It was Shailee’s first car, a brand new shiny, ice blue Subaru. After driving the hand-me-down 97 model Honda Accord, for 21 years, the Subaru was a refreshing change. When the salesman mentioned the heated leather seats, a GPS, rear view camera displaying what was behind the car when reversing, it made Shailee blush. The automatic brakes that engaged when the car was within reach of an obstacle near collision, and the over the top programmed Start button were mind blowing. Next to the smell of petrol, the scent of new leather was a heady experience.
“Do you want to grab some Paani Puri?” she asked her son of sixteen who was lost in a book and cushioned in the comfort of the sofa. ‘Paani Puri’ caught his attention making him move his head promptly with his bouncy curls rearranging themselves, covering his eyes like a noodle screen once again. Shailee reached out to brush away his curls from his forehead, twirling them around her finger.
“Indian eggs you mean,” he said as he sat up trying to follow the movements of his mother’s fingers unwinding his stubborn locks. Despite his curls twisted around Shailee’s fingers, he managed to slide off the couch to let his toes skid and stretch to hook the socks he had discarded at the far end of the rug. He moved ever so carefully seeing that his tight curls were stretching into a straight line – like a leash.
All at once, in a hyper mode he asked, “Are we taking the new car?”
“Moooom(sic), say yes, please, please let’s go in the new car.”
“Okay, but conditions apply. So, what comes next?”
“I get it, Mom, I get it, I’ll take a shower, here I go, My name is stinky Bill, I never had a shower and never will, I’m kidding, Mom.”
It was a rhyme he had heard the librarian recite when he was a kid and he had loved it.
Many friends with older children had told Shailee, that as boys grow up there are fewer and fewer occasions when they will choose your company. It’s a losing battle for parents to compete with online games and Snapchat, Shailee thought. This was a treat for her, much more than it was for him. In any case Paani Puri is always an engaging treat as it tingles your bulbous nerve endings with bursts of sweet, tangy and sour at the same time. How she enjoyed to be asked for help, to break the shell delicately with the end of the fork while explaining to him how to find the right side by delicately tapping to check, filling it first with the dry filling of mashed potato, chickpeas and sprouted greens, and then with dexterity quickly spooning the gently spiced tamarind and cumin water followed by a drop of sweet sauce and handing it to him before it collapsed. Watching him nod for more as he dropped each one into his mouth like a ‘paani puri’ expert without a spill always made her smile. This followed the ritual of washing it down with the mango lassi made with the pulpy goodness of ripe mangoes while Shailee made some Paani Puri for herself. With their bellies feeling like the smiling emoticon they got back to the car and put it in reverse to drive back home.
“What do you think?”
“Of the car? Or the Indian eggs?”
They backed out of the car park and then it happened. The car would not budge, forward nor backward. Shailee heard a honk to the left and the driver signaled her to hurry up and get out of his way. Another customer who just got into the lot offered to translate the honking driver’s wishes to Shailee just in case.
“Do you speak English?”
“My car won’t move. I am trying.”
He straightaway relayed that to the other driver who looked at Shailee and a thought formed in his head.
He smiled politely, then drove around the Subaru to the other side of the road and went on his way rolling his eyes.
Shailee prayed silently “Please God, let there be no more cars until I figure this one out. I’ll fast on Tuesday next week if you get us out of this mess."
“Mom are you ok?”
“Think, think, think… let me turn it off and try once more. So I turned it off, but the lights are still on. Ok, let’s turn this off again. Let me press this again. Why didn’t it move if it wasn’t on? Didn’t my grandma in her wisdom say that all this technology was the work of the devil?”
Shailee could see from the corner of her eye a Sheriff’s car pull into the parking lot of the shopping complex.
“I’ve never had a ticket so far. What did I do, did I turn something off? Or on? C’mon, C’mon, Ok, what did I do? Think, Think…”
“Look Mom, the Cop is walking towards us.”
Another car blared its horn again. Each time they had to drive around the Subaru, the driver slowed down to take a good look at the idiotic driver.
Impatient hands shot out of the cars with obscene gestures. There was very little that could be done…by Shailee. As an afterthought, she decided to turn on the hazard lights… once she figured out where the hazard light button was.
The blinking looked the same as they did on that early morning at the border seven years ago. Shailee had just gotten off the flight with her colleagues after the red eye flight from San Jose to Guadalajara. Red was ‘Stop’ and Green was ‘Go’, the poster at the Customs and Immigration read. It was 4:35am and everyone moved lethargically.
There were 2 lanes and there were four of them.
“I always get the red” said Shailee’s Manager.
“Incredible, it's green this time,” he said and walked past the scanner to the other side to wait behind a sound proof frosted glass divider that ran from floor to ceiling. Once on the other side you couldn’t see through the glass, but if you were on the inside you could see the silhouettes.
Another colleague too got the green and laughed his way through. There were only two of them left now. The black guy and the brown girl. He got the “red” and turned around “You are lucky Shailee, you’ll get the green as always, black guys always get the red even outside the US”. Shailee pressed the button and for the first time she got the red. “I can’t believe you got the red. They can wait a while for us this time.”
