At the start of 2017, I was in this exact same position, returning from the same writing conference in Mexico, dressed in a black Empire Strikes Back sweatshirt, the evening after Inauguration Day. Nervous. Hands trembling, my left eyelid twitching indiscriminately. That time, I’d remembered to pack my copy of Citizen into my suitcase, just in case the agents in Salt Lake City were under new orders from our newly elected president. So I wouldn’t be flagged as a troublemaker. I’d turned off my cell phone and hidden the Facebook and Twitter apps, too. Just in case. I was trying to live my life, without succumbing to the fear that I was going to be punished, somehow, for being brown and speaking my mind—with the new president, I felt as though my chances had increased exponentially. On social media, I tried to call attention to societal issues that I believed would adversely affect my children’s generation such as civil rights, women’s rights, the environment—without calling attention to myself.
But 2017 was different: the day after the Inauguration, the orange president and his family were vacationing at his golf resort in Florida, and the two border patrol agents looked past me and focused on a couple waiting four steps behind me with too many carry-ons in their arms. When I reached the TSA checkpoint, the sandy-haired agent with steel-rim glasses asked, “Are you really a Star Wars fan?”
“Since 1977,” I replied, remembering to keep my voice light.
“Did you know Carrie Fisher died?” the agent on the left asked, his porcelain-colored hand running over his spiky dark brown hair.
“Princess Leia’s death broke my heart,” I said truthfully. Her death, three and a half weeks before, represented to me, in so many ways, the death of my childhood, the death of a simpler time in America.
“Welcome home,” the first agent said, and I passed through immigration and customs.
I’d already had enough bad experiences with police. Several years ago, my home was raided at gunpoint, and my car and my body were searched by armed Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents in full view of my neighbors, many of whom stood on their driveways and watched and laughed. This incident in my suburban Atlanta driveway was the starting point for an ongoing nightmare that left me with PTSD. Encounters with TSA and other law enforcement are apt to trigger my symptoms of panic and anxiety, on top of my already heightened wariness.
This time around, in January 2018, I couldn’t get a flight through Utah. Perhaps it sounds superstitious, but it might have alleviated some anxiety. I was on a different airline, and I was constrained by money, and time. I was distracted too; my husband was having a hard time managing three teenage girls who had been bickering nonstop for days. I was tired from the first year of the orange presidency: the government shutdown, the Muslim ban, the EPA being dismantled, investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and so many other problems I was starting to lose track. I had been busy on social media, speaking out, along with millions of others. Once again, I was afraid of returning to my home country—enduring the scrutiny—in a way that I’m not usually afraid once I’m actually inside the United States, where I was born and raised. That is, when I’m in America I’m afraid, but it’s a different kind of fear, it’s a fear that’s like a persistent low-grade fever. Inside the U.S., I manage my fear and anxiety by remembering I’m home, I’m in my home country. I have a right to be here.
This year’s fear was different. This fear was a damp fog. I did not want to be detained. I did not want to be refused entry. I did not want to be kept from my family. I did not want border patrol counting the number of anti-administration tweets I’d posted in the past week and a half. That was a number that needed more than two hands.
Still, I was in my Star Wars sweatshirt, blue jeans. I turned off my phone and buried it deep in my backpack. Hoping for the same luck as the year before. What I was worried about was the book I couldn’t put down during the flight from Mexico City to Los Angeles: Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. I was reading and re-reading each and every sentence of his stunning essays during the four-hour flight—stunned at his life, at his experiences of growing up as an African-American in the Deep South. I too am a southerner of color. I could relate to his stories of unwanted scrutiny at the hands of predominantly white authorities.
I was reading Laymon’s book, careful to peel back the cover and hide the front and the spine—or cover it with my sweatshirt sleeve each time a flight attendant came around to check if my backpack was all the way under the seat in front of me, to offer me a drink or a snack, or to hand out customs declaration forms. I contemplated tearing off the book cover and throwing it away with my half-eaten bag of peanuts, but the flight was at capacity and everyone around me was awake and chatty. Attracting that kind of attention was not wise. I finished the book shortly before landing. I placed it close to my cell phone and threw a novel over it, zipped up the backpack pocket.
I thought I knew what was going to happen this time, as the passengers disembarked from the full flight and crammed into a narrow bus to take us to the immigration area at LAX. I thought, all I have to do is make sure I’ve answered the questions on the customs and immigration form correctly, speak in a soft voice and look at the border patrol and the transportation and safety agents without disdain in my heart, and I’ll be fine.
The bus was a tin of sardines, a group of men trash-talking each other and jostling the other passengers every time one of them threw his head back and laughed at a joke. Three of them stepped on my foot or jammed my backpack into my back as they tried to exit; only the young black man in that band of friends turned around and apologized. I walked as briskly as I could with two backpacks in tow, heavy with books and notebooks, my heart growing heavier with each step as I approached the serpentine lines that formed at customs and immigration.
At some point in this cavernous space signs come into focus, directing holders of American, Canadian and Chinese passports to a single line, a series of hairpin turns stacked together. Several French-Canadian families with older parents and several older ladies from China simply cut in line and waved their hands, their passports, and their tickets when the people in back of them voiced their displeasure. One said, “I will miss my plane.” Others waiting in line replied, “So will we.” A woman who looked as old as my mother, wearing a multicolored scarf around her head like a headband, separated from the pack, simply turned her face away, and then when the customs agent turned his back, cut in line again.
