THE GULF • by A. F. White

Thank you for helping me with my term paper, she tells me.

We are seated in the middle of a busy bookstore café. I look at her and tell her the truth, that it was my pleasure and that I was glad I could help.

She smiles, sips some coffee.

I am hypnotized by her dark, brown eyes, and have been since we first met six weeks ago in this same café. Since then we’ve been inseparable as I’ve helped her navigate the intricacies of the English language.

I ask her where she goes from here.

Now I go home, she says, to my husband. I miss him so much, she tells me, and I miss my family.

These words hurt, but I know they shouldn’t.

She talks about her home and what it is like there. I listen intently. I want to know everything there is to know about her and her life. She doesn’t like how things are back in her country and wishes things were different, but I know she feels obligated to return.

I can’t take my eyes off her. She is so beautiful, although I can only see a small part of her beauty. The rest is covered by a soft purple, pink and blue hijab — as beautiful as her penetrating eyes. Her skin, from what I can see, is flawless and reflects the cafe light like the fading evening sun. I want to tell her that I’ve fallen in love with her, that I want her to stay with me, but I hold back, knowing that expressing my love for her can never end well; regardless of how she responds.

She’s younger than me, but I don’t know by how much. Her Facebook page shows a picture of her husband holding their two-year-old daughter. He looks happy. She looks happy. I don’t want to ruin that, but part of me doesn’t care. My own life has been ruined by other men — why can’t I be on the other side for a change? I think about it, but know that’s not who I am. I know what it’s like to be a divorced father and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, including the husband of the woman I love.

She continues on about what it’s like to be a woman in her homeland. I listen, but wonder why she would even want to return. She answers my question without my asking, as if she’s answering it for herself, talking herself into going back.

It’s not bad everywhere, she tells me, just in some places.

I mutter a few encouraging words about change from the inside, but I’m just trying to be polite. I really want to shout out, asking her why the hell she would want to return and why she would want that kind of life for her daughter. But I don’t. I hold back. Besides, I already know the answer. She is going back for her husband.

I am lucky to be offered such a prestigious position, she tells me. Women don’t get jobs like those very often. She takes another sip of coffee. I think about what she said. She is going to be a school principal. I think of all the school principals I know and most of them are women. She can find a job here, I tell myself. I don’t tell her.

We talk for a while about Arab-American relations, especially after 9/11. I try not to fly, she tells me, because it is a hassle. I am often pulled out of line and searched, she explains. I’ve known her for only six weeks, but know in my heart she would never harm anyone; I find myself apologizing for the behavior of my countrymen.

She looks at the time. I have to go, she says. I have to pick up my daughter from the babysitter.

My stomach clenches, but I am brave. I thank her again for her business and wish her luck. I don’t want her to go. I don’t want this to be the end, but I know it is.

We walk out together and I want so badly to reach out and hold her hand, but I don’t. We face each other outside and I know this is good-bye. For good.

I tell her that if things were different, that if she were staying longer, I’d like to get to know her better. I wonder if I see tears in her eyes, but don’t have the time to look. She embraces me in a soft hug, a hug that lingers past the point of a cordial farewell.

A. F. White is a freelance writer/instructional designer living and working in the St Louis area. He has written for companies like GMAC, Edward Jones, and AmerenUE. His work has appeared in Creative Training Techniques, St. Louis Suburban Journals, Every Day Fiction, and Creative Catechist. His short story, “Seeing Sarah,” is available through Amazon for a mere pittance.

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