22, the note said. It was signed A.B., but the
initials werent necessary; Id recognized the handwriting.
attendant standing in the aisle waited for my reply.
him Ill come back in a minute, I said.
you, maam, she replied, with a hint of the South in
her words, and returned to coach with my answer.
from Berlin to Washington, DC, was more than halfway across the
Atlantic, traveling with the sun and gaining five hours. Lucky me,
I thought, the worst day of my life will be 29 hours long. If I
could have bought an International Date Line,
right now, Id have done itthen crossed that line and
lost this day.
Next to me
is my 4-year-old, Robin, and, across the aisle, my husband, Martin.
When awake, they do not look at all aliketheir eyes and expressions
are too differentbut, asleep and peaceful, it is clear they
are father and son. Their profiles, set against the drawn, white
window shades, are the same handsome mix of European bloods.
The three of
us have spent many hours on planes. That is part of life in the
diplomatic corps, where I have worked for 15 years. At the start
of my career, I was assigned to embassies in Ecuador, Bulgaria,
and Russia; it was in Greece where Martin and I met and married;
and, since Robins birth, Ive been stationed in Brazil
After my first
seven years, there was a stateside tour, one of those refresher
years that each of us is given so we dont lose touch with
the country were representing. You never think you need it;
then you go home and learn again how fast a country and a culture
can change. Seven more years have passed, and it is time for another
tour back home.
I looked at
the note in my hand. Row 22. A.B. Andrew Barrett. I
hadnt seen him get onboard, nor was he anywhere in the Berlin
terminal, but if an ambassador doesnt want to be seen, he
my seat belt, I stood up, took a slow, full breath, then walked
past the rear rows of first class and continued back to coach, back
to Row 22. On my left, in an aisle seat, sat a Marine from the U.S.
Embassy in Berlin. If any soldier could be said to be standing at
attention while sitting down, this one was. His head did not turn,
though his eyes moved to me, and he gave the slightest of nods,
which I returned.
In the row
to my right, Andrew Barrett sat alone, next to the window. My friend,
my mentor, he was Mr. Ambassador when we were in the
embassy, Andrew when we were not. Despite more than
40 years as a diplomat, he neither looks nor acts like one, for
he has never adopted the smooth demeanor so prevalent in the foreign-service
community. Instead, his white hair is cut short, his face is weathered,
and he gives the impression of an outdoorsman who has, only grudgingly,
put on a starched shirt and a tie.
In the middle
of Andrews row, the seatback table was down and on it was
a chessboard, with every piece in its starting squareexcept
one. The ambassador held the black kings bishop before him,
regarding it. Sensing my presence, he did not look at me, but instead
gestured for me to sit down, which I did, in Seat C.
my first posting, in East Timor, Andrew said, as if he was
talking to himself, I used to play against the British political
officer. He claimed he was an atheist and didnt believe in
any god, but, whenever we played chess and he captured a bishop,
he always talked to it, very quietly, under his breath.
Timor, you are glad for anyone to talk to, but an atheist giving
confession to a chess piece? I never knew what he whispered to the
bishops, but every confession is the same; its always about
betrayalof honor, trust, or love. Andrew reached over,
put the bishop onto its square, and said, I thought youd
want to have a last game.
I said, and he rotated the board a quarter-turn, so that the 16
white chess pieces were in front of me. Ive always liked the
moment before a chess game starts: The sides are even, the possibilities
are endless, and there are rules to this war.
are you thinking? Andrew asked.
that life was more like chess, I said, trying to keep my voice
neutral. Here, a white piece never turns traitor, and a black
piece never knocks out another black piece. There is no palace intrigue,
and you always know whos on your side.
(End of excerpt)