Chapter 22: Set Fire to the Rain
I couldn’t remember what else I needed to put on the list. Everything else was packed; our clothes and all the stuff we needed for our trip, but these little things needed to be written down so I wouldn’t forget any of them. What else should I have written down? I couldn’t think.
I needed to run some errands before it was time to go. The house was clean and tidy, just a few final touches and it would be totally clean until we returned. I washed and folded all the clothes. I couldn’t remember if I had ironed the shirt I would be wearing on the day of departure. I think I had! It was all good; I felt as though everything was ready.
I sat on my bed, trying to decide whether I had forgotten anything or not, but all the arrangements seemed to be going well. My son’s happy face had helped to bring me peace amid the tension I was feeling before the flight, but the stress had affected me to the extent that I wasn’t able to sleep. I tried to relax before the big day, but my mind wouldn’t switch off. I was so busy thinking about every detail. Traveling comes with its own measure of chaos and excitement, but I knew that when we took our seats on the plane all the worries would fade away.
I don’t know what time I eventually fell asleep, but I woke up to find the sun sneaking into my room and realized I would have to rush to get ready. The time of the flight was fast approaching and we needed to get to the airport two hours ahead of its departure.
Waleed had got himself ready and was watching me as I finished the last little jobs that needed doing before we left. I had called my mother to reassure her and to say goodbye. My brother had offered to take us to the airport, so we sat and waited for him.
“Mom, isn’t the plane taking off soon? Will my uncle be late?” Waleed asked.
“No, honey, he won’t. Are you taking your iPad with you?”
“I wanted you to enjoy your time without spending it all on the iPad!”
“But the iPad will entertain me when I get bored.”
I couldn’t blame my son for that. I was always so busy with work that he had found companionship in his iPad. It didn’t help that he was an only child.
Thinking about that always filled me with guilt, so I tried to take advantage of every moment I spent with him in a bid to drag him away from the virtual world he was so obsessed with. It was unfortunate that interactions on so-called ‘social media’ took place behind screens, which had managed to turn truth into fallacy. We pretended to smile during a moment of grief just for the sake of an Instagram photo, or we wished someone happy birthday on his Facebook page even though, in reality, we despised him. We blinded ourselves to the reality we lived in just to create a better image of ourselves for this virtual world.
How silly it was to express my anger towards a friend by blocking her account. How superficial human interaction seemed when it was trapped in such a shallow world. Using these platforms, one woman monitored her husband using a fake account, while another became enraged over a friend’s comment. The sphere of the internet had become a platform for open communication, surpassing all boundaries and distance. Yet it had also created fake ‘families’, built on virtual friendships and empty acceptance. I didn’t want my relationship with my son to be like that, so I tried my best to communicate well in every moment I spent with him.
I wanted Waleed to have similar experiences to the ones I had had during my childhood. I had been an outgoing child and had loved playing Hide and Seek and Jump the Rope. We had felt so happy if we found a little rock on the street, which later became a piece of chalk we would use to doodle random pictures on the sidewalks. Then it would be used for another game in which we competed to see who could throw the rock the furthest.
We had lived simple lives, but they had been full, whereas Waleed’s life was busy but empty, consisting of iPad games, movies and stories. My son’s reality was filled with the vibrations of his devices and the ringing of cell phones.
As I was thinking about cell phones mine started ringing.
“Yes, we’re ready. We’re coming down now… No, just two small bags… Don’t worry, I’ll carry them… We’ll be right there.”
Waleed stood up as soon as he heard that his uncle had arrived. I checked each room, the doors, the fridge and the gas cylinder. I also checked the handbag I was carrying to make sure all the papers we needed were in there along with a mirror, a lipstick, some wipes, some money and our passports.
Seeing my son’s passport stirred the same emotions inside me again. His father has agreed to let him travel with me for the first time in eight years! I smiled and zipped the bag up. I was ready to go. I gazed at Waleed for a second as he held my hand.
“Let’s go, honey,” I said.
My brother spent the entire journey talking. My work leave was what concerned him the most. I told him I didn’t care what happened after this vacation; that it was my right to take it. Yes, I had left without waiting for the chairman’s response, but I couldn’t have sat there and waited. My plans and reservations for this trip had been put in place a long time ago and I wouldn’t allow a meaningless rejection slip to ruin this trip with my son, which I had waited all these years to take.
This trip was even more important to Waleed than it was to me. It wasn’t just the Adele concert, but the whole idea of traveling that excited him. He was just as excited as I was. We were so happy in the notion that the two of us would be together without any restrictions, and without any last-minute decisions from his father to ruin our time together.
