“Yo!” Hansraj shouted across the North Quad of Sarah Lawrence College.
One-handedly shading my eyes, I scoured the lawn: a maze of bare limbs: shapely sun-bathers lying snake-flat, too-cool socializers affectedly smoking cigarettes, and disks flying overhead from one dreadlocked hippie to another; despite all that, I knew his call was for me.
But where? Finally I spotted a long, thin arm extended high into the air, waving me over with cupped hand. “Yo, Keegan! Over here!” How’s he know my name. I traipsed over to the lean man, tucking my recently-acquired library books under my arm so I could shake his massive, out-stretched hand. “Keegan. I’m Hans,” he said, “and this is Katie,” he continued, pointing at the girl sitting to his right with a New York point: a high, cocked wrist slanted downward to extended fore and middle fingers. “What nationality are you?” he asked, crossing one baggy-jeaned leg over the other, rattling the cluster of keys carabineered to the chain bicycle lock around his waist.
“Uh, a lot of stuff, I guess,” I said. Prodded by his intent stare, I continued: “Black Irish, German, Native American -”
– “Oh,” he cut in, flipping up the collar on the Armani shirt he wore over a baggy hoody. “I’m Indian. I hear you’re a writer. I’m a sculptor, but we should talk literature some time. Where are you from, anyway?”
“Alaska,” I said, puffing out my frontiersman chest to the frivolous city.
“Whoa, the boonies, huh?” he said, and then resumed talking with Katie.
I stood awkwardly for a few seconds, fidgeted, read the bold printed “Brooklyn” on the flipped up bill of his cycling cap. Do I just turn and walk away after that burst of interaction? I wondered.
“That’s it, man,” he said, back to me. “I’m just always checking out people with the same skin tone, you know?”
“Oh, okay,” I said. Know what, I thought, shyly trying to retreat from the embarrassing jollity. White, Asian, African American, Native American/Alaskan Native, Other – Other! So what? I had an SAT understanding of race.
* * *
Sitting in my dark dorm-room, hunched under a desk lamp, over a book, around midnight, thinking I would go to bed soon, I heard stomping down the hallway, keys jingling with every step, then one loud clang of a chain bike-lock as Hansraj burst through my door – he never knocked. He slammed an open copy of Kafka’s complete stories onto a room-centered dresser, pointed down to the book, and shouted, “Yo, check this shit out.” Pacing around the table and ranting: “In the Penal Colony. Now that’s a fucking story. Have you read it?”
“This dude is checking some penal colony, and the town executioner accosts him and starts explaining his execution device, which kills the victim by engraving their crime into their flesh, so anyone can just read it on your skin, like the scarlet letter or something, but it also silences you from defending yourself. It’s fucking beautiful. It’s about, like, racist laws or governments, you know?” Searching for his idea’s words, he held his hands to each side of his face and flexed his fingers as if around a softball. His huge, chiseled hands made the idea seem weighty, possibly beyond words.
I sat listening, waiting.
Flexing tighter and shaking his hands, he went on: “At the end, the executioner just dives into the machine because he can’t convince this random wonderer of its worth. It’s fucked up, man. The wanderer just tells you this happens, with perfect ease, he just tells you this horrible, bizarre thing happens in front of his eyes ‘cause there’s nothing he can do about it – it’s like original sin, the crime in the flesh.”
Hans sighed, let his hands fall to his sides, dropped his well-worn messenger bag on the dresser, and pulled out a lusciously purple bottle of port. “Got a corkscrew?”
Two poured glasses later, we toasted. “To Kafka,” said Hans.
I clinked, sipped, and said, “I don’t know, I’m not the biggest Kafka fan.”
“What?! Man, Kafka’s the shit!”
“I know, I know,” I quelled. “I respect him and all – he’s a badass writer – but the whole psychology of his writing has just never appealed to me. Granted I haven’t read much, but there’s always this feeling of estrangement between his characters, between him and his characters, and even between him and the reader. I don’t get that…” I took a long drink of the port.
Hans sprung up, pulled his baggy sleeves over his elbows, and pointed at me with his Rodin fore-finger. “You haven’t read enough Kafka. With Kafka, you don’t say, ‘His character’s are too detached’; you ask why they’re too detached. That estrangement’s the beauty of Kafka, man. He captures that inhumanity, makes it vivid – shoves it in everyone’s faces, you know?…” He waited, looked for a glimpse of understanding.
What estrangement? I wondered.
“No? Read – ” and he began listing short stories as he handed me his complete copy, before trainwrecking his line of thought with: “What are you doing this weekend?”
“Nothing.” I shrugged.
“You been to Brooklyn?”
“I haven’t even been into the city yet.”
He cocked his head, smiled, and nodded like a teacher bringing together a lesson plan. “Come stay at my place.”
* * *
“Fuck the flask,” said I, kissing the bottle’s neck and throwing back.
