Somehow the drudgery that life had become felt like the sole purpose of his existence. The clockwork routine, the nonexistent friendships, the empty wallet and the unattractive wife, all seemed to be the things that he had worked his entire life toward. Did some people live their dreams really? Or did they think they lived them? Because we can’t live a dream. That’s an oxymoron.
He scratched his neck. This bus stop was just as constant as everything in his life. The lone bench, the many colorful wrappers of edibles of travelers past, a few girls snickering in a corner over some salacious piece of celebrity gossip in a magazine, a youthful man wistfully watching them, a beggar counting his money.
How was it that none of this had changed since he was a young boy boarding this bus to school, then college and then his first job which became his only job? How was it that this bus stop had looked forlorn and sad on the mornings he sat on the bus with an empty stomach and then had looked like his salvation when he took it to see his first love?
His first love who was his wife now. He sighed at how life had deceived him. Or both of them. How the woman who breathed life into him twelve years ago now couldn’t make him feel anything. She had been a seductress of magnificent magic. Now she was a mother of four who didn’t seem to have time for anything.
When they had first met at 20 years old, some distant galaxy had exploded by the sheer force of their love. A thousand stars had glowed and then looked dim when their love shone brighter. Many untold stories were born and a wave of emotions had crashed against all the traditions that stood in their way. Nothing stood against the passion that they had. But that’s the thing about raw, inhibited passion. It destroys everything in its wake and makes no excuses for it. Sometimes it clouds judgment too. Usually it fizzles out. It had fizzled out in their case. A little too soon for his liking. And had left a rubble of regret and anger behind it.
But when it was good, it was very good. He loved everything about her. The way her long eye lashes shadowed her eyes in moments of vulnerability, how she turned pink when she was happy, how easy it was to make her laugh.
Her love was simple, like her. It rose from the innocence of her womanhood and wove tiny webs of arduous and intricate longing in his heart. Her love didn’t mesmerize or intoxicate. It fulfilled him, much like the first drink that a thirsty sailor has after coming to the shore. In moments of intimacy, it had an urgency. Like she had to unlock all the secrets in one night. So he knew passion was uninhibited. Hers certainly was. It was unapologetic in how it made her worship him. It also was naive for she didn’t think that anything was above it. She didn’t think they needed anything more than love to live, laugh and grow. Until they did!
How wrong, he thought! Her romanticism had come at a price. They had married young and became parents young. Then everything had become a blur. Passion was a distant memory now. Love a luxury that they couldn’t afford. Any closeness that they once craved sat in a box that they put their old clothes in.
He tried to focus on the approaching bus to see if it was his. What’s the point, he thought wryly to himself. They all go to my place but are usually so full that I can’t board any in the first hour of standing here. The smoke from the bus arrived before it did. There were scribbled love notes scratched on the surface of the bus, passengers hanging at the doors, many bolts of the bus coming loose, a man screaming at people to get in or miss this one, women occupying the front of the bus and men claiming the back. A few men were leering at the women on the bus, for reasons unknown, whether to find a mate or a fling. Some girls looked back at them with wanton looks and open expressions. There was a meaningless exchange of the cheapest form of sexual energy. He watched as a guy surreptitiously handed a crumpled piece of yellow paper to one of the girls and then scowled as the girl stuffed it in a side pocket of her bag. They both looked like, more than sex, their bodies wanted a few square meals. But they’ve probably had food, he thought sardonically, and know they will likely survive without it. They’ve likely never had sex and don’t know that bad sex kills you faster than hunger.
Bad sex? This was another oxymoron, isn’t it? Sex isn’t a compulsion that must be met. Or may be it is. May be it becomes the only ten minutes worth living for in a bad month. It sometimes is the only escape from the anger that he felt towards his wife and children.
This reminded him of the initial days of his marriage. The heat, the love, the hesitancy, the longing and finally the climax of all that his heart ever desired. Her warm body held a thousand promises as he explored it, her breathing irregular, his throbbing heart out of control. The sheets on their bed were new and fragrant. The scent of her body was still untouched by any foreign odors that now inhabited it. She was a nubile beauty with a way with words and subtle virginal gestures. He loved her and loved loving her. She loved him and felt like a queen in his arms. As his mouth explored the most intimate parts of her body, she moaned ever so slightly, adding to the urgency with which he wanted to take her and claim her as his own, night after night after night.
