A couple emerged from the bus station on a sunday afternoon, blurry-eyed and creaky after sleeping through most of the long ride, glad to be off the bus. The quiet, broken only by the trickling of a fountain, was what the wife remarked on first. It was a shushing kind of quiet, a near-silence which suggested a church more than a city. The quiet compelled the wife to whisper her first impressions to the husband while they limped along together, slanting and sweating under the weight of their packs.
Tonight, after making love and showering, they would go to the bullfight. It would be their only opportunity during their short stay. The idea filled her with dread: the bull being punctured, teased, deliberately aggravated to the point of exhaustion, then impaled. The cheer of the crowd as the bull collapsed. The bravado of the matador. But she wanted her husband to be happy, so she told herself stories about the cultural significance, stories about the ritual and the dance, stories about the solemn parade of the dead bull through the streets, stories about reverent Sevillanos eating the meat of the fallen bull. She thought about Hemingway, of course. She considered the brutishness and also the beauty of life, and she steeled herself for the spectacle.
Before the bus had even pulled away from the station in Algeciras that morning, the wife’s head had slumped against the window and she’d begun dreaming. Something to do with a red, foil-wrapped package and someone telling her not to open it.
The wife had woken up only once during the five hour ride. She’d been deep in the fog of disorientation particular to travel. There was the initial jolt (“where am I?”), the subtle embarrassment at having fallen asleep in public, then a momentary yearning for the nearly-forgotten feel of her real bed. Their real bed, which still existed, as their children did, halfway around the world from where they were. During those few, semi-lucid minutes, the bus passed a huge silhouette of a black bull—-a billboard—-standing on a yellow hill. She tapped her husband lightly and his eyes opened halfway.
“Look. We’re in Spain,” she whispered. She watched his eyes close again, and soon hers closed too. She would never know if he’d seen the bull on the hill.
When the iPhone alarm had gone off at 5 am that same morning, the husband had groped for the light switch in the dark. After packing and dressing, they slipped out to roof patio of their riad to watch the sun rise over the Straight of Gibraltar. The wife sat at a table, sipping coffee, while the husband leaned over the bougainvillea-draped ledge, snapping pictures of the red sun moving up and over whitewashed merlons and serrated parapets. They remained there, taking it in, until they heard their taxi rumble up the cobbled street below. Then they threw on their packs and ran downstairs. They wanted to be sure to catch the first ferry out of Tangier that morning, to move on to the next chapter of their adventure. To leave Morocco and head to Spain.
As the cab rolled along, barely squeezing through the the tear-shaped, arabesque threshold, the wife looked back. An ache formed around her jaw and just below her heart. She already missed the labyrinth of hidden stairways, the confounding, meandering passages, the glimmer of light on the leaded-glass windows. She already missed the jingle of the coins in the hidden pocket of Sharif’s white kaftan, as he led them through the medina, as they snaked their way through the crowded souks. She vowed to remember the prayer rugs. She wanted to recall them readily, again and again, just as they were, draped over the high ledges, drying in the afternoon sun. She wanted to remember the wail of the muezzin at dawn, at midday, at sundown.
The wife craned her neck and kept her gaze fixed on the the fortressed kasbah until it receeded completely, until the driver turned left and headed towards the docks, where their ferry–“Baleària.com” painted boldly in blue on its hull–waited. At the docks, cranes and barges and trucks were already moving and lifting and bringing and taking. Men in fezzes and elaborate jellabas begged tourists to pick up one last memento. The husband had stopped, even though the wife had tried to pull him away. She kept walking, backing up slowly, watching him bargain. Finally, she watched her husband shake the old man’s hand. She watched the dark old man hand her husband the goat skin drum. A present for their son.
She shook her head.
“You’re going to have to carry that thing until we get home, you know,” she said.
Then she smiled and kissed him, and they boarded the ferry and crossed the Straight of Gibraltar.