Borders with Teeth

I imagine my mother was still wearing her Sunday church shoes when she jumped the border. She wore them every Sunday for three years, and she wasn’t going to stop wearing them that Sunday, even if she was going to jump the fence between the US and Canada instead of going to church. Her mother bought them for her after months of saving; a gift to her and her two sisters, because her nine brothers preferred to spend their spare change on booze and cigarettes. Her handkerchief was tucked into her back pocket, still wet with tears after she left her mother in Ireland. In her bag there was some extra clothes, water, tea biscuits from home, and a copy of Romeo and Juliet she owned since she was ten years old.

She would join her older sister in her Bronx apartment, getting by on nannying Wall Street couples’ children in Manhattan, cleaning, and cooking––just the two of them––my mother fifteen, my aunt eighteen.

I was ten years old, holding my sister and feeding her formula, when my mother sat next to me and asked, “You’ll take care of your sister if they come and take me away, right?”

My brother was five. He was sitting at the kitchen counter, reciting simple math. My sister spat out her bottle and started to cry. I swaddled and cradled her, like my mother taught me, and eventually she quieted, staring––all green eyes, all fiery red hair, nose running, a small creature that looked much different than me.

I took after my father: dark eyes, wild black hair, Jewish nose. My brother did, too. All we shared with our mother was our freckles, but I always thought my brother’s were more apparent, scattered over his nose like ash.

I told her, “Yes,” though the thought of having my mother taken away from me scared me more than anything else. I had this friend in elementary school who liked to say she was Irish––and she was Irish-American, she wasn’t wrong. But she and I didn’t share the same fears. I was aware that, while I had nightmares about my mother on the other side of that fence, she feared the intangible monsters that now, as an adult, I recognize are the monsters I should have feared.

Instead, my monsters were tangible. Instead, after my mother explained there was a possibility she couldn’t stay in the country any longer, that if she was caught, she could never come back, I feared government officials in government uniforms. Seeing a police car on the highway gave me anxiety; they could have pulled us over and realized my mother didn’t have the proper papers. The police officers that stood at the entrance to my schools, metal detectors and cuffs at their waist, could take my mother away at any time.

I feared our president, on the television in the kitchen. He wore a suit and tie always, a pin with an American flag; he was a white man with graying hair and an accent I could not recognize. Men like him called my mother and people like her “illegal aliens.” She was a problem to be taken of, a focus of American policy with every election.

My mother grew up in Callan, Ireland. It’s deep South, rural Ireland, a town with only a population of 2,000. The houses are attached to one another, long lines of neighbors that shared each other’s walls. It was loud; not even the rain could drown married couples arguing, children screaming at one another, the fires that raged down them in one long unending line when no one could stop them.

She had twelve siblings, shared a room and bed with two of her sisters. Her education was prayer and home economics. She returned home that day with a sore wrist; a nun caught her writing with her left hand, took her to the front of the class, and slapped her across the face with her pointer.

Her father was home from work, but that day they had no dinner to eat, so they settled for tea and biscuits. It was dark outside, rain falling on the cobblestone. She was sitting on the floor next to her younger sister, her skirt still pinned to her waist by her safety pin, handkerchief and extra change stuffed in her shoe because she had no pockets. She shivered, damp air setting in her bones.

On the television they kept by her father’s chair, she saw a couple holding hands. The man professed his love to her, and kissed her. She looked to her sister next to her. Her mouth was open, fingers gripping her tea, bony and white-knuckled.

Wordlessly, her father stood, wobbling with his wooden cane in hand. He was wearing his park ranger’s uniform, a deep green jumper, and his scuffed worker boots. The hardwood floor groaned under his weight, and the television hissed when he turned it off.

My mother’s boyfriend was a few years older than her. He promised her his Irish middle-class wealth, his protection, a family she did not have to worry about feeding. Later, she would find out he was engaged to someone else. He took her to the bridge on the castle moat in Callan. I imagine the water under them was angry with the night rain, flooding the grass and making it dance in the current. It was near her old school, the stone wall she climbed and fell on top of a nun and broke her neck. Downstream, there was a watermill, threatening to drown out his words when he told her, “I’m marrying someone else.”