The noise is steady, a rumble of voices that sounds like a giant cocktail party or a planetary conference of bees. My heart is beating as though I’m running sprints, fast and faster. I’m suddenly very thirsty. There are no clocks where I am standing in line with hundreds and hundreds of other travelers. It feels like an hour has passed by the time I get to the front, where a customs agent smiles at me and asks, “Have you seen the new movie, yet?
I’m surprised by his smile, and my heart rate slows a little. I have almost forgotten what I’m wearing. I manage to nod. “Last week,” I say, “I saw it with my girls.”
He nods, says, “It’s a killer.”
I want to say that I loved it because I got to see Princess Leia alive and well, but that I loved the story of last year’s Rogue One better. I keep quiet instead, and the moment passes. He tells me to move to the left, to a waiting machine.
The actual time it takes to scan my passport and receive my paperwork from the machine is about forty-five seconds. Then it’s another line, with different agents holding up the black and white photo from the machine against the color passport photo. My black and white is not flattering: in the photo, the circles under my eyes make me look like I’ve been beaten and awarded two black eyes, the contours of my mouth misshapen so it appears I have a fat lip. I feel like the machine captured the image of my overtired soul. The agent looks at my first name and mispronounces it.
“Close,” I say, before I correct him.
“Please tell me you have a nickname.”
I smile for the first time in hours and say yes.
“Welcome back,” he says.
That fear. That déjà vu fear that what happened to you once will happen again—that somehow the next policeman will train his weapon on you, that something will go horribly wrong, that you won’t see your family again.
I walked down an open corridor and came to a pair of escalators, both going down. Signs overhead directed me to take the escalators if I wanted to be reunited with my luggage. I stepped onto the escalator, and there was a huge screen in front of me, the Statue of Liberty filling the space and tiny red flecks floating by. I asked myself why I was being shown this image. It looked like something was burning off-screen, and all we travelers saw were the embers and ashes floating by. As I descended, a walkway high above me separated Lady Liberty’s head from her body for a long moment. When I reached the bottom and stepped onto the unmoving floor, the red flecks looked bigger, and I saw they were rose petals, thousands of red rose petals. I sighed with relief. Still, the music was eerie and disturbing, and there was a mad crush of people coming through customs, filling up the spaces, breathing all the air. I began counting backwards from the number one hundred, by nines, as a way to calm down.
I found my bag circling on the baggage claim carousel and trudged to another line, this time to hand over our customs declarations forms. A little girl ahead of me dropped her crayons. I dropped my bags to the ground and bent over to pick up the one closest to my aching foot. A crayon bore the name “Wild Blue Yonder.” The only thing blue about this crayon was the wrapper. In that light, the color of the crayon was actually gray, somewhere between dreary and dull. I didn’t get a chance to try out the color before I handed the crayon back to its tiny owner. Several minutes later, the agent collected my form, and I was free. I exited the International Terminal and crossed into Arrivals.
The hustle and rush outside Arrivals. At first I panicked, I began to sweat profusely and my sweatshirt turned damp. My vision tunneled, and all I could do was find a concrete bench. I sat heavily. Families reunited: hugs, loved ones wresting luggage away from those who had journeyed long. The next leg of my trip wasn’t for hours; my family was still far away. The friend who was supposed to take me out for a quick dinner before I headed back to the airport was late. My phone was near death, and I was content to watch motorists angling for curbside parking and arguing with the traffic cops. I remembered my silence years before when the state police questioned me at gunpoint in my driveway. I jumped when my friend tapped me on the shoulder. She smiled before apologizing. “Are you ok? You seem a million miles away.”
Every time I’ve flown since 2010, it’s gotten better, and then, it’s gotten worse. I don’t think I’ll ever again feel entirely comfortable in my own country, in my own skin. The depression and anxiety continue, wax and wane like the phases of the moon. I am many years and thousands of miles away from the day of the raid, and yet it lives inside me.
Several hours later, I’m back at the airport, waiting in the final screening line I will have to pass through before I see home. I do not set off the metal detector, but my heavy backpacks attract the attention of the x-ray agent. A female agent with dark-rimmed glasses and braided black hair asks my permission to open the bags. I consent, albeit reluctantly. Of course she pulls out Laymon’s book, and glances at me long and hard once she skims the title. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.
“You have a lot of books in your bag,” she says, and then pulls out a plastic bag containing a stack of cereal bars. The culprit discovered. “On the screen it appears to be a gray mass,” she says.
“What do you do?” she asks as she watches me try to stuff all of my books and papers back into the unzipped pockets.
“I’m a poet,” I say.
“What do you write about?” she asks.
I want to say racism and inequality. Instead I say, “I like to write about mythology and update the old myths in modern times.”
I catch her glancing down at my first poetry chapbook. “Is this yours?”
I nod. “Would you like a copy?”
She drops her voice. “I’m not allowed to take one from you, but if you happen to leave it behind, I can keep it.”
I smile, drop a copy of Gas & Food, No Lodging at the end of the conveyor belt, and zip up my backpacks. I head down the terminal toward the waiting plane and home.
Image By Devi Laskar