Glass and metal are perfect to make a big building seem even bigger. The high windows and skylights are great during the day, but at night they make a person small. Every little sound echoes off the walls, the corridors seem infinite and the cold wind creeps inside. Darkness falls, stores close, people leave. In a few minutes a buzzing building transforms into a cold desert maze.
The silence is broken by a crowd of passengers dragging their luggage. Everyone is tired, in a hurry to get home and rest. They race through the corridors to their families, to the nearest taxi. Except for one man. He takes his time and lets everyone off the plane. He Lifts his heavy backpack to his shoulders, picking up his belongings and a notebook. He’s not in a hurry because his trip is barely halfway.
One foot after the other, making an effort to keep his back straight and pretend it’s not cold. His only goal is to find anywhere to put down the luggage and try to sleep.
At the food court he pushes some stools together, hides his stuff beneath a table and lies down. It’s too cold to sleep and he starts to hear a faint sound of a cart pushed in his direction. The man pushing the cart looks to be around 45 and carries several suitcases, assorted bags and a toy motorbike. He is an immigrant going to visit his family. He carries a few changes of clothes for himself, everything else is for the children and his wife.
The man speaks first in French and then in a broken English. “Bonne nuit. Excuse.” His counterpart turns to him saying yes, and he gestures to a pack of cigarettes “just ten minutes for a smoke, ok?” The other traveller smiles and nods, making himself comfortable not to fall asleep while he watches the luggage.
When he comes back from his cigarette, the lonely traveler is sitting with his legs crossed writing on a notebook. “Thank you” the family man smiles; “Going back to see your family?” His smile grows even bigger and goes on about how the little one is having a birthday. “It’s a surprise! And the bike is a present.”
Some people are so warm that their heart shines through. That’s what was happening while he talked about his family, about how hard he worked and plans to bring them all together soon. “A bigger house. There are five of us, and the house is small. I’m hoping for a raise next year and have some more work on the weekends to save more money.” The traveller asks his name and he reacts with a warm and playful smile “call me Rafiki”.
The traveler’s heart wasn’t bursting like Rafiki’s, it was a shade of dark blue with a spark of optimism flickering. He smiled with shared happiness as this man spoke of his family and his optimistic plans for the future. “And one day, I will teach them both to ride a bicycle. I want to take them all on long rides!” They both laugh and for a split second the sound echoes in the walls of the airport.
“And you, where are you headed?”. It was like pulling the traveler back to reality, his smile faded a little. He pulls a coin from his pocket and raises it in the air. “A vacation?” He nods and denies, “Chasing hopes and wishes.”
The tables had turned and the traveler told his story of love and fear. In his head, he had put someone else’s happiness ahead of his. In reality it was that, and it was fear. “For a while I lived with my decision and values. Then I fell.” The other man looks confused, so he continues. Work and many other pressures had broken him down and that was a turning point that made him rethink his life, his wishes and his plans. “You failed at your job?” He nodded no, “I won. Made it to the finish line so beaten up, physical and emotionally, that at some point I went out of the building to a small patio and broke to tears. I was happy it was over, sad it had taken so much out of me. I wanted to share my victory with her, just for a bit. And I knew I couldn’t. I was very dumb back then and only now I see how much. I’m a little less dumb now.” His listener smiled again as if he had seen the end of the story “Now you are going back to her!” And slapped him the shoulder. The traveler chuckled and rose his eyes from the floor “I doubt that. She won’t talk to me. But I have to try.” This time his new friend offered a strong pull of his shoulder, a sign of empathy to someone who needed it.
“I don’t want to discourage, but it’s impossible. She won’t come back.” With a shrug their eyes meet and he says “Either way, I miss her. I miss my friend, and I was wrong, and because I was wrong, and because I changed, I won’t stop trying to rebuild this bridge.”
Rafiki became confused while listening to him. How could he not see that he was wasting his time? For a while he asked him questions, tried to share some of his experience. These were two men who from different sides of the world and different cultures, with the same good heart.
“You always carry that with you?” He meant the coin, yes he did. It was a token of all the good memories and a vow never to forget and never to stop trying to fix his wrongs.
“You are grabbing the past. It’s bad for you.” With a deep breath he explained it wasn’t about grabbing the past. He knew there was no turning back. “But every time I end up with the same thought, that even if I’m not with her, I still care and I still miss her.”
