When the sun rose and the airport filled with travelers, my brother and I headed to our gate, ready to leave the extreme heat of Tunisia and get back to Europe after a quick detour. When we arrived, we saw a huge crowd filling the area and a long line for boarding stretched from wall to wall. Without realizing that our tickets did not give assigned seats, we waited for the line to go down and approached the gate, which would lead us outside where we were to walk up the actual stairs of the plane. We were the last passengers boarding, so there was no chance we would be able to find seats together, right? Wrong. I knew my brother enough to know there was a plan. I got a quick nudge on the shoulder and a whisper in my ear: “Ann, I’m special needs and you are my helper. Go.” There it was. He gave me no chance to resist before he put his head down and went mute. Thanks a lot. As I put my hand on his shoulder, I thought about my inevitable afterlife destination below and boarded the plane. With no help from Joey, I played charades with a seated passenger for a few minutes before a light bulb of comprehension went off and he got up. The man was barely out of his seat before my brother plopped down, brought his head back up, and gave me his signature smirk. Mission accomplished.
A tap on the shoulder came from a tall, middle-aged man with dark skin. I looked up from my position on the carpeted floor, startled, but curious at the same time. I couldn’t think of what he could want from me. At first, the man tried a French greeting with no luck, moved on to Italian- our ticket’s departure read Genoa, so I saw the connection- and finally, brow furrowed and seemingly unsure of his next move, looked to my sleeping brother. I gave Joey a shove and repeated his name as the curious Tunisian joined in. Pointing at my brother, I said, “hermano.” Spanish? Worth a try, I guess. Joey’s eyes opened and he jumped up, hitting his sleepy head on a table of the vacant dining area along the way. The man motioned for my brother to follow him and Joey complied. I, on the other hand, sat frozen in the same position for what felt like a lifetime. I urged my phone to read anything but No Service, knowing full well that no magical bars were going to pop up in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. There were no other white faces around and the English language seemed non-existent on this boat. How did I not notice any of this before? By the time the pair returned, I had envisioned everything from my kidnapping to my funeral. The movie Taken flashed through my mind, the only difference lay in the fact that my father practiced law, not crazy, ex-CIA-type stunts like Liam Neeson. And what would they do with Joey? He could probably pass as a Tunisian, right? Escape and live on to tell the tale of his blonde little sister that just couldn’t cut it? I also kept picturing the look on the faces of my parents when they learned that their two middle children took a 24-hour ferry to Africa without telling a soul. It turned out, though, that our new friend just wanted to offer us the extra bed in his room. We called him Bene, unaware that his repeated use of the word only meant that he thought we spoke Italian. My brother slept with a makeshift handkerchief-tied-to-metal-water-bottle weapon, and in the morning, Bene brought us bread and showed us pictures of his children on his iPhone.
From a young age, we are taught that strangers can be dangerous. Plenty of parents warn children against talking to strangers, refuse to let them play outside without adult supervision, and keep them at their side while department store-shopping. They can’t help but picture their child on the side of a milk carton, and that’s because other people’s children have ended up on a milk carton. We women have all been told never to leave a drink unattended, walk alone at night through a dark alley, or pick up strangers on the side of the road. We avoid these situations so bad things don’t happen to us, and that’s because bad things have happened to other women. We are taught that strangers can be dangerous, and that’s because they can. But what we have to learn for ourselves, even if it means half trusting our gut and half planning our own funeral in the process, is that strangers, even if they are from a foreign land, even if they don’t speak the same language, and even if they definitely have the upper hand in the situation, can also be kind, giving, wonderful, harmless individuals that we just haven’t met yet.