“Don’t do that, man; you’ll get a ticket,” said Hans, stumbling out of the subway station with a crunch into the December snow of Queens.
So I quickly filled our flask and re-stashed the bottle in my bag. “Alright, alright, where we headed?” I asked, passing it on.
We rolled over the burrows like I’d rolled over the Alaska Range: drinking, laughing, toppling, spilling; from house to house, finding out what was going on, chilling dancing, flirting, fighting.
The only difference was Hans’s constant paranoia.
“Give me a sip of that whisky,” he said, sticking a stealth hand out from under his other arm, as we left the night’s last party.
“It’s gone,” I slurred, waving away its image, almost knocking myself over. I scoured the scene. A convenience store. “Let’s just pick up some beers and go drink ‘em on your stoop.”
“No way, man,” he said, swaying into me. “Carting ‘em across town’s too dangerous.”
But it was too late.
When I emerged with a six pack under my arm, struggling to open the first, Hans just shook his head and started leading me to the subway. “You’re gonna get busted, man,” he said.
I chugged one on the way, and two more on the platform. “They sure are good, Hans, sure you don’t want one?” I teased, leaning in front of him, hunched over, then throwing back, gulping.
“Fuck it,” he said, snatching one from the bag, cracking it open, and chugging.
And then two thin, black cops stood before us. One grinned and shook his head while the other flipped open his citation book. I scowled at the late-night flunkies as Hans shuffled beside me.
“I.D. please,” the smirking one asked.
I drunkenly, violently flipped open my wallet and shoved my Alaskan driver’s license in his face, hoping he’d take issue, while Hans set down his beer and shoved his hands deep into his pockets.
“Not you,” said the officer, rejecting my up-turned palm. “You,” he said to Hans. “And keep your hands out of your pockets.”
Hans slowly, composedly, handed over his I.D.
Lips curling to noses, the grin grew to a sneer across both their faces. “Hansraj Maharawal,” one read aloud. “You better be careful with a name like that.”
I spun to Hans, mouth agape, shocked, enraged, hot; but Hans shrunk before the smaller men. I spun back to the cops, screaming: “You racist fuckers!”
“Excuse me?! -” one of them boomed
– “Keegan,” snapped Hans, hand on my shoulder.
“I said, ‘You racist fuckers!’” – stepping away from Hans’ kind grasp, into their angry faces – “You can’t talk to my friend like that. And why are you giving him a ticket anyway. I’m carrying the beers. Give me the ticket.”
“You better get your friend outta here, or we’ll take you in,” barked the cop, ignoring me, to Hans.
“Keegan, c’mon,” Hans snapped.
Back to Hans – “What, you’re angry with me? Don’t be angry with me. Be angry with these bastards –” spinning – “You assholes –”
– And then I blacked out…
* * *
I guess things smoothed out – I guess I kept my mouth shut after that – because I didn’t wake up in jail. I woke up on Hans’s floor, confused. I spotted the citation for an open container on Hans’s bed-stand and the night started to come back to me in flashes of embarrassing still-frames. Did I say that? I honestly wondered. No, I wouldn’t tell off a cop. But I knew myself too well. Fuck, Hans must be pissed. Damn it! That was all my fault. I’m such a fucking bumpkin. He told me not to. Jesus what did I do after…
Hans started stirring. I tensed. Is he mad? I pretended I was still asleep. He sat up.
“Yo Keegan, how you feeling?” he asked.
I groggily rolled over, stretching my eyes. “Uh, my head is killing me.” I fake yawned, still afraid he would lash out.
“Mine, too,” he said. “I hear my mom cooking, we better go eat.”
While we chatted with his mom about what I study, where I’m from, what it’s like being from Alaska, and how I’m finding New York, I internally-cringed every time I thought of the night before. I was sure Hans was going to hate me, was going to blow up at me the moment he got the chance, the moment we left, or even sooner, maybe he’s so mad he’ll yell at me right here as soon as his mom asks us about our night –
“So what’d you do last night?” she asked.
Nerves snapped my eyes to his. Deadpan. He finished forking a piece of egg, then gave her the parents version of the story.
“Sounds great,” she said, and shortly after left the table.
Hans and I cleaned up and went for a walk. The thick air hung heavy through the streets, forming a subtle fog that ivy-like climbed the squat buildings just short of their roofs. The wide streets were filled with families running their morning errands: buying the paper and bagels, taking their dogs and children for walks, and meeting friends for coffee. Despite my anxiety, I kept thinking Brooklyn was the most beautiful place in the world.
Half way around Prospect Park, as a lively soccer field opened up to our left, scared and confused, I brought it up: “I’ll pay for half the ticket, Hans.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, dismissing me as harmlessly as he had during our first meeting, on that warm, safe North Quad. “I’m not mad. No, I’m pissed! But not at you. At them. I shouldn’t be – it’s not their fault – but I am.”
