Umbrellas

Fatima Al-Shemary

 

When I opened my eyes, there was nothing to be thankful for; it was too hot, and there was no place to escape the sun here. I got up from my resting place at the bus bench and walked a distance to find some shade, and then you were there. An umbrella appeared above my head as I waited for the signal to tell me to cross, and I knew from its bright yellow color that it was yours. It was surreal to find each other in this part of the world.

“Funny seeing you here,” you said, then you walked with me, encompassing us both beneath
your umbrella. We walked by a magazine stand and a recent issue of TIME caught my eye. The cover was an image of a man wielding a black umbrella, arms outstretched, wearing a medical mask over his mouth. He stood amidst white smoke that I could only guess was tear gas.

“They’re calling it the Umbrella Revolution,” I told you. “I don’t know much about it.”

“That’s just what democracy looks like nowadays,” you said.

I didn’t know what to say or how to think about that, so I walked on and you accompanied me. The sickening thought occurred to me that I shouldn’t be so desensitized, so detached, but what could I do? Then sweet, lonely music touched our ears as we approached a man sitting at another street. He wore ratty clothes and his fingers delicately strummed the strings of his guitar. A closer look at his hands reminded me of the hands of my mother ­ hands that could crush mine with ease, hands that denoted the kind of struggle that was beyond my imagination. When his face came into view, I couldn’t bear to look at him, couldn’t fathom the loneliness in his eyes. I closed my eyes and I was in a stark white room with umbrellas hanging from the ceiling, turned on their heads, ferrules pointing at me like accusatory fingers. What was my part in all of this? How could I measure and acknowledge my own complicity in other people’s suffering?

When I opened my eyes, you were dropping some money into the man’s guitar case. I did the same, and that made it possible for me to move on, but his eyes made an imprint in my mind and I didn’t know what to do with it. I looked into your eyes instead, and you understood. And maybe you knew better what to do with things like magazines, music, umbrellas. What did I know about revolutions? These things were beyond my imagination. “Remember the music,” you told me. Your umbrella shielded us from the harsh summer sun, not the heat, but suffering together made our journey more bearable. This comforted me, momentarily. Did we really belong here, in between spaces that bespoke suffering that did not belong to us? Your smile told me that it was okay, and we kept moving in conjunction with each other, smiling at everyone we passed and conversing about things that didn’t seem to have anything to do with revolutions. I could be wrong about that. I closed my eyes again and I was tempted to catalog this instant as one to come back and reflect on, to make sense out of, but you squeezed my hand and pulled me back into our moment of collective consciousness. I spied another tourist meandering with a luxurious parasol and wondered whose hands were behind the intricate work of it, and what imaginary boundaries kept us from knowing or thinking about that?

We kept walking, and soon more music touched our ears as we rounded another street corner and beheld people dancing under a canopy in the sweltering heat. You wanted to join but I kept my feet planted where they were.

“You don’t know how to be revolutionary,” you said. “I don’t know how to dance,” I snapped.

You laughed. I didn’t. I tried to steer us away from the situation before you tried to convince me, and our attention was diverted by sirens as the police arrived on the scene. Some of the dancers fled immediately. Others resisted and were taken away, and we stood there watching.

All I could think to say was, “Why?” and you said, “They were trespassing.”

We stayed a while longer, and then we moved on when everyone was gone, and I tried hard to remember the music instead of the sirens, now wishing I had been brave enough to be among them. We left the scene far behind and crossed the street to the train station. I wanted to stay with you, but I had other things I had to do.

I turned to you and said, “I need to be on my way soon.” You nodded, understanding. “So do I.”

You collapsed the umbrella and let it swing at your side as we walked into the train station together, and I was filled with jealousy. I didn’t notice until now that you had a large backpack with you. We walked over to a bench and you put it down.

“Too many things,” you said, setting the umbrella next to it. “Watch my things while I go to the restroom.”

When you went away, I contemplated stealing the umbrella and moving on, but then I wondered if you knew I would do such a thing. I sat down on the bench and rested my head, closing my eyes, head full of music, hands, revolutions, dancing, umbrellas. When I opened my eyes, your backpack was gone, but you had left the umbrella next to me. Now, there was everything to be thankful for.