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We drive as if in a dream.
Up I-95, past the Triborough Bridge, chunks of black ice floating in the East River. Me and Aisha hunched in the back, a green airline bag wedged between us filled with Ma's luchis and spiced potatoes. Abba in the front, clutching the steering wheel, Ma hunched against the rattling door.
We keep driving even as snowflakes clump on the wipers, and poor Abba can barely see. Coconut flakes, Ma jokes. We'll go outside and scoop them up, and I'll make you some polao. But the jokes lie still in our throats.
Up the East Coast, past all these places I've seen only in maps: Greenwich, New Haven, Providence, Rhode Island. Hour after hour, snow slanting down. And in my head, words keep drumming: Special Registration. Deportation. Green card. Residency. Asylum. We live our lives by these words, but I don't understand them. All I know is we're driving straight through to that squiggle of a line on the map, the Canadian border, to apply for asylum.
Unspoken questions also thud in our minds. What happens if we get stopped and they see Abba's expired license? Should Ma wear slacks and a sweater so she doesn't stand out so much? Should Aisha drive, even though it's supposed to be a secret that she knows how? We ask some of these questions out loud, and others we signal through our eyes.
When we reach Boston, Aisha wakes up and starts to cry. That's where she hoped she'd live one day. Aisha always knew that she wanted to be a doctor going to Harvard Medical School. Even back in Dhaka she could ace her science and math exams, and when Abba was in Saudi Arabia working as a driver, he used to tape her reports to his windshield and boast about his daughter back home who could outdo all the boys. In those days Abba wasn't afraid, not of anything, not even the men who clucked and said Aisha would be too educated to find a husband, or the friends who worried that he'd be stuck with me, his fat and dreamy second daughter. Sometimes I hate being the one who always has to trail after Aisha. But sometimes it feels safe. I'm nestled in the back, not seen.
Ma pats Aisha on the hand. "Don't worry," she whispers. "All this, it's just for a while. We'll get you in to a university in Canada."
"McGill!" Abba booms from the front seat. "A top-rate school!"
"It's too cold!" I complain.
Aisha kicks me. "Shut up," she hisses, then speaks softly to my father's back. "Whatever you say, Abba."
Aisha and I, we never hit it off, really. She's the quick one, the one with a flashing temper whom Abba treats like a firstborn son, while I'm the slow-wit second-born who just follows along. Sometimes I think Abba is a little afraid of Aisha. It's like she always knew what she wanted, and he was put on this earth to answer her commands. Back in Dhaka when Abba wasn't sure about going to America, she cut out an article and put it in his lap: a story about a Bangladeshi girl who'd graduated top of her class in economics and now worked for the World Bank.
"We may be one of the poorest countries in the world," she told Abba. "But we're the richest in brains."
Abba laughed then. Where did an eight-year-old learn to say such things?
That's the way it always was. Oh, did you hear what the teacher said about Aisha today? "Your sister!" The other girls would whisper to me. "She's different." But what kills me is that Aisha always says the right thing. She asks Ma if she's low on mustard oil for cooking, or Abba if he asked the doctor about the better ointment for his joints.
It's hard to have a sister who is perfect.
In Portland, Maine, Abba pulls into a gas station. He looks terrible: Dark circles bag around his eyes. He's wearing one of his favorite sweater vests, but after ten hours on the road it looks lumpy and pulled. Ma scrambles out of the car to use the bathroom. As she pushes across the station, I notice the pale bottom of her shalwar kameez flutter up around her jacket. She presses it down, embarrassed. The attendant is staring at her, the gas pump still in his hand. He's Sikh, with soft, almond shaped eyes, and he smiles at her sweetly, as if he understands, and Ma gets up her nerve and pushes inside the metal door.
After, she takes one look at the two of us and says softly, "We need to stop for some food. These poor girls, they look faint."