He turned and caught my Alaska-blank stare.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s not worth it.”
* * *
“Yo, this shit sucks!” I proclaimed, slamming Hans’s copy of The Trial onto his workbench with a smile.
A couple seconds later, Hans turned off his torch, spun around, and flipped up his mask.
Before responding, he smiled, walked over to me, jingling with every step, and, with his welding gloves still on, gave me a “Brooklyn High-Five”: an arm-wrestle, to a handshake, to a thumb-war, to a snap; and we were at home.
“That shit don’t suck – you loved it man,” he protested, still smiling.
“Not at all, I don’t see how you like this; I mean, his images are great, like the one with K. climbing the stairs, but they’re too great: they end up just disorienting you.”
“First of all, that’s an improper use of the second person -”
“Just listen to this.” And I picked up and read:
- turned toward the stairs to reach the room where the enquiry would take place, then stopped as, in addition to these stairs, [there were] three other flights of stairs, and also a small passage at the end of the courtyard which seemed to lead into a second yard. He was annoyed that they had not described the location of the room with more accuracy, there was no doubt that he was being treated with a strange carelessness or indifference, and he intended to tell them so very loudly and clearly. In the end, however, he climbed the first flight of stairs, turning over in his mind the remark made by warder Willem that the court was attracted by guilt, from which it necessarily followed that the room where the enquiry would take place must be located off whichever flight of stairs K. happened to choose.
“Makes no sense,” I continued. “I don’t understand, and I’m lost.”
“Second of all,” said Hans, “when you’re reading Kafka, don’t say it disorients you, ask why it disorients you. K. never tells anyone anything loudly and clearly. That’s the point. No one will listen. He’s pre-judged – fallen. Just because of who he is – just because of the way society is. Anyway, how was your break? Write anything?”
“No man, dead time, how about you?”
“It was good – actually, it was great. I wasn’t too prolific. I had a lot of family obligations and stuff. Christmas, you know. But I stuck to this one piece I was working on – just chipped away at it a couple hours every day, and it made me happy every day – and it’s almost finished,” he said, proudly, sadly, like an old man seeing his last son out the door.
Excited: “Can I see it?” I asked.
He stopped smiling, gave me a quizzical glare. “Hm…Alright. But I never let anybody see my stuff before shows, so don’t go talking about it, alright?” He stuck his Rodin forefinger in my face.
“Alright, alright, who am I gonna tell? C’mon.”
He quickly turned back to what he’d been working on, lifted the thick, square sheet of steel, tucked it under his arm, and said, “Follow me.”
In his personal studio, he had the bottom, sides, and back of a cube resting atop a three-pillar stand of rusted steel. The bottom of the cube was a piece of glass molded into the shape of a stormy sea, filled with shattered safety glass – white-caps – and a tiny ship made of pigeon feathers.
“It’s my ideal place,” he said, setting the piece of steel atop the walls. “I call it, The Nest.” I peered into the box and looked up: a star-chart – the constellations scored into the steel and filled with gold; and each of the three sides was a nautical symbol carved into oak.
“Badass,” I said. Delicate. Fragile. Odd ideal place for Hans, but – “Fortuitous.”
“I think that’s an improper use of -”
“-No,” I cut-in. “Over the break my dad told me he bought a new boat in Costa Rica. He wants me to meet him down there this spring-break to help him take it up to his place in Mexico. He told me to ask a friend to come so we could rotate shifts and drive straight through.” From his piece to him. “You wanna come?”
“Fuck yeah,” he said, nodding harder. “This is fortuitous.”
“There’s only one thing,” I said.
“What’s that?” asked Hans.
I searched his gleeful eyes. “Nothing, nevermind. Anyway, I’ll go down the first week to help him set up, then you can come down and we’ll do the trip.”
The thing is, my father’s republican.
“One thousand U.S. solders have now died in Iraq.” My father clicked off the radio with his bear-like paws. “You know, we really should’ve left by now. The Bay of Tehuanapec’s never calm this long.” He’s not outspoken about it.
“I know, I know, I’m sorry.” I said. “I don’t know why Homeland security wouldn’t let Hans leave today -”
-“It’s doesn’t make any sense.” But he holds his political beliefs closely.
“I know, I don’t understand, either.” He worked his mechanic business on Christian Republican ideals, so he’ll defend them if attached. I tried to hold back, but couldn’t; under my breath: “Nothing about this administration makes sense.”
My father shot disapproval burning through the air.
“Hans comes in at two,” I quickly reasoned. Shouldn’t have invited Hans. He can’t keep his mouth shut. “If I rush we can get back here by four, so the harbor master will still be here.”
“Barely,” said my father, still unnerving me.
“We’ll make it,” I said. “We’ll make it.”
* * *
“Yo,” I shouted across the outdoor airport pick-up. Hans’s BROOKLY cycling cap, the American foot above every other head, turned around all-compass. I watched him squint through my two-peso sunglasses. “Yo, Hans, over here.” I waved him over with cupped hand.
