BY ROSA ALCALÁ
At the border checkpoint, the detention center behind her, a woman through a bullhorn asks, “How does it feel when you lose your child for a minute in the supermarket?” What if that minute turned into an hour, a year, a lifetime? Would you run crazy through the aisles, the streets, your head? Like the time you thought you left your daughter at the campsite under the West Texas sun, everyone else gone to the archaeology museum? How you imagined her at night, a lone wolf circling her, a pack of men? This is the second protest in four days. To get here, you had to walk down a long road, sheets of sand cutting diagonally into your faces. You forgot the sign your daughter made, a diptych of a mermaid submerged in the ocean singing, her arms, her hair waving above her freely. And next to her, the same mermaid—no musical notes orbiting her head, her hair limp—in a tiny cage. With the sign you could have shielded your daughter from the elements. How many more speeches, she wants to know, as an actor from your childhood is finally passed the bullhorn. You and her father take turns carrying her back to the car.
Would you carry your daughter on your back through a river? Would you ask someone to place her, knowing you will die, on the edge of a border highway? Would you lower her into the last boat, that within too short a time fills like a ladle? Would she be pulled out and thrown like a fish into another country? Would you pray for a gentleness to buoy her when her bed capsizes under the weight of a stranger? Would you wait and wait for her knowing she is dead? She is alive and all you have of her is a number written on your palm. Would you call and be transferred and put on hold? Every day? Would you hold hands as death comes over you? Her hand just the memory of her hand at seven? What would her hand look like now? Would you never forget it? Would she reach out to you every night, a picture she drew of you under her cot? Would you step into a rocking boat, its barely slats, its barely oars, and have her handed off to you like a heavy sack of tender fortunes? Would you yell at her to keep quiet? Would you cry when she is not looking? Would you think, we’ll die, we’ll live, nothing can be done, we’ve sold off everything, everything’s gone? Would you take a plane, a bus, a train? Would you walk and walk and dream of shade? Would you sing to her when she is too thirsty, too tired, too hungry? Would you turn on your tongue the name that keeps her from you and feel it clamp down like a thumbscrew?
You canoed on the river that morning. Your daughter in the front, you in the back. Each of you paddling in contempt for the other, sending the canoe into the banks. You kept forgetting the guide’s instructions: if you find yourself heading into a giant rock, throw your body not forward but back. You cursed at her as you pushed with your paddle the canoe off pebbly islets or out of mud. “I’m doing all the work,” you told her. “I’m too tired,” she said. That night she begged you to sleep in the big-girl tent, and eager to be alone, to complete a thought, you let her go, to zip herself into its nylon walls. There the story was told of an angry father who murdered girls of about ten, and so she looked for you in the middle of the night and asked to be let back in. You fell asleep holding hands, and as the air mattress deflated, her body folded into yours. In the morning, when you kissed your daughter’s humid brow, could you imagine it cold as a concrete floor?
This is the protest for which you came, against yourself and your imagination. You want to yell through a bullhorn at your likeness, Imagination is a privilege. As is the supermarket. As is the air mattress. As is the canoe. And the tent. And your daughter’s refusals and ennui. As is the paddle to push against the bank. As is the against, every shape carved out at the expense of someone else. As is the story told like a scary ride, that for a minute, as you raise your hands above your head and scream, liberates you from your body, its calcifications. As is the photo captured mid-ride you decide not to buy. Something happened, your mother told you as part of the period talk. She was the girl the man was after. The imagination races, knees wound air as she climbs the hill to some unreachable safety. Not everyone exposed to the sun is working out a poem they’ll later deem weak. Your mother once asked you, what does organic mean? And before you could answer, she said, “Quiere decir mas caro, verdad?” It wasn’t meant as a joke, but to pre-empt your virtue. You Earth-helper, you fair-trade checker, you poetry-soft center. Your mother reminded your father every day to check his wallet for his green card before heading out the door. You can imagine their fear of being hauled away for not speaking English, rounded up with all the South Americans they were quick to distinguish themselves from. Your father told you stories of women whose heads were shaved and paraded down the street as warning. But that was another country, you wanted to say. You are going off course, you are so far from reason. You can hardly acknowledge that not all horrors lead to the family plot. This is the protest: You are here. You’ve been elsewhere and back. You can leave whenever you want. You have the passport to prove it. But you are grasping your daughter’s thigh, bracing your body for the plane’s impact. And who would you save if not her? From the safety of your bed you read the news. The nursing homes are filled with the dying, the prisons and detention centers, though what happens inside them is murky, the numbers rounded.