Originally published in Welcome to Dystopia: https://www.orbooks.com/
The noise at O’Hare is a dull roar of voices, rising and falling, dissolving into chaos. We must almost shout to hear each other, packed into long lines that press against each other, sticky in the June heat, waiting to get into the building.
My mother frowns, raising a folded newspaper over her head to block the relentless sun. “Keep Raj inside. You know how dark he gets at the end of the summer. He looks like such a blackie – he won’t be safe.”
“I know, Amma.” I wince to hear her use that term, but my mother is an old woman, and there’s only so much you can expect of her. And she’s not wrong – since the latest growth spurt, Raj could easily be mistaken for a young black man. Especially at night, should he venture into the wrong part of town. Lately, it seems like everywhere is the wrong part of town; John and I have started making Raj come straight home from school. It feels like we’re stealing away his childhood, what’s left of it.
“Oh, kunju.” She is squeezing Raj too tightly again, pressing him against her sari-clad breast. When my mother was young, first immigrated to America, she had worn saris daily, but as the years passed, she’d adopted western dress – miniskirts in the 70s, slacks in the 80s, eventually even jeans. My sisters and I teased Amma about the miniskirts from the photos, given how she’d policed our own Catholic school uniforms. Our skirts had to reach further down than our fingertips could stretch. She protested, “That was the style!” We harassed her mercilessly, but Amma held firm. She’d always been strong-willed, the kind of person who knew her own mind, and would not be moved; she’d stood fast against the winds of change. I’d never thought that she could be toppled like this.
My son looks at me with pleading dark eyes, too well-mannered at fourteen to pull away, but clearly wanting his mother to rescue him. That’s my job, isn’t it? To save my children from anything that might ever hurt them? That was why we pulled them out of the defunded public school two years ago, where the newly-approved textbooks started rewriting history. The new charter school makes them say prayers before lunch, but at least they’ll still talk about Dr. King.
“Mom?” His voice breaks on the word, and I sigh, the sound lost in the human roar surrounding us. The line shifts, finally, taking us a few steps closer to the glass doors, where we must part ways. Only my mother will be allowed inside. Her returnee badge hangs, bright yellow, from a cord around her neck.
“Let him go, Amma.”
She squeezes tighter. “How can I? My angel, my brilliant boy. He will forget his Ammama.”
“I won’t, Ammama. I promise.” Raj says it fiercely, sincerely, and I know he means it in the moment. But the weight of years piles up; memories fade with distance, blurring at the edges.
When I was a child, letters came, from my grandparents in Sri Lanka. Thin blue paper, onionskin-thin, covered in cramped, tiny writing. The postage was expensive, especially given the exchange rate, so they crammed as many words as they could onto the page. My father wept, the only time child-me ever saw him cry, when word came on one of those letters of my grandfather’s death. Too far, too expensive, too difficult to cross the waters for the funeral. Appa might lose his job, and the job was the only thing letting him stay in America.
Now tears stand bright in my mother’s eyes, and she brings the edge of the cotton pallu up to mop them dry. Through the 90s and the 00s, saris almost disappeared from Amma’s daily wardrobe, brought out only in full splendor for weddings and similarly grand functions. Those were richly embroidered, shimmering gold and brilliant jewel tones, worn with her gold thali necklace and dozens of heavy gold bangles. Yesterday, packing up her belongings into the two small suitcases that were allowed, Amma insisted that my sisters and I keep the saris and the bangles – besides, she said, there will be nothing to celebrate there; I won’t need them.
Instead, she pulled out her old cotton saris, everyday wear. Women wear dresses and slacks in Sri Lanka too, of course, but my mother seems determined to return to the world of her childhood, a colonial world where children wear crisp white uniforms to school, where women dress in sun-faded saris, their long black hair pulled back into tight braids. Her own hair is liberally streaked with white now; she stopped coloring it when my father died.
Amma clings to Raj, as if his newly-tall frame can hold her upright, can anchor her here. But he has no power to save her. She came to America with her doctor husband, became a citizen, had three daughters. She expected to grow old and die here, as her husband had, just last year. But now, fifty years after their arrival, she has been denaturalized, her citizenship revoked with the stroke of the president’s pen.
