Chapter 26.

“Khalid, I’m afraid,” Layla said one day. “What are you afraid of?” I asked. “I’m afraid of this, us. I’ve let you in. It wasn’t easy doing that. Now you have the power to hurt me whenever you want. To you, my heart is defenseless,” she said. I laughed. “Nothing’s funny,” she protested. “Your fear is, my dear. I thought you knew by now I would die before I ever hurt you,” I assured her. How innocent and foolish I was then.

 

I never told anyone why I did not fight for Layla. I never told anyone why in that afternoon in her house, I raised the white flag and surrendered. I simply gave up on us. I did not ask for a second chance. I did not beg for forgiveness. I did not apologize for all the mistakes I have made. I did not promise to make things right once again. I did not say I loved her too much to let her go. I did not do any of the things I could have and should have done to save our relationship. Later in life, whenever someone asked me why, I just shrugged and looked away. I made it clear to everyone it was something I did not want to talk about. Not even Badr, Noor or any of my friends could persuade me into opening up about my undisclosed reasons. They were my own and I kept them to myself. No one needed to know.

 

There was a moment when Layla was talking in which a dreadful realization hit me hard. It was I who made her utter those words. It was I who caused her this much pain and misery. It was I who made her weep. It was I who, blindly, destroyed the wonderful relationship we used to have. Everything was my fault and no one else’s. There was no one to blame but myself. Wasn’t I the one who promised her happiness? Wasn’t I the one who swore never to make these eyes of hers cry? Wasn’t I the one who vowed to protect her from all harm? I asked myself. Where were all my promises and vows? Gone and disappeared. She had given me all the love she could offer and more. What have I given her back? Shit was the word that, unfortunately, came to my mind. I felt guilt and shame eating me up inside.

 

I did not ask for a second chance because I did not think I deserved one. I did not feel worthy of Layla anymore. I was no longer good enough for her. She deserved someone better than me, someone who is not as pathetic and miserable as I was. She deserved someone who is not damaged as me. I felt as if staying with me would be only a gesture of kindness on her behalf and I could not accept that. Who would want to be with a crippled man anyway? Even though I never admitted it, that was how I felt, crippled. I could not dance with her the way I used to do. I may not be able to protect her when need be. I could not carry things for her. On the contrary, she had to carry things for me. I could not carry her anymore. I could not drive her to wherever she wanted. Instead, I had to wait for a driver. Even on our wedding day, I would have to stand next to her with a crutch. That was not how I pictured it would be one day.

 

Suddenly people’s opinions had a value to me. I never cared what people say but now I did. I imagined them whispering whenever we passed by, “Oh poor lady. Her man is damaged.” “Look at those two; what a lovely young girl stuck with a fat crippled man.” In addition to other remarks similar to those. I never heard anyone say such things with my ears but I heard them in my head nonetheless. I had gained a lot of weight after the accident since I overate whenever I got upset and I did not exercise anymore. I felt ugly especially when standing next to Layla whom sadness, in a strange way, made her look translucent and delicately beautiful.

 

I had been thinking whether Layla and I should remain together or not for some time then but her father’s words and the frozen tears in her eyes that day made me realize that I could no longer offer happiness to Layla. Perhaps she was better off without me. We were both still young. Maybe she could find someone else who can give her what I failed to give. Maybe letting her go is the right thing to do for her sake. She might hate me a little now but that would be better than resenting me for life if we stayed together and I kept being the awful person I was. I thought that this was the best possible way to preserve the wonderful memories we shared and stop tainting them with blood and tears.

 

I could tell Layla was shocked with my reaction. It was not what she had anticipated. It was obvious in her widening eyes and slightly opened mouth. She was lost for words. She shook her head a little and I noticed her hands trembling. “I think that is the best thing to do now,” I said. I pretended to be strong. My voice sounded cold and emotionless. Under the surface, my entire world was falling apart. I felt as if the words cut my throat from inside and I was choking with blood. It is the best thing to do now. I repeated the sentence to myself silently. Layla’s tears were pouring down and I prayed to God that mine do not fall. I stood up and hesitated for a second before leaning down and kissing her forehead. “I wanted to make you happy. I’m sorry I couldn’t,” I said. I walked out the door and it was the last time I saw or spoke to Layla for a long time.

 

Our fathers discussed the legal issues of our separation. Layla’s father insisted that they give back the Mahr I had paid. He wanted us to have Khol’a instead of Talag. Both meant divorce and the termination of our union and were frowned upon by society. However, the former was usually by the wife while the latter by the husband. Thus, Khol’a indicated that something must have been wrong with me in order for my wife to leave me. This would make a difference in the future when other suitors would come for her. If we had Talag then they would think that there must be a reason why I divorced my wife and they would lose their interest. That was how our society worked and we played by the rules. I told my father not to argue with anything and to grant her whatever she asked for.

 

As it is my defense mechanism, I dived deeper into work and spent most of my time at the hospital. I was either at the hospital or in my room. I stopped going out all together. My parents tried to take me out many times but I always refused to go except in a few rare occasions. Badr and Noor did not have better luck with me, too. Sometimes, Bashar and Ahmad, who were the only remaining friends I had left, came by to visit and watch a movie with me in my room but other than that, I did not see people outside the hospital. I did not want to go to a place and risk meeting Layla or a member of her family or any of our mutual friends, not to mention that all the places in Jeddah had a memory of some kind of us. I did not need the reminders or the blameful looks. I was content on staying in my room reading, writing, and dealing with my tragedy alone. In the end, I had asked for this.

 

I liked the hospital because it felt like the only place in the world where I had a purpose, where my presence mattered. Helping others was the only thing left that made me feel good about me. It is ironic though how kind I managed to be to complete strangers and could not be that to Layla. I had one month left of my internship when Layla and I were officially separated.

 

Six months later, I was at the airport waiting for my flight to Canada. The University Hospital was sponsoring me for a Pediatrics Residency program. I had two large suitcases with me. I had taken all that I thought mattered to me for I was not going to return to Saudi Arabia anytime soon. My family and a couple of friends were waiting with me and everyone was in tears. Saying goodbye to them was one of the hardest things I had to do but I promised to call often and I kept reminding them that we could chat over the internet everyday.

 

It felt weird leaving the life I had known for so long behind and going off alone to a far away country to begin an entirely new chapter in my life. Even though I had been waiting for this moment for the last few months because I longed to escape for good, I was still unprepared for it. I had many mixed emotions. I was excited and afraid at the same time. I was relieved and worried. I was happy and sad. Emotions were swirling inside like a wild twister. When the final call to board the plane was made, I kissed my parents hands, hugged them and hugged my sister and brother, and said goodbye. I was crying like a baby when I handed the customs officer my passport.

 

On the plane, I thought of Layla. I wondered what she was doing that very moment and if she was thinking of me too. I wondered if she knew that I was leaving tonight or not. I contemplated calling her for the first time in a few months but then I thought what that would accomplish. It was too late. I was going away to a different country that does not know about Layla and me. They always say that endings are nothing but new beginnings and I wondered if this was my so-called new beginning. I was lost in my thoughts when I heard the flight captain announcing, “Please fasten your seatbelts in preparation for take off.”

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