“Mom,” Betul says in a tired, yet apologizing tone.
“Betul? Where are you?”
“Mom, don’t worry. I’m fine.”
“But, where are you?” Her voice trembles.
“Mom, I’m sorry. I should have told you earlier. I’m in America.”
“Calm down, calm down. Yes, I’m with my friend, Miray, in her apartment in San Diego.”
“But why? Is Ahmet with you?”
“Why not? You just got married! How...” she pauses, then continues in a more restrained manner, “are you coming back soon?”
“No, Mom. I’m going to live here.”
“Live there? In America? Why?”
“I want a different life.”
“A different life? Betul, everywhere is the same. And you’re not young anymore. It’s time to have children.” Hearing no answers, she goes on, “Is Ahmet going to join you later?”
“You...but why not?”
Betul hears her mom’s heavy breathing. “It’s a long story. I’ll tell you later. I just want you to know that I’m safe. I’m sorry. I’m really tired now. I promise I’ll call you in a few days.”
She hears a sigh, then says, “Love you, Mom.” Without waiting for her reply, Betul hangs up.
Betul is indeed exhausted. The trip took almost eighteen hours with one connecting flight in Houston. Too much noise. Was it the noise or was it her mind? Anyway, she didn’t sleep at all on the flights. She is lucky that she has a friend of a friend, Miray, who is kind enough to let her stay in her apartment until she’ll find her own place.
“It’s very nice of you, Miray. Only a few days, I hope,” Betul says gratefully.
“Don’t worry, go to sleep first. You look tired. The bathroom is here if you want to take a shower.” Miray points to the hallway next to the kitchen and starts to wash dishes.
“Thank you.” Betul takes a quick shower and changes into her pajamas.
“Go to sleep. I’m not working tomorrow and we can talk then,” says Miray. They say goodnight to each other. The moment Betul’s head hits the pillow on the couch, her eyelids shut as if they were lead-filled. Miray turns off the light in the living room and goes to her bedroom.
In her dream, Betul sees her mom, eyes welled up, asking, “Will you come back soon?” “No.” She shakes her head. “But why not? You just got married last week.” The images of the wedding ceremony, the reception, the music and flashing lights, and the joyful tears glistening in her parents’ eyes, one by one appear in her dream.
Rays of morning light pass through the window curtains and wake Betul up. “Why not?” Her mom’s words echoed in her mind. How strange life is? she thinks. She is thirty-two and can’t, or rather won’t, explain why. It is what it is. The older she gets, the less she can share what’s in her mind with her friends. Friends? She has no real friends. Not like when she was little, when everything and anything was a source for boasting to her “friends.” Gradually, she has changed. Nowadays, she can’t even share her thoughts with her own mother.
It takes a couple of days for Betul to decide on a small one-bedroom apartment in an old building on the second floor. It is furnished and has a bathroom with a shower and a small living area that is connected to the kitchen. It has a white, old-fashioned refrigerator, some browned stainless-steel pots and pans, a round wooden table and three chairs, all with faded paint. In the kitchen cabinets, there are mismatched plates and silverware. Although the place is worn down, it has everything that she needs. With an affordable rent, she is satisfied. After paying the deposit, her next big expense is a second-hand car. She searches on the internet for a few hours in the library and decides on a white Toyota Corolla that supposedly has the best mileage according to Consumer Reports. At this point, she still has enough savings to live frugally for a few more months. Several weeks later, Betul finds a job. She starts to drive for Uber. She knows that this is a temporary plan, until she will have more money to... to do what? She has no idea. But that will come later. At least for now, she is in a place where she feels free, can do anything she wants and be herself.
Several weeks into her new job, Betul has a better picture of the city. She enjoys driving around and seeing parks, museums, fancy hotels, and rich people’s residences. One thing that she has noticed is that many of her clients have been curious about where she is from. From the rearview mirror, she can see that her hijab has attracted peoples’ attention. It’s true, even in America, not many women are taxi drivers, let alone a Muslim woman. Yet there is one exceptional group; little kids seem to be blind to culture, gender, and appearance. Everywhere, there are acquired sensitivities.
