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THE GRAY BEAST OF IMMIGRATION
I hate New York, and I hate airports.
When I was six, my mother took my sister and me from our home in Scotland to meet our ship captain father in America. We flew into a New York airport with our British passports and stood in the lines for customs/immigration screenings with what seemed like hundreds of other people. We moved slowly up to a glass booth enclosing a man with heavy eyebrows and a scowl. I smiled up at him. He stared back. I saw my reflection – a skinny kid with a gap-toothed smile. I looked over at Mom. She was pretty in her white trench coat and go-go boots. Her head was down as she searched in her bag for something. Even her curls had wilted in the plane ride and stuck to her neck like big question marks. My four-year-old sister, Vicky grabbed at her skirt.
The man spoke with a funny accent. Mom looked annoyed than angry. The man motioned us to the side, and two big men pulled us out of the lineup with our bags. I looked at my mother who had gone pale under her tan. She nodded to me. “Take that baby’s hand,” she said. Like the good daughter I was brought up to be, I reached out for Vicky’s hand. Her fingers were sticky with sweat.
We followed the two people down a hallway. More men joined us on either side. We were so small next to the tall men. Mom was only five feet and half an inch. The gray hallway went on a long way. My feet felt too big for my shoes like they had grown overnight on the plane. The floor was a dirty, scuffed brown. We kept walking while other people looked at us then looked away. Mom asked why we had been pulled from the line, but no one answered her. We were in a section without windows, and the air seemed to become less, like there wasn’t enough to breathe. Vicky started to cry, and I told her to act like me – but I wanted to cry too. A short, fat man took out a key and opened a hidden door in the dirty wall. I felt like I had been eaten by a big gray beast.
We entered a room with a table and some chairs, a large middle area with nothing in it, and a series of curtained rooms, like changing rooms at Forsyth’s store where we bought my school uniforms. But not as nice. The curtains didn’t close the whole way and were made of this weird gray material that I could almost see through. The short man signaled for my mother to go in one room and for us to go into another. Vicky plopped down on the filthy floor and wailed. Mom came over and told us to go into the room.
“Strip to your underpants,” the short man said to me and pulled the curtain closed. The rings at the top went rat-a-tat-tat, like a gun.
Suddenly, the air was full of the smell of cigarettes. A haze of smoke filled the room. Someone coughed. The overhead lights couldn’t cut through the smoke and cast the kind of shadows that monsters make.
I helped my sister off with her dress. She was too small to undo the buttons on the brown and yellow dress. Her hair snagged on a button causing her to cry when I tried to pull the dress over her head. Her hair stuck out in all directions. She kept screaming as I took off her shoes and socks. She looked teeny huddled on the corner shelf, acting as a seat, even to my almost as teeny six-year-old self. I pulled off my tartan trousers and a red sweater, unbuttoned my school shoes, to sit next to her. After a second, I cried too.
There was a shuffling sound, so I peeked through the curtain into the room. More people had entered, mainly older, pasty-faced men in suits. They moved the plastic chairs about.
“Mrs. Young, come out here,” a man called out.
My mother came out of her cubicle.
My sister called out, “Mama? Mama?”
Mom turned around. Her face was paler still. She motioned for me to pull Vicky back into the cubicle. She was wearing her bra and panties, and under the bright lights before a group sitting in chairs, she stood very still. I heard them laughing. I licked my hand like Mom did and tried to flatten Vicky’s hair down. It wouldn’t lie down, so I sneaked back to look through the curtains.
“Take everything off,” said the man. I watched my mother strip in front of these men and women, probably US Customs and Immigration agents. I do not know what other indignities my mother had to endure. Vicky was screaming at this point, and I was so scared I wondered if I was going to die. At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening and who these people were, but I knew mean when I saw it.
Clutching my sister to me, I heard a man say, “Get the kids.” Mom came into the cubicle and one at a time she paraded us in front of the people. She was still naked. Her face was red next to the gray everywhere else. Vicky pulled against Mom’s hand trying to escape, I guess until Mom picked her up. There was defiance in my mother’s gesture. Wanting to be like her, I pushed her hand away, wiped my face clean with my top and walked out on my own. My brain has a snapshot of the group sitting, uninterested, talking among themselves, oblivious to my terror, in a green-gray room with no pictures. Their faces said we had done something wrong and their eyes said they wanted to devour us. I felt the color seep from us.
Shaking and crying, the three of us were allowed to dress and then escorted from the room into the hallway that looked like every other hallway. Our luggage sat in a heap on the floor. The short man told us to leave the airport, but we didn’t know which way to go. I can’t remember what happened next.
When I was 18, I applied for American citizenship – to accept a scholarship to college and to never have to go through this again.
Our family never talked about this. Nightmares of being naked in a confined cage surrounded by giants plague my nights.
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