The woman stood at the edge of the sidewalk looking down the street. She was growing impatient waiting for the cab. Rather than cool the night, the light rain that had fallen on the hot pavement just served to make an otherwise difficult day even worse. An oily steam rose gently from the ground. It was almost midnight and though she had finally stopped crying, she felt alone and hopeless. And she hated herself for it.
“Come on, damnit,” willing the cab to appear, which it did, turning the corner just a block north. She saw the amber glow of its lights mix with the glare of the streetlights and neon hum of the office buildings surrounding her.
She opened the back door to the cab to find the driver, like so many in this city, an immigrant from some indeterminate place.
“Sorry ‘mam,” said the driver.
She told him her destination without acknowledging his apology and pulled the door shut behind her. At least it was cool in the cab.
“The Dispatcher sent another driver but he has car trouble. So they send me. I came as quickly as I could.”
Karen did not want to talk. Not to anyone. Especially not a cab driver that she guessed was from some far away place.
“It is very late to be going to the airport, ‘mam. You must have a very important flight. I will get you there quickly. And safe. Are you travelling on business?”
Good God, Karen thought. Of all the cab drivers I could get in this town this one not only speaks English, he wants to talk.
“No,” was all she replied.
Hassan glanced into the rear view window then returned his attention to the nearly deserted city streets. His glance was sufficient to see a woman in her late thirties, professionally dressed, if a bit damp. He could tell her eyes were swollen as they drove through the well-lighted part of town. Hassan began to ask if she was okay, if he could help, but hesitated.
“So for pleasure then? Where are you going?”
“Look, I just want a quiet ride to the airport, okay? If you could just take me I would appreciate it. Less talk. More tip. Okay?”
“By all means. Yes. Yes, ‘mam.”
Karen let out a sigh of relief and closed her eyes. She was glad to be leaving the city. She was exhausted and the hum of the tires on the damp pavement was soothing. She felt some of the tension leaving her body and tried to let herself relax. Damn her feet hurt. How far had she walked in these heels? She opened her eyes and felt the stare of the cab driver coming through the rear view window.
If the man had not offered her a gentle smile and nod of his head she might have been angered by the man’s intrusion into her rare moment of peace. His eyes seemed genuinely concerned and she began to feel guilty for having spoken harshly to him.
“I’m going home,” she said more gently than before but still wishing it had come out a little softer.
Hassan did not respond, so she added, “To Georgia.”
Hassan nodded. “Very good. Home is a good place to go. I have a cousin in Atlanta. Are you going to Atlanta?”
“Alpharetta. It’s outside of Atlanta. Not far though.
Hassan nodded again. “I have never been to Atlanta. I would like to see my cousin. He has a small store there. I would like to see his children.”
Karen found herself surprisingly willing to talk to this man. Perhaps this was just what she needed. To talk to someone who knew nothing about her, about the events of the last twenty-four hours, suddenly seemed like a gift.
“Why don’t you go and see him?”
“Oh, I cannot afford to do that. I have this job. I have children myself. And a wife. But you, why are you going home? To Alphredah?” He managed to pronounce the name of her hometown with a reasonable approximation of accuracy. Karen laughed to herself, thinking of Fettucine “Alphredah.”
Karen wondered if she should tell the man. What the hell? It was a long drive to the airport and she would never see him again. Besides, he seemed like a nice man. And it had been a while she felt like she had met someone nice. Someone genuine. Odd that it had to be in a cab at midnight.
“It’s just time I guess. This place has just been one heartache after another for me. I can’t do it anymore. I guess I am running away. Or at least running home.”
“I am sorry ‘mam. But going home is good. It is a good thing to go home. I would like to go home. But I cannot.”
“Because of the money?”
“Oh no. Because going home for me would be going back to a terrible place. I guess this is my home now. But the home I was raised in, well, it is a difficult place to leave. Not because you can’t leave, but because it is a hard place to get away from. Once you are away you do not go back. Even though you miss it sometimes.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Oh, do not be sorry for Hassan. I did not leave it so much as I came here. I wasn’t trying to get away as much as I was trying to go to something. It is important in life to go to a thing or a place. The problem with trying to get away from something is that sometimes you just carry everything with you that you are trying to get away from.”
For a moment, Karen found the man’s words irritating. She wondered if he was trying to tell her she was running away. But the wisdom of his words overcame her anger and she found herself quietly nodding and saying “hmmmh?” as she pondered the man’s words.
“But I am sorry ‘mam. You asked for quiet and Hassan is talking too much. I will be quiet. My wife says I talk too much. She is always right.” Hassan smiled, then added, “At least about this she is right. But other things, well…” He shrugged his shoulders.
Karen smiled, grateful for the man’s nuanced sense of humor. They had reached the interstate now and the cab picked up speed. She looked outside to see the moon struggling to escape from behind the clouds. She wondered what it would be like to be up there, so far away, where nothing, or more importantly, no one, could hurt you. She remembered how she used to lay on her back on summer nights and gaze up at the stars over Georgia and dream of flying to the moon and the stars. Life had been perfect then. She thought about what Hassan had said and wondered if she was going to something or trying to get away from something.
“Hassan have you ever heard the saying ‘home is where the heart is?”
“I don’t think so. Home is where home is. And the heart is here.” He tapped his chest.
Karen laughed at his literal interpretation of the aphorism.
“No Hassan, it means that you always carry home with you in your heart. No matter where you go.”
Hassan paused and then acknowledged he understood.
“I see. I don’t know. I guess I think that is right. I just know that home is where home is. Sometimes home is not where you come from but where you are going. Sometimes it is both.”
That almost made Karen’s head hurt. She was tired and asked Hassan to repeat himself, which he did, apologizing that his English might not be so good.
“It’s just that people go looking for a lot of things in the world. For a home. For a place to be. But while they are looking they don’t know that all that they are looking for is right inside them. In their mind. In their heart. They are just to busy looking for something to see it. People have noise in their heads and when head is noisy so is the soul.”
In that moment Karen realized that she had been looking for something. That her soul was noisy from trying to find something, or someone, to set her apart, make her feel better about herself. And in doing that she had sacrificed herself again and again to things that only left her disappointed and now, near broken. It was as if Hassan had been sent specifically to her, at just the right time.
As they pulled into to the passenger drop circle in front of the terminal, Hassan slowed, and eased the cab to the curb.
“How much is my fare, Hassan?”
“Oh, ‘mam. Hassan has forgotten to start the meter. There is no fare to pay.”
“But Hassan, I have to pay you. Won’t you get fired? At least let me give you what you think the fare should have been.” Karen had stepped out of the cab and was leaning into the passenger side window. She held out a fifty-dollar bill.
“No. No ‘mam. It is nothing. The Dispatcher will understand. Have a very good trip going home.” And with that he eased the car back into traffic. Karen stood watching him pull away. How strange, she thought. What a nice man. She turned and headed into the terminal.
A few hundred yards from where Karen had been dropped off, Hassan pulled over to the curb. A man stood there impatiently waiting for a cab. He opened the door to the cab and was greeted by the driver.
“Sorry, sir. The Dispatcher sent another driver but he has car trouble. So they send me. I came as quickly as I could.”