Now they had old sex. The same moves being made on the same old bed with sheets that smelled of bodily secretions from their four kids. The creaking of the bed mixed with the heavy snores of the other family members in their limited house turned him off every single time now. He had become hypersensitive to the smell of breast milk that seemed to constantly emanate from her overweight body and was usually mixed with the putrid stink of the room they occupied.
She used to wear jewelry and make up when they had first gotten married. The way her jewelry caught the sun and later the moon mesmerized him for hours. Her necklace would accentuate the gentle rise and fall of her chest, her bangles would clink in time with the rhythm. Sometimes he would get her flower ornaments that another financially strapped man was selling at traffic lights. He got her jasmine and roses. The room would smell like her and jasmine and roses for days. He would find tiny petals everywhere for months after. It was like the universe worked to cherish their love. They had a way to make magic and magic surrounded them.
Now she came to bed with a disinterest and benevolence. Like she was doing him a favor. She was also usually tired. It wasn’t possible to interest her in his body either. With time his lithe body had developed a little paunch and he had lost some hair too. Her saggy breasts didn’t turn him on but he contented himself with them. Just like she made do with his aging virility.
Another bus came and was full of passengers again. He cursed softly. All his life he was passed up. For someone better, someone smarter, someone taller, someone lighter. This bus passed him up too. He glanced up at it to ball park its capacity. It was full. A few school kids were playing cards in the back while standing. Sweat ran down their chubby faces and dark stains that probably originated from the sweat adorned their shirts. They had torn bags on their shoulders with a few raggedy looking books. A mousy boy watched over. He wasn’t playing. He was just watching.
Suddenly he felt a kinship with the boy. He was left out by his buddies. In this tender age he was learning the pain of rejection and exclusion. Probably good to start young , he thought savagely.
His mind went back to the wife of many years, the lover he brought home like a trophy, the mother of his kids who was a mere phantom of her once goddess-like self. She had become the one pain and grievance of his life after being his love and comfort for years. Her aloofness, indifference and dismissal of him had become a constant ache.
He waited for the third bus. Usually by the third bus he’d start to become angry at life again. He felt the usual anger surge through him for random injustices and misconduct by life itself. How it had neglected to give him anything when it had chosen much less worthy people for so much. How he had had to beg life for meals, money, a job and a healthy family. How he wanted life to make it easier for him by letting him afford a good education for his kids, a pair of new shoes for himself and some flower ornaments for his wife. He looked at his shoes. He didn’t remember what their original color was when he had bought them six years ago. They were scuffed in places where shoes normally didn’t get scuffed. Like his entire life. It was messed up even in places where people normally had a good spot. His shoes looked like his life. There was a yellow spot on the outer side of the right shoe which his kids had tried to rub off so many times and now all their efforts had only made it more conspicuous and made the shoe lose more of its polish.
He sighed. A deep sigh that lightened his soul for a few minutes. He felt good. Like he had just pulled all the weight that had settled in the bottom and handed it to the hot summer breeze to take somewhere.
Another bus approached. The same peeling paint, the same assortment of the urchins of life, the same game of craning his neck to check if it was his, the same disappointment that came over when it said a different number and a different route.
Why is life so unfair? He thought. Until I sweat a gallon of water that I don’t have I don’t even get my bus.
The bus stopped and people started getting on and off. He scanned the bus as his ritual. Suddenly he felt like this bus had something of his own in it. And then time froze like it had the first time he had seen her.
The pink outfit that she wore when it was somewhere important, the blue sandals that she only broke out on special occasions, the kohl in her eyes that he hadn’t seen in years, was all his. The costume necklace around her neck still breathed with her and her once light and curvy body still looked inviting with the twenty pounds that she had gained since their first child. His eyes moved to her hands. He noticed a handbag that he had gotten her on her birthday before they were even married. It didn’t look that old at all. In fact it looked brand new. How did she keep it so well? She had gotten old while preserving everything around her. Her hair was braided neatly down. Her hair had always been shiny and thick. Come rain or shine, she didn’t miss treating her hair with homemade concoctions that she swore by. Her cheeks were ablaze with the heat and crowd. Her chubby face looked serene like she had no problems and was just a regular woman on a regular day who had boarded a bus to see how the other half lived.
