Monday, December 26, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas Past















"I......want Charles in charge of me.  Ieeeeeeeeeee, want Charles in charge of me....." the young, Kroger employee sang over and over while I checked myself out.  I laughed.  Was that the song from that awful, Scott Baio TV show, post Happy Days?  Way post Happy Days, when Chachi had to acknowledge that it was the '80s?  I thought it was some weird joke at first, until I could still hear him singing it as I walked out of the front door.

"Ieeeeeeeeeeeeeee, want Charles in charge of me............".

I was driving south, way south, toward the Stewart Detention Center.  The dead grass looked kind of golden.  I woke up.  I knew why I was dreaming about this for the second night in a row.  Alejandro has been free almost ten months, but Cristian is not.  And he's headed to Stewart on Monday.  Sundays at Stewart.  Again.  Do the people still cry when the let the guys come out and sit on the other side of the glass and pick up the phone?  Cry like I did, to see an innocent person locked in jail for not being able to produce a driver's license?  Do the kids still smear the glass with their hands when they see their fathers?  Do people still sit out in the car for hours, afraid to come inside, unable to come inside because they don't have the documents to visit, but still willing to make the drive, still willing to at least be as close as they can, even if that means sitting in the parking lot, without laying an eye on the person they came to see?

I remembered the Christmas that Walter Garcia and I spent, driving my shitbox of a car around, holiday songs on the radio, with a dead dog in the back, looking for the Humane Society.  The Cremation Society.  Our roommate was going to kill us.  But it wasn't our fault.

"Do you know we haven't gotten paid yet?" Miranda asked, as she dropped her class off for Spanish on the last day before the break.  Huh?   Our checks always go through, at like five in the morning.  It was afternoon.  Hijole, what the fuck?

"I don't care when the money clears my account.  Can you just give me the pay stub, even though I haven't gotten the money?" I asked the accountant impatiently.  We are supposed to close on our, well, HOUSE in a little more than a week.  The lender wanted that check stub to finalize our loan.  Our mortgage.  On our first house.  Why was my job fucking this up?

I remember the hissing of cats in our kitchen, followed by the distinct sounds of cats fighting.  Alec and I sprang out of bed.  It was Christmas, ten years ago.  We didn't own cats, but were pretty partial to the Orange Cat, a big stray that roamed the apartment building we lived in.  He would jog with me like a dog and run to me when I called him from all the way across the parking lot.  The one that we didn't use, but had cars in it that Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer would drive.  We had a cat door that we kept open for him.  He would come and go as he pleased, eat, get in bed with us, relax a bit. He was our perfect pet.  No commitment.  Independent.  And now he was knee deep in a snarling fight with a big, mysterious black asshole cat in our kitchen.  It had followed him in.  Alec has never been a cat owner and is not versed in how to respond to their fights.  He grabbed the Orange Cat, afraid that he would get hurt in the fight.  Orange transformed himself into a viper and sunk his teeth directly into Alec's forearm, and then ran out the cat door.  He returned a few minutes later, as if nothing had happened and laid down on our bed.  A few days later, Alec was on an IV in the emergency room.  We didn't know cat bites were so nasty. 

"Why were you in Mexico?" the lender's email asked for the millionth time.  I don't know, running from the law.  Selling drugs.  All kinds of shit.  "I was on a Fulbright grant" I explained, again.  "My employment was not interrupted.  Nothing scandalous.  Congressionaly funded, educational exchange". 

No one was helping me with the check stub.  The tension was mounting in my head.  And, the second graders were making Puerto Rican musical instruments in class.  A recipe for disaster.  Me, ready to explode, them, with homemade maracas. I didn't want to be a dickhead.  I planned the lesson, because I knew that they would love it.  I finally got the class lined up to "assault", or surprise carol, the secretary at our school.  I heard a loud bang as something hit the wall of the classroom.  Norman started yelling furiously at no one in particular and running around like a nut.  He had beamed his "guiro" across the room, trying to hit another student.   Everyone stopped, stunned.  "What the HELL was that?"  I asked loudly, in front of twenty-two second graders.  "She said 'hell'" someone whispered.

