Notes on Being a Permanent Resident Alien and Other Tomfooleries

 

by Anaïs Duplan

 

I.

I don’t know if I’m allowed to claim to remember things from the womb. I suppose it’s a matter of whether I can claim to remember things I couldn’t possibly remember. I will plow forward nonetheless: My pregnant mother had heard about the riots near the city square. She and her friends gathered in their small Port-au-Prince apartment. They were all medical students. My mother didn’t believe it could be happening. There is something about a coup d’etat that always seems implausible, like the laws of physics couldn’t possibly allow for it. Even when they have happened before, when they are happening right before you, even when they will continue to happen, etc., etc. Our lives are built on small usurpations, etc.

They decided to go and see. They found a mass of people outside the capitol building, yelling and throwing their limbs into enraged postures. The excitement of the crowd, the inevitable excitement of violence, washed over my mother and her friends. It was not without fear. My mother turned around – why, why did she turn around – and spotted a car at the top of the street moving toward the crowd with its lights off. And what words did she say to her friends. What does one say? Someone must have yelled something – was it my mother – the way you’d expect someone to yell, “Fire!” in a burning building. The riot scattered as the unlit car sprayed bullets into the crowd. 

She clambered her way over a fence and fell over to the other side. She feared the impact had killed me. She kept running, making her way home by leaping from strategic shadow to strategic shadow. All the while, she listened for inaudible dangers and kept her eyes open for unlit disaster. I flinch every time a car drives by me. Just a small flinch. I am even wary of the Hyundai Sonata, with its headlights on, piloted by the woman clearly more interested in her cellphone than in unloading her pistol in my direction. 

 

II.

Coming into Panama, the man at la douane – I have never called it anything but that – did not believe that I was the same person as the baby pictured on my Permanent Resident Alien Card. “It was a long time ago,” I told him, trying to keep my rage where he couldn’t see it. He’d taken the card from me, looked it over, and then rumpled his face into some terrible expression, as though he’d just swallowed something bitter. “This isn’t you,” he’d pronounced. Someone whose job it is to photograph future Resident Aliens had taken that photo of me when I was three years old. It had been ten years since the photographing. I laughed. I’d meant it as a peace offering. Even as a thirteen-year-old unaccompanied minor in a foreign airport, I knew that immigration officers like the occasional smile, the pleasantries. The yes, I’m here to visit my grandmother, she is not doing very well. The oh we’re just here to see the sights, I’ve heard this country is so beautiful. It is not unlike when a prisoner compliments a guard on his new haircut. (Of course, it is most likely nothing like that.) 

He let me through, after cycling through a few variations of the rumpled face. “You need a new photo.” His parting words.

 

III.

I love this country. I mean, I really do love America. People aren’t really allowed to say that sincerely these days, but what do I care, it’s not my patriotism that counts. 

In the past year, a inexplicable yearning to become a citizen has swept over me. These are my streets, this is my supermarket, I belong here right here in this traffic jam, this traffic jam on an American freeway headed into an American city. These doughnuts are mine, these clothes. In my own country, I am unrecognizable. It is stupid to wear lipstick and cardigans and skinny jeans in a country where cholera and chikungunya are rampaging and taking lives every day. But I am irreparable. Whatever that three-year-old in the photo knew about being Haitian, I’ve since forgotten. I have been permanently marked with the stamp of this country. 

I want to sing that Lee Greenwood song with only a smidgen of irony. And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today. But it’s not about wanting. Do you want it? If so, how bad? is not a question on the naturalization form. You have to get approval from the office of so-and-so, who then sends your inquiry to so-and-so, who then demands that you produce the document that so-and-so said you did not need, and then you discover that although you’ve already paid 600 dollars and studied for the test, you need another 600 dollars and you don’t have to take the test, they won’t even let you take the test, even if you want to. John G. Roberts Jr. is the current Chief Justice of the United States.

 

IV.

“So, where are you from?”

“Uh, Eastern Mass, mostly. That’s where my mom lives.”

“Oh, really? Wow.”

“Yeah, she works up near Salem at this community health –”

“But where are you originally from?”

“Oh. Well, I believe my ancient ancestors originated in a tribe in Senegal. They were great folks. How ‘bout you?”

