Tall, rotund and starched, the customs officer taps his fingers on the counter. His arms, his eyebrows, his knuckles seem large and streaked with yellow hair. Plump lips, like that of a girl, protrude under an overgrown mustache that he bites before each command.
This airport is vast. Microphones announce arrivals and departures incessantly. People rush about dragging luggage, children and a wide variety of bags and boxes tied many times over with string. A polyglot crowd vies to get to the front of meandering rows that are cordoned off with ropes attached to sturdy poles. A girl whimpers as she rubs her nose on her mother’s dress while an old man toward the front of the line sits on his suitcase chewing on the stem of his empty pipe.
Sleepless and disoriented, all Meta cares about is passing through the gate ahead and coming out on the other side, in another world, like a newborn that has just emerged from her mother’s womb. She follows the two women who sat next to her in the airplane and talked throughout the nine-hour trip, their mouths running like a motorbike. They continue to chat as they stand, waiting for their turn at the counter, fanning themselves with their passports.
Meta drags her suitcases, pushing the large one with her foot every step she gains. She no longer cares to contemplate where she came from or where she is going. She no longer wants to weigh the consequences of what she has done, as she has since the plane took off from Athens, the finality of her act crushing down on her again and again. From the moment the buildings below turned into play cubes and the avenues into ribbons (the sea always remains the sea in her mind), she has felt apprehension squeeze her temples, trickle from her palms and drive her to exhaustion.
The truth is that now Meta no longer cares to think at all. She stands amid this crowd that, although animated, remains orderly. Everyone is following the rules, a fact that impresses her.
The customs officer continues to tap his fingers. He is in no hurry to welcome her to America like he did with the person ahead of her. He takes his time to look at Meta’s passport photo, then at her, then back at the passport. Granted the image does not really look like her, as the photographer was preoccupied with other matters when he sat her down on a fraying stool under a light that shone from the wrong angle, accentuating shadows and creating wrinkles that made her look much older.
“Open this suitcase,” the officer commands pointing to the heavy one she dragged all along the floor. His curt manner, official and impersonal, is so contrary to the way she imagined the promised land would welcome her. To complicate matters, her family has hidden jars of homemade sweets among her clothes, in spite of being aware that you are not supposed to bring any foodstuff to America. Visions of arrest and confinement pass through her mind and she trembles as she bends to pull the zipper. But the zipper gets stuck after a few centimeters; it will not budge. Meta lifts her head. She realizes that the man has noticed her nervousness and worries that he thinks she has purposefully blocked the suitcase from opening.
“What are you bringing with you, miss?” he demands as he motions to a uniformed lady with shoulders arched like the end of a question mark who towers over Meta. The woman takes Meta aside, faces away from her and, as her efficient fingers do their patting down job, Meta’s eyes meet her flat chest.
After the search, the woman turns to the customs officer, who in the meantime has let a few other people pass through the gates of Paradise, and motions her head back and forth.
“Try again,” she says as she points to the bag.
Meta tries to think of how to comply. She pulls the zipper back and forth a couple of times, pushes her hand under it, and, in the end, discovers the thread of a sweater that is stuck in it. Composing herself, she gently extracts the thread, unzips the overstuffed bag, offers it for inspection at last.
Thankful that, after all, when they search the bag, the officers do not discover the illegal cargo she carries, she retreats to a toilet, piles her belongings inside the door and relieves herself, relishing the first moment of privacy she has had in many hours. She is thrilled that she can now dispose of toilet paper down the generous pipes of the New World instead of having to place it in a wastebasket by the tank to avoid clogging the sewages of the crowded ancient city she comes from.
By the time she emerges from the gate, she sees her cousin, waiting outside, pacing back and forth; her uncle has gone to call his wife and smoke his third cigarette.
Comforted to see them, Meta hugs them, exchanging all the necessary pleasantries that come to her drained mind. The cousin, whose name is Katerina, but whom everyone calls Kat, holds her by the hand. The uncle gets their car, loads Meta’s things, and they start on the five-hour drive, stopping only to get some fast food that they eat while driving.
They arrive in Maryland late at night. The air is so thick, the humidity so dense, that Meta feels like she is struggling to breathe under water.
Later, alone in the guest bedroom, although awake for about 30 hours now, she has a hard time relaxing. She pulls a nightshirt on, sits on a chair, gets up again, peeks outside the window to the yard. Nothing stirs. The night is dark save for the sliver of a moon that casts a pale glow. Her grandmother used to say that the young moon was a hook from which to hang a special wish. But all Meta sees tonight is a clipped fingernail on its way to the ground.
She turns back inside, starts unpacking. Even the slightest noise seems amplified in the hush of the sleeping house, so she soon abandons the effort. In the end, she lies in bed and the last thing she hears before she drifts off is her uncle’s raised voice from another room.
