Hassan looked at the clock. 3:32 am. In an hour his shift would be over and he would start his well deserved and long overdue vacation.
Whether it was performing open heart surgery or picking up people at the airport, Hassan loved working. It had been almost 10 years since his last “vacation”, though fleeing from one’s homeland was not Hassan’s idea of a good time.
The plan was to pick up a few more customers, clock out at 4:30 am, sleep in until 1:00 pm and then leave for his cousin Abdul’s beach house at 3:00 pm. Hassan hadn’t seen Abdul since the spectacular finale of the world cup two months ago. Finally Spain had won after so many missed opportunities. Abdul had gone back home to visit family and distribute Hassan’s many letters and gifts.
Abdul had done very well for himself in this country, owning a chain of pizza restaurants, and a cab company. Apparently business training transfers over a lot easier than a medical degree.
Hassan was happy to have Abdul in the States. Abdul had given Hassan his first job as a delivery driver, helped him move into his first apartment, and was his first friend in this new world.
3:33 am. Hassan picked up a customer. The man wore a black suit. His chalky skin lurked under the fine tailor-fitted fibers. As the man adjusted himself in the backseat, Hassan noticed mud on the man’s wingtip shoes. The man must have come from the park behind the cemetery. Hassan would sometimes frequent that park, spending many afternoons reading that month’s best seller. He was happy to be in a country where you didn’t have to worry about public bombings by radical youth groups ‘spreading democracy’.
Hassan thought it peculiar that a man of his passenger’s age, about 60-70 years old, would be wearing sunglasses on such a stygian night. Maybe it wasn’t the glasses that struck Hassan as odd, but there was something off about this man. Hassan repressed this thought and continued to analyze the customer as he had learned to do. The man did not appear to be concealing any weapons, wore a $500 suit, and had curiously long finger nails. There was also a coldness about the man that tapped into a primordial feeling locked deep in Hassan’s subconscious.
Hassan turned on the taximeter, “Where are we going to night, my friend?” He finished his analysis and concluded that the man would talk little but tip well, a great way to end the evening.
“How can we be friends, when we don’t know each other’s names?” The heavy Spanish accent put Hassan at ease. The man may not be a fellow countrymen but he was an outsider, just like him. Hassan smiled and extended his hand to the man. “I am Hassan.” The man shook Hassan’s hand. “I am Arnulfo Sanchez.” The cold limb sent a chill down Hassan’s being. “Mr. Sanchez, where are we going tonight?” Arnulfo sat back and crossed his legs, “2704 Hollow Glen”. Arnulfo’s words travelled with a dead weight that saturated the air with a foul stench. Hassan pulled out and merged onto the left lane, heading west.
Hassan couldn’t tell if Arnulfo was asleep or just staring blindly at the windshield. He went to turn on the radio when Arnulfo’s voice penetrated the stagnant air, filling the cab with a putrid smell. “Are you married, Mr. Hassan?” Hassan looked at his gold wedding band.
“Yes”. He didn’t mean to sound so cold.
“I am sorry; I did not want to invade your personal life”.
“No my friend, it has just been a few years since she passed.”
With Hassan’s response, Arnulfo began to pry, showing off one of his cultural traits. “Did you have any children?” Hassan of course, was used to the prying from back home.
“No, Allah did not bless us in that way. She was a great wife, always good with other children. Everybody loved her.”
“I am sure you two would have been great parents.” Arnulfo nodded and an unnatural smile covered his face, testing the elasticity in his flesh.
“How about you my friend? How long have you been married?” With the passing of a shadow, Arnulfo’s plastered smile disappeared. No trace of happiness could be found on his face. “Well Mr. Hassan, sometimes the world doesn’t work out like it should.” Hassan had seen this expression before on the hopeless faces of many passengers. On Abdul who drowns himself in work to ignore his own fallen reality. Hassan knew that the sorrow he felt for his wife’s passing was nothing compared to what one must feel when he cannot find love.
“I’m sorry my friend, I didn’t mean to…” Hassan was interrupted by the befouling breath that escaped Arnulfo’s mouth. “If anyone needs to apologize it is me, for not taking any risks.” Hassan was taken back, not by the rancid smell that lingered following Arnulfo’s words but by the casualness that evoked them. “You see Mr. Hassan, a long time ago I had a very good friend,” Hassan smiled as Arnulfo began to pass down a lifetime of wisdom. “My friend’s name was Fito, and Fito was madly in love with a girl. I had never seen anyone happier. There was a brightness, an aura around them when they were together.” Hassan couldn’t tell if he saw a tear roll down Arnulfo’s cheek; the passing shadows made him a hard man to read.
“When the two were together,” Arnulfo laughed, “well they were an odd match. He was one of those odd types, too big for his frame and though funny in his own way, you would think him a very strange man. Now she was very beautiful; una joya, una maravilla! Everyone she met would befriend her, and her sweet smile…” Hassan saw how Arnulfo lost himself in his words. “Her cashmere hair would rest ever so gently on Fito’s shoulder as she whispered honey covered words to him. He would stare into her angelic eyes and lose himself in the possibility of an infinite reality with her. He felt a love for her that was only rivaled by what she felt for him.” Arnulfo looked out the window and saw the carcass of a deer. It had recently been hit by an 18 wheeler. “But as I am sure you know Mr. Hassan, nothing in this world is perfect, not even love. All we can hope for is to get a glimpse of God’s love before reality makes demons of us all.”
