When Helen lands in her birth country, nobody is there to greet her. The deathly heat from the Caribbean sun can’t penetrate the chill she feels of being alone. She looks around at the people that walk past her, their eyes gliding over her body. Their gazes sting. She is an outsider, obviously, and somehow she is supposed to belong…here. Yet, the faces, the sounds and the scenery are so unfamiliar. A place she probably embraced a long time ago, a place she happily called home and knew intimately. Where the words of streets and people filled all the space in her mouth and came out smooth like the words were parts of her. But now, after years of her hands embracing another, it couldn’t understand how to go back. Her arms moved all wrong and didn’t fit into the spaces the island had supposedly left for her. Her mind and mouth had long forgotten the names that used to come to her so naturally. They were empty.
The only money she has on her is enough for a one-night stay at some dingy hotel near the airport and one phone call. She rushes to the phone booth, nestled into a tiny corner of the tiny terminal. She keeps her back to the wall and her small, black duffle bag full of everything she is supposed to own sits between her feet on the floor. She nudges it every few minutes, just to make sure it’s still there. That the remnants of her life did not abandon her.
The telephone is red, but the paint is so old and has been chipped off so many times over the years it looks almost black now. As Helen holds the phone near her ear, after typing in the number she wants, she starts to pick at the paint herself. The old red chipped pieces fall to the floor at her feet and on her duffle bag as well. It sort of looks like confetti, she muses.
“Kel,” Helen breathes. And she feels so close. A small part of her can breathe again.
“Mom? Mom!” She can feel the tears that immediately spill over from her daughter’s eyes. The simultaneous relief and pain in her voice is palpable. Helen can only wish she could be there to hold and comfort her now. She stares down at the hand not holding the phone receiver to her ear. The idleness and uselessness of it at this moment.
Her daughter brings her back to life. “Mom! When are you coming back? I don’t even know who to call or what to do.”
Helen pauses. “Did you call your Dad?”
There’s a tense air that emerges between them even through all the miles. They both haven’t really spoken to the man in years. Her daughter sucks in a breath. “No.”
“You have to. He needs to take care of you now. You can’t stay at your friend’s place forever. You’ll burden them.”
“You can take care of me. When you come back.” Her daughter has a hope at the bottom of her words that Helen tries to grab onto. “So, you need to come back.”
Helen rests the back of her head against the tiled wall and squeezes her eyes shut. They hadn’t had time to say proper goodbyes. One hour she was watching her daughter walk to school, waiting for when she would come back so they could have dinner together like always. The next hour, she was being forcibly detained and thrust on a plane.
“Call your Dad.”
Her daughter sighs. A sign she’ll do it because her mother has told her to, but she’s not happy about it at all. Before their time on the payphone runs out, Helen makes a promise. “I’ll get back to you. No matter what.”
The dingy airport hotel Helen manages to find is basically empty and no wonder. The place is filthy, with more bugs and dust as guests than humans. Part of her wants to leave right then and there and just sleep in the lobby of the airport, but she holds back. It can always be worse. Plus, the one night is so cheap, she might be able to stay a second night.
Helen lays atop the queen-sized mattress, the springs in the bed sticking into her back as she thinks about what to do next. What can she do? The questions, worries, and concerns seem to all eat at her now. She had spent the last 24 hours just…scared. She planned as far as the hotel, but past that, her plans cut short.
In the hotel, she feels the loneliness begin to creep into her.
In desperate times, your mind can do anything. At least that’s what Helen believes. And for Helen, as she lays on her back staring at the green and gray ceiling, her mind is able to conjure up a phone number she’d seen her mother call many times over 15 years ago. She remembers the animated talks her mother would have after she called that number. The laughter she exuded and wide smiles she allowed to be planted on her face, an image her mother never reserved for Helen. No, Helen only ever got the stern faces, the “you better not do what you’re about to do” faces and the “you heard me” faces.
But, those talks she remembers her mother having are the only memories she has of this place she should call home. Maybe if she calls this number, whoever picks up will be the same woman her mother called all those years ago. Maybe they’ll know her mother. Then maybe they’ll know Helen. Then maybe they’ll help Helen. And maybe, Helen will feel some connection to this place.
She turns over onto her side and reaches out to the hotel phone. Slowly and carefully, she punches in the numbers that float in her mind. The small duffle bag of everything she is supposed to own in her life sits in the corner of the room, the red paint from the payphone earlier still settled onto the top.
As the phone rings, Helen realizes she hasn’t remembered the woman’s name at all.
