A single unattended bag caused more than an inconvenience for its owner on the Nord-Süd-Bahn in Berlin.
My family of five stuck out like a sore thumb in the streets of foreign countries. Mot for lack of trying to be chameleon. Wed had such enhancements installed as language schooling (my father claimed he could speak German like a Deutschlander), nondescript clothing (the waiters didnt have a clue we were tourists when we had a five-hundred dollar meal in fanny packs), and the cool, impregnable faces of the weather-worn world travelers we were.
Londons underground hadnt experienced a suicide bombing in weeks, but we could still feel how wide our eyes had been, glued to the television screen, hoping we wouldnt glimpse the carnage, and yet unable to look away. We boarded the Nord-Süd-Bahn, full from a German fast-food feast of brats and unnaturally-thin fries, and dreading yet another day of trudging through museums like the floor were tar and we had trouble detaching our soles. I only felt apathy towards the Berlin walls significance, and I doubted my siblings even knew what it was. At 13:52, the S-Bahn stopped, and a coffee-skinned man named Kassim stepped on and grabbed hold of the metal bar my mother and I clung to with dry, unaffected palms. Kassim told my mother he was from Lebanon, and lived with his brother in Munich. My mother returned our life story, how wed just moved from Bahrain the year before, how beautiful that area was, how lovely the people. I trained my eyes on the floor, wishing I were back in the hotel room.
At 13:56, I noticed the bag.
Navy blue, duffel. Ingeniously similar to every other bag Id seen in my life and paralyzing for just that reason. Fresh-faced, enthusiastic Kassim asked me a question in his parodied accent and I gave some answer, fixated on x-raying the vinyl of the bag to see its contents with my naked eyes. I prayed that no one would walk to another seat and stumble on it. I prayed that I was being stupid and paranoid. I prayed that I would live to laugh at myself and tell this story at dinner parties with ironic lips.
At 14:00, the train stopped, and all but my family and four passengers exited the S-Bahn, including Kassim. I waved to him with sweaty palms and he beamed at me. I wondered if he would go home and tell stories about the American family he talked to on the train. I wondered if he cared about us at all, if he always smiled that warmly. I wondered if kind people could want to kill if they thought it was the right thing to do. I wondered if that smile was Kassims way of saying, Sorry I have to blow you up. You seem like good people for infidels.
My father motioned for us to sit in the now-vacant seats. They felt like they were upholstered in industrial carpet.
I stared at the bag, now just a few steps in front of my feet.
I stared at our fellow passengers. There was an Indian woman, young, with thick, curly hair, a dot on her forehead, somehow squeezed into skinny jeans. She leaned her head against the window and looked at the passing blackness, not at the bag.
There was an old African man in a business suit with salt-and-pepper hair, carrying a briefcase. I thought, if the duffel bag didnt already have my attention, I would be terrified of that briefcase. It occurred to me that I, like Al-Qaeda, had been brainwashed. I tried to think about sailing boats in Kiel and ignore the bag in front of us. It was filled with gym shorts and sweaty socks. A Barbie doll and multi-colored sandals.
Then my mom saw it, too. Her fists clenched until her joints popped, and she swallowed. Is that yours? she asked the Indian woman, pointing at the bag. I was half afraid the bag would explode just from being talked about and squeezed my eyes shut. But the woman just said, No, and took a few steps away. Now the three of us stared at it, me, my mother, the Indian woman. It rocked with the rattling of the train and I wanted to press it to my chest to stop its movement and keep us safe, but I couldnt move. I could see Kassims face in all of our eyes, the victim of our blind, desperate fear that we shouted though we could not articulate it.
The jaundiced African man got off at the next stop. I wanted to bolt, to run away from the sickly-cheery recorded voices declaring the stops in four languages and the sweating palms of my mother and the twitching fingers of the Indian woman. My father obliviously chatted at us how cool Kiel had been. He modeled his jacket, handmade from a sail, without encouragement other than Yeah, great, and a strained smile.
We three women shared a secret that knew no racial boundaries. We all held a culprit in our minds, short, fat, thin, young, tall, turbaned, thick-eye browed, dark, light, menacing. Kind, enthusiastic, smiling warmly. I wondered who the face of terrorism was in India, or Germany. All I knew was the so-called Axis of Evil, and that I remained the poster child for Satan in some countries.
We got off the train shaking but alive, leaving an innocent, unattended bag sitting just inside the automatic doors.
A Slightly Cheesy Disclaimer: This essay was not written to offend anyone of any race, nationality, or religious belief. I have lived in many countries across the world and have made life-long friends in each, and would stand by them anywhere and support them in anything. I hope this essay stands as a sort of confession of my own shame-faced contribution to the world's tenuous hold on civilization, and I hope that anyone who reads it will reflect on their own instances of fear not of a person, but of a people, which is a generalization that I think the world cannot afford if we are all going to live in peace.
I feel like something's missing in it, though. Like it didn't quite get across that point. Thoughts?