Back then, all we wanted was the simplest things: to eat good food, to sleep at night, to smile, to laugh, to be well. We felt it was our right, as much as it was anyone’s, to have those things. Of course, when I think about it now, I see that I was naive. I was blinded by the swell of hope and the promise of possibility. I assumed that everything that would go wrong in our lives already had.
We’re Americans now. We’re citizens, and if someone asks me where my home is, I say los Estados Unidos. I say it proudly. Of course, we still miss Panamá. Celia is desperate to go back and visit. But I worry what it would be like after all this time. We thought it was unrecognizable when we left, but I have a feeling it would be even more unrecognizable now. Sometimes I think I would rather just remember it in my head, all those streets and places I loved. Because a place can do many things against you, and if it’s your home or if it was your home at one time, you still love it. That’s how it works.
I dropped the hot dog into a pot of water. I could hear Arturo behind me, working through his thoughts, trying to box in his frustration. After all these years, I could interpret his various silences. I knew he didn’t want to say any more about it. I didn’t want him to, either.
Finally, “She’s in the bedroom?” he asked.
“She’s resting,” I said. “The hot dog will be ready soon,” I added, as if it were some sort of consolation. But when Arturo didn’t say anything, I felt acutely the meagerness of it, the insufficiency. We wanted more. We wanted what we had come here for.
English was such a dense, tight language. So many hard letters, like miniature walls. Not open with vowels the way Spanish was. Our throats open, our mouths open, our hearts open. In English, the sounds were closed. They thudded to the floor. And yet, there was something magnificent about it. There was no usted, no tu. There was only one word—you. It applied to all people. Everyone equal. There were no words that changed from feminine to masculine and back again depending on the speaker. A person was from New York. Not a woman from New York, not a man from New York. Simply a person.
“It’s in you,” my dad assured me once. “You were born in Panamá. It’s in your bones.”
I spent a lot of time trying to find it in me, but usually I couldn’t. I felt more American than anything, but even that was up for debate according to the kids at school who’d taunted me over the years. The truth was that I didn’t know which I was. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim.
I missed my mother, but the truth was that I had missed her even when we were together, so it was nothing new.
I was a worrier by nature and I couldn’t escape the feeling that anything could happen to her at any time. As if because something terrible had happened to her once, there was more of a possibility that something terrible would happen to her again. Or maybe it was merely that I understood how vulnerable she was in a way I hadn’t before. I understood how easily and how quickly things could be snatched away.
“What if God wants us to be happy? What if there’s nothing else around the bend? What if all our unhappiness is in the past and from here on out we get an uncomplicated life? Some people get that, you know. Why shouldn’t it be us?”
The area is changing. A clash of cultures. I try to make this building like an island for all of us washed-ashore refugees. A safe harbor. I don’t let anyone mess with me. If people want to tell me to go home, I just turn to them and smile politely and say, “I’m already there.”
“Next time, just try to blend in with everyone else and you’ll be fine,” my mom offered.
“The way of the world,” my dad said.
“What?” my mom asked.
“Just trying to blend in. That’s the way of the world.”
“Well, that’s the way of America, at least,” my mom said.
On my walk home sometimes, as I stepped back down into that cellar apartment, my eyes heavy from exhaustion, I would think, Is this what this is? This country? My life? Is this all? But even when I thought that, I was always aware of some other part of me saying, there is more. And you will find it.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. We had followed the rules. We had said to ourselves, We won’t be like those people who pack up and [go] north without waiting for the proper authorization. We were no less desperate them. We understood, just as they did, how badly a person could want a thing—money, or peace of mind, or a better education for their injured daughter, or just a chance at this thing called life. But we would be different. We would do it the right way. So we filled out the papers and waited nearly a year before they let us come. We waited even though it would have been so much easier not to wait. And for what?
We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?
Both of us were trying to make sense of it. And sitting there, I started thinking, Who can say whose fault it is? Who can say who set this whole thing in motion? Maybe it was Maribel. Maybe it was me. Maybe if I hadn’t left school that day, none of this would have happened. Maybe if our parents hadn’t forbidden us from seeing each other, I wouldn’t have needed to steal her away. Maybe if my dad had never bought that car, I wouldn’t have had a way to get to the beach. Maybe it was my tía Gloria’s fault for giving my dad the money [to] buy it. Maybe it was my tío Esteban’s fault for being a jerk she would need to divorce to get that money. You could trace it back infinitely. All these different veins, but who knew which one led to the heart? And then again, maybe it had nothing to do with any of us. Maybe it really was completely random, just something that happened.
“You could come back one day,” I said. “Or I could come there.”
“I could find you.”
Maribel shook her head. “Finding is for things that are lost. You don’t need to find me, Mayor.”
It was only a word—justice. It was only a concept, and it wasn’t enough.
I took most of the garbage bags that I had piled in the hallway out to the alley. Maribel helped me carry the mattress down to the parking lot, where we left it. Somebody else could have all of it if they wanted. I didn’t need it anymore.
There she was again. The person Arturo and I had been waiting for, the reason for all of this. And as I looked at her I saw that maybe she had been here all along. Not exactly the girl she used to be before the accident, which was the girl I thought I had been searching for, but my Maribel, brave and impetuous and kind. All this time I had been buried too far under my guilt to see her. I had been preoccupied with getting us to the United States because I wanted it to make her whole again. I believed that I had lost my daughter and that if I did the right things and brought us to the right place, I could recover the girl she used to be. What I didn’t understand—what I realized now—was that if I stopped moving backwards, trying to recapture the past, there might be a future waiting for us.