Hassan slowly eased on the breaks as they reached a red light. “For some reason it all stopped and she no longer felt the love that still burned within him. Maybe she outgrew him or outgrew that innocent love.” It always surprised Hassan how people talked so freely with a stranger, telling him things they wouldn’t admit to their own family. He would be able to write volumes on the stories he had heard from his customers. “Maybe God could not allow such perfect love to grace this fallen world. Maybe love blinded Fito to the problems they were facing. Whatever the reason, she left and took with her any chance of happiness Fito had.” Unrequited love, a tale as old as mankind. A tale that Hassan had read about in many books.
“Fito was never the same after that. He didn’t eat well, he didn’t sleep. Eventually he turned his back on his creator, letting the love inside him become poison in his veins. I tried to help him as best I could since soon I was all he had.” Hassan eased on the gas and drove through the intersection.
“Fito felt that he couldn’t talk to anyone about what he was going through. They would tell him that it would pass, that one day he would meet someone else and forget the pain. Mr. Hassan, I tell you, that day never came. Fito tried to forget; he threw everything out that was linked to that painful memory. He befriended many women but none could put his heart at ease. I tried to help him but the sorrow he burdened himself with prevented anyone from getting close.” Arnulfo was silent. The sickening scent coming from his mouth was soon overpowered by his following words.
“Then the day finally came when the sorrow became too much for him. You see Mr. Hassan, Fito knew that this day would come, he had been anticipating it since his heart was ripped from his being. She got married.” Hassan felt a chill go down his spine. A draft had seeped its way into the cab. “It was too much for Fito. He had tried to avoid her by seeking refuge in drinks and cheap women, but life wouldn’t let him escape.” Hassan knew where this was going and promised to pray for Fito the next chance he got.
“It was love that brought out the best in Fito and it was love that eventually destroyed him. I came to the conclusion that the risk true love brings is too much for one man, so I decided to avoid it. That is why I never married.” To be without the one he loved was a heavy burden that Hassan knew all too well. To never look for a person to love, this Hassan could not understand.
“Before Fito left this world, I promised I would help him set things right. We tried many things Mr. Hassan but they were all met with increased hostility and coldness. The American woman can be one of the coldest.” Hassan nodded his head, “this is true my friend.”
“I know she still felt something for him but she would not give in to that feeling. Fito was a good man and did not deserve his fate. But that is the problem with this world, being good is a liability. The good rarely get second chances.” The good may suffer and the bad may prosper in this world but Hassan knew that this world was only the beginning.
Hassan turned left and drove down a narrow wooded road. Barren branches blocked most of the moonlight. There would be road-kill in the morning.
“I failed to help Fito and have not been able to rest in peace for many days. This is what brings me out tonight.” The cab followed the winding road with great precision.
“My friend, I feel very sorry for your friend Fito, it seems that his life was meant to be a challenge. But I must also confess that I feel very sorry for you.” Arnulfo had not expected this response. Bewilderment crawled over his face as he tried to interpret Hassan’s words. “Why is that Mr. Hassan?”
“Well you tried to help your friend but ended up worse than he did.”
“Worse? How is this so?”
“Your friend loved someone and then stopped loving. You never let yourself love at all and that my friend is the greatest sin.” The cab’s headlights couldn’t pierce the suffocating darkness.
“I believe you are mistaken Mr. Hassan, the greatest sin is despair.”
“But what is despair? Is it not rejecting Allah’s love? I believe Fito still loved that girl but chose to stop loving and accepting Allah’s love. He forgot that we live in a fallen world, like you said, and cannot expect perfection out of people.” Hassan flipped on the high beams to reveal a desolate road ahead. “But you my friend chose not to experience any love by never taking a wife. The world is tough, yes, and sometimes a very sad place, but we must know that Allah loves us and wants us to be happy, in this life and the next.” Arnulfo sat there quietly. A smile found its way back onto his face. Arnulfo looked at Hassan’s beard and was fascinated by how well groomed it was. “Mr. Hassan, you are a very wise man and very strong in your faith. God has blessed you.” Hassan turned off the high beams as they emerged from the wooded road.
“It has not been easy my friend but without faith and Allah’s love we would be mere shells, walking corpses.” Arnulfo’s smile stayed plastered on his face for the next three blocks. Hassan brought the cab to a halt as he reached 2704 Hollow Glen.
“My friend, it has been an interesting ride. May you be able to rest well and may our paths cross again.” Arnulfo shook Hassan’s hand, “In this life or the next Mr. Hassan.”
Arnulfo handed Hassan his fare, a generous tip, and two silver coins.
“What is this? I cannot take this my friend.”
“Yes you can Mr. Hassan. After tonight I will have paid my debts and will no longer need those.” Arnulfo stepped out of the car and walked toward the house. His smile disappeared amidst great feelings of grief.
Hassan shuddered, not realizing how cold his cab had been. He pulled out of his makeshift parking spot, made a u-turn and headed back east.
* * *
Hassan had been at Abdul’s beach house for three days. He was enjoying the beautiful weather. Reading the letters from back home had put his mind at ease, and fishing with the locals engaged Hassan in politics, a subject he thoroughly enjoyed.
Hassan had returned from his morning swim and had grabbed a paper on his way to the house. His plan was to enjoy a good breakfast, then go to the bookstore and spend the rest of the day reading at the beach. Abdul was at their neighbor’s house setting up for that evening’s party.
Hassan had gotten used to American bread and coffee. He had decided to use Abdul’s patriotic mug. The front page of the newspaper had a picture of an elderly woman with soft hair and angelic eyes standing next to an elderly man. The woman brought about great feelings of nostalgia but Hassan was certain that he had never met her. He began to read the article. Hassan dropped Abdul’s mug. It smashed into hundreds of pieces; red, white, and blue shards entrenched themselves in the carpet. Hassan ran out of the house to find Abdul. The article’s headline read “Elderly Couple Found Strangled by Decayed Corpse.”