When we go inside the small diner, Ma looks funny sitting in the booth, drawing her cardigan across her chest, touching her palms to the ends of her hair. Even though Aisha and I hang out at Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's all the time, my family rarely goes out to restaurants. Ma's always afraid that they'll ask her something and the English words won't come out right. Now she glances around nervously, as if she expects someone to tap us on the shoulders and tell us to leave. "What if they say no at the border?" she whispers. "What if Canada turns us down?"
Abba sighs, wearily rubbing his eyes. "It could happen. No one guarantees asylum."
We've been over this again and again. We know the risks. If Canada turns us down for asylum, we have to go back across the American border, and Abba will probably be arrested because our visas to America have long since run out. And then we don't know what could happen. Maybe one day we will get U.S. residency. Or maybe we'll just be sent back to Bangladesh. But maybe -- just maybe -- Canada will let us in.
Abba continues, "Look, Aisha has to begin university in the fall. This is for the best." But he doesn't sound so sure.
Aisha leans her head on Ma's shoulder, her frizzy hair falling in a tumble over her cheeks. "Don't worry, Ma. It'll be okay. We'll get to Toronto and you'll open your restaurant, right?"
A little burn of envy sears right through me. I don't know how Aisha does it, but she always cheers up my parents. Ma and Aisha look a lot alike: They're both fair skinned and thin, and they're these incredible mimics. Ma's always picking things up from TV, where she's learned most of her English.
"Abba, why don't you tell us a story?" Aisha asks.
Abba sits back, his fingers resting lightly on the Formica tabletop, his face relaxed.
I should have asked that. After all, it's usually me who sits around with the elders listening to their stories. Nights when Aisha's in her room studying, I'll sit curled next to Abba and Ma, my head against their legs, and they'll tell me about Bangladesh and our family. Even though we left when I was seven, sometimes if I close my eyes, it's as if I were right there. I remember the boroi tree outside our house, the stone wall where Ma slapped the wash dry, the metal cabinet where Abba kept his schoolbooks. Abba carries his stories carefully inside him, like precious glass he cradles next to his heart.
"I'll tell you about the stationery."
We all grin. We've heard this story before, but it's comforting -- like sinking into the dense print of one of the old books Abba brought with him from Bangladesh.
"Your great-grandfather used to work as a printer. When he was old and ready to return to our village, the man he worked for gave him a box of the best stationery with his own name printed across the top. Grandfather used to keep that stationery in a special box with a lock. Even when he was old and blind, sometimes he brought it out, and we children would run our fingers over the raised print. Grandfather never wrote anyone with those pages. Who was he going to write to on that fine stationery with the curvy English print?
"After I saw your mother, I wanted to impress her. So I sneaked into my grandfather's room, and I stole a sheet of paper, used my best inkwell and pen, and copied out a beautiful poem. When Grandfather found out, he was furious!"
"Were you punished?" I ask.
Abba nods. "I was, and rightly so. Not only did I deceive my grandfather, but I was not off to a very good start with your mother! She thought I was a rich man who could write poetry. But I was only a poor student who could copy from books." He glances over at Ma. "And I'm still a poor man!"
"Hush," Ma scolds. But I can see she is pleased. She looks gratefully at Aisha, and my stomach twists with jealousy.
"Are you done with those?" I ask, pointing to the last of my sister's fries.
Her nose wrinkles. "No, greedy girl." And she pops the rest into her mouth.
I remember when we first arrived at the airport in New York, how tight my mother's hand felt in mine. How her mouth became stiff when the uniformed man split open the packing tape around our suitcase and plunged his hands into her underwear and saris, making us feel dirty inside. Abba's leg was jiggling a little, which is what it does when he's nervous. Even then we were afraid because we knew we were going to stay past the date on the little blue stamp of the tourist visa in our passports. Everyone does it. You buy a fake social security number for a few hundred dollars and then you can work. A lot of the Bangladeshis here are illegal, they say. Some get lucky and win the Diversity Lottery so they can stay.
