Yusuf took my hand in both of his. He shook it earnestly and said, "Thank you for hospitality. You have wonderful family. I look forward to welcome you to Azerbaijan."
I returned the sentiment. "It's been our pleasure. You are always welcome to stay with us if you return to Chicago and ... take your hands out of your pants ... we are excited to visit you in Baku." My seven-year-old son reluctantly loosened his grip and extracted his hands.
I pointed an authoritative index finger at the floor and instructed all three of my children, "Wait here." They ran in three separate directions as I escorted Yusuf past the drowsy docent at the entrance to the Museum of Science and Industry.
I motioned to the left. "The space exploration exhibit is that way."
With a last two-handed, emotional handshake, and a couple more promises of a reciprocal visit to Azerbaijan, Yusuf left to explore the museum.
Yusuf, a participant in a US State Department exchange program, had spent a week living with us and we had enjoyed his company. However, that Saturday morning we were looking at a full schedule of soccer games, a ballet rehearsal, a Beatles For the Kids concert, and preparation for a large play date that evening. None of those things would interest anyone who wasn't legally bound to the young participants, so I left Yusuf to spend his last morning in Chicago at the museum. Later he would retrieve his bags at our house where a van would pick him up for the drive to the airport.
Two hours of soccer games later I excused myself to drive my five-year-old daughter to her ballet class. She waited until I had completed a perfect parallel parking maneuver into a unicorn-rare parking spot right in front of the school to tell me she had left her ballet slippers at home.
The greatest parking space ever now lost to history, we returned home to get the slippers. Yusuf was waiting in the kitchen, nursing his usual black tea fortified with five teaspoons of sugar.
"Hey, you're back! Find your slippers. How was the museum?"
"I don't know where they are."
"It was outstanding."
"Look in your room in all the drawers. Did you find Yuri Gagarin?"
"Oh, yes. It was outstanding also."
I always take our guests from the ex-USSR to the space exhibit in the museum. 90% of the exhibit is dedicated to the Apollo missions, but in one small corner hang pictures of Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, the Russians who were the first man and woman in space. The participants we've hosted from ex-Soviet countries have all been clear-eyed and short on nostalgia for the USSR, but they have shown a warm spot for the scientists, artists, and cosmonauts who labored under the hammer and sickle. So the asterisk of a placard at MSI always pleases.
Yusuf paused. His English was fine, but he wasn't terribly confident when the conversation required a sense of humor. My guess is that even when speaking Russian he's not the class clown, so every time he prepared to tell a joke it felt as tense as a golfer setting up for the green shot at the 18th hole of Augusta National.
"I also found Laika," he announced. In 1957 Laika became the first dog in space, also Russian, who was broiled alive several hours after liftoff when a heating coil malfunctioned. Yusuf planted his feet and with fists clenched, workshopped his new material on me: "She was hot dog, no?"
"I found them in my underwear drawer."
I laughed. "What were they doing there? Never mind, I don't care, let's go. Yes, Laika was a hot dog."
"Thank you for to take me to museum. And for wonderful hospitality. You have beautiful family."
"It was our pleasure. Why are you wearing those?"
"They were in my underwear drawer with my slippers."
"We are very excited to visit Baku. They're underwear, that's true, but why are you wearing them on top of your leotard?" My daughter just shrugged.
"Yes, we will be honored to host you," affirmed Yusuf, and we clasped hands again.
"Have a safe trip," I wished for him, and, resigned, said, "Whatever, just get in the car and put your seatbelt on."
I shooed my decorum-free daughter out of the house and left Yusuf to await his ride to the airport.
I got my daughter, her slippers, and the extra pair of underwear to class. Now late, I sped to the soccer pitch to pick up my wife and our two older children. Traffic rules became guidelines as I ferried them across Chicago's south side to hear four warmed-over hippies play Yellow Submarine. After dropping them off I boomeranged back to the ballet school.
I stuffed child
3 into the car and told her we had to swing by the house to turn off the soup.
"Is the man still there?" she asked.
"Do you mean Yusuf?"
"Yes, the man." My children have instant recall of the name of every character in several cartoon series and can recite with 100% accuracy even the nonsense names of new Pokemon characters. But if an actual human lives in their house for a week, their memories turn into sieves.
"I don't think so. He's supposed to be on the way to the airport."
That was not the case.
"The van has not to arrive," Yusuf said as my daughter and I entered the kitchen.
"They are to telling me it will be soon."
"Okay," was all I had.
Yusuf was also out of small talk. He and I looked around the kitchen awkwardly.
"Daddy, the man is still here," my daughter pointed out, with her usual panache.
"Have a safe trip," I offered.
"Yes, and thank you again for wonderful hospitality. Your beautiful family has been wonderful."
"Can I have a cookie?"
"Chicago is wonderful, beautiful city."
"No. Okay, yes, but bring two extra for your brother and sister. See you in Baku. Now get in the car."
"You will be welc ..." called Yusuf as I closed the door behind me.
In the car my daughter asked, between mouthfuls of the two cookies meant for her siblings, "Is the man going to be there when we get home?"
"I have no idea."
Back across town the other three got in the car.
"How were the Beatles?" I asked,
"Sorry. Well, you'll be happy to hear that Yusuf is looking forward to us visiting him in Azerbaijan."
"I don't want to go," the older two answered together.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because it's boring."
My response was my own rendition of "Back in the U.S.S.R." which was cut short as we pulled up in front of our house. A chill ran down my spine.
"Everyone get down!" I hissed.
"What is it?" whispered my son from beneath the seat.
"Yusuf is wheeling his suitcase to the van," I explained.
Slouched over in the passenger seat, my wife looked at me with upraised eyebrows.
Almost weeping, I told her, "I can't say goodbye again. I just can't."
We waited for the driver of the van to load Yusuf's luggage. Once they had pulled out and disappeared around the corner, we crept out of our car.
My wife and I have clearly done a poor job of teaching our kids empathy -- for the rest of the day every time one of them walked past me they would grab my right hand in both of theirs and say, "Goodbye, Dad. I hope you visit me in the other room soon."
Article © Todd Wells. All rights reserved.
Published on 2019-05-13