 

 

Anaïs Duplan's writing has appeared in Transom Journal and The Silo. She is also currently a 2014-2014 member of the HEIMA artist collective in Seydisjordur, Iceland, where she hopes to complete a series of woven spacesuits in the Afrofuturist tradition and to write a series of accompanying poems. She received  her B.A. from Bennington College. 

The Spared

by Melissa Valentine

 

I was busy getting my hair straightened while the rest of my family was viewing Junior’s body. I only saw pictures. The top of his head was wrapped up like a turban where the bullet had gone through to his brain and killed him. He had been running. He fell on 36th and West. One of his last breaths spent accepting Jesus from a neighborhood woman who was the only one brave enough and swift enough and close enough to be at his side. He had run through backyards, hopping over fences. I know he was used to running, but the terror he must have felt, not knowing on which street they would find him. If not today, then tomorrow, or the next day.  

And what had he done to be hunted like an animal? This I could not face. Why didn’t he flee, head for Alabama, change his name, save himself? Maybe he could have survived in another life, in some other disguise. In this life he chose the disguise of gangster, but underneath was a sweet boy, a sweet, lost boy. Oakland was his home, we were his family, and Shannon was his girl. He belonged here. 

In that part of town gunshots provided the background music, as commonplace as ice cream trucks, and therefore the ambulance took its time. They didn’t think of them with hearts, with families.  Doing so would require compassion and humanity. At Highland hospital—the homicide hospital—a desensitized doctor came to the room where they tell families that their family members are dead. I prayed to the deepest part of myself for him to make it. “He is not going to make it,” the doctor said. Then he said something about a vegetable and his sorrow, but that was all I could hear. It rang in my ears and the heaving cries of my family were echoes, all of it ricocheting in some other realm of existence. Where was I? And more importantly, who was I?

 

At the salon, I was distracted by the hairdresser’s drunkenness. I had never seen a working drunk before. My hair smoked underneath the hot iron until the tiny room was hazy. The woman waved away the smoke and took sips of her sweating soda cup full of ice and alcohol while she waited for the iron to get hot again. 
It was Shannon’s idea to get my hair straightened at a shop. Since Junior died, she had spent every night in my bed with me. I let her in. I was sad, too. Unintentionally, during the night we would spoon in my twin bed. She slept in a thong and a tee shirt. I never asked her why or told her to stop, but I often woke to find her bare ass cuddled against my pelvis.  We were both sad. Sometimes she woke up screaming or whimpering softly and I calmed her. In the morning she told me her dreams. They’d be about Junior. 

In those weeks just after he died, Shannon watched me. Sometimes it felt like a mother’s watch, sometimes like a sister’s, and sometimes it was distinctly like a child’s. She was looking for the strength to not crack open.  While the drunk smoked my head, Shannon watched me like someone who stares into traffic; we looked into a large mirror, too afraid to look at ourselves, we looked at my hair instead. 

“Do you like it?” Shannon asked. 

“I look different.” 

I was different. Now I was someone who had been spared. I had to go on living. It was a burden, especially in those first months after he died. Now I was someone who, no matter what, had to exist with a missing piece, a deep sadness hidden to the outside. Shannon’s remedy was to focus on the outside: fix our hair. My remedy was to slice up my flesh until I bled. On the nights I slept alone, I surrounded myself with photos of him and, as if I was a witch conducting a ritual, some form of sacrifice, I cut into my thighs with an exact-o knife until they bled. I carved a heart around a scar I’d gotten during one of our fights. I bled, I cried, but I felt nothing. 

We looked passed ourselves and focused on my hair. It shined, falling down over my shoulders, golden brown. I could pass for someone beautiful. We both knew that someone was pulling a drawer that contained Junior’s cold body out to be viewed, everyone weeping around him in an eerie refrigerated room. A turban-like cloth held the fragile bullet-wounded flesh of his head together. I couldn’t bear to be with the dead. I knew he wasn’t there. We were looking at the site where he used to live, now just a puffy, cold, animal version, caught and refrigerated. I didn’t want to see him that way.  The reality of what lay under that turban haunted me. He was a fallen soldier in a war. How did this happen? What lay under his turban was evidence of the war, evidence of the violence I heard about but never thought would affect me. Black boys were being murdered every day. I thought Junior was too smart, better. I thought somehow we were better than this ending.  They aired the story of his murder in a ten-second news clip, his face on the television, his face in the newspaper. All of Oakland saw and went on making their dinner. We all saw, everyday, and went on making our dinner. 