It was then she decided Ireland had nothing for her: no money, no prospects, no proper education, no marriage. She would join her older sister in America––for what she thought would be only a little while.

A few years later, my mother’s younger sister came home from school sobbing. She was fifteen, pregnant, and her boyfriend wanted nothing to do with it. My mother and older sister were gone two years earlier, and were still in America. Abortion was illegal in Ireland, and her younger sister was always afraid nuns would take her child away––that she would never see him again. She was always looking over her shoulder, and never let her son out of her line of vision.

Years later, sometime when I was four or five, this sister visited us in America. She was smoking a cigarette in our kitchen, leaning over the counter, skinny jeans rolled up just enough to reveal the fading tattoos on her ankles. Her pixie cut was growing out, and she moved a free hand through her hair before she released a puff of her cigarette. She offered it to my mother, who took it between two fingers expertly, moving it to her mouth before she caught me staring.

My aunt said, “Heya, it’s our little American.”

To this day, my mother insists she doesn’t know how her sister survived it––all of it, a teen mom in Ireland, a teen mom that also wanted to leave Ireland, a teen mom in a place where she knew if she wasn’t careful, the church would kidnap her children. She told me she would have killed herself.

My mother was pregnant with me at 23, the same age I am now. With my birth, I tied her to America. I do have a younger brother and a younger sister, but with my birth––the first born––her staying in America became a real, done deal.

While she was here, her father died slowly and painfully, sick with a virus she insists wouldn’t have killed him if he had access to American medicine. They buried him on a hill. She didn’t arrive in Ireland in time to see him before he died, two days before my twelfth birthday.

The night before she left, she sat on my bed, stroking my hair. I had it cut short at the time, like my brother’s, and though she hated it, she still let me do it. This was before I relaxed and straightened it, and my curls were thick and black when they wrapped around her freckled hands. My mother has red freckles, like her hair was before she went gray.

“I’m sorry,” she told me. I couldn’t see her face, but her voice was cracking with tears. “I want to be here for your birthday. You know that, right?”

I nodded. I struggled not to cry knowing my mother’s father was dying and she was forced to be here, with me, since I was born. I wondered what it was like to be an entire ocean away from your parent when they were dying. I wondered what it would be like for me, if my mother was ever taken away.

My mother’s best friend died a few years earlier in a car accident. She said she was a drunk, but she still didn’t deserve to die like that. I’ve never met her best friend or have seen my grandfather’s grave; I haven’t been to Ireland since I was eleven because we haven’t been able to afford it.

When I was eleven, I stayed in my mother and her sisters’ old room. It was cramped when it was just me there. There was no television, no internet, just the landline. This was before I got a job, so I didn’t yet have my cellphone or computer to at least keep me busy. I was miserable––I stared at the yellow wallpaper and listened to obnoxious American punk rock music. My mother used to let me leave the house by myself until a neighborhood kid hit me on the back of my knees with his hurley stick and called me a Fucking Kike Yankee Jew. Not because he hit me, but because I didn’t hit him back.

I used to have a slight Irish accent, like my mother, until my father grew angry with me when he caught it in my voice; he grabbed me by the wrist, hard enough for bruises, and would tell me to speak like an American.

I understood why. My mother made an effort to disguise her accent. Now she speaks with an American accent until she visits Ireland, or pockets of Irish communities in the Bronx. It’s thick, like the rest of my Irish relatives, and most Americans have a rough time understanding it.

My cousin, Jacinta, is a few years older than me. She was sitting on my bed––my mother’s, her mother’s old bed?––listening to one of my Green Day CDs. After a while, she said, “How’s America?”

I answered, “It’s alright, I guess.”

“Really?” she asked. It was getting late. We could hear the bustle of drunk men in the pubs, most likely including her half-older brother, the son my aunt was pregnant with at fifteen. It was getting cold, and she was warming her hands with her tea.

“It’s alright,” I repeated.