He swaggered over in his hoody, jingling with every step, sheepish, unsure. I cherished the poetic justice for only a moment before snatching his duffle bag, and flinging it into my rental car’s trunk.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “Two hours to get through customs, you know.”
“No worries, we just gotta drive fast,” I said.
“What’s the rush?” he asked.
“My dad’s been getting antsy. He wants to leave tomorrow, and the only way to do that is to get your exit papers through today, but the harbor-master’s gotta fill them out the day before departure and he goes home in an hour and the harbor is two hours away.”
“Step on it,” said Hans.
“Yep,” I said, swinging the car around a stop sign and accelerating onto the winding, two-lane highway.
* * *
“Yo, get out the way,” Hans head-out-the-window screamed at the car we overtook around a blind corner, pulling into the harbor. He jumped out, dashed over to my father, who was delaying the harbor master with open wallet, whipped out his passport, and said, “So sorry I’m late, sir.”
My father took the passport and handed it to the harbor master, then took Hans’s Rodin hand in his own massive, chiseled paw. “Hi Hans, I’m Sean. Nice to meet you.”
After Hans’s exit papers were sorted, the three of us spread out on the bow of the new boat, my dad leaning against the life raft, me sitting on the anchor, Hans cross-legged on the white, fiber-glass deck, the sun full above our heads, and the air thick and singing, hanging about the water, the boat, and us. “This is what the whole trip’s gonna be like,” I said, closing my eyes and leaning my head against the railing.
“So the senate opened ANWAR today,” Hans stated, hoping as always to spark intelligent conversation.
The scene before me shattered like a rock-struck windshield.
“Yeah, most Alaskans want to see it opened,” my father replied.
“Yeah, it’s gonna make them a lot of bank,” Hans said, nodding.
I stopped breathing – held my breath and tried to stop my heartbeat – tried to stop time – afraid its constant movement would bring about the Apocalypse.
Hans threw his barefeet on the boatrailing and pulled a bottle of subtly brown liquor from his messenger bag. “I got you something, Mr. Stephan,” he said, “to say thank you for inviting me.” My father examined; Hans explained: “The guy at the liquor store told me it was a bit thicker and muskier than Cognac, which I thought would fit you, based on what Keegan’s told me.”
“Well, let’s find out,” he said, opening the bottle.
We each had a drink before my father asked, “Keegan, d’you wanna show Hans his room and help him unpack while I change the oil?”
“Can I help?” Hans jumped-in.
“That’d be great,” said my father. “You wanna help?” he asked me.
“That’s alright. You two go at it. I’ll have another drink.” To Kafka, I thought, for being far away.
* * *
The next morning we woke at six, just as the sun began to peer over the equator, causing ripples in reality to rise from the water with a musty smell of brine. Hans and I, wearing nothing but shorts, sunglasses, and sunblock, untied the thick, wet ropes from our lanyards, cast them to the docks so that they flopped heavily and evenly onto the oily wood – smack – like a sopping kiss good-bye, and pulled up our new buoys as my dad skillfully maneuvered the massive yacht out of the tiny marina. Once clear of the harbor walls, he sped the vessel up to 25 knots and joined Hans and I on the bow, holding the railings as we bounced over the waves, into open ocean.
Within two hours we could no longer see land. That was our objective: once we were a tiny boat floating in the middle of a seeming eternity of sea, we slowed down to about 5 knots – the most fuel efficient speed – and threw fishing lines out the back of the boat and off all three outriggers. “It’s unlikely out here,” my father said, “but we may as well see if we can catch dinner every day.”
And we did. Bringing in the fish and cleaning them was the one thing we had to do in a timely manner. For most of the day, the three of us would roam around the boat on our own, reading, writing, jumping rope to keep active, and occasionally coming together in pairs and playing a silent game of chess. But when the lures were hit by an aggressive tuna or dorado, we came together in a well-orchestrated group effort aimed at varying our diet and having something collective to talk about over dinner. Hans or I would grab the bent pole and strap into the fighting chair; whichever of us was left standing would quickly reel in all the other lines, then jump onto the poop deck with a gaff, ready to guide the line and pull the rainbow-splattering fish from the water when it came in range, while my father threw the boat into reverse and gave chase.
After pulling the fish from the salty water, we would clean them, thinly fillet them, dress them in fresh-squeezed lime juice and eat them. The fresh sashimi flavorfully burst in our watering mouths like no canned tuna can.
When that event ended every day, we’d take in the lines and continue our steady forward motion through the indistinguishable waters: the waves rolled, the sun circled, the birds flew overhead, but we appeared motionless. On a plain of water bigger than human imagination and deeper than anyone can fathom, we were helpless: no one can touch the bottom of the sea, and if anyone tries, they will drown; but we remained faithful to the invisible, life-controlling forces around us, and were fine.