One weekday afternoon, Betul picks up a middle-aged man. The man is slim and has gray hair on his temples. He wears a pair of dark sunglasses, a brown light jacket, and navy pants. He looks like he is in a hurry, with a cell phone in his right hand and a gift bag in his left. Once he sits in the backseat, he says, “Bayfront Hilton, please.” Without raising his eyes, he puts down the bag in his hand and starts to text. It is almost five o’clock in the afternoon, the traffic begins to pile up. Betul looks at her GPS which says that it will take fifteen minutes.
The moment they arrive at the hotel entrance, the man’s cell phone rings. He puts the phone close to his ear quickly and says, “I’m here. Sorry. There’s traffic.” Then he gets out of the car and brushes his hair back. He then waves at Betul without looking back at her. Betul turns to her cell phone to view the next ride request. It is from the Children’s Museum nearby. She presses on the accept button and starts the car. “Five minutes,” the GPS indicates.
Betul picks up a young woman who is with two jumpy little kids, about four and six years old. The moment the kids climb into the backseat, the older one screams as if he’s found a treasure, “Look! There’s a bag.” The young woman puts a finger to her mouth and says, “Shhh...Give the bag to the driver please. Adam, it’s not ours. Don’t break it.” The boy hands the bag to Betul reluctantly. “Thank you.” Betul smiles back at him in the mirror. The boy turns his head toward the window and covers his face with one hand. “Good boy,” the young woman says encouragingly.
“Thank you. This must belong to the last client,” Betul explains.
“Oh, I hope he’ll realize that he forgot it in your car.”
“I hope so.”
After dropping them off, Betul peeks inside the bag. There is a pink gift box with Tiffany printed on it. “What an elegant gift! It might be for his wife, for her birthday or their anniversary,” Betul guesses. “Poor man. I hope he’ll call me soon.”
The company has a policy regarding lost items. Customers usually have up to seventy-two hours to call, or else, the lost items will be returned to the local office.
By the end of the three days, Betul has not heard from the man. She wonders why. Maybe he forgot where he left it, or he has too much money to care and can buy another one just like it.
Betul plans to return the gift bag to the company the next day. But that evening, she receives a message on Facebook. The message is from the man. How did he find me on Facebook? Betul puzzles. The man thanks her for keeping the bag and asks if she would bring it to a nearby gas station early the next day. “Okay. See you tomorrow,” Betul responds. The suspense is finally over.
The next day, Betul arrives at the gas station. She sees a Mercedes parked on the side of the building, but no one is sitting inside. She gets out of her car and looks around. She sees nobody. At the same time, a man exits the convenience store. He scans the surroundings first, then he spots Betul and walks toward her. They recognize each other right away. She gives the bag back to the man. The man, still wearing his sunglasses, takes the bag and glances inside briefly. He thanks her hurriedly, then gets into his car and drives away. Betul is relieved. She presumes that he has missed the big day already, but it’s better late than never.
That evening, Betul is in a good mood. She calls her mom, as part of her biweekly routine now. Each time, she tells her mom that she’s doing well and there is no need to worry.
“Well, after our last call, I finally had the courage to talk to Ahmet’s mother.”
“Thank you. What did she say?”
“Of course, she heard it from Ahmet already. So naturally she was upset. But what can we do as mothers. She said that Ahmet agreed to a divorce. You know a young man like Ahmet, good looking, with a high paying job and a decent family, he can marry anyone he wants.”
“I know, Mom. That’s good for him.” Betul is relieved. She feels that she is freed from an invisible cage. She is surprised how well her mom has handled it. Maybe her mom knows why? But how?
On the weekend, Betul meets her co-worker for dinner. She tells her about the man and his gift bag. “The poor guy must be scared.” Gossip is the best medication for stress relief. There is always someone who is in a worse circumstance.
“Scared? Betul, are you pitying him? Let me tell you, it’s typical of men who have mistresses to avoid calling Uber directly because they don’t want to leave any phone record.”
Betul rethinks the scene: the way the man came out of the convenience store, scanning the area before he approached her. It looked like a spy thriller. If he loves that woman so much that he bought such an expensive gift for her, why doesn’t he marry her instead of living a double life?
