i come in
turn on the lights
and see i’m alone-
i live in a house
but don’t have a home
i leave and say “salam”
but no one replies
i go earn my pay
but find not my prize
all praise to Allah:
i haven’t died
long enough to see love in your eyes
Two weeks later and I was back in the U.S. As a sign of what was to come, I got held up by Homeland Security, missing my connecting flight, for three hours. It was your good ol’ good cop-bad cop set-up by guys who needed acting classes.
“What do you think about Osama bin Laden?”
“I never met him.”
“Do you plan to commit terrorist acts on U.S. soil?”
“Would I tell you yes even if I did?”
1 is theUS country code, 92 isPakistan’s. That’s the name because that was the game. On again, off again calling cards, distant echoes, and fuzz. On top of that, my wife didn’t speak much English. Everyone studies English in Pakistan, but they know and use about as much as you use the languages you studied in high school. So it was very difficult to communicate because so much of communication is body language- gestures, drawing pictures in the air, pointing, facial expressions- which you need all the more when there’s a language barrier. People ask if I learned Urdu; I haven’t really, but I cheated and had my wife take an English course.
“Wa alaykum as-salam.”
“How are you?”
“I’m fine. Did you eat?”
She would always ask me this, first thing. Anyone who knows me knows that’s one question you don’t have to ask. This question to our first fight: over cereal. You see, there’s no breakfast cereal in Pakistan, at least not that I or anyone I know there has ever seen. So I would keep telling her that I’d had cereal for breakfast (I soon learned not to mention the times I’d had it for lunch or dinner), but she didn’t know what it was. I was not able to describe it, at least not in a way that put her mind at ease, and I started to sense a growing suspicion and even hostility to my beloved Raisin Bran ©®™ and bananas. Finally, I convinced her that I didn’t eat it that much and just when she was starting to believe me, she got on the phone with my mom. She told her “Yeah, he eats it all the time.” She was referring to the past, of course, as I tried to explain, and I didn’t even live in her house anymore, so she couldn’t possibly know what I ate. But, in a pattern that would continue, they believe each other more than they believe me, even though they both know me better than they know each other.
“What did you eat? Cereal?..” It would hiss off our tongue, like she was spitting out something vile…
By now, we’ve come to a compromise. She eats cereal some, and I eat it much less than before.
“I need more money.”
“What? What happened to the money I sent?
“I want to buy some gold.”
“Why do you want gold?”
“Because I need it.”
“How can somebody need gold?”
“I don’t know, but I do. You don’t understand.”
Sure didn’t. And let me tell you something: I didn’t have a job when I got married. I had resigned from the one I had before I came to Pakistan to move closer to family. Of course, I didn’t tell nobody in Pakistan this- would you have? I figured I’d get a teaching job when I got back, right in time for the next school year. I did get an offer, but found out that Sociology, my major, is specifically listed as not being a social science according to the State of Texas. And I didn’t have enough credits in any other subject. So there I was, jobless with a wife to support, which is a long way of saying desperate.
I finally found a job as a chauffeur. A cat with an Ivy League degree who didn’t know how to tie a tie driving a limo everyday. (I got my brother to tie it for me, then only loosened it enough to take it off but not untie the knot- worked for almost a year.) I lived life one tip from broke, which means I was a slave to the next trip. I might go to bed at 1 and wake up at 3. Pressed for time, I only ironed the front of my shirt and the collar. I had to wear a jacket, so no one was ever
The Ivy-League chauffeur. How's my tie?
gonna see the rest. And I can tell you all one thing: you don’t need to dry clean suits if you know how to use an iron. I met a few famous people and had some interesting conversations. Once, while driving a woman and her daughter, the woman blamed me for farting. She must’ve thought I couldn’t hear her. I guess the $20 tip she gave me was some kind of compensation.
At any rate, I barely, rarely had enough money. I could’ve made more, but I refused to take any jobs that in any way involved alcohol, and partiers are bigger tippers. I didn’t miss that money at all…
“Are you OK?”
