I’ve scored the perfect situation on the bus. I got the window seat, so I don’t get brushed by everybody else as the bus fills up. And it’s not the window seat over the wheel well, which requires sitting in an extremely unladylike position because of its lack of legroom. Better yet, the outside seat has been taken already. In theory, women fill up the seats next to or near each other on the buses to help avoid the awkwardness of an unacquainted man and woman having to sit next to each other. (Some men will also avoid sitting next to a woman they don’t know, even if it’s the only seat left on the bus — and here, that’s the nice and respectful thing to do.) But sometimes if the empty seat is next to me, women who don’t know me well will opt to sit elsewhere. You never know.
But today the woman who climbed onto the bus immediately after me was the newly-minted Um Mohammad. I say “newly-minted” because she has only very recently had a son. Some women, once married, pick names for their hypothetical sons before they have any and ask to be referred that way. Others just skirt the issue. This woman is married to the brother of a good friend of mine, so I’ve been to her house, and was delighted to find that she had actually been going by the name of her precocious, adorable daughter. Now, of course, newborn Mohammad has saved his mother from that ongoing humiliation, and Um Mohammad it is.
I don’t know the two women directly behind us or the young lady sitting uncomfortably across from them, obviously hoping nobody tries to sit next to her. They are unusually chatty. In general, bus-riding is a social gauntlet in which women try to appear confident enough not to invite harassment, but not so confident that they appear immodest. This usually involves staring off into space and praying for the bus to fill up faster so it leaves. It doesn’t usually involve talking.
These ladies, however, are chatting away about family and friends and the price of vegetables. Finally, one sighs comfortably and says, “Would you like to come to my house for a while for tea?”
“Thanks so much, we’d love to, but we can’t.”
“You must, I insist. Come, come.”
“We really can’t,” the second lady insists. “We have to hurry and get home so that Haneen can make tea.”
“But I’ll make tea for you. I have tea at my house!”
Second Lady glances briefly at her daughter fidgeting across the aisle and lowers her voice — a little. “It’s not a question of your tea or my tea,” she confides to First Lady. “It’s that Haneen has to make the tea… because a young man is coming to see if he wants to marry her. She’s 18 now, so things are getting a little urgent.”
I wish beyond all things that I could see First Lady’s face. But she says, gravely, “Ahh. Best wishes to Haneen and to you, then, and I hope he likes her.”
First Lady doesn’t seem too worried. “Well, she’s pretty enough, you know. And she does make really good tea. I don’t anticipate any problems, but we don’t want to be late.”
Unable to help myself, I look up and over at Um Mohammed. She has one hand raised to her mouth, her finger clenched between her teeth, biting so hard I’m afraid she’s going to draw blood. When she meets my eyes she almost loses control completely and turns her face away from me — and toward poor Haneen. My eyes follow hers.
Haneen has turned beet red and is staring straight ahead, ignoring all of us.