Amma finally releases the boy, who takes a quick step back to my side. “You’ll come to visit?” Her voice, strong for so long, quavers. She has turned into an old woman overnight.
“Yes, Amma. Of course.” It is a bald-faced lie, and we both know it. My status is too precarious to risk leaving the country – I was brought in on a green card as a child, naturalized decades ago, but it is only my marriage to a white man that is letting me stay. All around us, brown people are lined up, entire families, each toting their two allowed suitcases. Some silent, trying to imagine what life might look like, in a homeland many left decades before. Most talking, talking, making plans, filling up the fear with words. So here I am, saying farewell to my mother. My sisters, who failed to marry white men, are already gone. “We’ll talk online. Every day.”
Amma grabs my arm, squeezes it hard, her fingers digging into the flesh. The nails on her hands are cracked – she hasn’t been taking care of them, hasn’t had a manicure or even applied polish in what looks like weeks. I should have been paying more attention, should have taken her to have them seen to. There’s been so much to do, and so little time to do it. “Talk to John. You must convince him to apply for jobs in Sri Lanka. That would be the best way.”
Sri Lanka doesn’t want him. They are unhappy enough at being forced to accept so many repatriated ex-citizens; strong-armed by U.S. diplomacy, the threat of American guns. As it is, they’ve created a new status for the returnees; my mother and sisters are allowed in, but denied the right to vote, to effect any kind of political change. And white people – white people aren’t welcome at all.
I have plenty of complaints about the Sri Lankan government, but on that one issue, I sympathize. My stomach roils with what white people, mostly white men, are doing to us. At night, I lie beside my husband and try not to blame him for other men’s cruelties. Sometimes I fail. Three nights ago, John slid his hand under the covers, reached to cup my breast, and I froze in response.
What’s wrong? he’d asked.
Just do what you want. Take what you want. That’s what your people do, isn’t it?
Unfair, unfair, but I’d wanted to hurt him, and I had. He let go, slid away, and we endured a cold silence until sleep finally, mercifully, descended.
I patted her hand on my arm gently, hoping it will convince her to loosen her grip. “Yes, Amma. I’ll talk to John.”
“He should have been here. You shouldn’t have had to drive me here yourself.” And then she is pulling me into her arms, and my face is buried against her soft neck, warm with the scent of jasmine and orangeblossom. My father had loved those scents, and it is as if they trigger something deep within me, tears that are rushing up, eager to burst free. I have been calm up until now. I have to stay calm, for her, for my son. My body is shaking with the force of my need to stay calm.
“John had something else he needed to do.” IUDs had gotten scarce, impossibly expensive, and most companies had stopped covering them. But John’s university insurance would still cover our ten-year-old, Jenny, who, thank god, was fair-skinned enough to pass for white. The underground clinics that served brown girls hadn’t been able to get their hands on IUDs for years.
It was just bad luck that the only opening the doctor had was on the same day my mother was leaving. I couldn’t tell Amma what they were doing – she was a good Catholic, an old-school Catholic, and she wouldn’t understand. Children are a blessing, she’d always said. They were, they were – unless you couldn’t care for them. Then, they simply broke your heart.
I wouldn’t let Jenny face that decision, not until she was an adult, at least. She hadn’t wanted to go this morning, not ready to accept what her still-maturing body might be at risk for, but I’d insisted. It was a parent’s job to protect their child, to make them do what was good for them, even when it hurt. Like the times I’d had to hold her still, despite protests and tears, to draw out a sharp splinter.
The line shifted again, and again, the movement finally separating us, breaking Amma’s hold on me. Here we are, at the doors, two security guards flanking them, impassive in their black riot gear. I hold out a suitcase to my mother, and Raj offers her the other; after the briefest of hesitations, she squares her thin shoulders and takes them in her hands. Amma bites her lip and turns away, passing between the guards and through the sliding doors without another word. Is that kindness, that she forebears a final plea? Or anger, that I am not coming with her? Probably both.
My sisters aren’t pleased that the responsibility of caring her is falling onto them – I am eldest, it is my job. But I have two children here who need me, now more than ever; they have to be my first priority.
As long as I am allowed, I will stay.