Great. 

I remember when Cristian was deported the first time.  It was over the holidays.  It went on for months, his parents paying bond after bond only to see him transferred to another jail in another state.  They were distraught.  Holly and I started volunteering in the desert that summer, after he'd been sent "home", to the country he didn't even remember, alone.  He was trying to get back and we knew it.  Every young man we met made us think of him.  Especially the sick one and his friend.  The sick one that flew up into the sky while his friend was shackled and frisked and fire lined the mountains and smoke filled the air.

And it's happening again.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Holly Jolly

The exacto knife dove into my finger.  Instinctively I grabbed it and squeezed.  The kids gasped, still holding their hand made, sandwich bag piñatas. The knife was supposed to be punching holes in the  piñatas, not shoved into my finger.

"Does it hurt?!" someone asked.
"No, no, I'm just afraid to look."

I let go of my finger.  Blood smeared my hands.  They all gasped again.  The kids in that class can be real assholes.   I'm surprised they don't drink blood.  One grabbed the first aid kit and put a band aid on my finger.  Another kid, an especially violent one, bolted out of the classroom.  I had no idea why.  Looking for a pitchfork to finish the job?  He ran back in, holding a small, wet paper towel to clean the blood off of my hand.  I was surprised.  It was actually one of the nicest moments I've had with that group in a year and a half of teaching them.  I always knew that they needed to see blood. 

Dau looked beautiful.  And excited.  More than excited, as if she couldn't stop smiling, her perfect white teeth shining against her dark skin.  I have always loved her.  She was in my class during my second semester of teaching.  I taught her again the following year.  She insisted on having my cell phone number on the last day of class.  I was reluctant, but gave it to her, though she was a student.  I was so glad I did.   I followed her through graduation and the frightening period when I lost her.  I always remember standing in the nearest "town" in the Arizona desert that had a cell phone signal and calling my old principal, the one I hated, to tell her that Dau was in trouble, she needed help, her financial aid for college had fallen through and she didn't know what to do.  The principal that claimed to mentor her because it would look good to have a Sudanese mentee.  I couldn't do anything and my principal didn't do anything and I couldn't find Dau when I came back to Atlanta.

I clicked play on the parranda You Tube video for the kids learning about Puerto Rican Christmas.  "Will METH make you do this?" it asked, showing a guy with no shirt on sitting on a cruddy bed.  "How much will I get for this?" he asked the man unzipping his pants.  Oh shit.  I put my hand over the light shining from the projector and tried to get the volume down.  "There's a guy with no shirt on in the video!" some kid exclaimed.  Great.  

"It looks like the seller is going to accept your offer, he just has to return it in writing!" our realtor announced.  I went out to my car.  It made a horrible noise and became difficult to steer.  I pushed on to the beer store, because I am dedicated like that.  "I've heard that new power steering is really expensive" my sister stated, plunking down on my decrepit porch furniture and opening a beer.  Great.  The idea of having to buy a car terrifies me.  I have never even had a car payment.  What the fuck was I doing buying a house?

I looked at Dau as she rode in the backseat of my sister's car as we drove her to the airport to catch a flight to Australia.  She hadn't seen her sister since they left Sudan and got scattered across the world.   She hadn't been abroad in more than a decade, when she took a boat up the Red Sea from Sudan to Egypt, got trapped there in September 11th, Arabic as a primary language limbo and finally arrived in the U.S. via Germany where she was placed in the public school system without knowing a word of English or even the Roman alphabet.  As she walked through the airport, her white teeth shining and her dark skin accented by the red leather jacket she wore, the names of her nieces and nephews that she would soon meet air brushed on her long nails, total strangers were smiling at her.

They couldn't avoid the light.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Golden Isles

I woke up in the bed I had spent part of the summer in, looking out at the southern Georgia foliage and thinking about the splintery path that goes to the grey Atlantic shore.  It looked even more beautiful in the fall.  I had to bake some pies for Thanksgiving.  But that wouldn't be for a couple of days....