I thought we were survivors but I realized being a survivor is an illusion; it’s a story you tell yourself so you can keep on going. How could I go on? We, my siblings and I, had huddled together when times were rough. We told each other we had made it, we had each other at least; we weren’t alone. Well, one of us did not make it. What happens to the story now?  How could I live with these people who killed him, neglected him, did not teach him what it was to be a man so that he had to go in search of it? And they were killing me too, just more slowly, because I was becoming a woman. This world kills black women more slowly.  My parents. Oh, my parents. They were shells. Empty. How could I go on living? Who would teach me to be a woman? I was afraid. Who was I now that one of us hadn’t made it? I didn’t want to end up lost. Being lost meant death. 

What a vicious place. I wanted to get out. I was different alright. I wanted to get out. 

 

You are never ready. Junior had been yanked away from us and we could not find him. I talked to him and he did not answer. I began to float, not because I was free, but because I had nothing inside to anchor me. I was not aware of having bones or blood or a heart, I was just vaguely aware of existing, and even that felt wrong. It felt wrong to have the right to live when he’d been taken. My body no longer belonged to me, it belonged to the deep shame of the spared. I became a mild, bleary-eyed version of myself, the only emotion I could feel was despair and I was bound to it as if doing so would bring him back.

I wanted to see ghosts. 

 

The days leading up to his funeral were urgent, critical. Soon he would be gone forever, body and all. There had to be some action we could take. There wasn’t much time. 

In certain neighborhoods where these street wars go on with black boys as their soldiers, you see spots on the sidewalks with little teddy bears and crosses on them. These are little black boy graves, all over the streets. They say RIP and they have the boy’s affectionate name and a photo of his face. Junior’s grave site was an entire wall along a freeway exit that led up to a traffic light; the sidewalk led only to the freeway so no pedestrians walked there, only him, running desperately from bullets, hopping fences and running through backyards, ending up there. We had an entire wall and sidewalk to dedicate to him, across from which a block of houses sat; people probably watched us, but we didn’t care. We arrived on a mission, with giant graffiti pens and markers, spray paint, photos. We memorized poems and bible verses. I wrote him a letter begging him to come back.

I wanted to see ghosts. 

There were seven of us. We were missing one. Yet I could feel him there, wiping our tears and gently offering us hugs, a whisper telling me I would survive this. Being a survivor was not all it was cracked up to be. 

Someone had called the police on this family of vandals. A patrol car pulled up and told us we had to leave, that we could be arrested and fined, that we were defacing state property. We explained that this was the site where our brother and son had been murdered. He shook his head. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave,” he said. This was the kind of thing no one wanted to see. Yes, we were vandalizing state property, but we were also making art, a large-scale public grave for all to see who had died here, for all to see and acknowledge that many die here. No one wanted to see this evidence of war, evidence of these boys having been loved. The wall was quickly washed by the state of California and slowly decorative vines began to grow between cracks of cement and everyone who walked or drove by went back to making their dinner. 

 

On the day of his funeral I felt guilty all night for not having touched his cold body and getting my hair straightened instead. I didn’t recognize myself in straight hair. Who was I? Not looking like myself, it was easier to disassociate, ask myself: who am I now? I didn’t sleep much, but when I did, he was alive. The funeral was nothing but wet eyes and wrinkled brows. A clashing sea of black and white and brown sorrow.  These were our people, and Junior’s people. Junior’s best friend Marcus walked up to me and hugged me. I could feel his bulletproof vest against my chest. He had come to grieve for his friend on the white side of town, but was afraid he’d be shot. I looked around and saw the blur of the crowd beyond my watery eyes. A young black girl I’d seen before at school filmed the whole thing and narrated her version of the events. In the lobby where we’d hung family photos, his street friends looked at the photos as if seeing Junior for the first time.  White boy Chris came from this mixed up place where ghetto boys and girls and white Middle-aged Quakers from the Berkeley Meeting all knew some part of him and equally felt the devastation of the shortness of his life. Our old neighbors Julia and Josh came up to me with lips sealed, arms open. What do you say? Everyone opened their arms and was sorry.  That’s all I could see through my wet eyes—a bunch of open, sorry arms.  I was angry at Junior for choosing these people over us. Over me. I felt abandoned by him. There was no one left to protect me, I would have to protect myself. He had been wrong about them; none of them were his friends. I was mad at him for not knowing. Why hadn’t he known?  He wanted a life outside of our house, outside of our family. He ran away fiercely.

