Deep in the crevices of Pristina, Kosovo is a small corner cafe where I would sneak off to Skype with my mom. It was a refuge for when I was caught in my can’t-win days. Those ones where the desk papers stacked to the ceiling- penned in a language I do not speak- on a subject I still do not get. On these days, I longed for a listening ear from a familiar face. A reassuring nod that let me imagine I could catch the sight of land.
One afternoon, she was chatting with me from the family room couch when a young black kid carrying a sandwich passed behind her; so casual as if he lived there.
“Wait, wait, hold on. Who is that?”
“Who? Him?” The screen shook and buffered until slowly, it focused and I saw him again- a deer in headlights chewing on a PB&J.
“This is a new addition to our family! He’s staying in the spare bedroom upstairs. ”
“New” was the key word here, because my mom had done this before, a couple times actually. She can’t turn away because she doesn’t know how. It’s one of the things I love most about her.
Now knowing him and his story- I can’t believe anyone ever could.
Two weeks after his birth she abandoned him. She abandoned him in Liberia because being an American was more important than being a mom.
“I don’t think I fit into her plans” he would later tell me.
Stepping into the gap was his gentle and gracious grandmother. She was the one that drew out his first word, toughed out his tantrums and taught him how to crawl and walk and run.
He was hers and she was his, until a phone call came from a world away came. It was her and she had changed her mind. And at the age of six, he left Africa for Minnesota to meet a mother he had no memory of. Twelve years later, she would remind him why. A brief argument with his mom’s husband had him running for the exits. She stayed silent as he kicked him out because a husband was, again, more important than being a mom.
So touched by this tragedy was my mom that she carved out a corner of our house for him to stay, as long as he wanted to.
And it didn’t take very long for him and I to hit it off. We shared in this sarcastic rapport that really few could ever understand. But we understood it and that’s all that really matters in a friendship anyway.
He was a member of the family now and I felt like I had to come out to him. Too much time had been spent already in whispered talks with my folks and frantic shelving of Justin Lee and Andrew Marin books whenever he came into the room. I was tired of it, and ready for whatever came.
On a drive to work with little courage and a lot of rambling and reciting of old lines, we finally crossed that bridge. As usual, my expectations were far better than I imagined (making me wonder why I ever even have them). He was unbelievably understanding and handled my confession with care, making me cherish every mile of that drive.
Parking in front of his work, he opened the door and started sliding out… But he turned back. Looking like he’d forgotten something, he stared up at me and said,
“I feel like crying”
I wasn’t sure why until I came home later that night.
Him and my parents had had a talk.
Perhaps somewhere between Africa and the curb he was kicked to, he owned every desertion like a limping leg. Forever he would drift through the windows and doors of this life, just passing through as he always had. Never stopping, never joining, always a foreigner. From an old country and a new parent, to fleeing his own front porch.
But all it took was three little words to let him know that there was another stranger sleeping two doors down. A different kind of foreigner. An outcast bearing the burden of an easy target on his back. Someone else juggling others’ expectations of him. Different and delinquent and always denied dignity. The humiliated that had knocked his knuckles red on doors that would never open.
When he got home from work that night, he looked at my mom and called this house home. A safe haven. A boardinghouse for the bruised reeds. The turf where he was trusted with such secrets. Secrets that rooted him here, to this family, and to me.
To all of us, just searching for some glimpse of land.