“You can’t be serious.” She put down her tea, on top of the Irish teen magazines she walked over with. It stained the pages. “I mean, at least your mother says you can go to college in a few years. I’m stuck here.”

I pressed my lips together. “We’re not sure if we can afford it,” I answered, which was true. My mother liked to mention college, though––she didn’t even graduate middle school. She said, if I’m going to stay in America, damnit, you’re going to get an education even if I die for it.

Jacinta opened her mouth to speak, but her younger brother, Eric, called us downstairs. We walked in the light rain. My hair frizzed, and he patted it down, wiping his hand on his school uniform. He was holding his pencil case I remember vividly; it had a design of a young woman with exposed breasts, a man in a long, white uniform sticking a knife into her chest.

We heard a grumbled fuck, and we turned to see a red-faced drunk man sprawled on the grass. It was in front of the old church, where there were old graves were stained green from the rain. The ruins of the church were behind him, a shell of fallen stones.

“The fuck ye want, ye fuckin gobshite?” Eric said.

“Why’r ye with a yank?” he asked, and Eric spat at him. Jacinta hit him on the shoulder, warning him to calm down.

“If ye don’t want to die, get off, for God’s sake!” he said, “And she’s Irish, ya stupid dope!” A few minutes later, Eric reached behind his neighbor’s fence and picked a daisy. It grew by itself, between the cracks in the pavement. He handed it to me and said, “For my favorite yank, who likes too much sugar in her tea.”

I left the morning after. My grandfather was standing at the door, wooden cane in hand. He had a tweed hat, green as the hills of grass. He kissed my cheek, and when we piled into Eric’s car, he waved. My mother cried. I wished I was born in Ireland, but there I was, stuck in between, not one or the other.

When I was twenty and told my mother I had been dealing with thoughts of suicide again, we were sitting in the kitchen. Now, my sister was nine, my brother fourteen.

I told her, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.” I was holding the bills I received in the mail; ones I had at least 12 voicemails on my cellphone about. It was more than I could pay, and between my clinical depression, paying for my apartment, food, and medical bills accumulated from lack of proper insurance, I was sure it would be better to just die.

I wasn’t sure if I should return in the Fall to Boston, where I was going to college. I thought about taking my job as a teacher’s assistant in the local Children’s Center again, where I could at least get a steady cash flow. I went to college on a risk; I’m writing on a huge risk. Sometimes, I still regret it. Sometimes, I think it’s too much of a risk. Everything is a risk because, for people like us, there is no room for failure.

At this point, my mother had given me the college lecture more than I could count. Sometimes, she was furious. Red-faced. Yelling until her voice strained. Two weeks before, we stopped talking to each other because she said, “You will go back to college,” and I spat, “It’s easy for you to say, when you aren’t paying for it.” I didn’t say it out loud, but the implication was there: everyone else I knew in college, their parents were covering some kind of expense. But I was stuck in a hard place, and my parents couldn’t spare a single penny to help me financially. I couldn’t take an internship, because most, if not all, were unpaid. Failure, impending.

She swallowed. “I know I haven’t been able to help you,” she said. “But please, stick with it. You don’t owe that to me. You can’t exactly be you forever, and you owe it to yourself.” I didn’t say anything, so she continued. “I was depressed for a long time. I wanted to die for a long time. I was diagnosed with postpartum. Sometimes I just wanted to end it. I wanted to end it real bad. I wanted to go home, too. Just pack up and leave, go home to my mammy. But I realized you deserved more than that.” She swallowed. Maybe she was bitter. “So fucking stick with it.”

I was bitter––bitter because when she came here and had me, I had to live a life that was better than hers. I had to graduate high school, graduate college, get a respectable job, have a family, live that American dream with a white picket fence. I couldn’t choose to die. I couldn’t end up in pieces in a drunken car accident or even do something as simple as smoke cigarettes. This is the burden of being first generation.

Even though every first generation I’ve known hates the thought of having a white picket fence, believes the American dream does not exist, we all want one because that’s what our parents want for us. I recognized that hardship she had in coming to this country, and I was bitter I was still having similar hardships. I was a bitter failure, and I took that out on her, because I thought––who else could I blame for this?