“What else did you expect me to do?” he yells. “It’s crazy over there. Besides, Kat likes her. She won’t have it any other way.”
Meta cannot hear what the other, softer voice answers.
“Well, you knew about it from the start,” her uncle breaks in. “She’s a smart girl, she will learn. You saw how confused the poor thing looked, like a wet kitten, so be kind. What? Nah! Well, if things don’t work out she will have to go back, won’t she?”
That is how Meta, gave up the joy of the familiar that ties people to the place where they are born, bounding them to the smells, images and experiences of early life. Attached to nothing anymore, rootless, she is destined from now on to hover on top of the ocean that separates this new land from that which she calls home, being here, there, but really, in between.
Nothing in America reminds Meta of the place she left behind. Everything is big. No street noises fill the quiet suburban evenings. There is hardly any dust. The air is heavy, the manicured grass in the yards thick enough to walk barefoot on.
Since the relatives’ house is far from the university, it is soon decided that Kat should no longer live in the dormitories but rent something with Meta a small distance from campus instead.
They find a second-story furnished apartment with creaking floor planks. The linoleum in the sunless kitchen simulates square tiles, curls up at the corners of the room. Kat fills the cabinets and drawers with all kinds of gadgets, many of which Meta has never seen before, does not know how to use and does not understand why one would need them, especially one who never cooks.
Meta arranges pictures of her family on the side table by the couch where she sleeps, eats and does most everything else. In front of the photographs in cheap dime store frames, she places a clear acrylic box where she keeps her earrings and a few bangles.
All alone in an unfamiliar place, she counts the hours by the comings and goings of noisy sitcoms that are punctuated with piped laughter as she waits for the first semester to begin. She perfects her English by watching reruns of I Love Lucy. Often, her mind drifts away to the busy Athenian streets, the cafes, the shimmering light as it travels over the sea, missing it all with a longing so palpable that it feels like actual pain. She strives to subdue the sadness by filling sketchbook after sketchbook with drawings.
One night she dreams that she is melting. Alarmed, she wakes up, looks around the floor for her puddle. But there is nothing there.
“Inside,” she thinks. “I am melting inside.”
To do something with her time, Meta starts driving lessons especially as she realizes the full necessity of a car in this new world. She also starts new life lessons.
There are days when she feels loneliness wrap around her like wet clothing in the winter. She itches and twists but cannot get rid of it. On one such day, Meta sits stupefied yet again in front of the television, watches Lucy as she attempts to manage a huge, overflowing amount of cooking rice, all the while jumping around and screaming, “Oh, oh! Oooh, oooh!”
It is then that the loneliness flies out the black-and-white screen, engulfs the room, sinks its claws in Meta’s throat. She begins to slip under its grip, losing the world around, drowning deeper and deeper in a dark chasm that drags her away from what she thinks of as reality. Time and place disappear in what seems like an eternity but in fact are several hours of stagnant misery.
When she finally comes around it is late evening and she is drenched in sweat. She jumps out of her robe, takes a shower, dresses quickly and runs down the stairs in search of fresh air.
The night is crisp and quiet. A soft wind blows through the trees with a rustling yet soothing sound. The streets are empty. Lone lights filter through the fabric of wafting curtains here and there. In the distance, a beagle lets out a throaty howl. Meta starts to wander as she takes in the coolness of the moist air. She goes up the neighborhood, crosses the main avenue, passes through a sleepy row of dimly lit stores, prepares to turn a corner toward a tidy park with manicured borders and a few benches across from one another.
By the time she hears the car come to a screeching stop next to her, she has lost track of the minutes but has begun to feel refreshed.
“Hey! Hey you!” an angry voice yells.
Meta halts perplexed as her disheveled, distraught cousin jumps out of the car waving in the air. She looks like she has just gotten out of bed.
“What are you doing? Where in the world are you going?” she yells at Meta as she stomps her foot on the sidewalk.
“I’ve come out for a walk,” Meta says confused, eyes darting from Kat to the boyfriend at the wheel who shakes his head from side to side. The boyfriend’s name is David but everyone calls him “Brillo” because of his curly hair, the likes of which Meta has not seen on a white man before.
“At this hour? Now? As ton diavolo!” the cousin makes good use of her proficiency in Greek by sending Meta straight to the devil. “Are you nuts? Have you lost it? It’s past midnight!”
Brillo’s shoulders jiggle up and down with laughter.
“Oh my God! You can’t go wandering in the streets at night all alone! It’s not safe! I’ve been calling and calling you! Get in the car!” Kat orders pointing at the back seat. Meta looks from one face to the other uncertain how to react, decides to comply.
Back at the apartment Kat and Brillo sit around the living room, shove Meta’s books aside and put their feet on the coffee table. They drink beers from the six-pack Brillo has pulled out of the car trunk. Meta, who is the only Greek on the planet allergic to alcohol, curls up on the couch and soon falls asleep. In the morning when she wakes, she is alone.
