself for his stupidity, however; another glance at his shadow sends a cold shiver down his spine. It feels like everything corrupt and defiled in him was standing there, looking at him challengingly; a dark projection of his soul that without he will have no existence in life. It stares intently at him. It is as silent as grave; yet he hears an echo, springing from the very core of him resonating: “Yes, I am you, and you can’t run away.”
In the midst of the clamor, he hears a voice calling him. He cannot recognize it at first and it seems to be uttering something unintelligible. Soon though, the voice gets clearer and so the words it is saying. “My dear husband!” he hears. He is beside himself.
But it is only his old neighbor; his first friend and sole wife. They got married at the age of 6 only to separate a few days later; he tore the eye of her favorite doll which she called “Candy”. He bought her another one on the following week, and was bestowed forgiveness on the spot; only they did not remembered to get married back again.
All these memories and more come into his head on the sight of her. They manage to translate themselves into a genuine widespread smile invading his face, as he retorts, exhilarated, “My beloved wife!”
Midnight is an hour away. She is riding a car. He is in the street. She tells him to get in and now they are both driving off. To a nearby cafe’ she says they are going. And he does not mind.
The time in the car is spent in an endless chatter about what came of the family of each after her family had moved away years ago. After about half an hour later they arrive at the café’.
After they get seated and order, she looks at him for sometime which places them both in an awkward silence. She changes the direction of her gaze suddenly, smiles, and says to him, “You have not asked me about me yet.”
He answers, abashed, “Oh, yeah. I am sorry.” He pauses for a second then asks monotonously with a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “So, you’re married?”
“Pretty much. I am engaged to be married.” There was unmistakable happiness in her voice,
He starts unable to conjure up anything to say. “I am surprised,” he says, quite without having prepared it.
“What? You are not married?”
“Not that either.”
“And I thought I was gonna die an old maiden!”
“Well then,” he retorts, smiling, “you are not.”
“But tell me, why is that?”
“I have not found anyone to love me. Besides, I want to be free. Free like the birds.”
“You people are so shallow.”
“Excuse me, I didn’t know I was talking to one of these marriage-maniacs,” he teases.
“Shut up. You know I am not. I just need to understand why everyone identifies freedom with birds. Have you ever tried to imagine yourself in the middle of the sky fighting gravity and wind risking your life to reach a destination because that’s just how you are designed? I find nothing free about that.”
He is somewhat taken aback by her words. For the first time, he finds himself really similar to birds.
She looks at him inquiringly. “What are you thinking of?”
“Animals,” he titters. “You know animals can be very interesting. I was just reading yesterday on the defense techniques they have got.” He pauses abruptly. “What is your defense technique?”
“What is a defense technique?”
“I guess if you are talking about humans, it means a special trick you use so that no one will see through your weakness.”
“When I am feeling so vulnerable, I get aggressive. I shout at stupid things; things I’d usually laugh at. When somebody I was just thinking of calling calls, I find myself fighting with him for no apparent reason than wanting to fight. I don’t think it’s about anger-not the whole thing anyway-it is about me trying to appear as the opposite of what I am feeling; I hurt people because I am afraid they’ll hurt me. What about you?
“I also act opposite to what I am feeling but in a very different way. I appear the happiest when I am the saddest. I don’t make it up, it just comes. Perhaps someday it used to need some effort to make it up, but now, it comes automatically. It actually annoys me at times.”
“Well, I think you should start searching for another defense technique.”
“Why?” He looks intently at her.
“This one is not working. You laugh and joke and act happily, but believe me; I have never seen a sadder look in somebody’s eyes.”
He still cannot take his eyes off her; not from anything but pure astonishment. For a minute even thoughts are paralyzed in his head. His first attempt at talking comes as a strain of unintelligible words. He closes his mouth and opens it again; still, no words manage to come out. He laughs. He then stops and assumes a rather stern face. “I’ve once talked to a cancer survivor,” he finally commences, “He said to me that all doctors in the world could not have cured him if he hadn’t had it in him that he should rise back again on his feet. He also said that cancer was the enemy, and he had to defeat the enemy. But then, here’s the thing with pain, you cannot make an enemy out of it; pain swallows you up. You carry pain around, everywhere you go, you just carry it around. It consumes you so completely you cannot consider it a separate entity from your own self. It fills you up so that if one day it decides to leave, you start feeling empty. And if you try to fight it, the first blow you give will be to yourself. It is like your shadow, can you escape your shadow? Can you uproot you from you? And if you do, what remains? How on Earth can you beat an enemy like that?”
“Stop putting pain in test tubes. Stop making it part of an equation with two unknowns. Here’s fact: you will never get pain. You know why? Because pain is stupid and stupid things make no sense. And if pain is stupid, treat it in accordance to its own IQ level. Or no! Be stupider. Pain is not treated by thinking and theorizing; pain is treated by acting. So act! Laugh when you are not supposed to. Dance in weird times. Smile randomly at passers-by. Do you hear me, act!”
The utterance of her words came with vehemence that shook her both literally and figuratively. He too was shaken, only in another, deeper manner; the deepest of his beliefs has just been controverted. What she said still resonates in his ears and yet; he is not thinking of it, he is rather filled with a sweeping feeling of gratitude. As she has just advised him, he acts. He holds her hand tightly saying with a voice that cannot fail to interpret what he is feeling, “Thank you.”