I lived in a sublet in Brookline, just outside of central Boston, for a summer. A few days a week I would see a young white man, most likely not more than a few years older than me, riding the train. He was easily recognizable: blond hair shaved close to his head, faded tattoo on his forearm, old ripped jeans and blue wifebeater.

It was the morning commute on a Monday. I sat in the middle of the train, between two businessmen in expensive suits. It was a normal morning; most of the Brookline commute was white businessmen in expensive suits. I stared across from me, at one of the advertisements that were often on Green Line trains during the morning commute: ARE YOU DEPRESSED? written in big, bold letters, advertising a local hospital’s study that targeted depressed students that could use an extra $200.

Then this man sat across from me, blocking the advertisement. I didn’t have the time to be relieved before he said, loud enough for the entire train to hear, “DONALD TRUMP 2016! DONALD TRUMP 2016!”

Boston is not like New York. People yelling things on transit is not a natural occurrence. I could see how uncomfortable the people around me were, and I took comfort in it: that in some way, I was better than them. I even saw the humor in it––I didn’t think it was possible to make a morning commute from Brookline more miserable.

A few weeks later, I was walking to my apartment, groceries in hand. I rarely wear clothes that expose the tattoo on my right forearm, but it was almost 100 degrees. I was alone on a sidestreet. Then this same white man walked passed me. I realized he had a limp, and he shaved his head again recently. He looked back at me.

He saw my face. Maybe he recognized me, like I recognized him––it was hard to tell. But then he looked at my forearm, where my tattoo was: Hebrew in dark, black ink.

The thing is, the most I remember about this experience is how we were standing. I paused, he paused. His eyes widened; his face changed. He turned so he was in front of me, facing me on the sidewalk. The way we were, I could see his tattoo, too, the exact same place on his forearm, facing mine. His said TRUMP 2016.

He opened his mouth, revealing white teeth. He turned red, a vein popping from his neck, strings of spit straining from his lips. Then he turned away from me, screaming, “I’M AN ARYAN NEO-NAZI FOR TRUMP 2016! FOR TRUMP 2016!” over and over again, over and over again, as he walked down the street. He didn’t turn back to see me again; all I saw was his back, tense as tense could be, like he were beating an anvil.

A little girl on a tricycle, alone, rode passed me with a soft, “Excuse me.” She had these long, blonde braids down her back, and a bright red dress. She heard this, and it upset me more than anything else––because again, I said nothing.

I walked up the four flights of stairs to my apartment. My roommates weren’t home. I dropped my groceries in the middle of the floor, turned all the fans on, and cried.

All this man saw was my tattoo was in Hebrew, but he likely didn’t know what it meant. I got it during my depressive episode a year earlier: it says לחיים, or L’CHAIM romanized, meaning “to life.” In Jewish culture, it’s a toast––to another’s health and wellbeing. It’s reminder to myself; that I’m worth something.

Months later, and a few days after Donald Trump was elected, I saw a different white man berating three high school girls for holding signs they were bringing to a protest. I was on the other end of the train, and I couldn’t see his face. I could only hear him. His voice, loud and grating like a car’s exhaust; his words, nasty. I looked around. The car was quiet, save for the man berating them. A scholarly looking man across from me was reading a novel with a female protagonist’s fists raised on the cover. Two white boys wearing MIT sweatshirts were laughing.

Then the white man said, “Get over it, and get some plastic surgery. This is mmmmyyyyyyyyy baaackyaard.” One of the girls looked at her phone, trying to ignore him, but I saw––she bit her lip. She was struggling not to cry.

I stood and said, “Hey, you. Fuck off. No one wants to hear you.”

The white man turned to me. His face changed. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. Then he opened it again, screaming this time. He was red, spitting with anger.

Then he paused and started to rummage through his coat. This was before the string of violent incidents after he was elected, including a man slashing two subway goers a few cities over during a dispute. I don’t think anyone on the train, or even me at the time, realized he was looking for a knife.

