Authors: José Orduña
In these conditions, it's hard to remain aware that I'm driving, that there's a passenger in the seat next to me. I zone out, and my eyes trace a hawk detaching from a wire. It crosses in front of the car, and as I follow it my gaze becomes fixed on my hand on the steering wheel and then on the valley between my index and middle knuckle. I sink into a memory of a front yard when I was eleven. I was meeting a friend in front of his house, by his grandfather's flagpole and the three-story evergreen that bent under its own weight.
For a moment everything was still, and then the unmistakable buzz of some kind of projectile cut through the air incredibly close to my face. A boy yelled something too suddenly for me to understand. My eyes searched for the source and came to two small faces in the third-story window: my friend crouching and another boy giggling. Another rush of air. This one hit between the knuckles of my hand covering my face, producing a sharp burning. I ran and didn't stop until I reached the end of the next block, where I finally registered that they'd been screaming “Border Patrol!” and shooting at me with a BB gun.
Today it's Valentine's Day, and even though I'm in the process of beingâat least nominallyâincluded as a full member of US society, these points of contact with the Department of Homeland Security don't feel like love.
What do I have to do with the FBI?
Ariel is saying something. I glance at her face and then back at the road, but all I can think about is the vast, amorphous power we're moving toward. My mind can't settle on a representation because the nature of this power seems as mysterious, complex, and ever-changing as an ecological system or metabolism. I glance at Ariel's moving lips and at the white salt spots on the windshield. My mind cycles through images of power: the Pentagon, a baroque black-and-white etching of a scaffold, a pane of glass with thousands of fractures moving in all directions, with no discernable origin.
Who exactly will be looking at my fingerprints? Where will this information go?
We pull off the highway.
Downtown Des Moines is one of those North American metropolises absent of pedestrians, all sharp lines and dead angles. A few homeless men stand in a park smoking.
Ariel snaps a photo of me making a stupid face, holding the immigration document in one hand, and giving a thumbs-up with the other. Behind me, across the street, the federal building fills the rest of the photograph with its all-glass
exterior. She snaps another: me kissing the iron federal seal emerging from the concrete wall, my lips hovering inches from the thirteen arrowheads in the eagle's talons. This year, the immigration document is my only valentine, and it feels like I'm trapped in an abusive relationship with a sociopath. My whereabouts, purchases, and behaviors must be known. My associations must be scrutinized, my intentions justified.
Just inside the revolving doors are two armed guards who look bored but perk up the second Ariel and I enter the building. We're probably the first people they've seen in hours. The one in front of the walk-through metal detector is shaped like a sweet potato. He furrows his brow.
“Purse on the belt.”
All business. He doesn't even crack a smile for Arielâa tall, lean girlâon Valentine's Day. Her purse disappears into the X-ray machine. The smaller guard looks at his screen, scrunching the bridge of his nose, tracing contours, trying to detect any deviation. Nothing. She meets it on the other side.
I'd failed to imagine this machine, these two guards. I've been standing in place, feeling the need to be perfectly still, suddenly aware of my entire body's surface. My attempt to take mental inventory of my backpack is condensing tension into beads of sweat on my forehead and upper lip. I know there's nothing of concern in my bag, but I have a shoddy memory, and there are so many small pockets tucked away.
“Bag on the belt.”
This time he's talking to me, and there's nothing to do at this point but put the bag on the belt. We're both fixed in our roles, transacting in suspicion, guilt, and fear. I feel observed, not only by the soft-faced guard standing in front of me, but also by the juridical presence in the walls.
Ariel smiles from the other side.
My bag disappears, and the guard behind the machine scrunches his nose again. I can't tell if he's looking harder, scrunching more for me than for Ariel. The belt stops. He
calls for the other guard, who's been standing in front of me, breathing heavily, staring at my face. They look at the screen, take turns pointing, and murmur to each other.
Ariel stands on the other side waiting, and I expel a nervous chuckle like the ones that erupt at funerals for no apparent reason. They've reversed my bag out of the X-ray machine. The bigger of the two guards pats and squeezes it, furrows his brow, and looks at me like I've done something wrong.
“What's in this bag?”
Ariel is no longer smiling.
His job is to suspect and intimidate. I have no idea whether or not this has anything to do with the fact that I'm brown, but he's staring at my face, and I imagine he sees me as I see him, which is to say in the most reductive and obvious way. There's no opportunity for meaningful communication, or any communication really, just the reception of narrow data with which to fix a type.
What type does this man think I am?
In a piss dive in Dallas a few years back, a big, white biker bought me a drink and showed me the World War I trench knife he carried strapped to his boot.
Each of his thick, knotted fingers filled the individual holes of the knuckle grips. He made a fist, and his hand became a spiked weapon pointed at my gut.
“Skull crusher.” Holding the eleven-inch knife upright, he tapped the brass-spiked handle against his wooden stool.
“This,” he said, fingering the spiked pommel, “this'll crack you open.”
His voice crackled like campfire and indicated a certain kind of life. I could feel that the absolute wrong thing to do
was to get up and walk away. I could feel that the only thing to do was order both of us another round, this time a double, and sit there until we reached a kind of end.
“That is an excellent knife.”
I said it casually. I had to demonstrate that this was not the first time a drunk had shown me his knife, or if it was, that I had led the kind of life that would render me unmoved. I
unmovedânot because it wasn't terrifying, but because I'd been around violence before, and because I had confidence that if I drank fast, faster than he did, I'd be fine, and because at that juncture in life I was too tired to care very much about my well-being. I ordered round after round of Wild Turkey, ordered a beer in a bottle, and placed it where I could swat it into his face if I had to.
Eventually he slid the knife back into his boot.