“Then it’s not you who is holding the past. Maybe the past is holding you."; “Yes, maybe. Doesn’t matter. I know the person who I want to be, now, at least.” His words hanged in the air, the other man gestured impatient. “Long story short, I don’t want to hurt anyone. I feel I have been hurting others these past months. And I am not taking things at face value like I used to. Sometimes people are mean because they’re hurt or afraid and we forget that. We only judge others by their actions, not by their intention.” As a response Rafiki nods and lets go of a breath. “There is a friend at work. Every time after work he goes to a place get drunk alone. But not when I follow. When I am there he talks, and tells the story of his wife and his son. How they have gone away from him. He is a good man inside. Just feels alone. Like you. But everyone thinks he is just a drunk, not someone who is alone.”
Rafiki’s words take a while to sink in. He breaks the silence with two deep breaths “I am not doing this because I feel alone. It’s because I miss the little things, sure, like knowing how her day was, what annoyed her and what made her happy at the office. It’s also because I hold myself to higher standards now. That means doing my best to apologise, to show I am sorry for being immature. I want to make amends and compensate her for my wrongs as best as I can.” Rafiki shakes his head abruptly “No. There is more. You love her!”
The traveler chuckles for a second and smiles saying yes. “Of course. I wouldn’t have put myself in this mess if I didn’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect her wish to not be with me. It means I will be her friend no matter what.” Rafiki nods in approval “It’s your eyes, they can’t lie and they still glow when you talk.”
The traveler lifts his head and shows a confident smile “Like I said… it’s the little things. The memories of her still make me happy, the photos that sometimes pop up in my phone make the world pause for a few seconds. You know, we lost our car once. We were in a road trip, spent the night in a hotel and when we woke up it was gone. In a country where I barely speak the language. And yet, even if I was concerned, I was calm. We were together and I felt happy. Didn’t want to ruin it for us because of my anxiety. Didn’t want to ruin things for her. And I remember little details, like the colour of her nail polish on the second time we met; how she sometimes had a shy smile and others a strong posture and serious look. The colour of her hair and the sound of her voice. I remember how she likes her tea and I know the sound of her voice when she is annoyed”
In this dialogue the two had seem to have found common ground. Every thing about them was different, yet their values and care for others was the same. As they talked, the traveler kept spinning and moving a pencil between his fingers and Rafiki played with his lighter. They were now both leaning on a wall, sitting on the stools and looking forward to nowhere in particular.
“I know women, she is not going to budge.” He hears him let go of a sigh and continues “But friend, you do what your heart tells you to. This time listen to it. Maybe I’m wrong and it’s possible. I’m not God and god’s can be cruel.” The traveler looks at Rafiki and pauses for a second “You are probably right, that it is impossible. Yet sometimes we have to believe in the impossible. I Carry the coin to remind me of that. I write letters to her that I never send. I hide the pain and fill the saudade with anything I can find. And for now this is my compass. I care too much to hide my feelings or to play myself as being strong. I’m weak and I am ok with it.”
The other man shakes his head “You made a mistake. We make mistakes, all of us. I made one and now I am away from my family trying to bring us back under the same roof. Lost money and work. We are not weak. We are human. You are very strong for moving in the same direction with so little hope. And each time you talk about her, there is a smile there. Sometimes a sad smile, but a smile and a glow in your eye. It takes strength to keep good feelings in your shoes. Much strength.”
“You know Rafiki, another friend keeps telling me to forget it. To let go. But I can’t and I won’t. We shouldn’t give up on our friends or shut the door when things don’t go our way. It’s like everyone around me lost the will to repair what is broken and to put an effort into what is important. And she is important for me. Even if she doesn’t care. I do care about her. Even if she doesn’t love me. I do love her.”
Glass and metal in a building such as this let you see the sky turn slowly from black to blue. Then, one of the sun’s rays pierces the glass. Both men flinch their eyes in pain with the sudden light. They say goodbye with a hug and wishes of good luck. “Happy birthday to the little one”. “Rabi maak friend”.
The traveler takes the weight of his backpack on his shoulders and tries to keep straight while he walks. It’s like dragging the luggage of his past fears and mistakes. One foot after the other, one breath at a time, he disappears onto the crowd. He is carrying a knot in his throat and is weak for not having eaten anything since the day before. A cold and empty building makes you feel small and alone. A crowd does the same, just in a different way.
He finally takes his seat on the plane for another stretch of his trip. After a while he takes out the notebook and begins to write: Sometimes, you have to believe in the impossible.
There are two details in this story that are important to me. One is that 'Rafiki' is the Arab word for friend. The other, is that the photo you see in the header was taken by me, specifically to use in this story.