Except one. Another man sitting across from him––maybe in his early thirties––stood and pushed him through the doors of the train, just as they opened at the Harvard stop. Through the foggy windows of the train car I saw the man fumbled with his coat a little more, and then when he couldn’t find whatever it was he was looking for, stumbled away.

A few minutes went by. The train pulled away. The man who pushed the other through the doors moved to sit next to me and asked, “Hey. You from New York?”

I nodded. I assumed he heard it in my accent. “The Bronx,” I said. “You?”

“Boston. My parents are from China, though. I’m first generation.”

“Me too,” I said.

My mother always told me: if you came to America, you made it. That’s why so many people did it, even illegally––because they had no other choice. That’s why my father’s family came here before the Holocaust. My mother jumped the border, too, with that thought in mind. And eventually, when I’m older, after so much time and turmoil, she finally became a legal resident. But sometimes I still think––is any of this pain even worth it? On top of that, to be undocumented, to have others call you “illegal” and strip you of whatever is left that makes you human? Is this really what it is to “make” it?

I was twenty-one, and sitting on the couch at home in New York. My brother, fifteen, was next to me, playing a handheld video game––Yankees snapback on, hair gelled. My mother was standing off to the side, watching the news, peeling an apple. The knife slipped, and she cut her thumb. She was sucking on it when she said, “What you think of these people?”

On the television was a report on MAGA––or “Make America Great Again”––the people who wore red snapbacks with Donald Trump’s slogan embroidered on the front. They were chanting “BUILD A WALL! BUILD A WALL!”  

My mother handed the apple to my brother. He put down his video game and took a bite out of it. “They’re white nationalists. Neo-nazis. Fuck ‘em,” he said. Then he laughed. “God, they look so fucking stupid.”

When I was ten, I was sitting in my neighbor’s treehouse with my brother. My neighbor was eating candy, but refused to share any with my brother and I. Her parents were local cops––I know because they often are at our elementary school. Because my brother and I were close to she and her own brother’s age, and she had a nice treehouse, we were together often after school.

“I’m telling my mom,” I said.

I tried to reach for the candy, but she yanked it away, the candy scattering over the floor. “Your mom, she’s an illegal. You should be careful,” she deadpanned.

I froze. I had no idea why––why she knew. If her parents told her something. If she even knew at all, and was making a lucky guess based on what she knew about my family. I looked across from me, where my brother was. His dark eyes, much like mine, were on me, the older sister. But I froze. I froze and froze and froze. I said nothing, and eventually, our neighbor huffed.

Now, at twenty-one, I looked at my brother, no longer a young kid. He was a teenager. He took another bite of the apple, dark eyes on the television. I recognized the anger I had in him: the way he stared holes into him on the screen, the way he bit into the apple, the way he spat when he spoke about them. Then he looked at me.

“What you think?” he asked. Looking at him, I thought about our little sister, who was almost eleven years old, the same age I was when my neighbor threatened me with my mother’s undocumented status. That now, she had to grow up with that fear that something may happen, like we did. Girls like her, children like her, even more worse off than her, had to grow up with that same fear we did.

I wonder what my brother thought about me––when I said nothing. Was he disappointed in me? Did he think I was pathetic, allowing someone to treat our mother like she wasn’t even human? Someone to ridicule, berate, take advantage of? Did he feel pain, knowing if his older sister couldn’t say anything, he couldn’t say anything, either?

My brother offered the apple to me. I bit into it. It was bitter, dry from sitting in the kitchen for too long. As I chewed, I thought: these people existed. Like me, they grew up angry. Like I blamed them, they blamed me. There was nothing I could do about that. I had one power, and that power was that I could exist louder.

My mouth started to prick, so I wiped it on my hand, expecting to draw blood. I didn’t. Confused, I looked to my brother. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

My throat, down to my stomach, started to grow raw, as though someone reached into my mouth with an apple core. I tried to speak, but it came out wrong, like those words weren’t mine at all.

It turned out I was allergic to apples. When the doctor told us, my brother smiled wide, bits of red skin still between his teeth.

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