My ex-husband didn’t really care about what we wanted; he only wanted to fulfill his own selfish wishes, so the moment he had approved my request for Waleed to travel with me I had started getting the paperwork filled in before he changed his mind. I will never forget my son’s reaction when I told him we were going to the Adele concert. His pupils had dilated and he had looked at me, full of surprise. “What? Mom!”
“Yes, we’re going to an Adele concert.”
“Why don’t you believe me? Have I ever lied to you before?”
“Well we’re going. And here are the tickets.”
He had jumped out of his seat when he saw the tickets. He had danced around the room and then brought in his iPad to play his favorite song, ‘Set Fire to the Rain’. It was the song we always listened to on car journeys; its melody never failed to make Waleed dance and sing along. When we listened to it at home it always accompanied him as he folded his clothes and tidied his room.
Adele was constantly playing in his room, and whenever I asked him about it, he would tell me: “I love her music, Mom.”
We entered the departure lounge and said goodbye to my brother. Then we headed for the check-in counters and joined the queue.
The agent smiled at us. “Good evening. Your papers, ma’am.”
“There you go,” I said, handing him our passports.
“Do you have any luggage you want to carry onto the plane?”
“Yes, two bags.”
“All right. One moment please.”
The agent was following the usual procedures. He checked our names and our information, then he stopped and looked at me. “Ma’am, this is your son, right?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Well I’m sorry to tell you this, but he’s banned from traveling abroad.”
“The kid is banned from traveling overseas.”
I couldn’t hear anything apart from this sentence echoing around inside my head. How could this have happened?
“Sir, my son’s father gave me his approval for him to travel.”
“Was it agreed on a legal basis?”
“No, but it was a friendly agreement.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I can’t allow this child to leave the country. He’s banned from international travel and if he leaves with you, you will be legally accountable. His father could have you charged with abduction.”
Abduction! I could be charged for abducting my own son, whom I had raised for eight years on my own, while his father was abroad, married and living with his new family! What sort of blind law would deprive me from taking my son on a trip that I had gone through so much to make happen? How could they simply ban me from taking my son away after I had argued with my manager and the chairman, just because I wanted to enjoy a peaceful trip with my child without the interference of his father? How could he do that to his own son? How could he steal away his son’s dream just because he had changed his mind? It was impossible! There must have been a mistake!
I picked up my phone and called my brother to come back to the airport. I grabbed our bags and documents and stepped away from the agent, who glanced at me every once in a while. I couldn’t work out why there was pity in his eyes. Was it pity for me or for my son, who was distracted by his iPad, unaware of my disputes with his father and failing to realize that he might not ever get to go on that plane?
I called my ex-husband. “Have you banned your son from traveling?”
“How could you do that? We’re at the airport and the plane takes off in an hour!”
“It’s okay. You go ahead and leave the kid behind.”
“What is wrong with you? Didn’t we agree on this trip for his birthday?”
“I don’t care about all that. I don’t want my son to travel,” he answered recklessly.
I was speechless, but I forced the words out of my mouth. “Why have you done all this?”
“You’re not the only one who can take action, Nadia,” he said firmly.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean your police report. It won’t just cost you a dispute; it’s going to cost you much more,” he said in a gloating tone. I could sense his smile behind the speaker.
“Are you crazy?” I shouted. “Are you going to let your son pay the price for a mistake you refuse to confess to?”
“You’re still claiming that it’s my mistake! Aren’t you the one who made the mistake by reporting me? I don’t want my son to travel without me. I fear for his safety.”
“But he traveled with you before and I didn’t object to it.”
“You approved his travel with me at your own volition!”
“I only approved it for his sake.”
“And I’m refusing it for his sake.”
“No! It’s for your own sake! You always put Waleed on the line for the sake of your petty grudges. But you’ll pay for all this one day! Don’t be surprised when you lose your son!”
“Whatever. Let’s see now. How are you going to travel, Mommy?”
“It’s none of your business what I do. I’m going anyway.”
How could I tell my son that the trip I had been preparing for all this time had been cancelled as a result of his father’s objection, and that the law was on his side in this matter? The strict letter of the law did not allow any space for unattested grievances. Was it right to tell my child that his father’s bitter attempts to avenge my rejection of him were pathetic, especially as he was still reluctant to acknowledge his mistake? How could I take the trip, leaving my son behind, rather than losing ground and allowing his vengeful father to force me to yield to his wishes?