There was only one customs officer. He motioned for the black burly man to place his luggage on the table and open it. He reached for his pair of gloves and looked at the x-ray contents on his screen and began poking with his wand “What is this, Sir?” Shailee looked away not wanting to inadvertently spot any underwear or any personal belongings and infiltrate any professional boundaries.
“Thank you, Sir. You may go now.”
Without being asked Shailee lifted her suitcase and placed it on the table and opened it. Wedged right in the middle among the clothes in plain sight, was a Tupperware box, and at that moment she knew that she should’ve packed it deeper inside and covered it with underwear.
He looked at her and asked, “What is in it?”
Shailee cringed at the thought of having to speak without brushing her teeth first thing in the morning.
Her mind wasn’t accustomed to think without a hot cup of madras coffee in the morning, and she didn’t conjure in her wildest imagination that she would have to disclose the contents to anyone.
A lone thought quickly made its appearance and she debated if it were a good thing to say. Before she could decide, she said “medicine” and then evaluated her idea.
She was certain that the customs officer understood English, but at that moment she wasn’t sure of herself. So she repeated “It’s my medicine,” and not many moments later, added “Doctor’s prescription”. Unbeknown to her, the decibels of her speech were falling. The officer gave her the same look that she sometimes got from her colleagues at the factory when she would’ve to explain things all over again, annunciating carefully and choosing simpler words with nouns and verbs, slashing all the parts of speech. Similes, metaphors and idioms were not in the least bit useful in such situations, she thought. It reminded her of the time she said, “Heads up, Mike” and it was interpreted as an emergency situation at work with the visual of someone who was drowning with their heads up above the water. Shailee had learnt to use “I want to let you know that this may/ will happen soon.”
The customs officer pulled up his already tight latex gloves, picked up the box, held it tight with one hand close to his chest and with a quick motion lifted the lid off. A puff of white cloud escaped from the box and Shailee saw images of her family flash before her eyes. Her sons were 9 and 6 and her husband was no doubt the better parent. In a movie she had seen a long time ago, contraband was planted in a suitcase and the person never left the Thai jail. Maybe she should’ve refused to travel after she had read about the US citizens shot in Guadalajara last week.
The Customs officer was now alert with his spine straight but he no longer made eye contact with Shailee as he deliberated on his next move. Shailee was unsure what to say to him and blurted out “I mix the powder in water and drink my medicine.”
“Wait here, I’ll be back,” and he left with the box.
Her little boys did not like her traveling so much. She hadn’t called her parents in a long time. She was waiting for the project to be finished so she could resume her weekly calls with her beloved grandma. She had been thinking that for almost a year now.
She could see the restless silhouettes and hear them faintly across the glass wall. They were making small talk, whiling away time, waiting patiently for her to show up on the other side. It was a short flight, nevertheless everyone was eager to check into the hotel, get a hot cup of coffee and freshen up before a long day of meetings that was ahead of them.
Rooted to the ground, her body felt heavy, her feet burned, and her head felt light. She could suddenly feel the passages to her throat and gut, and a vacuum in her stomach as she swallowed nothingness of air and her mouth went completely dry.
Thankfully there was no one at the airport to witness her impending fall from dignity.
“How long would my colleagues wait for me?” she wondered. “Would they come back to ask around, would they be allowed to come back once they were on the other side?" She was sure there were posters that said “No entry beyond this point, you can only exit,” like there were in most airports.
“Would I be allowed to make a call before they took me away? How would anyone know where I was?”
She could see the silhouette of the officer moving on the other side.
“What if he replaced the contents? Was this where it would end?”
She remembered what her uncle had told her a long time ago,
“Always follow the rules when you are in a new country and you’ll be ok.”
But he was thinking of the US when he said that, not Mexico. How could she explain to the officer what Benefibre is?
He came back and handed the box back to Shailee and said,
“Next time, don’t carry it loose, bring the box you buy it in from the store, SEALED.”
Shailee promptly zipped her bag and exited from the scene before he could change his mind.
She couldn’t remember if she said a ‘thank you.’
“What took you so long, troublemaker?"
Shailee, always packing so much stuff that needs to be checked.
“Ah, there’s our man with the banner.”
She was grateful that they didn’t insist on an answer. They didn’t offer a reason for the delay to our business partners either and Shailee was too shaken and embarrassed to divulge it.
“Maam, are you ok?”
The cop’s face was by the window. Shailee tried to lower the pane, but realized that she couldn’t and she wasn’t sure if she should open the door. Then she remembered a piece of advice from a fellow Desi when she first came to America, “Always stay in your car and never try to get out even if an officer comes up, they’ll shoot you in America.” She shrugged her shoulder pointing to the button and gestured that she couldn’t lower the pane and should she open the door? He gestured back to open the door.
“Are you ok ma’am?”
“My car stopped working,” she said, and pressed the ignition ‘Start’ once more to prove it. This time it buzzed into life and they both looked into each other’s eyes uncomprehendingly.
“These immigrants, up the boohai,” he thought.