I am four or five years old. My father dropped me off at my best friend Austin's house. I remember playing with him for what must have been a whole afternoon. Something was wrong and I knew it deep inside of me, but was only a child. I could play with the toys and whisper conspiratorially to Austin and most of the time ignore the unsettling feeling in my tummy. Then, Gabriel* came. I had known him as long as I could remember, which maybe was two years, maybe one. He had a long curling mustache, a shiny bald head surrounded by a ring of short hair, and gentle eyes.
He told Austin's mommy that my mommy couldn't pick me up so he would take me to her. Gabriel is my mother's dearest friend in the world. They worked on cruise ships together. I think he was a captain. He reminds me of my grandfather, Hy, who could catch butterflies in his hands and show them to me.
Gabriel asks Austin's mommy if she has any water or juice for me, then asks for a book or two for me to read in the car. Traffic is terrible and the trip will take an hour or more. I wonder if he should ask for all those things. I think maybe Austin's mommy will get mad, but Gabriel speaks to her with his quiet voice and Iranian accent in such nice words that I wonder why she should be.
He buckles me in to the backseat of his Mercedes with my books and my juice and my water. I feel like a princess. I feel safe and cherished with him. I still don't know why Gabriel had to come and get me. Perhaps my parents were fighting and that's why my dad didn't drop me off at my mother's house. Or maybe my dad dropped me off earlier than expected and my mom had to work. They had only been divorced for a year. It was messy.
There would be other times, when Gabriel wasn't there. When my father would disappear for a week, leaving me with my new stepmother Mary. I wasn't allowed to talk to my mom on the phone. No one would tell me where daddy was (he was on business travel) and why I couldn't go home to mommy (an argument about child support). I wondered why I hadn't gone home yet, and in the middle of the living room, staring down at the dark wooden floors while Mary cooked dinner, I wondered if it was because my mother was dead and no one was telling me. Gabriel wasn't there when I was dropped off in the rear entrance of the parking lot because my mother had gotten a judge to issue a late night "habeus corpus."
I remember the time when daddy and Mary fought in the parking lot of an airport and daddy and I left on a different flight home and I forgot my favorite pair of shoes in Mary's car....never to see them again.
But when Gabriel was there, he always spoke in soft tones and brought me pretty presents, like a tiny, pink marble piano that played music. He would remind me--much to my chagrin--the story of when I was two and fell asleep under the glass coffee table with my butt sticking in the air. He would smoke pipes or a cigar, something that had a thick, bittersweet aroma that enveloped the room.
He would tell me that his family had lived on the same parcel of land in Iran for centuries and that once, when digging up the garden with his father they found chain mail that belonged to a crusader. I imagined him in his family's garden at sunset, surrounded by jasmin and the mingling sounds of a bubbling fountain and the call to prayer.
All the tension and anger and sadness in our lives disappeared whenever Gabriel was there, he was water and all exotic things and peace.
Then, he moved away, back home. Now he is sick.
Every once in a while, I'll pick up the phone and my spine will tingle...like a voice from the past I'll hear his voice, so gentle and reassuring even now. The line will crackle and echo. He tells me he had a dream of us and wanted to make sure everything was OK. I have no idea how much the call probably costs, or whether it's safe for him to be calling us.
And my heart will climb to my throat and I'll try to convey to him in the few minutes we have how much we love him. I tell him everything's fine...I leave out the truth, that I've been deeply torn about some life decisions lately and mom hasn't been feeling well and I'm worried about her. I just want him to know that we think of him often--that we pray he'll feel better soon.
He says to keep talking until his calling card runs out and I am desperate to tell him good things...I mention I'm a writer now and very happy with my new job. He says "ooh!" with such pleasure and the line goes dead. I hope that he'll be smiling now and remembering the little girl drooling asleep on the carpet and wondering where time went. I hope he'll carry that news with him and be proud of it.
I'll stay on a bit longer listening to silence just in case and hang up reluctantly. I feel hot tears on my face. The long-distance number I wrote frantically in black sharpie on the newspaper looks blurry.
The distance between us seems larger than miles and political tensions...it seems infinite, inpregnable. I think to myself how maybe this is the last time. Maybe I'll never hear from him again. I feel like I've lost something precious that I carried with me unknowingly my whole life. I think how very lucky that little girl was to have an angel in her life like him.
*Name has been changed.