July 21, 2018

A snow-covered deck and tree

It was raining, of course. The bus rolled along the main road, its foggy windows obscuring a view of neatly painted buildings, impeccable lawns, clean streets, and shiny vehicles. I didn’t know much about Stockholm, but at least I knew the corner of the city where my student accomodation was. I knew enough to know that I was better off in the bus. When the rain came, with it came my enemies: bloated earthworms pushing out of the soaked earth. As they came up through the cracks in the pavement, they enjoyed nothing more than becoming intimately acquainted with the soles of my boots.

Across the aisle in the bus sat a kindly woman, smiling uncertainly, who began almost as soon as I got on the bus to try to communicate with me. In halting English, she made polite conversation and then, very simply, explained her dilemma. She needed, on this dank and dark night, a place to sleep: she was homeless. Perhaps it was her kindliness or her sincerity that prompted me to say okay. I wonder now whether I connected with her because she was so obviously out of place, so far from home, and so in need of a friend - as I was. All I know is that we alighted and trudged up to my little room together.

Elizabeth told me her story as we dried off and settled down for sleep. Indonesia was half a world away, and it was the home from which she had fled for her life. The details of her story are, no doubt, scribbled in some dusty journal I've forgotten about. I remember Elizabeth telling me that her father had sacrificed everything they had to protect her and get her out of an unbearable life. She had fled alone, leaving her family with nothing. I sensed her relief at having escaped danger, coupled with the constant grief of knowing that she’d never be able to return to her homeland and loved ones again.

I don’t remember whether I even gave her food that night. I clearly recall watching her deftly make herself a bed on the floor with the extra blankets I gave her. Her movements were sure and precise, and she worked with the air of someone about to sleep on a feather mattress - so grateful, so graceful. I remember lying in my own bed thinking how crazy I was being. I lay there wondering what on earth I was going to do with her the next day, but nevertheless feeling a sense of peace, and that I had done the right thing.

I all but bolted away from my house guest the next morning at the train station. A foreign student on the opposite side of the world from home simply did not take in a homeless stranger. People just didn’t do things like that. Life was not that straightforward. There were rules and regulations and expectations. Random people down on their luck were no business of exchange students. Who knew whether or not she was even in the country legally?! In the cold light of day, I was in a total panic about what I’d done. My good deed lost all its warmth and I could feel only dread. I didn’t want to harm Elizabeth, but I couldn’t let her stay another night. It just wasn’t the thing to do.

I recall Elizabeth’s eager demeanor as she waited for me on the appointed train platform that evening. With pitch black hair and the complexion of one who had grown up in beautiful sunshine, she stood out in the press of people, small as she was. Elizabeth clutched a shopping bag of belongings - her only earthly possessions. I can still hear the bustle of thousands of city people, busily, actively ignoring one another in the grip of rush hour. In a world where a train coming 30 seconds late was considered a catastrophe, how little it mattered to them that I had my own little crisis playing out in front of their unseeing eyes. I’ll always be grateful that I didn’t chicken out and leave her there waiting for me.

Elizabeth turned toward me and her expression brightened. A look of relief crossed her face as she held my hands with a delicate touch and asked about my day. I answered mechanically and then choked out the words, “I am so, so, sorry, but I can’t let you stay with me.” Her face fell and I saw fear replace relief. It was the same fear as was in my heart - fear about whether she’d be okay, whether a shelter would take her, whether she’d be in danger of being sent back to her unbearable life. I explained that I wasn’t in a position to house people, that I, too, was a guest in this country, one who had to play by the rule book. Into her hands I placed my meager offering, prepared with great care: a few necessities, money for two nights at a women’s shelter, a book for comfort, and a little note from me to her. But what was that when what she needed was a friend, a family, a home? What was that in the face of uncertainty, loneliness, and rejection?

That night, my own personal rainstorm washed the impeccably clean city cobblestones. I wandered out of the subway, heedless of the driving arctic wind above ground, tears all but freezing on my cheeks. If anyone on the street noticed my emotion, they did what they were so good at doing and pretended otherwise.

How hard life sometimes makes it for people to be there for other people. How distant and business-like it demands we be toward other souls. No passing stranger could have reached out to comfort me that night. Perhaps one felt compassion; perhaps one wanted to ask if I needed help. Perhaps one of them wouldn’t have minded taking me in, sharing a warm drink, and hearing about my friend, Elizabeth. But there were no social mechanisms for such a display. It just wasn’t the thing to do.

The bounds were set and we, none of us, passed.

(A 2008 Memory)