In the afternoon, when the most scorching heat had sunk into the depths, Hans and I would move to the bow and lie in the shade of our skiff, occasionally venturing into the sun to sit at the very point of the bow, on the anchor, staring down into the water, hoping for porpoises. And they’d come, breaching and blowing saltwater onto the soles of our feet, racing with the boat for up to half an hour – pods of them, sometimes forty at a time, spreading out along each side of the boat, racing, breaching, blowing, occasionally doing rolls in the air or soaring high above the railings and squeaking at us, confirming our peace with the sea and our steady course.
We stayed in-land only one night. As the continent juts out between the Middle America Trench and the Bay of Tehuanapec, we docked in a port far up a mangrove forest. From there, my father sent Hans and me into the nearest city – La Libertad – to pick up supplies for our final crossing.
On that hot weekend, it felt like all 250,000 citizens of La Libertad were in the streets – streets lined with hand-thatched huts out of which everyone was selling something: fruits, vegetables, chocolate bananas, rice and beans, beer, liquor, jewelry, cigars; and they were selling solely to each other, among themselves: there was not a single white person in the beautiful crowd: most Americans we’re probably still scared of this recently war-stricken country, and those that were exploring the beautiful lands of El Salvador again were probably sticking to the more tourist cities. “But there’s no danger,” our cab driver, Chino, told us. Chino was an Americanized local in a Hawaiian shirt and surf shorts. After we took him to his favorite bodega for rice, cheese and beans steaming off the grill, wrapped in fresh, handmade tortillas, and three cervezas, he helped us talk to the locals, and bartered for us, while we took in the atmosphere: the already thick, warm air felt even thicker with the smells of beet-red mangoes, watermelon-sized papayas, and mud-fresh melons, all ripe enough to burst, thick chocolate being churned and rolled right in the streets, and the beautiful musk of those fried beans and cheeses. The mud roads and pail huts blended with the red sands and clear skies, creating the perfect backdrop for the colorful fabrics that lightly hung from the women’s slight, dark shoulders as they sauntered around the market town, filling the air also with the tingling of the silver jewelry that hang from their necks, wrists and waists – a counterpoint to the other sound that rang in the air: the song of their speech being thrown from one stand to another.
When we had finished shopping, Chino took us to his house to meet his family and check out his recently lifted American truck. “That’s why I work so much,” he said, patting the hood. “We don’t need to work so much down here, but if we want to be like you, we do.”
I told him his country and people were amazing, too, and reminded him that Americans wanted to come there: that Hans and I had never been to such a beautiful, relaxed place.
He said yes, but added that he would not just visit America if he could, but move there. “It’s freedom to be a citizen of the U.S.,” he said.
I turned to Hans for support but found him sitting silently, his hands deep in his pockets.
* * *
After that stop, we crossed the Bay of Tehuanapec – “It’s a dangerous crossing,” my father had said before the trip began, “About ten boats capsize doing it every year.” But the weather had held, and the waves were bearable: they didn’t get on our nerves after three days, nor prevent us from sleeping and cooking; they did rock hard enough to make mighty splashes of water cascade over the bow of the boat every time we hit one straight on.
When we reached the calm edge of the Bay of Tehuanapec, we returned to our napping spot under the skiff, and a bird took to our bow – not a pelican, a large, white bird reminiscent of a gull but without annoying squawks or greedy eyes – it simply soared in front of the boat, dipping back and forth beneath the bow from one side to the other. It took long slow roles, almost flying out of sight, then swooped back and suspended in the air above us for seconds before flapping out on another roll. We couldn’t take our eyes off it. We swooned with it, our bodies pulling whatever direction it swept, rising in suspense when it took a dramatic dive, and settling when it soared. It stuck with us all day, and then when the sun set, it landed on one of our outriggers and sat as the cooling night air ran through its feathers.
My father came to the bow and told us that he was tired, and asked if we could take the first night shift. I told him not to worry about it, that we’d take the whole night shift if we could sleep-in the next morning, and he agreed.
“Hans,” I said, “I’ll be up in a minute.” And I went into the hull and through my bag in search of a bottle of scotch and a book of sea-tales I’d brought. I carried the two and two glasses of ice up to the open-air cabin, and we read the stories aloud to each other, dramatically, occasionally sipping the scotch, letting its hot spices tinge the back of our throats, or taking long drags of a Cuban cigar that lasted all night, inhaling deeply onto our tongues and exhaling the thick smoke through our noses, the bird at our shoulders the whole time. We read excerpts from Conrad, Poe, Chadwick, and of course, Melville. The Melville was the best. We couldn’t stop talking about it. We toasted to every other passage and read with a fury and intensity worthy of a radio show. Neither of us had read Moby Dick, so we made a pact to get two copies when we returned home and read them together, so we could talk about something besides Kafka.