“Ji. Nehi. Buta nehi.”
Her answer to my question is translated as “Yes. No. I don’t know.” Only a woman can confuse a man so profoundly.
But they were all true. She was happy to hear from me. That, more than even food, was her sustenance. I’d lived a lot of life before Islam, but this was her first love, her only love, her only contact with an unrelated male. She didn’t even know what a kiss was before. It was a total love: there was nothing in her heart to which she could compare it.
To further illustrate, she stopped eating when I left. She was hospitalized twice within a few weeks of my departure for low blood pressure. I’d never heard of it, so I scoured the internet to find a cause. Finally I correctly guessed that she hadn’t been eating.
She was grieving.
There was nothing even her family could do. Whenever she was doing anything, she was also waiting for me to call. Only I could get her to eat, or go to sleep.
So yes, she was OK, because we were together again, even if it was only our voices.
And no, she wasn’t, because sooner or later that call would end, plunging her back into that interminable agony of missing me.
And she didn’t really know what to feel, because this was all too new, and much too much to have to go through alone.
I used to end every call with “I love you” and do you know what she would say back? “OK.” She didn’t even know what love was, yet she had fallen hopelessly, mysteriously in it.
The outside pressures were enormous, and unfair.
“When’s the last time he sent money?”
“He didn’t call you today, did he?”
Her family’s so-called friends actually asked this. Some people would say I wasn’t coming back. It started before the marriage even began. In the unedited wedding video, before it was dubbed over with music, wedding guests are overheard gossiping about us over the food that we had served them.
“How can she marry him? He’s too tall for her.”
“He came to Pakistan before and fell in love with her; that’s how they met.”
Can you believe it? Why? All for their sick, sad amusement. It was like making their own little soap opera, all the more entertaining because the characters were real, life imitating art imitating life ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
Even our respective national intelligence agencies got in on the act. Imagine an undercover agent coming to tell you your son-in-law had been in jail the last 3 days.
“But he’s been calling her 4 or 5 times a day…”
“Maybe they let him call from jail.”
So I get arrested for terrorism charges, and instead of throwing me in a secret prison, they let me make 4 phone calls a day, to Pakistan? Wow. Better sign up for script-writing after those acting classes are finished.
Needless to say, as an African-American, a Muslim, and a person with connections to Pakistan, my profile throws up a lot of red flags. I’m not Homeland Security’s flavor-of-the-month, or maybe the problem is that I am. It’s not worthwhile to tell you how far they would go- and how they get others, even community leaders to go with them- but it’s pretty far. It’s also ridiculous. I guess danger’s part of what makes it an adventure. I’ve been in trouble my whole life anyway. At least it’s for something right this time, if you call that a bright side. I don’t complain. As was said in ‘The Godfather II’ and ‘The Road to Perdition’: this is the life I chose.
So why didn’t I just bring her to America? Well…
…everyone involved thought that after getting married, her entry visa would take the usual 4 months, which would allow us to be together while her residency application processed. As of now, it’s been more than 15 times that long and still nothing. Just a bunch of badly-rehearsed excuses and shady 6-foot, 220 characters asking when we can have a “chat”. Why? I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count…
First they told me that a delay in processing had begun for applications after a certain date. I had applied before but that date didn’t seem to matter. There’s always either an obvious idiot or a cold-hearted bureaucrat on the other end of that call, one unable, the other unwilling, to help.
The Eagles’ song could have been about me if it hadn’t been written before I was born: I was just a hired hand, working on a dream I planned to try. I was underemployed and underpaid driving, with a marriage I had no idea how to keep alive.
For her part, a friend of mine always says that ideas have consequences. Well grief, worry, love, longing, doubt and hope are all ideas. And they were having consequences. Her hair was falling out. She was losing weight and being periodically hospitalized.
Music makes love and suffering seem like something you actually want. They’re not. The situation was as unbearable as it was interminable. We couldn’t take it anymore.
But there was no end in sight…
To be continued…