“Now let me ask you one question.” His tone shifted and he looked at my face excitedly, like a kid trying to contain his laughter as he's about to tell a joke. MotÃ¶rhead's “Killed by Death” was blaring on the jukebox, so he leaned in and put his arm around my shoulders so I could hear him. I felt his hot breath on my earlobe. He smelled goodâlike tobacco, exhaust, and whiskey.
“Are you a sand nigger or a spic?”
He stared at my face, and I stared at his. Deep creases that looked like scars or a river's tributaries lined his features. Half of his long white beard was tucked into his shirt. He looked like an old fighting dog that had never managed to die.
Now, right now, something is going to happen
, I thought, gripping my bottle of beer and positioning it on the bar adjacent to him so that I could pivot off my stool and smash it into his face, but he erupted with laughter that quickly broke into a wet hacking fit. He slapped me on the back, laughing, turning red in the face. I loosened my grip on the bottle.
I started laughing too because the tension had broken. I slid him my beer.
“Take a drink, man, for God's sake.”
His wet gurgling fit paired well with Lemmy Kilmister's voice and the shiny velvet Elvis that stared at us from across the room. He chugged the entire beer, and we went outside for a smoke. The broad street was completely abandoned, and as we sucked down our cigarettes a couple of coyotes flashed across the road in the distance under the streetlights.
“So which is it?”
The guards at the metal detector have zeroed in on a specific item. One of them is squeezing the main compartment of my bag.
“I have no idea. You can just open it and take a look.”
The suggestion seems to agitate him. He continues squeezing and shifting the item around. I try to read his face for any inclination of what he might be thinking, but it's no use. I've noticed that for some time now I've been feeling increasingly jumpy about the way people look at me, particularly white people. I'm not sure if it's because I've gotten older and am more aware of the ways I'm perceived because of my appearance, or if people
been looking at me differently because of the xenophobic nature of our cultural moment. This process has exacerbated my sensitivity, though, because it's served as an unpleasant reminder that in the eyes of the US government I'm only just “earning” my place here. And while I understand that I'm increasingly fortunate to be moving in this direction, it feels like I'm accepting terms that have been decided for me, accepting the notion that up until now I have been categorically different, and that this difference is a legitimate reason to be subject to a different, more punitive existence.
Maybe right now the guards are just having fun because I present something to do, a reason to move their legs, a
situation to animate their atrophied sense of purpose. They must get bored being the keepers of these small and desolate gates, having to see the same federal employees, delivery workers, and mail carriers every day. Strangers become familiar strangers by sheer force of repetition and proximity, and there is a distance that is closed so that a new stranger is recognizable as unrecognizable.
After more staring, some whispering among themselves, and a few more cautious pats, one of the guards has me open the bag and pull out the suspicious item: a Tupperware container full of grapes.
There are two barcodes on my valentine. My name appears in all caps without the proper marks: JOSE MARTIN ORDUNA. I can't remember whether I included them in my original application. I'm not sure if I included my mother's surname or whether this is necessary. I'm not sure that I haven't been slightly changing my name with each official document, leaving a trail of abandoned aliases with shifting pasts, credit reports, and medical histories. I've never known what my full name actually is, and what I'm supposed to write on any given line. Usually there isn't enough space to include what my mother tells me my name is: JosÃ© MartÃn OrduÃ±a Gonzalez.
I do know that the inconsistencies have prevented me from boarding airplanes. The sight of a bearded brown man speaking English too perfectly, with a driver's license that reads JOSE M ORDUNA, a green Mexican passport that reads JOSÃ MARTIN ORDUÃA GONZALEZ, and a boarding pass that reads JOSE MARTIN ORDUNA is enough to cause some trouble.
The very top of the valentine reads “Department of Homeland Security.” Underneath that: “US Citizenship and Immigration Services.” Below that, “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” stretches the width of the page
in the proprietary font found on US currency. The fat letters sit heavily and seem immovable and permanent, just like the idea of money itself. The page even seems to be made of a similar material as dollar bills. It's some kind of counterfeit-proof paper with different colored fibers worked into the page. It immediately communicates its authority, an authority it has granted itself through force and violence, and it strikes me how such a strong signal can be communicated on something as insubstantial as a single sheet of paper.
In the middle of the page, the arm of Lady Liberty ghosts behind the words “ALIEN,” “CENTER,” and “ABANDONED.” There is a reminder to bring my Alien Registration Card.
When I was ten my dad gave me my first walletâit was green, with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the outside. Then he handed me my identification card, my first green card, which was actually pink. He said we'd gotten it when we'd gone to JuÃ¡rez but that he didn't think I was ready to carry it then. I remembered we'd gone very suddenly and that I missed my third-grade class trip to an amusement park, that a man I'd never seen showed up at our door in Chicago, and that my dad let him into our house. The next day we were on a Greyhound bus that took three days to get to El Paso, Texas, and then we immediately took a cab across a bridge into JuÃ¡rez. We stayed in a strip mall motel where the television in the next room played straight through the night. I remember lying awake with my eyes open, watching my dad go to the window to peer out through the blinds several times and also going to the door to stand silently in the darkness listening. He got up at four o'clock to hold a place in a line across the road, and later that morning I watched my mom fix me breakfast with a mini cereal box that was on the dresser, powdered milk she'd gotten at a gas station, and a bottle of water. I remember being enthralled by the powdered milk.
At age ten I looked at my new card. Just above my three-quarter-angle
bust was a term I hadn't known: “RESIDENT ALIEN.”
“Ha,” I laughed. “I'm an alien.”
I remember my dad staring back at me with a grim look, the one he used to shoot me when he needed me to know something serious was happening. I remember him telling me I was a man now, despite my crooked flattop and wiry frame.
“A man never leaves home without his wallet.”
Then he asked if I remembered Jorge.
“Jorge, the fat guy with a limp that used to work with me at the hotel.”