My flight is late, and so the ride I arranged to take me to my hotel has been circling for hours. He sounds relieved and exasperated when I get him on the phone. He tells me to wait for him near the taxi stand, that he will pick me up in a white van. I dutifully stand, waiting for him, until I begin to think that maybe I have stood in the wrong place. I pull out my phone to see if he has called, and while I am absorbed in that activity, he pulls up. I look up and see the white van. I walk towards him, and he grabs my bag and throws it in the trunk.
He walks around and opens the side door for me to climb in the van. It reminds me of the van my parents had when we were kids, except it smells like incense and has several leis hanging from the rearview mirror.
I scoot in, put my backpack beside me, and put on my seatbelt. He climbs into the driver’s seat, and we take off. He weaves in and out of traffic, coming up quickly on other cars and then cutting over to the next lane at the last minute. It makes me nervous, and I try not to watch.
He begins to ask me a lot of questions. Where am I from, where is my family, why am I here, what do I do for a living. When I tell him I write articles about education for a newspaper he says, “Oh, you are smart.”
I don’t know how to respond, so I just laugh nervously. I tell him that that’s why I am here, in California—to attend a conference for work to talk about how to improve education.
He asks me about my life in Portland, whether I miss my family, whether or not I have a community there. I tell him that moving to Portland was the best decision I’ve made so far, and I get to see my family pretty often anyway, and that yes, I have a strong community of friends in the city. I mention my boyfriend and the fact that we’ve been together for a long time now.
“Is it serious?” he asks me.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Are you going to get married?” he says.
I laugh. “I don’t know. We have some differences that I think might separate us eventually,” I say.
“Really?” he asks, incredulously, raising his eyebrows and looking me in the eye through the rear-view mirror.
I laugh again, “Yeah, you know. I want a family, he doesn’t.” Why I feel compelled to tell him these personal details of my life, I don’t know.
“Every man wants his own kids,” he tells me.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I really don’t think he does. He has lots of nieces and nephews to play with, and he enjoys being able to give them back at the end of the day.”
The man laughs. I am starting to feel uncomfortable about how many questions he is asking, so I turn it around to him.
“What about you?” I ask back defensively.
“Oh, it’s too late for me,” he says. “I have a wife already, three kids.”
He talks to me about California, how expensive it is to live. “I have a roommate,” he says. “You can’t do it otherwise. I could never afford it on my own.”
He lives alone, he explains, his family back in Tunisia where he comes from.
“Do you know anything about Tunisia?” he asks me.
Pretty much the only thing I know is roughly where Tunisia lies on a map, and so I say, “A little bit” which is more an exaggeration than anything.
He nods his head. “Well, you know, all the craziness two years ago…”
I look at him, puzzled.
“You didn’t hear?” He asks, with the same wide-eyed, raised eyebrow expression. “I thought you were smart! You don’t read the news?”
I begin to feel ashamed, and my cheeks turn red. “What happened?” I ask.
“Arab Spring!” he says, exasperated.
“Ohhhh,” I say. “Yes, of course,” red-faced and shamed.
“Tunisia was where it started,” he tells me. “It was mostly peaceful there. The president left quickly. But then you have Libya, and of course, Syria, where it is still going on.”
He gets quiet.
“I have not been back in two years,” he tells me.
“That must be hard,” I say. He nods.
“Yes, it is. But the best part is, I go back in two weeks,” he says, his face breaking into a wide grin.
“My littlest one, she is one and a half now,” he tells me. “I left while my wife was still pregnant. I haven’t met her. And my other girl, she is 2 and a half.”
He pauses, and then says, “This is the best age. And I am not there. Sometimes I wonder why I am here. What I am doing. But …” he trails off, then adds, quietly, “that is life.”
I cannot think of anything to say to this man. His world is so much bigger than mine, and yet I am the one being taken to a resort as an excuse for work, while he is the one driving me around. He is fluent in three languages. He moved to the U.S. knowing no English at all, and now we are having a full-fledged, in-depth conversation. I feel humbled in his presence, ashamed of my ignorance and privilege.
“Why did you want move to the United States?” I ask him.
He clicks his teeth, weighing how to answer.
“There are no jobs in Tunisia,” he says. “The president left, but took all the money. There is nothing left there. We are a small country. It is hard.”
I realize that this man never truly wanted to move to this country but was forced to through circumstance. I find it ironic that even in a recession when you can’t go one day without hearing about the unemployment rate, the United States is considered an easier place to get jobs than others.
“I work all day long and send money back to my family,” he says. “Luckily my wife doesn’t have to work. She raises the kids. She works so hard. I don’t know how she does it.”
I feel the same way about him. We pull up to the hotel, and I pay him.
“Thank you so much,” I say. “Good luck with your travels.”
He smiles and waves, but a doorman from the hotel is already talking to me. I look up and realize that all five or six of the doormen are wearing matching baby blue argyle sweater vests and golf caps. The doorman grabs my bags from the back of the taxi and walks me into the hotel, explaining the various amenities at my disposal, and sweeping me into a world of pressed sheets and elaborate flower displays—somewhere so different from where I had just been that it was hard to believe such disparate realities could exist at the same time together. I thank the doorman and decline his offer to carry my bags to the front desk for me.
“If there’s anything I can get for you, my name is Daniel, and I would be happy to help,” he says enthusiastically.
I smile, uncomfortable with this amount of attention. “Thanks,” I say again.
Later, in my room, while I sit on a plush pillow-topped mattress in front of a TV fireplace, I google ‘Tunisia’ and click on its Wikipedia page. I read about the tiny country in Northern Africa from the time of the Fertile Crescent to the political turmoil it currently faces. I read about the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi that sparked the riots and demonstrations across the country and became the catalyst for the Arab Spring. I think about sacrifice and working toward a better future, privilege and the shoulders that I stand on. I think about living half a world away from your own children, and the advice that Junot Diaz gave me at a reading in Northern Virginia before he blew up and won the Pulitzer Prize. “Fall in love on two continents,” he said. “Until then, you cannot be a writer.”