Shannon clung to me. She kept sleeping in my bed, seeking me in her thong. I talked to my friends about Shannon and her thong. They said she was probably just sad and missed my brother and I was the closet thing to him, not to worry, it wasn’t weird. Then, gradually she started to disappear. When we all started to be able to live and be sad at the same time. For many of us this was our first loss and we would have to learn how to bury it and go on. 

Junior was buried in the most beautiful spot in Oakland. You can see the entire city. He is between two redwood trees. The preacher—is that what they are called? The ones that speak at funerals? We didn’t know him. He was an employee of the funeral home and we didn’t know anyone else, so we let him say the necessary religious words. “Ashes, to Ashes,” he said. I screamed then. I wanted to get in the casket. I really did. And if that preacher man hadn’t grabbed me and consoled me in a way I thought was inappropriate, I would have. I pushed his hands off me as hard as I could and clutched my sister Vivian so tight we could have joined. Everyone and their sorrow. They were so sorry. 

While I convulsed and heaved and joined with my sister, Shannon looked down at the grassy ground. So did my parents, depleted. No one appreciated the view from where we stood, the fresh air, the birds, the trees. With the absence of Junior, there was no sound, no time, no air, no light. After the service, we scattered. Cornelius and our cousin promised they were going to “find that mother fucker,” the killer. More violence. Cornelius had already beat someone up for flipping him off at a red light. He’d left his car running in the middle of the street and walked up to the man and punched him through his open window.  I sat on the grass hill near Junior’s redwood trees and started at space, unable to see the view in front of me. The bulletproof vests left. The Quakers left. Everyone left and took their sorrow with them. Shannon sat on the curb above me, also staring at nothing. 

 

When I saw Shannon again, she was pregnant. At a grocery store near my high school I saw her coming out escorted by two of her girlfriends. She had my brother’s baby in there she said. I was an aunt. Whispers began about the medical miracle in Shannon’s belly. How many months is she? Why did she take so long to tell us? How can this be? 

Jewel was born eleven months after Junior died, healthy and hairy. She had a full head of black hair, which everyone noted. Even her arms and legs were fuzzy with soft black hair like a little, perfect monkey baby. Shannon could not hear the voices that whispered outside the hospital room where flowers and “It’s a Girl” balloons surrounded her. The baby was passed around the room and everyone got a chance to behold this perfect hairy child. Shannon smiled, in a daze. 

The voices spun: Good hair, too. She’s the right color. She looks Asian though. Look at her eyes. She’s so hairy. Just look at all that hair. She looks just like a little Chinese baby. Maybe she’s Chinese. Well, she’s the right color. Not real black. Not too black. Good hair. Nice hair. Lots of it. But Chinese. But the color is right. We’ll have to wait and see. A real cutie pie. Smart too. Like her daddy. Alert. How can this be? What can we say? What can we do? This is a tragedy. This is a miracle. 

 

 

Melissa Valentine is a writer and acquisitions editor living in Oakland, CA. She received her MFA in nonfiction from Mills College. In 2013, Melissa was a finalist for Glimmertrain’s Family Matters writing contest. Her work has appeared in Sassafras Literary Magazine. She is currently at work completing her memoir, The Names of All the Flowers. 

White Pants: A Recollection

by Danielle Jackson

 

I am newly 30. A new Brooklynite. It is the third week of May, so the early afternoon sun is a vibrant yellow and comfortably warm. My hair, recently blow-dried straight by the Dominican ladies on Putnam Avenue, bounces and moves with the wind just how I like it to. I am wearing short shorts, a beige blouse with a ruffled collar and a lightweight lavender cardigan. Tall, lovely Brenda and I meet between our two brownstones, giddily compliment each other’s outfits and hair and walk down Franklin Avenue, bypassing bodegas, the West African video rental spot, the Bed Stuy library and the huge mural of Old Dirty Bastard. Brenda is a model and actress and I work in advertising. We are trying a new place for brunch. 
 
Bush Baby is on Fulton Street near Bedford Avenue. Nearly everyone is black on these blocks, but there are many ways to be black: grand white bubou wearing holy man black; teenaged, baggy jean, fitted cap black; gray haired lady in nurse’s white church dress and panty-hose black; my and Brenda’s way, and so on. 
 
