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Surprise at the Terminal (Revised)*

She sat by herself in a corner of the airport terminal, beat-up purple backpack at her feet, and an equally beat-up CD player sitting in her lap. The set of headphones covering her ears had seen better days, gray duct tape the only thing holding them together. A pair of faded jeans bearing evidence of a recent bleach spill covered her legs, and a baggy t-shirt and boldly striped flannel hung over her shoulders.

Other passengers waiting in the terminal gave her a wide berth, but she seemed oblivious to them, her head bobbing and her lips moving in time to her music. Whoever this girl was, it was clear she was on her own and she preferred it that way.

I don't know what brought me to sit down beside her. Maybe it was seeing other people walk past her, or maybe it was the antisocial stance she seemed to exude. Whatever it was, I never could have predicted what she did when I sat down.

A bright smile crossed this girl's pixie-ish face and the headphones came off as I settled my carry-on bag at my feet. When I straightened up for what I expected to be a silent wait, it was a pleasant surprise to see her looking at me with that smile when I sat back up.

"Heidi," she said, extending her hand in greeting. "And you are?"

"Jordan," I replied, shaking it briefly. "It's nice to meet you."

"Ditto." Heidi's smile widened. "Where are you headed?"

"Chicago." I looked down at my carry-on - a laptop case. I'm a newspaper reporter and I was on assignment. Some big guy originally from my city was set to make a major announcement there, and I was assigned the story. This was my first assignment out of town. I could not mess this up.

"Cool." Heidi nodded. "I'm going to Boston."

I had not asked, but something about Heidi said I needed to find out more than where she was going. Something beyond her immediate appearance let me know it would be worthwhile to talk to her - beyond the smile animating her face and the light dancing in her otherwise ordinary brown eyes.

So I sat with Heidi and listened as she willingly shared her story. My tape recorder was in the bag with my laptop, but I never dug it out - I will always remember her story. She laughingly said her entire life to this point was a cliché, but the more I listened, the less I agreed with her.

Heidi is a survivor, armed with a quick wit and joyful optimism like I have never seen in my lifetime. She is a survivor of the foster care system, never knowing anything but a life of constant upheaval as the state moved her from home to home. Given her circumstances, the confidence she showed was difficult for me to understand - especially when she told me why she was going to Boston.

Heidi's reasons were twofold - she was starting her freshman year at Boston College and she was reuniting with her mother's family.

“I hear they have a lot of money,” she told me, laughing. “But I don’t really care. I just want to know about my parents.”

“And you can forgive them for leaving you there?” I had to ask. Forgiveness was something I struggled with, and Heidi’s willingness to do so despite her abandonment astonished me.

“They didn’t know about me.” Heidi shrugged. “Besides, holding onto a grudge would only make me bitter.”

A voice came over the speakers, calling my flight. I was disappointed to hear it because I still didn’t understand Heidi and was sure I wouldn’t see her again. But Heidi surprised me for the second time that day. She pulled a pen and paper out of her backpack and scrawled something down on it before folding it and handing it to me.

“This way you can get a hold of me,” she said.

I didn’t look at the paper until after my flight had taken off, and I smiled when I saw what Heidi had written - her name and school box number, along with, “Can’t wait to finish the conversation, Jordan.” I knew, as I folded the paper up again and put it carefully in my pocket, I would write her, because our conversation was one I would never forget.

* This is a revised version of an entry originally written for the FaithWriters Writing Challenge, week of February 21, 2005.

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