Saturday, February 22, 2003


She’s leaving. For the first time in a month it struck her: she’s leaving. Among all the arrangements and the preparations, the reservations and the confirmations, the shopping and the stacking, she lost the feeling of it. Now it has finally sunk in: she’s leaving. As much as it was expected, it came as a shock to her. She’s really leaving.

She looks around. Unseeingly, she glances at her self-made bulletin board that takes up a full wall in her little room, loaded with pictures, trinkets, and quotes. Everything that’s trivial but wonderful. A piece of paper catches her eyes: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” She shakes her head and mutters to herself, “Better than a Chinese fortune cookie!” Since she started compiling this board, she fell into the habit of picking a quote from the various scraps of paper hanging there, and contemplating it throughout the day, sometimes taking it even as a slogan for the day. And today? Do fools really rush in where angels fear to tread? And what about her? Is she rushing towards the wrong direction? Or worse, is she rushing because she fears to tread on the right path? And most importantly, is she a fool or a fallen angel?

She starts to make a check-list, because this time if she forgets something she won’t be able to get it later on. She tries to focus on the check-list to take her mind away from the looming thoughts of goodbyes and to try to delay the packing.

The packing, she thinks, and her mind takes another turn. How could she pack? How do we pack a lifetime? What to take and what to leave behind, what’s important and what’s not that important, what’s heavy and what’s light, and what would she take that won’t break her heart to look at once she is there, and what would she leave that won’t break her heart to remember once she is there? At the end of the day, what really does matter? Should she pack for a long duration of stay or for a short one? And how could she make long-term plans when she’s not sure how “long” this term is going to be? And is home really “where the heart is”? Lots of decisions to make tonight and all she wants to do is go for a long walk.

Last time she left, she threw herself a farewell party. How typical of her! This time she wishes she can just disappear: now you see me, now you don’t! This is another thing she has to think about: whom to call? Whom to drop by? And whom to just slip behind their backs? The Great Disappearance Act. Her last one. Hopefully.

August 1997

A typically humid evening.

We are all in our usual hangout. It’s my farewell party and his birthday. How cruel. Voices, laughs, sounds of crackling gift wrappers, music, and the deafening silence in my head. I jump from one chair to another, laughing here, joking there, teasing here, and chattering there. I avoid eye-contact or staying too long beside any of them.

The friend with the kind eyes looks closely at me and holds my hand to keep me beside her, “You are crazy. You know that. You don’t have to leave. How could you? You have everything before you…”

I cut in, quoting Dickens in a mock imitation of a wise old man, “…We had everything before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

“Stop the clowning. Talk to me. It’s too late to change your mind, I know, but I need to understand and you’ve been running for the past month and avoiding me. Give me one good reason.”

I am silent.

“You were always a fighter, why do I feel now that you’ve put down the shield and the sword?”

I am surprised to hear her saying this. I look at her, startled, and I am sure she saw the fear in my eyes, for she held my face in her hands and said, “I also know you thought about this a lot, and that, in some crazy, irrational, and totally stupid way, you know what you are doing.” She smiles, kisses me, and releases my hand. I sat there feeling very empty and very weak.

Finally, I muster enough courage to go sit by his side. I flash a smile at him.

“So?”He smiles.
“So? You are leaving?” he says.
“Yeah, and your immigration was accepted.”
“Yeah, and you are leaving…”
“You know what, you’ve always promised me to read the lines in my palm, and you never did it! What better time to do this than now? I’m certainly curious to know what’s hiding out there for me,” I say with a wide smile.
“Yes indeed, what better time. Give me your hand and come here in the light.” He holds my hand and looks closely at the lines. I shiver.

“You cold?”
I mouth a “No”, knowing that it’s not the body, it’s the soul that’s feeling cold.
“Your life line is long. Your love line intersects with the life line in an early stage. But you are going to have an accident. Mmm…an accident that will affect both the life and the love lines. And I see two points, could be two hours, two days, two weeks, two months, or two years. I don’t know what those are.”

Unlike me, I laugh out loudly, trying to keep the hysteria at bay. “So, you are basically saying that I should stay away from love to be able to live a long healthy life and avoid any unlikely accidents? That I will fall in love, as I’ve always wanted to, but I’ll spend the rest of my “short” life a crippled widow with a broken heart? This is not what I had in mind!”

He looks me in the eye.

“No, I’m saying that if you fall in love, you should be prepared to give your life to it.”

We silently look at each other. I pull my hand awkwardly from his and say, “I am glad you didn’t take up palm-reading as a career! You would have spent a lot of time in and out of jails and hospitals.” I stick out my tongue and wink at him. He laughs weakly. I flutter away.