I hung up. His voice felt like a death knell in my ear. I glanced at my son, who was still killing time playing games. I didn’t know what to say to him. Should I tell him his father was being as deceptive as he had always had been? I had tried to give him another chance to be trustworthy through this travel agreement, but he had proved that he couldn’t change his ways. Should I tell Waleed that the vacation he had been looking forward to for weeks was cancelled because of a single word from his father?
It was the law that had granted him the right to do that, and yet it had deprived me of the same right even though I was the one who had devoted my life to him. Should I tell him that I felt pity for his father, despite his constant attempts to wreak revenge on me because I had rejected him, and that he still couldn’t admit to his mistakes after all these years, believing a conspiracy theory in which I was his enemy and our son was the battlefield? Or should I tell him that his father wouldn’t accept that fact that I would never succumb to his demands and restrictions, even if the price was our only ever trip, which we had dreamt about and planned for all these weeks?
I decided I had to go, even if it meant leaving Waleed behind. His father wouldn’t win this battle and force me to take a step I hadn’t chosen to take. That wasn’t going to happen and his father wasn’t going to get what he wanted.
“Mom, are you done?”
“But aren’t we late for the plane?”
I bent down to his eye level and spoke softly to him. “You aren’t going with me, my darling.”
He stared at me, surprise filling his little eyes. His body froze and his face turned pale, his eyes drained. His mind was buzzing and I felt light-headed just looking at him. He walked away, and when I reached out and took his arm he turned to look at me.
We were both looking intently at one another, when he broke the silence and said in almost inaudible voice: “But Mom!”
“You can’t travel with me,” I said guiltily.
“Didn’t you get my passport from Dad?”
“Yes, but now I have to go alone.”
“But you promised me.” He looked away in bitter disappointment. “You promised me we would travel and that we would go to the Adele concert. It was my birthday present!”
“Yes, but…” I looked into his eyes, wanting to scream out that his father had banned him from traveling. But I couldn’t involve my son in the maze of drama between me and my ex-husband. “But honey, the concert was cancelled.”
He looked back at me in shock. “What? Cancelled?”
“Then why are you still going?”
“I have to go because there are some work issues that need to be sorted out there.”
“But Mom —”
I grabbed his little hand and led him out of the airport towards my brother’s car. “Go with your uncle. I’ll call you when I land in Italy.”
He shook off my grip fiercely and, without looking at me, said: “You’re lying to me, Mom.”
He got into the car and burst into tears. I wanted to run into his arms and throw everything else aside. My trip would be meaningless without him. The whole point of it was to have fun and tour around with my son, so how could I leave him?
It was his father who was trying to impose his authority on me. He wanted to deprive me of this vacation because he thought I had made a mistake by reporting him for the accident at his wedding. He didn’t have the right to make decisions and impose them any way he liked just because I had been his wife for two dull years.
Being a mother, which I adored, had become a cage because of his father. I wasn’t about to pay the price for a mistake I hadn’t made just because his father had decided to stop me traveling by banning my son.
No. I wouldn’t allow him to make my son a weak point that he could get to me through whenever he wanted. That wasn’t going to happen!
I wiped away my tears and said to my brother, “I’ll leave on my own. Everything is arranged in Italy. Leave Waleed with Mom until I get back.”
My brother hugged me and said in a baffled tone, “Are you sure you still want to go?”
“Yes I am and I will. No one’s going to stop me. I won’t allow his father to get his way at my son’s expense.”
“Okay, my love.”
He said goodbye to me again and I walked back into the airport to catch my flight. I was determined to go. I would enjoy the concert even without carrying out the plans I had made for my son, which my ex-husband had stolen from me. He couldn’t force his wishes on me by manipulating me in such a wicked way.
I took my passport back from the agent, who stamped it with approval, despite looking at me disapprovingly. I could tell that he was wondering whether I was really prepared to travel without my son.
As he handed me my boarding pass, I said to him, “Yes, I am traveling without my son.”
The agent said nothing. He didn’t even examine my face, although I felt his gaze piercing through me as I headed for the duty-free zone.
I wasn’t sure whether he had really scrutinized my face as he stamped my passport or chased me with his eyes as I walked away, or whether he had merely looked at my face to confirm my identity and the feeling I had was based on my fanciful imagination.
I didn’t know and I didn’t want to know. The only thing I was sure about was that I was unstoppable and that my ex-husband would never be able to force himself into my life again. I hadn’t paid such a high price just to gain the illusion of freedom!