Six years ago, I was sitting on stiff sheets in a sweltering room, listening to the distant traffic and trying not to let sweat drip onto my field journal. My three coworker-roommates were watching a soap opera at full volume, perched on the other side of the one staff bed. I was sort-of paying attention, knowing that once I could follow the convoluted plot I'd have the language mastered. I was more annoyed that the television had been requisitioned for sappy drama. In the next room, the street-boys I'd come halfway around the world to work with were sprawled out on the cool tiles of the bare living area sleeping or listening to a garbled radio program of ghost stories. They were happy for a dry, safe place to crash and utterly disdainful of the mattresses someone had requisitioned for the program. I didn't blame them. The mattresses already smelled of mold after just a few weeks of rainy-season humidity.
In the eternal dusk of urban night, the last call to prayer sounded over local loudspeakers. A dog's bark echoed down our small alley. A car swept its headlights through the front window. I weighed trying to go to sleep over the screeching television against looking up the translation for 'volume' and attempting a diplomatic request for less of it.
The phone rang. Ari, one of the older street boys who'd been in the program nearly three months tapped the door and stuck his head in.
"Aku?" Nobody called me here. I didn't even know if more than two people had the number. I shuffled out and shut the door against the now-wailing, recently-bereaved soap-star. I saw the whites of wide-eyed five and six year olds in the gloom after lights-out, terrified by the ghost story and egged on in their fear by the older boys. Ari handed me the phone and stood by curiously. I squatted on the floor next to the phone. A familiar voice was urgent on the other line. It was Mrs. Karsi, my host-mother from the first half of my internship. I had to ask her three times to slow down so my brain had time to translate.
"Are you alright?"
"Um, yes. I'm fine."
"Have you spoken to your parents?"
"My parents? No. Did they try to call me there?"
"No. Are they alright?"
"I haven't spoken to them. Did they call you?"
"You should call them."
I was trying to piece it together. Had my parents called me at her house? I had moved into the street boys home several weeks before, and they had my cell phone number. Was something wrong? Was someone sick, and in the rush they had called the old number? I felt my breath growing short. Ari asked what was wrong. I shrugged my shoulders and asked him to make the little boys turn down their ghost story. A sharp command later, and a sea of dark faces were looking up at me. Apin grabbed my hand. I waved them silent.
"Did you talk to them? Did they call you there?"
"No! No! Is the television on?"
"Yes. The girls are watching a soap opera. What's wrong?"
"There was an airplane crash in America."
I laughed with relief. "They are not flying today. America is a big place, like here. Where was the plane crash?"
"Near the big house!"
"Near the big house? There are lots of big houses."
"The big house! The biggest one." I racked my brain. Big house? Hollywood?
"They don't live near any big houses."
"No! No! The biggest house. The house painted white. Yes! The house that is white!"
"Oh! The House that is White. No, they don't live near there. I'm sure my family is safe."
"You should call them to be sure. Ok? They would want you call them. Right away."
"Ok. Thank you. I will call them." I hung up and told the boys it was nothing, sent them back to their ghost story. They wandered back into the darkness, and the garbled radio-voice fired up again. How sweet that my host-mother was worried enough about an airplane crash in my home country to call me. What a relief that there was nothing actually wrong, nothing to worry about. I slipped back into the staff room, where Norma asked, "Who was it?"
"There was an airplane crash in America's Capitol. Mama Karsi was worried about my parents."
Karima looked at me, grudgingly. "Do you want us to turn on the news?" I could see the soap coming back on over her shoulder.
"Nah. No big deal. My family isn't near there. I'll call them tomorrow."
I slipped my field journal under the bed, pulled my sarong over my arms and head against mosquitoes and settled down to get some sleep.