A WALK IN SILENCE by Bassel Atallah

Twenty-five years after coming to Montreal, Sami and Randa decided to return to Damascus. They had long considered the possibility of spending their retirement years in their home country. So they packed and returned, staying first with Sami’s brother before they found a small apartment in the Tijara neighbourhood.
One thing they wanted to maintain above all from their Montreal life was their daily long walks. They decided that early evening, after their afternoon naps, was the best time to do so, and their walk should take them to the Tijara park and back. During their walks, Randa talked to Sami about their years in Canada. With each walk, she spoke of another memory. Sami was surprised by how much Randa wanted, and seemed to need, to indulge in nostalgia. She ended each story with the emphatic statement that at the end, everything had worked for them the way it was supposed to. That was the inevitable conclusion to each of her memories. Everything went well. No regrets.
Their walks continued, as did Randa’s stories of the past. Until her legs started hurting whenever she was on her feet for too long, and she was told that she should rest herself for a few weeks and avoid any unnecessary exercise. “We’ll spend our evenings at home,” Sami told her. Randa said no, just because she couldn’t go for their walks didn’t mean that Sami shouldn’t.
So Sami did. On his own, he allowed himself to choose which memories to reminisce rather than listen to the ones Randa was keen to talk about.
He often ran into one of his neighbours in the park. His name was Majdi, Sami and Randa had learned from another neighbour, and his wife had passed away a couple of years ago. He lived alone now and kept to himself most of the time. He also coughed a lot, and sometimes his daughter would come visit him with a doctor.
One evening Sami and Majdi ran into each other in the lobby and they both left the building together. “Are you going to the park?” Sami asked. “Yes,” Majdi said. “Do you want to walk together?” Sami asked. “Sure,” Majdi said.
Majdi walked very slowly, but Sami didn’t mind. Sami also didn’t mind Majdi’s frequent stops whenever he had a coughing fit. In the park, they sat on a bench and Sami asked, “Do you walk to the park every evening?” Majdi said yes, he needed a walk like this every day, said it was good for people their age.
They walked back home together in silence. “Do you want to meet again tomorrow and walk together?” Sami asked. “Sure,” Majdi replied.
Sami and Majdi began to meet in the building’s lobby every evening at six, walk to the park, sit on a bench, and walk back, all of it in silence, each man with his own thoughts. One day, sitting on a bench in the park, Sami asked, “What do you think about when we go for these walks?”
“My past,” Majdi said. If he was surprised or upset because Sami had broken their habit of remaining silent during their walks, he didn’t show it.
“I think about that too,” Sami said. “A lot.”
“I guess we all do that,” Majdi said. “Seems to be something reasonable to do at this stage in our lives.”
“The other day,” Sami said, “I was thinking about when I finished my baccalaureate, over fifty years ago. My total score was only three points below what I needed to go to medical school. Just three points. And I still remember the question in the math exam that cost me those three points. I was thinking about what would have happened if I had obtained those three points, if I did go to medical school, what kind of physician I would have been, how different my life would have been. I thought about that a lot during that time. A lot. Then I stopped. Until recently. I don’t know why.”
For the next few days, Sami and Majdi resumed their walk in silence.
One evening, Sami asked, “Do you mind if I talk to you again?”
“No,” Majdi said.
“When I finished university,” Sami said. “and became an engineer, I had an uncle living in Paris who told me that if I moved there, he could help me get a job. I wanted to. But I didn’t go. I was a bit scared about the move. So I stayed here. Maybe I should have accepted his offer.” He paused, then asked, “You’re sure you don’t mind if I tell you these things?”
“I don’t mind,” Majdi said.
Sami then started talking to Majdi almost every evening. Majdi would listen without responding. Then they’d walk back home in silence. Sami told Majdi about the time he quit a job at a company he liked because he didn’t get along with his boss, only to find a week later that the boss had retired. Sami told Majdi of the doubt he had when he first married Randa, and how this doubt remained throughout their marriage. He told Majdi he didn’t marry Randa out of love; he barely knew her at the time. He loved Houda, but Houda traveled to New York one summer and met someone there. Sami had already bought an engagement ring, and out of bitterness and anger towards Houda, he proposed to Randa a week later in hopes that he would grow to love her in the years to come. He told Majdi how in later years, he grew to be more concerned whether Randa would grow to love him, and how by the end they maintained the marriage by accepting each other and accepting the reality that they now had two sons and it was too late to go back. He told Majdi of the time in Montreal when he met a woman who looked so much like Houda, and how he started meeting her in the evenings for drinks until the day she invited him to her place, and how when he was walking up the staircase, he stopped, turned and left, never to speak to her again. He told Majdi of the doubt he had long had about their move to Montreal, about leaving his job as an engineer in Damascus and working instead in technical support for an IT company, a job he was well over-qualified for. How he hated that job, felt humbled and patronized by every task he did. He wondered if it was all worth it. They had emigrated for their children, to offer them a wider range of career and life opportunities. But their two sons didn’t even live in Canada anymore; they had both recently left to go and work in Dubai, claiming that was where the best opportunities were nowadays.
“How about you?” Sami asked Majdi. “Do you wonder about choices you made?”
Majdi was quiet for a long time, went through a long coughing fit, then was quiet again. Sami thought it was the end of the conversation. Then Majdi spoke:
“After my baccalaureate, I went to university in Beirut. I got myself a small apartment in the city. My parents bought it for me, actually, they paid for it, and for my education, and for everything. But my mother used to visit me all the time. She was overprotective, always had been. So when I was in Beirut, she found it difficult to let me stay alone for a long period of time. Every two months or so, she’d come and stay with me for a couple of weeks, cook for me, clean my place. I didn’t want her there. I wanted her to leave me alone but she kept coming. Then one day, she called and said she was coming for yet another visit. I yelled at her. Told her I didn’t want her there. Told her I didn’t need her to take care of me. She said fine, she wouldn’t come if I didn’t want her to. I said I didn’t. A few days later, my uncle called me. Told me to come to Damascus right away. I did. My mother was in an accident. She was driving when another driver crossed a red light and ran into her car. She died. She should have been in Beirut at the time, visiting me, and not driving on that road and at the time when that driver crossed the red light. But I had yelled at her and told her not to come. That was the last thing she heard from me. Yelling at her and saying I didn’t want her.”
Majdi had another coughing fit, then continued, “When I die, and I meet my mother in the afterlife, I don’t know what I’m going to say to her. I really don’t.”
They sat together on the bench longer than usual. Then Majdi stood up, and Sami did too, and they walked back to their building, in silence. They next day they met again in the evening and went for their walk, in silence. And so it was the next day. And the day after.

 

I am an English teacher at Dawson College and a lecturer at McGill University and Concordia University in Montreal.  Two of my short stories were finalists in the Quebec Short Story Competition during recent years and are now published in In Other Words: New English Writing from Quebec by Vehicule Press, and one of my short stories will appear in the next issue of The Dalhousie Review. In addition to writing fiction, I’m also an active playwright in Montreal’s community theatre, with six of my plays so far produced at Montreal’s Express-O-Theatre, one play at the 2010 Montreal Fringe Festival, and one play shortlisted for Infinitheatre’s 2010 Write-for-Q competition.

 

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