Aida was young when I still knew her. I didn’t know her age but she reeked of possibility, the kind of girl who was vaguely hopeful that her life would change and wasn’t able to articulate how or why this had to happen. She was sexually aware; on the bus rides she took men would observe her – did they not think she would not notice or mind? She did and she didn’t. Aida learned to conceal a few uncontroversial parts of herself – her open wrists, the back of her ears, the crude bumps of her ankles, the very tip of her smile – and expose them selfishly. Men didn’t react to this but a new kindness would surface. If she pulled a sleeve up a certain way, or went up the stairs with a speed that I found to be outright salacious, they’d consider her, rather than merely appreciate the sight of her. I wonder if she thought this was respect, or if she knew what she wanted to do with it.
People – not just the men in buses – wanted to talk to her, and I suspect it was her face that was so inviting. Eyes northed to some beautiful nowhere, a rich and warm brown that offered the comfort of a pond you could dip your silly toes in without worrying that you’d be consumed by cold water or strange moss. People went up to tell her things and she would listen attentively because there was a field in her mind reserved for their troubles; she felt curious to know about the lives that weren’t hers to own. These stories were mundane, but right at the edge, something only walked past, left to lie at the fringes – had the potential to bloom into something real that deserved her concern and obsessiveness. This where she found Adam.
Adam, unlike Aida or anyone she knew, was not born and raised in this place. They treated him like an outsider. There was tightness he would inflict; you’d oblige yourself to be nicer and polite – aware but helpless as to how insincere you sounded. The way he spoke, there was a punishing kindness; he’d offer to drive people back to their homes, wash his own dirty plates and he would say positive things about a person everyone else had been trying to tear apart with quiet and collective tact.
Aida was recklessly teenage, only because she allowed herself to be. With Adam, she didn’t want to be wishful — she wanted emotion to graduate into fact, she wanted to learn everything she could about him and let this knowledge fester in her brain, in her blood, thinking something inside her would be true and alive.
I knew about Aida and her wishfulness — I didn’t think it was something I needed to cure, or if it was my responsibility. She was attracted to the promise of things she only heard about, the good things swimming just beyond her periphery, outside this place and its suburban air, smelling the bundles of dead grass ready for the collector, its sidewalk and the bruises it suffered from years of feet trampling to and fro but heading to no place new or wonderful. Aida would estimate what it would feel like to run, to be at the bus station with strangers. Older men travelling in their worn denim and blackened shoes, families too cheap to take a flight, couples in singlets and burned skin hopping to new cities. She’d immediately be the odd one; someone would quiz her being there. Little girl, are you lost? It was obvious, even in a dream, that here was her home.
Maybe it would be different with Adam there, she hoped; he would segregate her from the place and she’d be free to roam whatever the world had to offer. He would sit with her on the bus and they’d hold hands. No one would bother to look twice; they were foreigners who, sooner or later, were bound to leave anyway.
Adam was awkwardly tall, with a broken posture; he had the height of a man with twice his confidence. He carried on him a purposeful look, appearing out of his house to water plants or collect the mail, he never seemed to just linger or unlatch himself from an active thought. Aida still hadn’t figured out his full routine – he would go out for a jog on some evenings, and this was probably done on impulse, Aida assumed. She’d put on her running shoes and insect repellent, imagining that he was shortly ahead or behind her. Aida wasn’t sure if she was pursuing or being pursued, but the anticipation of bumping into Adam would keep her running.
Aisha was married to Adam, and she put this fact ahead of anything else. She wasn’t sure if she could be anyone without Adam, and assumed this was what commitment meant, emptying part of yourself for someone else to occupy. Her life was anchored to their home, but she’d distribute little anecdotes and genuine complaints about her time with Adam. She’d assert a “we” on these narratives, but would at times let Adam go out on a leash. She’d talk about Adam’s trouble at work, though at the end she would reclaim him – the story ending at home, where the two had homecooked dinners and watched old films together.
Aisha knew how Adam was perceived, and for some reason encouraged it. She’d compliment him furiously, pull his college education – he studied engineering, because his mother wanted him to – making him sound like a docile son. His father died when he was a teenager, when the two were just about to learn about each other as people, then he was left with his four sisters and mom. Aisha made him out to be a reluctant but reliable alphamale, her description of Adam always contrived in its messiness. There was a sense of possession, Aisha knew. She sometimes felt like she lived in the myth of Adam
Aida once felt young like her peers, wanting to know more about the world, hers had now shrunk into Adam – she learned these specific things about him, and Aisha. The knowledge now started to feel tangible, in the way they consumed her emotionally. A feeling would come up and she’d attempt to name it – hope, disappointment, yearning, lightness – Adam was a shapeshifter, Aida would accept him in any form.
She wondered if this made her a woman, if women would allow themselves to be destroyed this way, if there had to be something they had to devote themselves to and suffer for. Or, if it was this kind of pain that would help her shed her girly ways to become a woman.
Aida lived with her mother, who in her thoughts she called by name. The term ‘mother’ would be too generous — at best Amira was the woman who paid the bills, Aida thought in her meanest state. Amira the grumpy one. Although she wasn’t always grumpy, but carried with her a permanent bitterness. Bitterness was what Aida called it on some days, she’d associate this to her father’s absence. Her father was something she consciously pushed out of her head; she wanted no questions there, she did not want to incite dialogue about this with anyone. He had long gone, but Amira was his keeper.
Amira whimpered, Amira collapsed, not openly, but there was an anger she would brandish like a whip; it offered no real damage but was disappointing in its mellowness, in the way it was constantly there with no reason to be.
As a woman, Amira could live with her pain, her life breathed through and around it. She picked up on Aida’s distracted state and tried to diagnose it. For a while she merely stood back and observed Aida, as if Aida would immediately point her to the source. She believed she could understand her daughter well.
Aida often had ridiculous preferences that were just reactions. If Amira served one type of cereal Aida would insist on another; it wasn’t only cereal but a lot of other things that didn’t really matter to the both of them. They would argue for the sake of winning, but any little triumph would go unnoticed, overshadowed by the frustration of the struggle. It was only recently that Aida would take anything Amira hoisted onto her. Amira saw that Aida’s mind had reprioritised and she had been sidelined, no longer someone worth fighting with. She let her daughter remain sedated this way, seeing Aida drift into her own head, thinking perhaps this wasn’t the worst place to be lost in?
Aida was on a bus, thinking she would leave the place and her head — she wasn’t sure which one lived in the other. Would they miss her? Would she miss this place? She became too absorbed in her own thoughts to realise if anyone was inspecting her, although her feet felt cold from wearing just flip-flops – her body’s demands were simpler than her mind’s.
Aida looked out the window; the road lead into a highway with billboards over factories, there was a flatness in how this outside world existed. Where was the noise, the lights? Who would wait for her, on the other side? Aida wasn’t sure if she felt scared or nervous, or excited, all these feelings broke out of their shell, no longer contained in Adam’s name. If she could learn to live just wanting Adam, if she could mourn his absence and still persist, she knew she would be able to discover other things. The would would forever be connected by buses, the open road would always offer an escape. Aida smiled to herself, listening to her pulse. Ad-am, Ad-am, Ad-am. He would still be there, but so would she.
Image is ‘Philippine Rabbit Buses’ by express000 on Flickr.
Al has binders of wandering women he made up in his mind — some of them live on buses or trains; nowhere is sometimes a beautiful place to be.