Time passes. Another sunny day, Betul goes to the Hotel Del Coronado. This is her favorite place to pick up clients. She loves the magnificent architecture of the building facing a breathtaking ocean background.
When Betul arrives at the main entrance, she sees a couple standing by the curb. The man’s hand rests on the extended handle of a gray Samsonite suitcase. His white Polo T-shirt is tucked in his black shorts, revealing a slightly protruding abdomen. His complexion is fair and wrinkleless, although his receding hairline is noticeable. A much younger looking woman stands next to the man, about two feet away from him. She wears a slim dress with a yellow-flowered pattern. Her red lips are thinly pressed, and her black silky hair frames her face at the jawline. A pair of lightly tinted Prada sunglasses veils a shade of sadness in her eyes.
Seeing Betul sitting in the driver’s seat and wearing a satin hijab, the man hesitates to move forward as if his feet are glued to the ground. His right hand rubs his chin back and forth. Betul is used to this kind of awkward gesture. But she is here already and this is her business. She has no intention of letting it go.
“Are you Tony?” She leans toward the couple and fakes a smile.
“Yes. That’s me.” Reluctantly, the man drags his luggage to the back of the car. Then he pauses again. The woman elbows him and whispers, “What are you waiting for?” She turns sharply and walks to the back passenger side. She opens the door and gets inside.
The man gets in too from the opposite side. Once they are in, Betul introduces herself. “Hi, I’m Betul.” She waves her hand in the rearview mirror.
“Hi, I’m Tony.” The man gives her a barely visible nod in the mirror.
“I’m Jamie.” The woman raises her hand.
Betul starts the car and asks, “San Diego International Airport, right?”
“Yes,” Tony replies.
After they are on the highway, Tony clears his throat and begins, “It’s... unusual to see a woman Uber driver.”
“You’re right. Most are men.” Betul smiles.
“How long have you been an Uber driver?” Tony adds.
“So you know this place well by now.”
“Not quite. San Diego is huge. But with this,” she points to the Google map on her cell phone, “I can pretty much go anywhere.”
The woman is quiet, but Betul senses that she is watching her behind her sunglasses. Suddenly the woman asks, “So, what made you to decide to be an Uber driver?”
Betul tells them that she used to work at a financial company in Turkey. She wanted to see America, so she came here several months ago. After considering different things, she found out she could work for Uber. Actually, this is a good way for her to learn about this place and its people. Then Betul stops and observes the reaction from her clients. There is not much. The couple seems to be intrigued by her story.
“But, what’s good about working for Uber?” Tony adds.
“Being my own boss, having a flexible schedule, and meeting interesting people.”
Her answer sends them back into their own thoughts again.
In no time, the airport sign appears. “Look! We’re here already.” Betul’s car slows down, then stops by the terminal entrance.
“Thank you for the ride,” Tony says while getting out of the car. He goes to the passenger side, opens the door, and bends over.
Betul turns back toward them and notices that the woman doesn’t move. Tony’s head cranes toward the young woman’s face and whispers something in her ear. The young woman turns away abruptly.
“Look, you need to understand my situation. Plus, you have to think about the baby.” He points his right hand to the woman’s belly.
“Aha.” Betul’s eyes brighten.
Suddenly, Tony perceives that Betul is watching him. Looking up, his gaze meets hers in the mirror. Betul’s face warms. As a reflex, she raises her hand to adjust the mirror.
Tony straightens his back quickly and goes to the back of the car. He takes out the suitcase and closes the trunk. He waves his hand at the woman first, then at Betul. Betul waves back and fakes a smile again. The man walks toward the terminal entrance and disappears behind the gliding doors.
Betul sees that the young woman doesn’t wave back at him, and she is not even looking in his direction. She asks cautiously, “Where do you want to go, Miss?”
“Back to the same hotel, please.”
Betul glances at the woman in the mirror, trying to figure out if they had a quarrel or could it be just another affair? It’s impossible to tell. As her curiosity rises, Betul asks, “Are you expecting?” Right away, she realizes that this is not the American way. So she adds, “Sorry, it’s none of my business.”
To her surprise, the woman says with a shade of melancholy, “That’s okay, but I’m not.”
