Volume 33, Number 2


Claire Chow

While I was at Sue and Jeff’s enjoying some excellent merlot, I started worrying about the blood alcohol thing. Usually I’m very careful to measure and pace my drinking so that there can be no question. But this particular evening, with such good friends, celebrating such good news, I allowed myself to get caught up in the general merriment and let my guard down.

Sue and Jeff are among my closest friends and describe themselves as “white-bread Americans.” Honestly, when we first met, it was hard to see how we would have much in common. They grew up in a small town in Kansas, she was someone he called “the girl next door.” They had never eaten a single taco in their lives until they were teenagers, and then at a Taco Bell. When I told Jeff that, where I grew up, we ate as many as 20 tortillas a day, he simply did not believe me. “Didn’t you get tired of them?” he asked. I decided to answer honestly. “When you’re hungry, you eat whatever’s available.”

I was a hungry child. I had a hard time sitting still, and my mother was constantly exasperated with me. I wanted so much: more dinner, more attention, more books to read, more affection, more answers to impossible questions. Why did Abuelo limp like that? Why did he sometimes start screaming for no reason? Why did he cuddle me sometimes and then act as if I were just a huge nuisance? Once, I told mama that I thought my Abuelo was really in pain and needed help. She hushed me and said that these were things I didn’t need to be thinking about. And then she sighed loudly, as if I were yet again asking her for something she simply did not have permission to give.

When I got to the US at the tender age of eight, I was terrified but also exhilarated. I learned to sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut and always say yes to my aunt, Maria Camila. I told her daily that I was grateful for giving me a bed to sleep in and helping me get to school every day. And truly, I was. Because even though I missed my family and home in such a visceral way that I couldn’t even put words to the feeling, because even though I had no friends at school and children said some horrible things to me, and despite the fact that I still occasionally soiled myself, unable to hold it any longer, but too timid to raise my hand and ask for permission to use the restroom, I still understood the opportunities available to me here.

Here, a girl like me could get an education and dream bigger dreams. My aunt, my cousins and especially my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Chu, helped me believe that wanting more, seeking wider horizons, feeling the hunger for knowledge burning in the pit of your stomach like something sacred: all of this was not crazy for me to contemplate. The teacher even asked me to come to the front of the class one day and read my story, “The Unexpected Plane Ride,” about how I had made it to this country by flying, for the first time in my life, on an airplane. I dealt with my fears about my new living arrangements by trying to make up a story about each passenger on board. I gave them all names and characters and to a few, good, generous hearts.

I count Sue and Jeff at the top of my list of encouragers and supporters. They are lending me money to help finance my education because even 40 plus hours at CVS doesn’t leave me enough to pay rent and tuition. They drop off goodies and toilet paper when they make a Costco run, but mostly, they believe in me even when I have my private doubts. And the thing is, by all rights, they should not. Their parents are good heartland people, but they believe that their country doesn’t need any more immigrants, especially those with darker skins. So Sue and Jeff lie to their parents, and they keep on loving me.

As our celebratory evening draws to a close, Sue gets up to make an announcement. “Listen up, folks! Not only are we getting married next June, we’ll be having the ceremony in Paris! We’ve loved each other for a long time, but honest to God, it was only during that last trip, on the steps of the Sacré-Coeur, that we decided to make it official. The wedding will be small, but it means everything in the world to us that each of you here tonight be there to celebrate. I personally will not take no for an answer!”

I drive home slowly, concentrating on following every traffic regulation to the letter of the law, aware of the soft blush of merlot circulating through my body. Even with my official papers, which I carry at all times, I still freak out about any possible encounter with a person in uniform. But this fear, which lives in me always like a small but potentially malignant cell, was not foremost on my mind. I just could not imagine how to tell my best friends that, ineligible for a passport, I would not be able to join them in Paris for this most happy of days. And I could not stop myself from asking how this was fair.

For a moment, I was back there again, six years old and asking my mother about something or for something that was none of my business. “Stop asking so much. Stop wanting so much” she would have said to me.