We throw him the birthday party, then we start “celebrating” my leaving. It’s hilarious and the gang is very sure that I won’t last there more than a month. They make jokes about showing up in the airport with lots of clay jars to see me off, then breaking the jars after the plane leaves. I laugh and say, “What makes you think I’m going to tell you when I am leaving??” He is startled by the thought and looks at me closely, trying to figure out where the joke ends and reality starts. Obviously he can’t and I can see his depression starting to surface.

“When are you coming back?” he calmly asks.
“Mmm…after two.”
“Two what??”
“Two hours, two days, two weeks – ”
“Ok Ok! I was joking about this two points thing, you are cruel!”
“And when are you coming back?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will we be in touch?”
“I don’t think so. It will take some time until I settle down, and it will take you some time until you settle down, and by the time we both settle down it will be needless to be in touch.”

It’s time to leave. I shake hands, hug, kiss, tickle, and wave at everybody, take a bow, straighten up and cheerfully cry out, “See you tomorrow!” He walks me to the door. We stop at the entrance and stand there in silence. He offers his hand and I take it.

“So, I’ll see you when I see you,” he says.
“I’ll see you when I see you, but I know it’s going to be sooner than you think.”
I wink, he smiles. I smile, turn around, and walk away. I am not as scared as I used to be. I take the plane the next morning.

And today? How is she going to do it? She made a point this time not to tell anybody when she was really leaving. She is planning to call them from the airport and saying that she was on the waiting list and her ticket has just been confirmed. This would be cruel, she knows, but she also knows she is not as brave as she used to be. And she knows that this time she is going to see them when she sees them, but she knows it is going to be not as soon as they think. But she has to take care of herself, and she knows she won’t be able to handle the goodbyes this time. She is not young anymore and she is certainly not as brave as she used to be.

She curses her mind because of the way it keeps drifting. She forces herself to concentrate, but she knows no matter how hard she tries, her mind is plotting a rebellion tonight. She only has herself to blame; she had taught her mind to misbehave.

It turns out to be the hardest packing she’s ever done in her life. Every single piece of paper, every picture, everything on her commode, and everything in her wardrobe remind her of one thing or another. She spends more time than she thought, stopping here and there to recall a story or a smile or a tear behind everything she chooses to pack or leave behind. And a story hands her to another story and to another story and to another story. Round and round, in circles, the windmills of her mind have gone crazy. She decides to leave the photo albums behind. No point in taking them this time. She won’t look at them. Ever.

She calls a cab, and calls the porter to come take her bags down. She leaves everything as is. Her sister will be coming tomorrow to clean up and close the apartment. Her sister wanted to do this and she didn’t resist. She didn’t want to close the windows or turn off the lights, and gladly left that to her sister. Her sister understands she is not as brave as she used to be.She goes downstairs and is shocked to find her friend with the kind eyes, now veiled, married, and expecting, waiting for her.

“I knew you would pull up something like this. How could you?!”
“Oooooh! Don’t take it like this please! Please please please!”

The friend looks angrily at her then walks to her car. She fumbles inside the car until she finds what she’s been looking for and then comes back to where she was standing.

“I got you this. You have to figure a way of putting it into your luggage. It’s not my fault that you decided to sneak away like this!”

She unwraps the gift. It’s a portrait, a small one, with a very white bird breaking free from a cage, and flying into a beautifully blue sky. The bird looks so serene and happy, the cage looks small but strong, and the sky looks very promising.

“Oh, this is…this is so…I don’t know what to say. You painted this yourself?”
“No, silly. I hired a secret painter and made him paint you without you knowing it! Of course I painted it! Who else knows you too well?” she says with a wide smile and a tender look in her lovely eyes.

She asks firmly and with a mock-frown, “Who’s your best friend?”
“You are.”
“Who would always be there for you while you travel all over the world?”
“You would.”
“And who is so mad at you right now?”
“You are.”
“And who is going to drive you to the airport because she is smarter than you and found you out, you wicked shrew! Who?”

She laughs and laughs, while trying to keep the tears from falling onto the painting.“You are!”

“I wanted you to be there when my baby comes to this world. I wanted you to be his first memory.”

“Don’t worry my dear, I’ve read that babies recall nothing of their lives before the age of three, and I promise I’d be there before he starts having a memory.”

She laughs and shakes her head. “I know you still have some time before you leave. Let’s go for a walk.”She doesn’t speak, just takes her friend’s arm and starts walking.

“You know what home is?” the friend asks.
“I’m not sure I know the answer to this anymore.”
“Silly, as usual. Home, my dear, is where, if you have to go, they will have to take you in. You know that, don’t you? You know we will take you in?”
“In a crazy, irrational, and totally stupid way, I know that.”

Maybe, she thinks to herself as the scenes rush by while they drive to the airport, maybe I’m not as brave as I used to be, maybe I’m more brave than I used to be. And maybe, just maybe, I’m not rushing, I’m treading, ever so softly, on the right path. I have the proof. It’s done in painting and it’s done with lots of love.