IF ONLY I could break the glass separating me and Manman with my thoughts alone. On one side of the glass doors are the long lines of people with their photos and papers that prove that they belong here in America, that they are allowed to taste a bit of this free air. On the other side is me, pressing my forehead against the thick see-through wall. My shoulder hurts from the weight of the carry-on bag. I refuse to put it down for fear that they will take it away, too.
“Manman,” I whisper to the glass, hoping that my voice will ease through, fly above all those people’s heads, travel on a plane back to New York, and reach her.
We had been holding hands for courage when we arrived at Customs in Kennedy Airport. Manman had carried all our important documents in a big yellow envelope tucked into her large purse—our passports, her visa, and the papers to prove that we are who we say we are, that we are from the city of Port-au-Prince; that I am an American citizen by birth and I left for good when I was only an infant; that we own a little house in the neighborhood of Delmas; and that Manman has a business selling brand-name pépé—secondhand American clothes. All these things to prove that we are only visiting relatives and plan to return home to Haiti.
But how could they have read our minds? How could they have known that my mother’s big sister in Detroit had been sending us money to leave Haiti forever? How could they have known that we didn’t plan to go back?
“Ms. Valerie Toussaint, I need you to come with me,” the man had said. His voice was like the pebbled streets in Delmas, rough and unsteady as they pulled Manman’s hand from mine; as they motioned for me to continue through the line with Manman’s desperate pleas trailing behind me—Alé, Fabiola! Go, Fabiola! Don’t worry. I will meet you there!—and as I got on the connecting flight from New York to Detroit. But too much has happened for me to cry now. On the plane ride leaving Port-au-Prince for JFK, I had curled into my mother and together we looked out the window. Up high in the sky, all the problems we had left behind seemed so tiny—as if I could pick them up one by one and fling them out of the universe.
On the flight to Detroit, I am alone. I look down at America—its vastness resembling a huge mountain. I felt as if I was just a pebble in the valley.
My mother will be on the next plane, I tell myself over and over again. Just like when she sends me ahead on my own by foot, or by tap-tap, or by motortaxi. I tell myself that this won’t be any different.
Here in Detroit Metro Airport, there are no long lines to show papers and proof to uniformed people. I ease into America’s free air like a tourist returning home. With every step I take out of the terminal, I look back, and up, and around, as if my mother will appear from out of nowhere. I search for her face in the crowd of new arrivals rushing past me—some with their eyes as weary as mine, others tracking every toobright light, every movement of each person around them, peering into every corner of this too big place. But none of them is Manman.
I spot a lady official who is wearing the same uniform as the ones who took my mother away. I take several long steps toward her, dragging the carry-on behind me. My shoulder is sore. “Excuse me, miss? I am looking for Valerie Toussaint coming from New York,” I say with my very best English.
“I’m sorry, young lady. I have no idea who that is. And there isn’t another flight coming in from New York into Detroit till the morning. If you’re waiting for someone to pick you up, follow the signs that read ‘baggage claim,’” she says, and starts to walk away.
I shake my head. “Valerie Toussaint in New York,” I say. “They took her. They say she can’t come to the United States.”
“You had someone with you in New York?”
“Is she being detained?”
I stare and blink and shake my head. I search my brain for this word, trying to find the Creole word for it, or a French one—détenir: to hold back, to keep from moving.
The woman places both hands on her hips. Her blue uniform shirt stretches over her big chest and two buttons look like they will pop. A small black strap on the shoulder of her shirt reads TSA. Her fancy gold badge says she’s an officer and another thinner badge on the other side of her black tie says her name is Deborah Howard.
“I can’t help. You’ve been standing here all this time and your luggage is still at baggage claim. Now, follow the signs to pick up your things. I’m sure you have family waiting for you.” She speaks slowly, as if I am stupid.
I purse my lips and clench my fists. How do I tell her that I am not going to the other side without Manman? How do I say that my mother has not seen her big sister, Matant Majorie, since they were teenagers and Manman wanted nothing more than to hold her face and plant a big wet kiss on her cheek? But the English words don’t come as fast as the many Creole insults at the tip of my tongue for this Deborah Howard.
“All right. Then I will personally escort you to baggage claim,” Deborah Howard says.
“No,” I say. “I have to be with Valerie Toussaint.”
Deborah Howard steps closer to me. At first she smells of her freshly ironed uniform, but then I smell the faint scent of cigarettes and oily food lingering behind her starchy presence. “Look. Just come back with a relative in the morning to straighten all this out. Do you understand what I just said?”
I don’t make a move and I hold this moment for a little bit. Then I nod. “I understand,” I say. My English is not as smooth. “I will come back.”
Our four big suitcases stand alone between two luggage carousels like orphaned children. I want to ask Deborah Howard what Manman will use to brush her teeth and wash her face tonight. But I’m afraid if I give her anything to take to my mother, she will keep it and sell it at the market—if Detroit is anything like Port-au-Prince. Officer Howard grabs a nearby cart and a man helps her lift up the suitcases. I rush toward them to make sure that they don’t take anything.
Night is a starlit blanket outside, and the cold air reaches my bones. I have on a long-sleeved shirt and it is not enough.
“Hope somebody’s bringing you a coat,” the man says, and leaves the cart right there on the sidewalk as I hug myself and rub my arms. I watch the cars pass by.
I look around and then stretch out my arms on each side of me. I pray that Manman will get to taste this cold, free air before she rests her eyes tonight, wherever they are keeping her. And then tomorrow, she will come to this side of the glass, where there is good work that will make her hold her head up with dignity, where she will be proud to send me to school for free, and where we will build a good, brand-new life. Une belle vie, as she always promises, hoping that here she would be free to take her sister’s hand and touch the moon.