“Thank god,” I said, slightly sad to leave the founding author of our friendship, but glad to be moving into another chapter.
“Thanks man,” Hans said as the sun rose, his eyes redsquintedswollen. We gulped down the rest of the scotch as my dad came to relieve us. All he said was, “Wow, good work on the scotch, guys. Get some sleep.” And with those words the bird finally left its perch and went its own direction.
Neither of us slept properly. We rolled around in our sheets, but it was too warm below deck, so we spent the last morning on the bow, getting sunburned and occasionally woken by porpoises, until land opened up before us: it was our destination, Oaxaca.
“Remember that bird?” Hans asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “That was nice.”
“Word,” he said throwing his hand out in a New York point at the boat, the ocean, and everything. “This has been an awesome trip.”
We finished off the cervezas and turned on the sound-system on that final stretch. We pulled into port drunk, tan, reeking of sunblock, wearing only shorts and sunglasses, blasting Jimi Hendrix, and spent the rest of the day scrubbing the sea-salt from the hull.
“So we’ve got a three hour layover and then back to New York, eh?” I said to Hans as I handed both of our passports to the Homeland security officer manning the “American Citizens” desk of immigrations in George Bush International Airport.
The thin black officer glanced at our passports without scanning them, then handed mine back and said, “Go ahead.”
“Not you,” he snapped at Hans, who tried to follow me, stopping him abruptly, hand-on-his-chest. He pointed to a non-descript white door to his left and said, “That way.”
As Hans disappeared behind the door, he gave me the look of a puppy scared of its abusive master, which scorched itself into my mind’s eye and the back of my eye-lids.
Then the pale door opened and an armed soldier summoned him in. With the last glimpse I caught of him I saw him stuffing his hands deep into his pockets.
“Blatant racism,” I heard the next woman through the line mumble to her husband. I froze. In the post-immigration crossroads of Houston, where one corridor leads back to the terminal for connecting flights, and another corridor leads to the exit: Texas, I stood in limbo for two and a half hours, wondering what could be going on – I was with him the whole time he was down there, what could they be holding him for? We didn’t even bring back alcohol or cigars. What could be taking so long? The passing people blurred together. Has he gone by? Did I miss him? What are they doing? What is this woman doing, walking up and down the hallway? – “Exit straight ahead, departures to your right.” Who should I ask about what’s going on? Could I ask her? She’s just directing people. She wouldn’t know about what’s going on behind the white door? No one has come or gone from there since Hans. Is there anyone to ask when this stuff happens? Will they listen to me? What can they do? Can anyone go behind those doors? Can anyone do anything when these things start? I had stopped breathing and was trying to stop my heartbeat again, as I had when Hans and my father had first met. Maybe Hans did do something. Did he do something I didn’t know about? Was he carrying something? Is he mouthing off to them? Then I remembered Hans throwing his barefeet on the boatrailing.
“What time is it?” I overheard a young woman with braided hair and peeling skin – an American from Mexico – ask her visually mnemonic mother.
“Six o’clock,” one of her friends replied.
Fuck. Twenty minutes.
“Excuse me,” I said to the lady I’d been watching direct passengers. “Is there a way to find out if my friend is still being detained by immigration?”
“No,” she said, in her Mexican accent. “Is he a U.S. citizen?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then they wouldn’t detain him.” Just like Chino would think. She turned away, dismissing me. They wouldn’t detain him?! They shouldn’t! But he’s not here! Don’t tell me they didn’t detain him. Or maybe I did miss him…
(917) 965-1428 – “Has Hans called?”
“What do you mean, he’s supposed to be with you.”
“Find him, find my baby!” his mother yelled hysterically. “They are lying to you! They have taken him! Listen to me Keegan: They are lying to you!”
They’re not lying to me; they wouldn’t just lie to me. They must’ve let him go.
“Maybe he wondered outside and got lost,” I suggested, not convinced myself.
“He grew up in New York! He would not get lost in an airport! Listen to me Keegan: They are lying to you! You don’t know what it’s like to have a name like Hansraj Maharawal! They are going to disappear him:”
She’s crazy, I thought. She’s just paranoid – just a paranoid New Yorker. This is not helping. “Goodbye.”
I paced up and down the narrow purgatory, asking the same question of everyone wearing an official uniform. I spotted a copy of Moby Dick in a bookstore window. Yeah right, we’ll never escape Kafka in this country. Finally, a delicate Chinese woman said, “I’ll go back and look for you.” She walked underneath the looming “NO REENTRANCE” signs that guarded the route back to immigration. Finally somebody’s gonna help me. I’m gonna find out. That’s all I want – is to know what’s going on – I don’t even care what’s going on, I just wanna know.
Here she is. Yes! An answer.
“He’s already been cleared,” she said.
“Okay, thanks,” is all I could get out before I was running up the stairs toward our gate. Fuck, I should have left to check hours ago, I thought. But no: there was another security check at the re-entrance to the terminal.