Sitting hand in hand for a moment longer than what was expected, they sense awkwardness finding a way between them. As though suddenly realizing it, they quickly move apart.
She blushes and looks away for a second but then looks at him and says in undertone, “I know you were lying when you said you are not married because nobody has loved you enough. When we were young half of the girls in the neighborhood were crushing you.”
“That’s because we were just young.”
“And because we were just young it means that when we grew older the entire neighborhood must have been crushing on you.”
“Okay. Perhaps I was lying when I said I am not married because of that. The second reason though has nothing but truth to it.”
“What? That you want to be free?” she answers mockingly.
‘”Yes that I want to be free, “he says earnestly.
“And are you?” she challenges.
“I am free of many things: I am free of predestined future, a future that I know already all the details of because this future is the life of all of those I have seen. In it, I don’t wanna lose myself. I just wanna keep me, in the absolute way of being me. I wanna be me, not relevant to somebody, just me..only me.”
“If we are talking about freedom on the human scale, it does not come for free; you have to pay something to get something in return. What are you forsaking?”
“I know what you mean and I have thought of it over and over again. I know that I’ll be alone. I know that when I am old and ill, nobody will go with me to the doctor or be concerned if I am okay. I know that I’ll have no children who will always bear the memory of me. But that’s all when I grow old, and when we are old, we are as good as dead. Will I give me up for a ghost? I find all that a fair price I pay for not losing myself to somebody I don’t trust and to a life that is bound to be a copy of a million others.”
“Only if you get to have that. Let me give you a description of your free life: nothing. You will be too caught up in the nothingness. You’ll do all that you want to do but for no reason than wanting to do it. And then it’ll all be gone to no avail. You say you don’t wanna lose yourself, it might be so, but then, you’ll be lost within yourself. An entity that is not anchored by another can have no definite shape, and you’ll then be drowning within you. You might even die down there and walk with no soul flowing in you. And then all of your life will really be forsaken to a ghost; only you won’t be old and as good as dead, you’ll still be young, you’ll be young and it might happen soon, or maybe it has already happened.”
“You know you are saying nothing new? You know I know all that? You know that every moment I am breathing in the air of what you have just described? But I am afraid. I am nothing but afraid. And then maybe it’s all about trust. Maybe if I trust somebody enough that choosing to live with won’t bereave me of me, and in that case, will complete me, I’ll break my chain of freedom. Which makes it all about love. Maybe I just need to get rid of that self I am wallowing in to be able to love, to love and be loved. Maybe it’s just really all about that.”
“Yes maybe.” Her smile comes radiating warmth, and this time, she is the one who softly holds his hand.
For the past ten minutes, she has been taking fast glances at her watch. Though he has taken notice of it, the idea does not enter his mind that she might have to leave soon; for a reason that defies sense, he is not willing to accept that. But now, now is really time for her to go.
Saying that she is now taking leave and trying to assume the proper expression for the occasion, she finds herself stopping mid sentence. Her face is the closest thing to being frozen; her eyes have their gaze fixed on him with a look that speaks of deep empathy, almost of love. In them, there is hurt too reflected, but not for her own self, for his. She is hurting for him. She is feeling his pain. She is touching his brokenness.
And he can sense it all. He can sense how at this moment, a deep vulnerable string is woven between their hearts, and through it, he is flowing. Each second added to their moment makes the weight of the impending departure pressure them more. He feels a needing for her that he has never felt for anyone or anything before. And that needing is not simple, not normal, it is a needing that shall never cease long after she goes: in her lies his sole cure. And she too needs him: leaving him now will dig a wound in her that will bleed forever.
But she eventually leaves. And later, he too leaves.
The way back is always longer. On going to a place, the zeal, no matter how slight, and the excitement, no matter how imperceptible, manage to make the road less tiring, more bearable. The dilemma always lies in the way back, when all is seen and done. The road then stretches to a destination that offers nothing new, no expectations. At this time, walking back becomes a mere obligation. And so, he drags his feet back home.
He thinks of his long walk today. He does not know what made him do this barely sane thing, and something tells him he was not acting just on a whim. Perhaps his inexplicable need for walking and not stopping was a projection for his wanting to escape himself. The idea seems too hopeful: as his shadow previously stated, he can never run away. And now that he is going home, the question haunts him: instead of escaping, can his self ever feel like home? But it hangs unanswered.
On entering his room and lying on bed, all the tiredness seems to leak out of him and into the open window. In his momentary release, all his life fades into a haze. His haze is dim, except of patches of color here and there. His chest now widens enough to grasp it, all of it, with its tiny details. His life really is not that big: his life is only now, only this minute, where he will always be living. And when life is only that one minute, it is much easier to be lived. He breathes, in and out, slowly, savoring the taste of each breath. He abandons his thinking and theorizing: for the meantime, he shall make no sense and be glad of it. His head is then flooded with dreams that can have no possible existence in reality. Tomorrow he’ll wake up and make fun of them; but now, he is possessed by an idea that nothing matters but dreams.
After some other minutes, the entire room is bathed in the delicate color of the rising sun. The day has befallen his side of the globe.
It makes him smile.