She is not? Betul wonders if the rearview mirror has tricked her. She clearly saw the man put his hand on her belly. If she were not pregnant, then why did he do that? Why didn’t they go on the same plane? Did she lie to him for a reason? Secrets. The more Betul contemplates, the more she feels connected with the woman. There are things that one can only keep to oneself. Even after death. People can dig up a body from the grave, but not secrets (in Latin, secret means separate or set apart).
By now, Betul is not the same Betul who arrived months ago. She has met many people. Strangely, the more she does, the more she feels that she met them somewhere before.
A new day, months later, Betul picks up a young couple. Although she can’t pronounce the name, “Qian Jun” written on her screen, she figures that they are likely either Chinese, Vietnamese, or Korean. The young man tells her that they want a ride to the airport, but before heading there, they would like to take a tour around Balboa Park.
Take a tour around Balboa Park? Betul is annoyed right away. This means that she will have to spend more time dragging around but won’t get paid at the usual rate. People are ignorant. They should have told me earlier.
Seeing her reluctance, the young man says, “Please consider this as a favor to us. I’ll pay you $100 for the hour.”
Betul calculates in her mind. She looks at the couple; they look like a newlywed couple, perhaps on their honeymoon. With the offer that’s twice the usual sum, Betul agrees to do them a favor.
“You have one hour, so you can see only the outside of the museums and the buildings. There is no time to go inside,” she reminds them and starts to drive slowly.
“That’s fine. We just want to see the architecture and the scenery,” the young man says with an air of gratitude.
“This building is the Natural History Museum and on the opposite side there is the Desert Garden,” Betul explains.
“How beautiful! Can we take a picture here?” the man asks.
“Sure.” Betul stops the car at the curbside. She sees the man get out first and go to the other side to open the door for the woman. The woman moves slowly as if she is either in pain or... is expecting? One can never tell.
After the picture, they move on. “This one is called Casa Del Prado. In English it means House of Hospitality.”
“How exquisite!” The couple takes another picture there.
“This one is the Museum of Art. It’s the first museum in this park.”
“What a majestic façade!” They take a few pictures of the building from different angles.
“You have to hurry up if you want to see more,” Betul warns them.
Now they are at the Sculpture Garden and seem to get totally lost in it. Seeing them moving from one statue to another at a crawling speed, she says, “You won’t have time to take a picture of every piece. Make your choices. You have only ten minutes to go.”
At that moment the California Tower chimes, and they turn toward the sound and see a tall church-like building. “What’s that building?”
“That’s the California Tower, a symbol of San Diego.”
They walk closer. Another amazing example of architecture. It has a mixed Baroque, Gothic and Spanish style. “How beautiful!” the woman says softly.
“You like it?”
The woman nods.
The man turns to Betul and says, “Do you mind taking one last picture of both of us?”
“Of course, but you really have to hurry.” She looks at her cell phone again.
The man gives his cell phone to Betul. She focuses: There, the young man holds his wife around the shoulder; their heads lean toward each other; their smiles spell happiness. She presses the button a couple of times to be sure. A nice picture, she thinks. Then, somehow a complex feeling arises in her heart. Jealousy? Or fear of a short-lived happiness?
On the way to the airport, Betul asks warmly, “Is this your honeymoon?”
The man sips water from a bottle, then says, “Actually, we’ve been married for three years.”
The man turns and looks at his wife. She gives him a smile. Wrapping his hand around her shoulder again, he says, “To tell you the truth, my wife was diagnosed with an advanced cancer recently and was told that she has only a few months to live. This is why we made this trip, so we could see as much as possible before... going home.”
Betul’s throat tightens. She drives on in silence.
At the airport terminal entrance, she says goodbye to the couple, then watches them walk away slowly until they are out of her sight.
Afterward, she drives to the Uber pickup line and waits for her turn.
When the next man in line approaches her car, Betul startles. The man looks familiar. When and where has she seen him before? She has seen too many customers. The man also spots her hijab. His hand pauses on the door handle. After a noticeable, yet fleeting moment, too short to evoke a memory, he opens the door and gets into the car. “Hotel Del Coronado, please,” he announces.
Without looking into the rearview mirror, she replies, “Got it.” She presses on the switch to begin tracking the mileage, then gently steps on the gas pedal.