"Please verify your panel and when you are holding interviews" the Fulbright email said.  I was excited about assembling my own panel to help select who would go on exchange next year.  But THAT would happen after my week-long, late November break.

"So, how much of an offer do you want to put in?" the realtor asked us.  I felt my stomach churning.  I wasn't exactly sure if I was actually going to shit my pants or if it just felt like it.  That house was cute.  I've seen lots of cute houses in my nearly twenty years of renting.  Unfortunately, I really liked this one.  But the cage was coming down on me, the one that makes you get grown up and act like an old person, the one that kills your ambition, the one that guarantees that you never do anything interesting again.  "Low ball or legitimate?" she asked.  "Legitimate". 

I watched Charlie in class, this super smart kid that always seems so reserved.  He was smiling and interacting with his friends.  I'm glad he likes being in there.  I remember the first few times I saw his mom.  So familiar she looked.  Great kids, who was she?  Then I remembered that she was a shrink doctoral student that I went to when I was losing my mind as an undergrad.  I watched Charlie.  I'm glad he feels comfortable.  I'm glad that I have something to offer him.

We accepted the seller's offer, finally.  I hadn't been sleeping well, was behind at work and blood had been coming out of strange parts of me.  Nose, and other non-mentionables, accompanied by insane stomach cramps.  I got zits.  And a migraine.

The kids were practicing for their annual, winter recital.  At the end, they all held hands and raised them.  "That's the part that will make the parents cry" I whispered to a co-worker "but not my dry-eyed, childless heart".  She laughed. 

Emma and I were walking over the splintery path to the beach.  She had been rollerskating and I had been watching.  We wanted to look at the sea.  "You almost hit me, bitch" an unknown voice called to a lady riding her baby on the back of a bike.   Emma and I looked at each other.  A dad emerged, with two teenage sons and a pre-teen daughter.  We looked down.  As we passed, the pre-teen called out: "Like your hair," in response to Emma's hot pink do.  "Thank you" Emma responded courteously, without a hint of sarcasm.  We kept walking.  "And your bodies".  Emma and I looked back, a little stunned.  "And your pink flowers..." the girl continued.  We were baffled.  I was baffled.  Were we being, um, harassed by a thirteen year old redneck with her dad standing by?  As an adult, should I do something or avoid confrontation?  We walked to the sea.  And started laughing. 

I watched the kids sing during their recital, remembering last year.  So exhausted after driving half the night to the detention center and back.  Half drunk and running through the King Center with a parking ticket in my hand.  Things were so different this year.  The kids finished their song and lifted their little candles while holding hands.  I saw Emily, waving her candle and playing with the other kids.  And I started crying. 

"Do you think the Randolphs will get matched?" Terry asked me, after we completed our fifth interview of the day.  "I hope so," I responded, "they would be perfect".

"My name is Frank and I have autism" the tall seventeen year old said to our kids during our morning meeting.  I still felt blurry eyed and frankly, rosy and filled with love after the beautiful display the kids had put on during their recital the night before.  He pulled out a piece of paper and slowly tried to adjust himself and started reading.  Tears flooded my eyes.  Not normal, misty tears but full on crying.  "How many of you know someone who is autistic?".  Hands went up.  "Yeahhh..," he said quietly, "there's a lot of us".  "In Kindergarten, I couldn't speak.  I wanted to, but no one could understand me.  I wanted to play and talk to the other kids, but I couldn't".  EMILY.  EMILY.  EMILY.  Is it what I had hoped for?  That she is in there, just waiting to come out?  "In third grade, I couldn't read.  Ms. Zalero helped me.   Good job, Ms. Zalero" he said, motioning to our principal.  She burst into tears.  He continued and I tried harder and harder to not make a scene.  Would Emily be able to get up one day and speak like he was?  "I may be a big guy, but I feel like a kid inside" Frank ended.

And I ran to my room.  And cried and hiccuped and panted.  Every time I tried to calm myself, thinking of the twenty-odd kids that would be busting through the door at any minute, I just started crying again.