He answers me in carefully measured words.
He’s been in America for less than a year. By luck of fate, we find ourselves sitting in the emergency waiting room, two strangers tossed together because someone we both know is in triage. A crisis throws us together, and we sit side by side in a bubble of awkwardness.
To fill the empty space, I ask him how he likes America. His eyes are guarded, and he retreats behind the curtain of politeness. He thinks that I want him to say that he loves it here, that his life is now miraculously wonderful and that he is so glad to have left _____ (his home country) behind. It’s the answer he is expected to give by most people who ask him.
But I want to know what he really feels, so I ask a different question: what does he miss most about _____.
The transformation is instantaneous. His face brightens and he says without hesitation: his house. He goes on to tell me about how there is a courtyard in the center of the house, quiet and peaceful. He talks about the garden there, and how grapes grow and shade them in the summer.
He pulls out his phone, and scrolls through endless pictures of his life, stopping on a special memory now and then, sharing with me his old world. He finally finds the photo he is looking for, the courtyard.
The walls surrounding the courtyard are painted a light blue. They are soothing and friendly like the summer sky. In one corner stands a trellis and pergola, for the grape vines, of course. We talk about the beauty of grapes and I tell him about the raisins-on-the-vine I saw here, imported from Middle East. It’s silly talk, really, just words to fill the air. Or is it?
I look at his face, and it is obvious he is back home in that courtyard. It is simple, and yet through his words, it has been transformed into a lush corner of peace, as grand as the manicured gardens of Italy or France. It is a change to the usual images of war and destruction of his country that we are fed daily on television, and I welcome it.
He also shows me pictures of food and meals back home. He is proud of the kubbeh he has made. He is giving me a virtual tour of his country, and I am touched. He says that he would like to go back one day but he knows it is not possible.
The medical emergency is over, and it is time for me to leave. We say our goodbyes, and wish each other well. As I start the car engine, I think about him and his story.
I drive away and wonder if his house is still there. Have the grape vines survived his absence? I imagine those blue walls and warm summer skies. I hope one day he will see them again, to reclaim all the things he left behind.