“Boarding pass and I.D. please,” a short, white woman said.
“Oh…well,” I floundered in confusion, patting all my pockets for an unknown item – what am I looking for, I have the boarding passes and my passport in my hand – “Fuck!…You see. My friend got detained at immigration,” I said, bumbling with my baggage now. “And we got separated. But they said he went through,” all of my sentences came out in sharp burst, like my movements. My thoughts were fragmented like a jig-saw puzzle I couldn’t piece together. “So I don’t know where he is. But I think he would be through here by now. He knew the gate number. Is there anyway I can figure out?”
“Well.” She had a southern accent. Spit it out! Spit it out! “He may’ve had another pass printed off, if he came through a while ago, but – ” Hope.
“Okaygreatthanks. Can I leave his ticket for him in case he hasn’t come through and tries to?”
I rushed through toward the “Last boarding call for flight 1-9-4 to New York,” being read into a receiver at our gate by a tall, thin black man.
I crashed into his desk and slammed down my boarding.
“Are you one of the two from Oaxaca?” he asked.
“You mean the other one hasn’t boarded?” I asked.
“Had you expected him too?” Why are we answering questions with questions?
“Yes!” I shouted. “I am one of the two from Oaxaca. The other is my friend Hans, but,” and I explained to the man, who at least seemed alive and concerned unlike everyone I’d run into since the small Chinese woman, what had happened since Hans had disappeared. Disappeared, echoed in my mind.
“I’ll call immigration for you.” The man said, then turned his back and talked in low tones for several minutes.
“Okay,” he said turning back to me. “They’re still holding him. He’s not going to make the flight.”
They did lie to me. Alaskan ignorance flushed from my face as I slunk back down the corridor. They lied to me, they’ve taken him. Where? Why? What can I do? What can I tell his mother? What’s happening to him?
* * *
What’s happening to him?
You’re passing through immigration with your best friend on the way back into your home country after a long and serene boat trip up the coast of Latin America, tanned, reeking of sunblock, and blissful: blissful because of your trip, and because you’re returning home – home to the comfort of your friends, your family, your work, your life. The two of you hand the officer your passports together, your friend proceeds to the connecting flight but you are asked to step aside, and then asked more violently to move to the door to your left: it is a simple, white door on a long white wall: a door you would have never noticed had the officer not sternly pointed to it. You stand. You begin to wonder what is going on and turn to your friend for reassurance. He’s also gripped by fear and confusion. Two armed officers pull you behind the long white wall:
There’s a whole world back there: a series of confusing, narrow hallways with many doors as equally unassuming as the one you’d just passed through. You’re ordered to walk down one of the hallways, then up a flight of stairs, around a corner, down another hallway, and through a door into a small, pale room. It’s empty. Have I chosen the right one? you wonder. “Step inside please,” someone booms from behind, following you in. It’s someone new – where did the first two officers go? You don’t know how this place works. What this place wants from you or why you’re there; when you’ll be let go or if you’ll ever make it to the comfort of home. Home. Home.
The broad-shouldered officer sits across the table from you and starts asking you questions – stupid questions. Naught questions: questions he knows the answers to: What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do? Have you ever been convicted of a crime? You are nervous as you answer but you don’t know why – Just abide. Answer rightly and they will deal justly:
“Be right back.” He leaves the room.
You sit. Fidget. Sit. Sit for a long time. A fourth officer flies in, slams the door, throws a folder on the table and shouts, “Why’d you lie to us?”
Lie? Lie? What is he talking about? Your heart is racing almost as quickly as your mind as you scower your memory for a connection to that word – lie – trusting them before yourself, but then you realize: Nothing: you still believe in justice. “I didn’t lie.”
“You said you’d never broken the law.”
“Protesting.” He points to the file.
You were 16: officers corralled then arrested you and a hundred others protesting a NYC Republican National Convention. It was a big deal to you then. Your family was upset with you, but everyone got over it, realized it wasn’t the end of the world, thought it wouldn’t matter in the long run. Wrong: Original Sin, burnt in the flesh, no escape.
“I forgot. I thought it was expunged from my record when I turned 18.”
“It was. But we know everything. Follow me.” Everything?
He leads you out of the room, father down the hallway, and into another pale room: this one’s bigger; two other officers stand against a wall where the third joins them in staring at you. “Those pants are pretty baggy. What are you hiding under there?” one of them asks you: you can’t tell which one: like a faceless mob oppressed for years now rioting, you can’t tell where their vengeful comments are coming from, but they come with an inhuman veracity. “Take them off,” you’re ordered.