In the days that follow, Meta continues to find America’s face different from the one she has seen in the movies or in the good-natured smiles of easygoing tourists who are consistently overcharged for goods back home. She gets confused at the supermarket when she tries to figure out what “shake and bake” is, and has trouble thinking in pounds instead of kilos. She marvels that canned vegetables are cheaper than fresh and that it rains often in the summertime. She tries to adjust to a lifestyle in which everything is preplanned, to a place in which the environment is clean and well-shaped, like a postcard. Most of all, she struggles to imagine her future as a young broke immigrant, and wonders if she will ever fit in this new world where she will always be revealed and set apart by her accent, her habits and her way of thinking.
“A world of strangers living together under the same sky” she thinks. An odd tapestry of disconnected patches, like grandma’s quilts, sewn together to form the fabric of a life lived not with joy, but with endurance.
At times such as these, she feels her resolve diminish and she wants to give up and go back. But she knows that she can no longer do that. That door closed the morning she boarded the Pan Am plane after she last saw her brother, tears streaming down his face. He had peered at her over his shoulder as their father dragged him away, and did not take his eyes off her until they went around the corner. She had stood helpless, feeling like she just betrayed him, wondering when she would meet him again and how tall he would be by then. She sees her mother’s swollen eyes, her hand pressing a goodbye blessing on Meta’s cheek. She wants to run back to them, confess her remorseful regret. But Meta is not the giving up type.
One morning, as Meta and Kat descend the stairs of the apartment building on their way to the grocery store, Carla, a skinny woman with frizzy hair and eyes without lashes, opens her door. Meta has often watched her from the windows above following a tall man into a Volkswagen van, a teenage boy trailing behind them. But she has avoided Carla. Too often she has witnessed the man’s frequent outbursts, how he slams their front door so violently that it rattles her own. Too often she has heard Carla’s muffled crying drift up from the apartment below.
They return their neighbor’s greeting and Carla invites them in for a cup of coffee. The apartment smells of patchouli and is decorated with tie-dye throws. They learn that the man is Carla’s husband, a Vietnam veteran who now works at Walter Reed hospital. The boy is from a previous union. Kind and soft-spoken, Carla shows them the poetry she writes on parchment paper. She offers them homemade brownies laced with marijuana and smiles with three fake front teeth lighter in color than the others.
Meta and Carla start keeping each other company in the daytime, before Carla’s husband returns home from work. They listen to music, swing their bodies from side to side with the tunes; Meta makes sketches of her as Carla reads or writes. When the singer chants “Come on, come on, come on and take it! Take another little piece of my heart now, baby,” Carla springs up, folds her arms at the elbows and starts thrusting them along with her skeletal pelvis back and forth, shouting down the singer, bones visible through threadbare cut-offs, a wild look in her eyes. After only a brief hesitation Meta joins her, feeling immense relief as she too yells at the top of her lungs about giving away a piece of her own heart.
One day Carla, her husband and the boy disappear without a word, leaving the apartment door ajar with the key on the outside. When Meta asks Kat how they could just up and leave, Kat shrugs.
“They must’ve moved,” she says.
“Just like that?” Meta asks puzzled by the lack of surprise in her cousin’s voice. Her own grandparents had built the house she grew up in, her father enlarged it, and she herself hoped to stay there again someday. Her neighbors lived in their homes all along too, even the ones that only rented.
“Just like that,” Kat replies, leaning closer to the bathroom mirror to trace her lips with a brown pencil. A few strands of her long hair have fallen into the sink. They look like dark paths that intersect as they extend across the sink’s yellow surface.
Meta wants to see and sing with Carla again. But then she remembers something Grandma taught her a long time ago when her father enrolled Meta in a new elementary school a friend of his had opened. She had wandered around the unfamiliar schoolyard alone during recess until a girl named Ioanna, who sat at the desk behind Meta’s, stopped her to ask what school Meta came from. Ioanna’s braids were the color of chestnuts and she wore thick glasses that kept falling toward the front of her nose, causing her to tilt her head upward when she looked at you. When the glasses were in their proper position, Ioanna’s eyes were disproportionately large. Meta thought she looked wise like an owl and was glad to make a friend in that new school.
But when Ioanna realized that she too was now included in the other children’s mockery of Meta’s left-handedness, she, staring at something behind Meta’s shoulder, told her that she could not be her friend until Meta learned to write with the “good hand.”
Meta tried hard, and had succeeded in making clumsy letters line up rather well, but her right hand jerked around disobediently, the wrist twisted and the fingers hurt, so she soon gave up the effort—and the friend.
“Sometimes people cross our life’s path for a reason,” Grandma had said to her when she saw Meta’s sadness, “And when that reason is fulfilled, you have to learn to let them go.”
Remembering this lesson, Meta let Carla go.