“I tried to reason with them. I told them this was a mistake, and I could fix it. But they didn’t want to hear it. They just wanted me out—but that wasn’t the worst, Jas.”
I can feel myself getting angrier. How could they humiliate my mother, a woman who works twice as hard as anyone else, for not having the papers they were apparently willing to overlook for years?
Mom continues her story. “‘Go get your daughter,’ my boss said. ‘We don’t want two illegals in here.’ After all you were doing for them, neneng. After you’ve been working so hard on their project. After all you’ve done for the patients. I’m so sorry.”
I’ve never felt so ashamed. And now I’m terrified for our entire family.
What happens to illegals in this country?
I’m afraid we’re about to find out.
Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.
—JHUMPA LAHIRI, INTERPRETER OF MALADIES
YOU KNOW HOW people say “life goes on”? Well, life does go on. I take my midterms, I go to cheer practice, I become a bit of a robot, keep my head down and try not to think about the future and what it will or won’t bring. I don’t know what to do about the National Scholarship. When Mrs. Garcia sees me in the hallway, she reminds me that I have to turn in the acceptance form so the foundation can make my travel arrangements. I tell her I will soon.
Kayla and Dylan are hot and heavy and I rarely see her outside of practice. Royce and I have sent a few more texts back and forth, and he mentioned he’s been busy with school, which is why he wasn’t able to visit me at the hospital. But that he was there last Monday, and was looking for me but didn’t see me. I didn’t want to tell him I’m not allowed there anymore—it’s too painful. So I lied and told him my project is over and I won’t be at the hospital again anytime soon. Which is sort of the truth.
He sends me a Snapchat of himself falling off a kiddie scooter, to show that he’s bummed about that, but I don’t send him one back.
It’s like Kayla said—I do sort of believe he lives on another planet. One with no problems.
I did well on my midterms, except for an uncharacteristic B+ in AP Calculus. Don’t know if it was because I was stressed, or an honest mistake on the equation. Dad doesn’t make his usual joke about B’s being Asian F’s. No one thinks anything is funny in my house lately. In European History, Kissinger has just convinced Brezhnev to attend the SALT talks, and the Cold War is thawing.
I wish it would at home too. Mom hasn’t worked for three weeks now. It’s eating at her. She’s spending a huge amount of time reading the news online, watching TV shows, calling all kinds of people about our situation. Lawyers too, even though it’s clear we can’t afford any of them.
Dad’s home for dinner for the first time all week. He picked up some extra hours driving buses on the evening shift, since Mom isn’t working anymore. I used to complain that we had to eat at the table, but now I realize how much I miss having everyone gathered together, talking and laughing and stuffing our faces with Mom’s food.
Mom and I made Dad’s favorite dinner—a whole fried chicken and pancit with minced green onions, shredded cabbage, carrots, pork tenderloin, peeled shrimp, and soy sauce, working silently beside each other to prepare it. Even though I’m watching my weight, I heap a second helping onto my plate.
“It’s nice to see my family for a change,” Dad says. He squints, peering at Danny and Isko. “It’s awfully quiet at this dinner table. You boys must be up to some mischief. I know you too well.”
Isko giggles and Danny kicks him under the table. “We’re not up to anything,” Danny says. “Huh, Isko?”
“Nuh-uh. Not us,” Isko says. “We’re not up to no good.”
Cutting off a piece of fried chicken, I correct him. “You mean you’re not up to any good.”
“Yeah!” Isko says. “That’s what I mean.”
“Dumb little brother. She’s tricking you,” Danny says. He stands up, takes his plate to the sink, and returns to the table. “Can I be excused?”
Not looking up from his plate, Dad tells him to sit down. “Spend some time with your family. You act more like a teenager than your sister.”
“Leave him alone,” Mom says. “You don’t have to compare them.”
“I just want to spend some time with my children. Is that so terrible? I wanted to spend every minute with my father when I was Danny’s age. When he came home from harvesting sugarcane, I would pull his boots off his feet. It was an honor to take off his shoes. And now I can’t even get my boys to eat dinner with their family for more than fifteen minutes.”
“Okay. So does that mean I have to stay?” Danny asks.
“Sit down,” Dad says.
Danny sulks over to his seat and plops down on the chair. From under his butt comes the sound of a long, gassy explosion. Pfffffffft!
Danny jumps up. “Aw! Man!”
Isko doubles over, laughing so hard he’s gasping for air.
Danny picks up the whoopee cushion from his seat. He throws it at Isko but misses. It lands on top of the pancit. Dad’s face turns red.
At first we think Dad is going to yell but then both Mom and I try to stifle our giggling, and soon we can barely keep the laughter back. It’s the thing that cracks the Cold War, and Dad laughs too. It’s then that I realize nothing has changed, really. We’re still our family. We’re still here in America. At least for now.
“It’s not my fault that Danny’s a stinkatron,” Isko says.
Danny fights back. “You’re the gas master!”
“Hey, Isko. You know what they call King Kong’s little brother?”
Isko, shaking his head, smiles mischievously.
“Okay! Enough! Out!” Dad yells, shooing them away from the table. “Water your mother’s garden. Then you go to your room and finish your homework.”
Danny starts to complain that there’s an art project he wants to finish, but Dad won’t accept any arguing.
I take the dishes to the sink and begin rinsing them while Mom and Dad sit at the table talking. It’s mostly small talk at first. After a few minutes, though, I can hear them arguing with each other even over the running water. “This isn’t the end,” Dad says. “There are plenty of undocumented workers in this city. You don’t even need papers. Work under the table.”
“I liked working at the hospital.” Mom pouts. “Cleaning houses or offices isn’t going to pay enough. And there won’t be any benefits.”
I put the dishes in the dishwasher loudly, letting them know I can hear everything they’re saying, but Mom doesn’t lower her voice.
“I have to work a job that pays at least as much as the hospital. Or else we’ll lose the house. We have two boys who will soon be eating everything in sight. How will I keep up with them?”
When I had asked them earlier how they bought the house in the first place, they said anyone can buy real estate in America if you don’t need a loan. Tito Sonny had loaned them money to buy the house and over the years they had been able to pay him back.
I finish the dishes and sit back down at the table. I hate hearing my parents argue about money, but I want to be part of the conversation. I don’t want them to hide anything from me anymore.
“I could start working,” I say. “I’ll give up cheer and get a job.” If they can work with fake papers, so can I.
“No, Jasmine,” Dad says. “You have to focus on school.”