She was always waiting for good-bye.
Her room changed. Different bed, different windows, different scenes.
Bontoc mountains with green rice terraces, clothes waving from red rebars sticking out from flat concrete roofs, pig squeals, roosters competing, and the boy who played guitar. Shanghai lights, tall buildings, a golden fish pond, magnolias, and if the smog wasn’t bad, the Pearl Tower pinch-tall in the distance. Bright Honduran houses, cowboy men with big hats and long machetes, a tethered donkey waiting with a load of coffee for Principal Perdomo to process.
The suitcases were always there. Shoved under the bed in the Philippines, on top of the wardrobe in Shanghai, in the closet in the dorm room, crowding her relatives’ porch, lurking in the corner of her room in Honduras.
A turquoise hard rollercase scuffed from hallways with United paper luggage tags still hanging from the handle. It was still half-packed. Underwear, socks, a hoodie for cold bus rides, a sketchbook, pencils, the necessities. It would make next time easier.
A big olive green duffle bag. When they had got them for the first trip when she was seven, she could lay down in it, all stretched out. They joked about smuggling her on the plane that way and saving a ticket. Back when children didn’t have to take off their shoes in security and she was so very proud of her butterfly socks. It was still almost too-heavy for her to carry but too small to carry a life. Something always had to be left behind.
The good-bye always came. She would move or they would leave. Always different missions, different schools, different homes, different places.
At first, it meant friendships were faster. There wasn’t time to dance around with weather and false ‘How are you?’s. It was straight into laughter, intense Dutch Blitz, neverending Egyptian War on rainy days, trying kimchi and balut, and slipping into deep stories meant for years later on safe, dark evenings but she didn’t have anyone else to tell them to.
And then they’d leave.
There would be cards and email addresses written on scraps of paper. Hugs and promises to keep connected because they were going to be such great friends and one day, she would go visit them in their home, or they would visit her in her first country and she would show them snow for the first time, and they would go sledding and icefishing, and make snowmen and snowangels, and drink hot chocolate. She could show them the sunset over her Great Lake and the waves breaking and freezing over the striped lighthouses.
But papers got lost. And emails came and then stuttered to an end. And memories. Memories didn’t stay either. She forgot names and only had faces, and even those blurred.
It hurt. It was dangerous to open your heart too quickly, to let it leak and spill. The warmth of words told in confidence on gentle nights left her cold and empty. Roots put down too hungrily, twisted, tangled, and ripped up.
She grew tired of it, stopped saying hello. Because if you didn’t say hello, then there could be no goodbyes. And it wouldn’t hurt. Because she wouldn’t care.
She wouldn’t care at all.
And that would be ok. She could still be nice, just keep her mouth shut and nod. Control yourself. Don’t get attached.
She put headphones in. Music was better than thoughts sometimes. “And if your home is just another place where you’re a stranger, and far away is just someplace you’ve never been, I hope you will remember I was your friend.”*
She read. Got new friends who were always in the same pages in their assigned places on the shelf and she could flip to them whenever she wanted.
But she was wrong.
Ripping out roots tore but no roots withered.
They were good, the people she left and the people who left her behind.
She remembered the peace of Bella’s shuttle swiping through and the clack of her feet on her loom under the porch. And she doesn’t remember what they talked about other than Bella was from a different place and had to get one of the neighbors to teach her Can-eo weaving and Bella’s husband worked on the roads. But that’s where she learned serenity and the beautiful complexity of thousands of threads becoming one pattern. And that’s still her version of peace, sitting in shadow under a concrete house, watching a Filipina woman weave.
She remembered learning chopsticks with clumsy, frenzied enthusiasm, practicing with popcorn at home. And the joy of being able to fold the rice in the dark seaweed and eat without prompting her Korean friends to search for a spoon.
She remembered swinging her legs over the church balcony, staring at the abandoned building next door, and chatting with Rhealyn, Roselyn, and Charmaine. The first who made her feel that there were people who could like her for her and not for her family. She still has the bracelet they gave her. It took her a long time to look at it again. It’s broken, but it’s there.
One can not live in goodbye.
There’s the girl from church long ago, curly-haired, tall, nice. She wanted to be her before. They emailed for a while but ran out of things to say. Perhaps they could have been friends if they were together. She sees her sometimes on Facebook, still riding horses, now working at a therapeutic equine center, still nice, and she’s glad.
She starts saying “hello” again.
She goes back to where people speak the same language even if they don’t mean the same thing. Sometimes, that’s more confusing. She finds an apartment, unpacks every box left behind in her first country, and she hides the suitcases. She works to meet her neighbors. They exchange numbers, call each other to go on walks and drink tea. Somebody tells her about the art fair this summer. She says she will come.
She is still waiting for goodbye. But not yet. And she’s stopping herself from saying it too soon. For now, she is here. She can feel it sometimes, shriveling from her toes at that thought of uprooting again. But the hello’s are worth the good-bye’s.
*”What Susan Said” by Rich Mullins