The next two days I would spend every moment thinking about how I could best make it past homeland security without arousing suspicion.
The handful of other times i’d entered the country I was always called in for secondary screening. Which meant after I was already fingerprinted and photographed, I was marched to a secondary room. There, under bright invasive lights in a white walled room, I was asked to have a seat on one of the identical grey chairs. Then wait for half an hour or an hour while my connecting flight came and went without me. And finally a uniformed agent would towards me in no hurry whatsoever, hand me my passport and say “Ok, you’re free to go.”
What they did during this time I sat trembling against the blast of air conditioning? I would never know. But as I waited, I wondered whether, like in the movies where suspected criminals are being watched from behind the glass, I too was being watched to see if I would display any signs of nervousness or guilt.
The night before I left, father knocked on the door my room and opened before I had a chance to say “Come in,”.
"Herman will be downstairs at 8:30 to take you to the airport."
I don't know whether he looked at me as he said this. As usual, his voice seemed to come from every direction at once, and I looked up to him, naturally our of respect, but only to the level of his chest, avoiding eye contact. Before I could say anything he closed the door and walked away.
The next morning, at 8:25 I silently lifted my bag down the spiraled staircase, looked through the glass windows at the stone fence that surrounded the compound and paused for a while to watch the flag flying solemnly in the morning breeze.
Herman, ever cheerful and smiling oblivious to any drama even if it was taking place before his very eyes, drove me to the airport in silence. For thirty minutes I tried to think of something happy while blinking faster than normal so tears would not come. Nothing came to mind.
We sat on the tarmac of Jose Marti International for over an hour before starting down the runway. I looked out the window to avoid the gaze of the man seated next to me. Silence and dread enveloped me like a tight fitting brace. Twice the hostess interrupted my racing thoughts of everything and nothing with her cheerful “May I offer you a beverage?” Without looking at her, I shook my head. I stared straight down at two square blocks pressing through my khaki pants. Freezing air blew directly overheard. I tapped my fingers against my kneecaps. As the aircraft climbed to 10,000 feet, it started. The rage, creeping down the back of my neck and spreading out over my shoulders scorching them like rays of the sun. I clenched my fists and shoved my hands under my thighs to try and stay warm. I blinked maniacally so that tears would not fall.
To decrease my chances of being scrutinized by immigration, I knew I had to remove everything about myself that screamed foreigner. During my first year in America on two separate occasions, someone told me they could tell I was Caribbean because I always wore bright colors. Remembering this, I dressed in khaki colored pants and a pale yellow blouse. I often noticed Americans seemed to smile quickly upon meeting someone, a smile that ended as abruptly as it began. I recalled the frequent comments by people known and unknown on my serious demeanor. So to appear as American as possible I decided to imprint a slight smile on my face and exaggerate it slightly when being spoken to.
The story I would stick to was that I was studying Spanish in Cuba and returning to my school to complete my studies.
The line for the border entry at Miami International was never-ending. The entire airport seemed to be under construction. As I neared the booth where the person who would decide whether or not to let me into the country I repeated mentally over and over You haven’t done anything wrong, you’re still a student.
My passport clutched in my right hand, I crossed fingers on my left hand and pushed them in my pants pocket. A tall dark skinned man with a green passport was in front of me. My passport, a dull black, felt heavier with each passing minute. I stared straight ahead, trying to look as relaxed as possible. I kept swallowing so my throat would not dry out and prevent me from speaking smoothly when the time came.
“Next please.” the agent waved me forward with his right hand. A middle aged white man with short cropped hair and thick shoulders. His face was clean shaven and he did not smile.
“Hello,” I smiled slightly and handed him my passport. His hands wide and his fingers thick. “Hi” he said taking the small black booklet. He opened it without pausing to look at the cover.
“Where are you coming from today?” He stared at his computer screen, my passport now open to the US Visa page.
“Havana, via Nassau” I was still smiling slightly, innocently I believed. I thought about leaving out the entire business of being in Cuba, the authorities there did not stamp my passport when I landed and when I left it was like stepping off a bus. But I had to tell the least amount of lies from this point forth. Maybe this way my karma would not be as bad.
“Cuba?’ His voice raised in a question.
“What were you doing there?” He glanced up at me and seemed genuinely curious. As if he wanted to know for personal reasons and it had nothing to do with whether or not he would let me walk past that yellow line separating me from before and after.
“I went to visit my father” I said, forgetting completely what I planned to say.
“Your father is Cuban?” he continued, still staring at me now with a raised brow.
“No, he’s a diplomat, I was just visiting him there.”
He nodded. Satisfied with my answer, he turned to a blank page in my passport and I held my breath. Then he spoke again.
“And are you bringing anything back with you…. cigars?”
I laughed nervously. Then stopped abruptly.
“No, no, just this bracelet.”
I lifted my left wrist and showed him a beaded clay bracelet. He nodded. He held the black handle and brought it down decisively against my passport page. He handed it back to me, “Welcome back.” He smiled for a split second the first during our encounter, then turned to look towards the next person in line. That was it. No secondary screening. I was free to go.
I wondered what it was that caused him to not think twice before admitting me. This had never happened before. Was it my bland clothing, my fake smile? The indifferent tone I used when answering his questions? The mention of my father's profession? Whatever it was, it didn't matter. I was backing America. Estranged but empowered. My destiny was now in my own hands.