INVISIBLE WALLS

SHRUTI SWAMINATHAN

 
 

Hour 1.
 
The line at immigration must be long, I think to myself. I imagine the faces of the people waiting in varying stages of fatigue. Bags under their eyes, hair tousled, a thousand thoughts rushing through their minds. Some clutch their papers defensively close to their chests, as though daring someone to question them about the legality of their visit. Some stretch lazily, familiar with this process, impatient to get out. The first-timers peer over the heads of the crowd, across the invisible wall created by interview windows, at the bags that quietly hum on the belts, carrying bits and pieces of the lives they left behind. And finally, in the midst of all these people, I imagine my father. His bald, brown head bent as he scrolls through his phone, already counting down the days until he can get back home. I shake my head and smile. Typical.
 
Hour 3.
 
I impatiently refresh my messages. The last text I got from him was over ninety minutes ago: “Next in line. Should be out soon.” I try calling him. No response. I ignore the quickening of my pulse. I scan the faces of the steady stream of people coming through the exit for any sign that they might have been on the same flight as him. Maybe they sat next to him and laughed uncomfortably at one of his awful puns. Maybe they were standing right behind him in the line. A viral facebook post about a woman’s father detained and strip searched despite being a citizen pops into my memory. I force it to the side and breathe deeply, trying to remember my therapist’s advice. Don’t be paranoid. I refocus my attention to the crowd and will his bald head to appear. I’m reminded of my childhood, when I was always the first to pick my parents out in a crowd because of his baldness. The memory makes me smile. For a moment, the invisible fist around my heart unclenches.
 

***

 
None of us remember when exactly it became a ritual. Every night after dinner, my sister and I made our way to our parents’ bed and clambered on, ready to launch into stories about our day. My sister always went first, her tales about this friend or that teacher at the ready. Dad would be stretched out on the bed, listening patiently and interjecting with thoughtful questions. I’d listen to my sister for a little while, day dreaming about what it would be like to be popular. Eventually, I’d tire and turn to him. I’d tap him on the shoulder. “Again?” he would say. I’d pout until he turned over onto his stomach. Then, grinning, I would climb onto his back and grab my implements: a comb and an invisible scissor. I tugged at the small tufts of hair growing in a neat semicircle around the bald patch at the top of his head. In complete seriousness, I would measure the length between two fingers and snip off the excess length with my “scissors.” I repeated this task with every tuft of hair. When done, I would sit back and inspect my work. If satisfied, I’d pick up my imaginary blow-dryer and blow the excess bits of “hair” off his shoulders with a low humming sound. I didn’t have to look up to know that my sister was giving me a “you’re weird” look. But it didn’t matter, because when I climbed off his back, my father would turn to his side and say in his kind voice, “thank you.”
 
***

 
Hour 6.
 
I finally hear from him. He’s being detained because he’s been to “conflicted nations” in the past. I feel my breath leaving my body, even though we were both prepared for this. His voice is patient as he asks me to stay calm. They’re just doing their job, he says comfortingly. I want to shout, you’re Indian! It’s not their job to detain you just because you visited a couple of countries on business a decade ago. Instead, I remind him to not sign anything and tell him I love him even though it makes him uncomfortable. I begin to ask him if he’s had anything to eat or drink but suddenly, he’s gone. I try calling him back once. Twice. No response. I know his phone’s been confiscated. I clutch mine tightly in my hand. I want to drop everything and run through the airport to wherever he’s being kept. But I know I can’t. The same invisible walls that are keeping him out of the country, keep me in. A loud, joyous squeal makes me jump. I turn to see a little blonde-haired girl running into the arms of her father as he walks out of the exit with a broad smile. I sink into a chair at the waiting area.
 
Hour 8.
 
My husband has joined me at the airport by now. His arm is protectively looped around me and he holds me close. He stays silent because he knows that’s what I need. Occasionally, he tries to coax me into eating or drinking something but I shake my head no. All I want to do is stay right here. We call a couple of friends and family members, asking for advice. Someone recommends calling a lawyer but that scares me. There’s no need to overreact, I say. They’ll let him go. My husband asks them to send the number anyway. Just to be safe. I massage my temples as I feel the beginning of a headache.
 
***

 
We were sitting in a restaurant waiting for my sister to join us for dinner. I decided it was time to share something that had been on my mind for months. “You both like her more than me,” I said to them, my voice tremulous with petulant resentment. My mother laughed. “Don’t be silly. We love both of you equally,” she said, but I hadn’t missed the look that had passed between them. I asked them what that was about, insisted that they share it with me. My father spoke up in his soft, measured voice. “You’re too idealistic. You want to rebel against the world, shape it the way you like but it doesn’t work like that. We worry about you. But your sister’s not like that, she can take care of herself.” I stared down at my hands in my lap, stung. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” my mother said. I blinked away the tears that were already gathering in the corners of my eyes. He was wrong, I told myself. I can take care of myself. I’ll show him.
 
***

 
Hour 12.
 
We’ve taken turns walking towards and back from the exit to the waiting area, just to have something to do. I gave in and ate a sandwich to keep the headache at bay, but it hasn’t helped. I keep bringing out my phone, wondering if I should write a post on my social media. I wonder if it will galvanise anyone. I imagine crowds forming to protest this unlawful detention of my father. I think of the cheering as my father finally emerges from the exit, besieged with exultant congratulations from strangers. But almost immediately, I stuff the phone back into my pocket, exhausted at even the thought of rebellion. The mere act of surviving these past few months, of walking down the street with my head held high, of being brown and unafraid, has been a silent protest. But now I’m tired. I’ve had enough and I can’t rebel anymore.
 
Hour 13.
 
I run towards the exit as I see a bald head appear. But when I get close I see that it belongs, instead, to a sweet-looking old man. It looks like no one has come to receive him., I find myself swelling with resentment at him. Why is he out? No one cares that he’s here, so why is he not sitting in a small windowless room? At that moment, I will give anything for him to swap places with my father. Almost instantly, I’m contrite. I smile at him apologetically, though he will never know why. I consider asking him if I should help him with his bags but I can’t bring myself to do it. A small part of me still hates him. I slowly walk back to our table, embarrassed to meet my husband’s eyes.
 
Hour 15.
 
A few people have joined us at the airport. Friends of friends, relatives of relatives, who’ve heard from someone or the other. They bring us food, water, blankets. They tell us over and over that they’ll be here for us however long it takes. My husband and I sit with a lawyer, her hand clasped over mine, as she goes down her list of questions. I see a call from my mother, her fifteenth in an hour. I turn it to silent. My husband takes the phone from me and answers it, repeating the same lines we’ve been saying for hours. We don’t know. It should be soon. I’m sure he’s fine, please don’t worry. I tell him to ask her to stop calling. He ignores me and promises to call her the minute we have anything to report. Someone drapes a shawl over my shoulders. I notice that I had been shivering. I turn around to thank them, but they’re gone. I stand up and walk away to a distance. Someone starts after me, but I hear my husband ask them to stay. I need the space, he says. I tell myself to remember to thank him later, but I know I’ll forget. I think about the conversation I had with my dad before he got on the plane. I warned him about visiting – it probably won’t be very pleasant, I remember saying. I hear his laugh like it was a moment ago. That only makes me want to come and prove a point, he says. And you know how much I hate leaving home. I smile and tell him, I can’t wait to see you and your bald, brown head.

 

 
 

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