Less than six tables fill the small restaurant because of the large bar towards the back. The lighting is dim and amber hued even though it is daytime. Live orchids adorn the tables and the walls are made of exposed brick. There is music, I think Femi Kuti, playing over speakers. A sweaty and overweight waiter nods our way as he busily attends to a table of two men chatting in trendily tattered skinny jeans. “Sit anywhere,” he says. 
 
Brenda has just started online dating after a cruel and messy breakup with a Dominican bus boy. 
He cheated on her with nearly six different women over the course of three months. She’d known about some of the flings, but kept going back to him until one day the humiliation became too much. She tells me that she is excited to meet the new man she has been emailing. I tell her that I am on again with Drew. Just the night before, we have booked a trip to the Bahamas to work on our problems. A former collegiate basketball player, he is tall, fit, has an infectious smile. His manner is kind and gentle; his family is appropriate. But he does not read or like me to wear my hair curly and he hates that I burn Nag Champa and play Alice Coltrane in my apartment more than Jay Z. I don’t leave him, though. I don’t want to be alone like my mother. 
 
Between laughs and sips, Brenda and I order cocktails and consider the menu. There are traditional, vegetarian and vegan soul food dishes. A robust selection of black, green and white teas. The waiter comes to us, sweating still. We order salmon croquettes and croissants. 
 
The restaurant door opens and a tall, fortyish-looking bald man walks in with gleaming brown skin and a full beard with gray sprinkled throughout it. He wears a navy sweatshirt and white hued khakis rolled up around his ankles. His brow is very square, his eyes are black and piercing, and for quite some time, they don’t leave mine. He seats himself at the table closest to us, in the chair next to me. His socks are funny: neon green with navy and pink stripes.  Brenda and I continue our conversation, and without an invitation, the man in the white pantsjoins it, asking us our names. Another fortyish man walks in and sits across from the man in white pants, and somehow, we are all soon discussing the problems that black men and women have with relating. 
 
“Black women are ‘together’ professionally, but most are too emotionally immature to sustain a healthy relationship with a man. They have no idea how please him,” says the man in white pants. 
 
I am just as overpowered by the audaciousness of his sexist opinion as I am his physical beauty. Thinking of my mother and my sister whose daughter’s father is chronically unemployed and missing in action, I respond. “Are you serious? Black women may be ‘together’ but we are surrounded by men who aren’t and deal with them anyway, often to our detriment.” 
 
“You think the pool of eligible black women is so large?” the man in white pants asks. “I am vegan and very spiritual. The woman for me does yoga, eats healthy, she’s spiritually fluid. It isn’t easy to find.” 
 
“You never know what kind of person might be right for you until you find her. Standards are important, but I don’t know if detailed lists about what a person needs to eat and how she works out and how she thinks about God are necessarily the answer to finding love.” I am trying to make a case for solidarity. 
 
The friend interjects. “Well, the point is that black women are more of a mess than you guys like to believe about yourselves.” 
 
Tempers flare, but, eventually, I retreat, realizing that this argument is unwinnable. You don’t fight these battles over brunch and, to me, we are not on opposing sides of anything. The guy in the white pants and I begin a side conversation. 
 
“So do you prefer black men?” 
 
“I do,” I say, to my own surprise. This is not entirely true. I just prefer men. My childhood boyfriends were white, my coworker crush from two years before was Korean. 
 
“I like your socks.” 
 
He says thank you. Something happens to his face, maybe it relaxes, or contracts slightly. It changes. His fingers are very lean. 
 
Brenda and the other guy continue arguing, and I occasionally dip into their conversation to defend her. The man with the white pants and I talk about Paulo Coelho and Manning Marable’s new book on Malcolm X. There are smiles and long glances that I eagerly return. Uncharacteristically, I am not coy. It feels like spring on my skin to share this space with this stranger. My face flushes, my shoulders burn. I am aware that I have found an opening and arrived at a precipice. Everything about me is different. 
 
When it is time, Brenda and I pay our bill. I walk to the ladies’ room to reapply lipstick, fluff out my hair. The man with the white pants – his black eyes follow me until I return. Warm with adrenaline and anticipation, I linger a bit before offering a tentative goodbye. Brenda and I leave to wander back down Franklin Avenue, past the mural, bodegas, and video stores once more. 

 

 

Danielle Jackson is a freelance writer, blogger, and digital strategist. She is a Memphis-born Brooklynite.