Soul-crushing sympathy for his wife took over. What happened to the girl with the full breasts, slim waist and generous hips? She was a shadow of her former self with remnants of a once-magical beauty. But why did she still stand out in a crowd of smelly strangers? Why did she still not become one with them? He saw her for a fleeting second in a crowded bus and then could see nothing else. How could she still do it? How had he become tired and worn-out looking with scuffed shoes and a neck that constantly spasmed? Whereas she had walked through the same time and space as he had, given birth and raised kids with her blood, then had poured her soul into their health and education, had wiped his own tears, kissed his worries away, tended to him in long nights when he got sick and had still come out much less tempered than him. How did she remain unscathed?
As he was lost in thought, trying to call her name out loud and then hesitating because she seemed so out of his league, she saw him.
Their eyes met and the whole world stopped. She stared back and slowly a familiar smile started playing at the corners of her mouth. Mischievous, like they were caught in a moment all their own, a secret of indulgent emotions and sexual thoughts, the only reprieve in years of slow torture, a gentle build up of waves joining together to move the shore, the flirting of souls, the titillating allure of the known. As their eyes held each others’ the bus started to move and life again took something from him.
He watched life rob him again of a moment of pure unadulterated pleasure. He wanted to take back what was his but knew he couldn’t win with life. A silent scream that echoed in his ears in moments of deeper reckoning was ringing in his ears again. He felt his heart drop and his soul silently accepted defeat.
The bus was stopping again. He saw her get down. He squinted to make sure it was her. It was. She came running to him in a blur of color. Her pink outfit with her blue sandals and her dark hair made his heart race. He ran towards her. She was getting out of breath, he could see. Normally he would’ve been out of breath too. But not today. Today he ran and quickly closed the distance between them. She was laughing and holding her sides when he got to her. Without thinking he held her in his arms.
Somehow, outside the home that had become a dungeon of his murdered dreams she looked like her old self. Young, vibrant, funny and sexy. She had a soft fragrance around her, so different from the variety of smells he had come to associate with her over the years. Her cheeks were bright and rosy, and now rapidly turning red under his hungry stare. She broke the silence finally and said,
“I didn’t expect to see you here. I was going to my mom’s place”.
He couldn’t speak. Even if he had wanted to, he couldn’t speak.
She watched him, her eyes blazing,
“You couldn’t take your eyes off of me. A woman on the bus said that I shouldn’t look back at you. That this would make you have bad thoughts about me. I told her that’s exactly what I wanted”.
She laughed at her boldness and forwardness. The same sweet laugh that made him kiss her deeper, hug her tighter. He was momentarily transported to a time when they made each other laugh without any effort at all.
She slowly became serious,
“You didn’t like that I got down from the bus, did you? Now I’ll have to get another bus and pay the fare again. I know it was stupid”.
Her countenance was cloudy again, like it usually was at home. She was always occupied with one thing or the other at home. Laughter, fun and mirth were concepts for another family, not theirs. Their life was so consumed by the day to day of their pathetic needs that there wasn’t room for anything else.
She slowly started to edge away from him. He held on even tighter. She smiled,
“For someone who’s upset at my fare being wasted, you certainly are holding me a little too lovingly”.
“Who said I’m upset?” He asked, huskily.
“So why are you so quiet? Why are you always so quiet?”
Yes! That was a good question. Why was he so quiet? Why was he so quiet when he had her? The love of her life! How many people manage to get the love of their life? Life might have burdened him with all of its unfairness but it also gave him a gift. Her! Life probably didn’t want to but his love fought for them and came to him. This was the gift. This is why they both looked so different even though they smelled the same dirty sheets and ate the same lean meals. This is why she had looked like the only person in the whole world on the same bus that he usually looked inconsequential on. This was because she was the gift that had quietly kept on giving and he had continued to take without giving much back.
“I’m always so quiet because I love hearing you talk. When you talk I forget every rude comment that my boss made during the day. I forget the hours of waiting for transport. When you talk I remember only the good, the beautiful and the wonderful. Your voice makes me whole again, every night. Your voice becomes my happy place. Your voice becomes the only music in my chaos”.