When I walked in the woods in the wind and cold of morning, I could see my kids beside me. Could reach out and touch them. Lay my hand on their heads. I would stop at the edge of the path as we emerged from the trail behind our home in the Columbia River Gorge, and watch them cross the dry, grass field to school. They went the rest of the way alone, moving under the shadow of the giant tree, its enormous boughs stretching out and up and away into the universe. They trudged on, loaded down with coats and hats and backpacks and projects of colored leaves and colored paper. I wondered then if they needed it all. It was a lot to bring through the world.
Those days, long days past, I stood in the wind and watched them till they moved out of sight. I am still watching them; now, years later. Disappearing from view. Time to time, as school pales to a memory, they reappear. I see them. Different. Better. It’s good. And it hurts, wondering whose children they are. Whether they have found another father. Different. Better. And if I wasn’t just a father figure all along, and their real father wasn’t someone else.
I think now, that’s true.
Something happened on the train in Cairo.
A woman asked me for one of my eggs.
A poor woman?
Yeah, she was missing some teeth. Black hijab and burka. Her face and hands were uncovered.
Were you in a bad section of town?
We’ve talked about this, dad. I’m not afraid. I wasn’t there for the scenery. If you want to know, looking out the windows as we passed there were old brown apartment buildings with their walls falling off. Some of them looked bombed out. Laundry hung out the apartment windows.
How old was she?
Late 30s, maybe? Hard to tell. No one young stays that way for long there. She wasn’t asking for the kind of eggs you buy at the store. She wanted my eggs.
I was standing there, and she just came up to me and started talking. I didn’t know what she was asking. She looked uncomfortable.
Your Arabic isn’t that far along yet.
No. They have us in language class.
I saw pictures of class.
It was a long flight, dad.
I know. Sixty-four hundred miles. But you can’t fall asleep in class.
It was a long flight, dad.
Okay. And she didn’t speak English?
No. We were trying to communicate with each other but ended up just kind of trying hand gestures. It was so frustrating. You could tell she was embarrassed. It was so awkward.
Why you? You were the only woman on the train?
No. It was full. There’s a separate car for women. It was hot and sweaty. Everyone was staring at us until we looked back at them, and they looked away, I think to be polite. And it smelled like dust and body odor. It was mostly silent until every couple of stops, a teenage boy would come onto our car to sell things like head scarves and Kleenex, and then he would get off at the next stop. Some women would stare ahead blankly and others would smirk at each other because of how annoying it was to have him invading our privacy so loudly. There were women in full burkas, some in just a hijab, some with their hair down, and babies and little kids everywhere.
I wonder why she picked you – you were obviously a foreigner.
I don’t know. Maybe that was why. Maybe because I’m tall and white and blonde-ish. Or because stereotypes work both ways. They have theirs of us too. They think we are immoral and capable of anything, that we’d do anything. Nothing is sacred or off limits. Some girls wanted to know how many boyfriends I have and if I’m a virgin.
You stuck out.
Oh yeah. Head and shoulders above everyone else. The friends we made, and the little kids, always wanted to touch my face and hair.
So I got her to write down her phone number, and when I got back to the apartment I had my leader call her.
If you had seen her…the state she was in…I had to. It is so shameful for them if they can’t have children. Her husband can divorce her for it. She would lose everything. All social standing, the ability to live or have relationships with her own family or friends. For her to get up and do what she did in the middle of the train…she was so unbelievably past desperate.
And she approached you.
What did your leader do when she spoke to her?
Her Arabic is excellent…
Probably has coffee before class.
…and she figured out what the woman wanted in the first place. She gently explained to her that my dad would never allow it. Then she offered to meet with the woman over coffee, and the woman agreed. When they met, and were praying, the woman burst into tears and said that when they prayed she experienced this overwhelming presence of joy and peace around her. She was crying and laughing and said she had never felt anything like it in her life and never, ever wanted the feeling to go away. She wanted to feel that way always, for the rest of her life. She and my leader were going to keep meeting after I left.
Wow. Good job standing on the train.
I didn’t do anything.
No. How could you? Nobody picks the color of their skin or hair before they’re born. You couldn’t determine how tall you would be. Certainly couldn’t pay your own way to Egypt – I know that. You didn’t arrange for the two of you to be on the same train at the same time. You couldn’t anticipate her anguish, or read her mind, or recognize her need, or know the burden she carries. There was no way to prepare for what she did on the train. You couldn’t speak the language; didn’t know how to communicate with her; and, to be blunt, you were clueless about what was happening in that moment.
Even if you had known, you couldn’t give her what she wanted. It’s a hard thing, but you couldn’t save her life from falling apart. You couldn’t do jack. Whatever magic gave that poor, barren woman hope at one of the lowest, most disgraceful moments of her life – it wasn’t your doing. And while you can’t accomplish whatever miracles come next in her life, they’ll happen just the same. It’s all good.
What makes you say that?
Patterns. I think she was moving toward someone she couldn’t see all along. Someone just behind you who could do everything you couldn’t. And she thought she saw something of him in you. A resemblance. A reflection. I don't know. But she’s in good hands now to be sure. The invisible man on the train doesn’t know how to fail.
I love you, dad.
I love you, darling. I think there’s one thing you can do.
Keep riding the train.
When I was young, I would watch my children move over the earth with their coats and hats and backpacks and projects of colored leaves and colored paper. I wondered then if they needed it all. At times their feet seemed to barely touch the ground, like they were floating. Like if I didn’t keep watching, they would float away up through the branches of the great tree and I would never see them again. I think now, looking back, I was right. I liked being right when I was a young man. Now, I hate it. I am right too much.