As he sat by the window of the 4:00 Benque bus, he felt every single muscle in his twenty-year-old body aching. The job he had been working on for the past few months was finally finished. All those months of back-breaking digging, mixing, hauling cement, piling blocks, plastering, painting and planting was over. Already, there was another project underway, but for once, he had almost a week off. He looked at his work-worn hands, dry and cracked with a fine layer of cement that had bonded on his skin. It didn’t matter how often he scrubbed at those parts of his body that seemed encased in cement; there was always a patch leftover that would stay on. When he started working in construction, he had taken care to soak his hands and body in baby oil. Somehow, that fell to the wayside, and how he simply didn’t care. He knew some who would scrub at the patches until they bled. He didn’t care.
His clothes always had a fine patch of cement as well. His wife would let his shirts dry in the sun then beat them against tree trunks. Chunks of hardened rock would rain down all around her as she beat the clothing over and over again. Then she would soak the shirts for a quick scrub on the scrubbing board with plain water. The thickened, sludgy water would be thrown out and fresh water would finally be sprinkled with soap flakes, and only then would his shirts get a proper washing. Even then, after all that hard work, there would be marks all over the clothing. Claudia never gave up trying to clean the shirts, even though Alfredo suggested that she let him wear one shirt a week. Pride made her keep trying to clean his clothes, and he let her.
Thinking of his wife made him wonder what would happen to their baby. She was pregnant at home, and at forty, she was probably going to need to be off her feet for a while. Whatever made him decide on Claudia instead of the numerous young women who had been hesitantly flirtatious with him he didn’t know. All he knew was that when he had seen his future wife, he had felt at home. There she had been, a widow with two children standing by the bus stop when he had finally made it to the village after two days of travelling from the US.
Now almost two years later, married and a new father-to-be, he travelled back and forth on the bus weekly, heading home to his village, and to his wife and children. He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he worked hard, and he lived simply. He was happy. He was home.
He looked up from studying his hands, and looked straight into the face of a familiar stranger. The woman had been looking around, craning her neck as if to study who all were on the bus, and he had caught her staring. She quickly sat properly and stared straight ahead. Alfredo felt the stirrings of something, and he felt restless. His mind wasn’t sharp, but he thought hard. He looked at the back of the woman’s head, and a memory strained to come to the surface.
He knew that face, those eyes, and the back of her head seemed familiar too. Feeling self conscious, he decided to look around discreetly. Sitting close to the front of the bus meant he too had to crane to look around. All he saw were harassed and tired people heading home in the heat of the day. People who were standing down the middle in the aisle looked especially irritated. He felt bad for them, having had to stand often in the bus as it lurched and swayed on its way. He remembered the first time he had to stand, and how he had clutched to the luggage rack above for his life as he found his balance. He still had a hard time with the speed bumps and sudden stops, but he was a seasoned pro. To the back he saw some backpackers with their massive luggage strapped to their backs.
The one time he had backpacked was with his sister and niece. Elena had gotten the crazy idea that they had to do it at least once. Packing everything needed into one bag proved the hardest thing he had ever had to do. His niece had complained loudly and often the entire time they had ridden the bus/train/walked to their destination. Camping meant hard ground to sleep on. But they hadn’t spent much money, and in the end, they had seen lots of great places. He looked at the impassive faces of the tourists and felt a twinge of sympathy. He would never brave a different country backpacking, but he wondered how far these travelers had been and where they would go next.
In the middle of his musings the bus’ gears shifted and groaned to a stop. At the back, he could hear loud complaints, where he imagined a cloud of smoke had filtered in the windows when the bus stopped. Ahead he saw the conductor let in a clean-cut, mustached young man. He looked around where they had stopped and saw no pathway, no shortcut from anywhere. It was as though the man had appeared out of nowhere. Again, Alfredo felt uneasy stirrings within, almost like when he had seen the young woman, but this time he felt a small prickle of apprehension. The young man stood by the seat where the woman sat. Alfredo stared, and somehow, the memory he had been searching for came to him.
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