Once we got here, Abba worked all kinds of jobs. He sold candied nuts from a cart on the streets of Manhattan. He worked on a construction crew until he smashed his kneecap. He swabbed down lunch counters, mopped a factory floor, bussed dishes in restaurants, delivered hot pizzas in thick silver nylon bags. Then Abba began working as a waiter in a restaurant on East Sixth Street in Manhattan. Sixth Street is lined with Indian restaurants, each a narrow basement room painted in bright colors and strung with lights with some guy playing sitar in the window. They're run by Bangladeshis, but they serve all the same Indian food, chicken tandoori and biryani, that the Americans like. Every night Abba brought home wads of dollars that Ma collected in a silk bag she bought in Chinatown.
The thing is, we've always lived this way -- floating, not sure where we belong. In the beginning we lived so that we could pack up any day, fold up all our belongings into the same nylon suitcases. Then, over time, Abba relaxed. We bought things. A fold-out sofa where Ma and Abba could sleep. A TV and a VCR. A table and a rice cooker. Yellow ruffle curtains and clay pots for the chili peppers. A pine bookcase for Aisha's math and chemistry books. Soon it was like we were living in a dream of a home. Year after year we went on, not thinking about Abba's expired passport in the dresser drawer, or how the heat and the phone bills were in a second cousin's name. You forget. You forget you don't really exist here, that this really isn't your home. One day, we said, we'd get the paperwork right. In the meantime we kept going. It happens. All the time.
Even after September 11, we carried on. We heard about how bad it had gotten. Friends of my parents had lost their jobs or couldn't make money, and they were thinking of going back, though, like my father, they'd sold their houses in Bangladesh and had nothing to go back to. We heard about a man who had one side of his face bashed in, and another who was run off the road in his taxi and called bad names. Still people kept coming for pooris and alu gobi on Sixth Street; still Abba emptied his pockets every night into Ma's silk bag. Abba used to say, "In a bad economy, people want cheap food. Especially cheap food with chili peppers that warms their bellies."
But things got worse. We began to feel as if the air had frozen around us, trapping us between two jagged ice floes. Each bit of news was like a piece of hail flung at us, stinging our skins. Homeland Security. Patriot Act. Code Orange. Special Registration. Names, so many names of Muslims called up on the rosters. Abba had a friend who disappeared to a prison cell in New Jersey. We heard of hundreds of deported Iranians from California and others from Brooklyn, Texas, upstate New York. We watched the news of the war and saw ourselves as others saw us: dark, flitting shadows, grenades blooming in our fists. Dangerous.
Then one day my cousin Taslima's American boyfriend came over and explained the new special registration law: Every man over eighteen from certain Muslim countries had to register. Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Some did, and were thrown in jail or kicked out of the country. More and more we heard about the people fleeing to Canada and applying for asylum there, instead of going into detainment. Abba's friends came over in twos and threes. Ma served them sweets and doodh-cha -- milky tea -- and they'd talk. About starting again in the cold country up north. A new life. The Canadians are friendly, they liked to say.
"There comes a time," Abba said grimly, "when the writing is right there on the wall. Why should we wait for them to kick us out?" He added, "I want to live in a place where I can hold my head up."
One evening Abba came into our bedroom, a quiet, sad look on his face. "Take that down," he said to Aisha. He was pointing to her Britney Spears poster, the only one she was allowed. Ma opened the closets and folded all her saris and shalwar kameezes into the nylon suitcases we used when we came here. We could tell no one -- not even our best friends at school -- what we were doing.
Abba asked me to bring out my map of the northeast. After I laid the map open on the dining table, Abba showed us the thick arteries of highways, the spidery blue line of the border. "There," he said. "We have to go there and apply for asylum."
I swallowed, my throat very dry. What happens if they don't let us in? I kept thinking.
The next morning we woke to a scraping and coughing noise and saw the blue Honda by the curb.
Copyright © 2006 by Marina Budhos