She is silent. An invisible name catches in her throat. Her mother never divulged the stories of the people she knew back home to her. Helen was only three when they’d left the island so any names or faces she might have known on her own were lost to the short memory of a child’s brain.
Helen takes a deep breath. She’ll just have to do it another way.
And she releases.
“I was wondering if you knew anyone by the name of Sheryl Brown. I’m her daughter. She used to live down in…” And so, Helen begins; she recounts the intimate details of her mother to a possible stranger. The more information she relays, it’s more likely for someone to remember her. Helen holds onto that hope. Maybe then someone could help her. And she needed help desperately.
But, the woman tells her she knows no such person. And Helen can literally feel her heart drop to her feet. It takes all of her not to let out a cry into the woman’s ear, right then and there.
The line goes dead. Helen looks at the phone like it committed some big crime against her. She doesn’t hang up the phone until the dial tone breaks through the quiet.
The first time Helen is rejected to return, it doesn’t feel like a punch in the gut, like the others in the United Deportees group tell her. Instead, it feels like a challenge. She crumples the paper in her hand and throws it in the nearest trash bin. She researches more and connects more. She finds lawyers to consult her. The money her daughter sends over every month from their joint account is the only way she can be so determined.
The second time Helen is rejected to return, she and the women at the homeless shelter she’s taken a room in for the past year have drinks together at nine in the evening. They cheer her up with good stories. Of people who went back to their home after being deported, the reunions with family and loved ones. Rejection has to happen. Acceptance isn’t always so easy.
The third time Helen is rejected to return, she tells her daughter to stop sending money. To keep it for herself. She locks herself in a bathroom of a hotel. In this strange place that she is now supposed to force as home, a hotel is the only place she feels fit to die. The pills she manages down her throat take a long time to truly work. Helen is thinking, life sure is something, when she hears a knock on the door. She has no energy to pull on the handle.
The fourth time Helen is rejected to return, she tells her daughter the letter is lost. That it never came and it probably will never come. Then she tucks the letter into her underwear drawer.
The fifth time Helen is rejected to return, she tells her daughter the truth about the fourth letter. Then tells her about the fifth letter. Her daughter hangs up. After twenty minutes, the phone rings again and they don’t dare to cry, but neither speaks for one hour.
The sixth time Helen gets rejected to return, she doesn’t open the letter for a week. It sits in the back pocket of her work pants. She keeps it close, but out of sight. Though it burns the back of Helen’s pants, she keeps it together until Sunday. Just until Sunday.
At the end of the seventh day, she pushes the door open to the house she’s lived in for the past seven years. It’s a tiny thing, with barely enough heat to keep her warm in the winter, and nowhere to truly keep away from the burning sun or deathly heat of the summer. The only thing that keeps her together is the sound of the airplanes that take off every hour or so. It’s deathly loud and nobody she knows visits her for that reason, but it has been the only thing since she landed all those years ago to give her some comfort and maybe, some hope.
Helen makes herself comfortable in the corner of the small living room. Her hands deliberately press each number, the touch-tone for each like a lullaby for her. The ringtone begins and Helen wonders if maybe, this time won’t be like the last.
But, it is. And like always, the part of her that she thinks is dying kicks back to life as the ring tone cuts off and she hears a soft voice on the other end of the line.
“Kel,” she breathes once more.
“Dad! Mom’s on the phone.” Helen hears the screech of a chair in the background and the hushed whispers of her daughter and her daughter’s father discussing…something. She isn’t privy to any of the information.
“Did you get the letter? Did you?” Her daughter sounds so excited, so ready to hear good news now. Helen attempts to placate her in advance with a warm voice, so the disappointment doesn’t sting so hard this time. Not like the fifth time.
“I have it here.” She removes it from her pants and she feels a strange relief of having the heavy weight finally leave her body. Helen rests it on her lap, unopened. She smooths her hand over the front of it, then touches each edge of the envelope gently.
“Well? Mom, open it!”
She holds the phone tight between her ear and shoulder, the phone pressed so tight against her shoulder, she wonders if a mark will be visible when the phone call ends. She opens the envelope quickly and drops the folded-up letter into her lap.
“Did you open it?”
Through Helen’s fear, her daughter’s voice sounds miles away. Her trembling hands push the top of the letter open. Her eyes have become familiar with this scene. They know exactly where to land and start reading. And they know exactly when to stop, when to look at the bare wall next to the bathroom door so her heart doesn’t hurt any more than it needs to.
There’s always next time.” Helen’s voice is low. Even her daughter doesn’t hear her. “I’ll get back to you. No matter what.”
Helen wants to believe it too, so she says it twice.
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