“That shirt’s kind of baggy…take it off…those socks…” until you stand before them naked and shaking, trying to turn a certain way so as to hide something, but you can hide nothing from them: they pierce your flesh with cold eyes like a disgusted god ogling the first fallen man, smirking. You are embarrassed and ashamed and you don’t even wonder why. “Get dressed.” You quickly snatch your clothes off the floor and put them on, trying to regain your modesty and stop yourself from crying, but you will never be clothed to them again in their minds eyes and so you weep inside, but console yourself as you do it: at least I can go now. At least it’s over. I’m going home. I’m going home. Home.
Once dressed, they take you out the door, through more hallways and into a third pale room in which your bags and a copy machine lay on a table. “Empty your pockets please.” You’re not going home. You wonder if you’ll ever go home. You pathetically place your wallet next to your luggage.
“Are these all your things?” Another naught question.
“Can we look through them?” Another. You don’t respond but watch as they commence the search:
They remove everything from its proper place and scatter it upon the table, then read and photocopy every word of writing.
From your wallet: your credit card, club memberships, identification cards, a picture of your sister.
From your notebook: “What have you been studying?” they ask of your notes from Economics in which you’d been reading Marx: it was your favorite class; your most beloved teacher. You’d never thought of being afraid or ashamed of that class. But now your throat sticks as you whisper, “Economics.”
“This isn’t economics – it’s terrorism.”
From your journal: “What’s this?” It’s a sketch you’d just finished of a project you were hoping to build when you returned home. Home. Home. “It looks like crap.”
Photocopied. Photocopied. Photocopied.
“Alright. Repack your things.” You try to reorganize your things, but can’t get it quite right: it isn’t all there: part of it belongs to them now.
Two take you back into the hallway-maze and to another pale room.
“Sit,” one of them commands as the other leaves: another round of questioning:
“So you went to India last summer? Why.” His questions are still fast and fierce, accompanied by amused smirks, followed by subtle snickers.
You are defeated, exhausted; your answers escape you like sighs. “I was studying stone carving?”
“Did you meet any terrorists over there? Ever go to Syria?”
“What would you do if someone asked you to do some terrorism? Who would you tell?”
“If I were at school, I’d tell Larry Hoffman, head of security.”
“Why wouldn’t you tell the F.B.I.?”
“How do I contact the F.B.I.?”
He doesn’t tell you. He leaves and another officer comes in and asks you the same questions, then leaves as another officer comes in and asks them again. Careless – I should tell them. But then two of them burst in at once with a computer – and the real enquiry begins:
They ask you what school you go to, enter it into their computer, and then tell you your schedule. Everything. They know every book you’ve checked out of your public library and out of your private, school library. They ask you about the friend you’ve been traveling with and lick him up: “He’s a writer, huh? What kind of stuff does he write about?…Wait, what’s this?” he asks, then answers himself: “An article about a peace rally in the Stuart Times.”
“Did he write it?” one of the other officers shouts.
“No. That’s him in the picture, holding the ‘NO WAR’ sign,” the first says, pointing at the screen.
“Let’s radio to bring him in for questioning,” the other states.
“No: his flight’s already left. He’s gone.”
His flight’s gone? My flight’s gone. He’s gone? I’m alone. He’s gone home. Home.
They keep asking you questions, smirking, laughing. They ask you about your friend’s father – “Why does he travel between the states and Mexico so much?” – about your father, your mother, your other friends, your girlfriend and her family and friends: and they know everything about all of them and ask you the oddest question about the most particular points of their lives, smirking and laughing while you sit there shrinking, feeling more and more helpless and impotent, well beyond the point where you think you’re going to fall mute, brain dead, unable to answer their questions and thus worthy of being locked up because that’s what you deserve like they knew from the beginning when they read it in your picture and name – your life is shame! – and then they just let you go…
“Then they just let me go,” Hans said, fading into the night across the table of a Houston bar. After the last flight for New York had departed, and Hans still hadn’t been released, I booked us a hostel; after two officers walked him out to me and refused to pay for our place to stay or new plane tickets, we bussed there, threw our stuff down, and quickly found the dive.
After that explanation, sweat and dewdrops mingled on his face. “And that’s not the worst part. No. Not what they did to me. No, I can take that, you know.” His intense stare glowed through the fog by the harsh light of a violent drag on his last cigarette – he flung it over the porch railing and doubled over the table. “I can take them picking on me. What bothers me is how I felt just then.” His whole body tensed. “I hated them.” clutching the last pint of our pitcher with one hand and shaking the table with his other: “They were all black, you know.” His face was contorted in an enraged, sad, frightened, explosive, pitiful expression. “Just like those guys that picked on me in the subway – they picked on me, man!” His tight jaw muscles pulled his skin taut over his protruding cheek bones; his lips quivered and his eyes burned fury through the mist between us. “Instead of realizing I’m dealing with the same shit as them, they pass their shit onto me!
I’m not racist, you know – at least, I don’t want to be. And they don’t want to be either!” He smashed the glass on the table, shattering it: the thick lager puddled around the shards. “But they make us hate, man. They make me hate. Not they the officers. But them.”