This is the prologue to my book-in-progress, Illegal. Published in the 2014 UEA MA Creative Writing Anthology. Read the first chapter and pre-order the book here.
Two policemen grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me away from the immigration counter at Quito International Airport.
‘¿Qué hice?’ I asked, my voice shaking.
I tried to see their faces but the police turned from me. They each jabbed an arm in the space between my arm and torso, curled their elbow under my armpit and locked their hand on my shoulder. Now facing the opposite direction from me, they marched forward, pushing my upper body with them and forcing my feet to backpedal. A third officer walked in front, leading us against the flow of passengers moving toward passport control.
‘¿Qué hice yo?’ I asked louder, almost shouting.
People were staring at us but the police just walked forward, dragging me with them. I turned my head and saw a half dozen more officers. They were standing under the staircase in the corner of the massive room, keeping an eye on us as we approached.
When we reached the larger group the two police holding me relaxed their grip. The one on my right took a step back to face me. He was young, about my age, and his crisp, olive green hat was too small for his head. He looked down to avoid my eyes and told me, ‘Usted estará en nuestra custodia hasta que se vuelan de regreso a Estados Unidos. Yo no te puedo decir nada más’—You will be in our custody until you are flown back to the United States. I can’t tell you anything else. He paused before adding, ‘I’m sorry.’
I saw an opening. I knew the police didn’t want a scene.
‘Necesito ver mi novia’—I need to see my girlfriend. The words rushed out. ‘She’s waiting for me and won’t know what happened.’
I had seen her on my way in, standing behind the pane of glass that separated a small food court from the long hallway toward immigration control. She was holding a sunflower and waving, smiling, waiting. I kept playing that scene back in my head. Kept wondering where she was now, what she was thinking. She would have seen everyone from my flight pass through. Maybe she was already piecing things together. She still had a copy of my passport and instructions for whom to call if I was arrested—souvenirs from our trouble at the Colombian border a month before when the overweight officer in Ecuador threatened me with five years in jail if I tried to sneak in.
My mind flashed between her two faces: waving at me from behind the glass, smiling and excited; sitting at arrivals, biting her lip like she did before she cried.
Six months before, when the ‘Citizen’s Revolution’ began and all the highways were blockaded, she came for me. I had spent the day at a seized bridge downtown, talking with the rebels and trying to understand why they were willing to risk so much to prevent a free-trade agreement with the United States. All the schools and businesses were closed either out of solidarity or fear and Lucía spent the day hitchhiking through the rebel’s barricades so we could be together during the chaos. I already knew parts of her complicated past by then; a month before that she had started to reveal to me the various layers of her broken marriage. When we collapsed onto my bed that night, still coughing from the tear gas lingering over the city, I decided that if we could be together that day, then we would be on every day to come.
‘I need to see my girlfriend,’ I said to no one in particular, scanning the faces of the police. The passengers waiting in line had stared when the uniformed men pushed me across the room but their attention passed quickly. I could see people thumbing through passports, inching forward, oblivious.
‘I need to see my girlfriend,’ I said again, louder, loud enough for others to hear. I was on the verge of screaming, and could feel myself beginning to tremble. ‘I live here. I work here. And I need to see my girlfriend!’
Passengers walking past slowed down and looked on curiously. No police were holding me but they formed a perimeter around my body. When I shouted they all took a step in, tightening the circle. I could smell their cologne and sweat above the sterile monotony of airport disinfectant. Passengers stopped and stared. Some already in line looked back.
‘I didn’t do anything wrong! Please, I need to see my girlfriend.’
My mind raced back to the argument we’d had the night before my trip, to the insults we threw at each other. It made me that much more desperate to see her, to whisper in her ear that I still loved her, that I would always love her.
A lot of passengers were watching. I lowered my voice and stared at the officer in front of me, the one who led the two police from the counter. His dark brown eyes stared back. He blinked and I could see tiny wrinkles branch out in fine lines as his eyelids shut.
‘What’s her name?’ he asked.
‘Lucía. She has black hair, black jeans and is wearing a white tee-shirt with hearts—she’s holding a sunflower.’
‘I’ll look for her,’ he said, then quickly walked away.
I sat down on the cold tiled floor and the remaining police relaxed. The passengers moved on.
I didn’t know how it would work out. I was about to move in with the girl that I loved and was directly involved with a revolution that was not just changing my adoptive nation, but was changing me. For the first time in my life I knew exactly where I wanted to be. I had found my home in the shadow of an Andean volcano in Ecuador—but it was all in peril. I thought about how I would find another professor to cover my classes at the university, and how I would get rent money to my landlord, but my thoughts always drifted back to Lucía.
I jumped to my feet when I saw her. My impulse was to run toward her, but the uniforms around me closed the circle again. I stood still and watched her walk toward me. Her eyes were red and she wiped away the tears when she got near.
The police opened the circle, allowing her to pass, then closed it again, trapping us both inside. She threw her arms around me and created a bubble. Nothing else was real, nothing else mattered. For a moment, the world did not exist. We were silent. My hands slid down her body and rested on the small of her back. My fingers pulled on her shirt, bunching it into a ball inside my fist. We had instinctively moved our bodies against each other; our legs intertwined and her breasts pressed against me. Our faces touched and I felt her warm skin against mine, our tears mixing on each other’s cheeks. I closed my eyes and inhaled through my nostrils, smelling her sweet perfume, remembering the taste of her neck. We lifted our heads and touched our lips, opening, tasting each other’s salt.
When we returned our heads to each other’s shoulders we let the water run. It’s hard to match my memory with reality because it seems so surreal now. The image of Lucía and the thought of seeing her had kept me focused and held me together. Once she was in my arms I let go. The tears did not streak into droplets; they flowed down my cheek in a steady stream. Our mouths, next to each other’s ears, whispered ‘te amo‘ over and over again. I knew the police would soon separate us. I knew nothing would ever be the same again. I felt helpless and overwhelmed, as if drowning in slow motion.
The first action I took, the first thing that wasn’t reflexive, was to whisper in her ear the plan I had hastily worked out minutes before. ‘Voy a volar a Colombia y cruzar la frontera clandestinamente. Nada más importa. Te amo’—I will fly to Colombia and sneak across the border. Nothing else matters. I love you.
Lucía stepped back and pulled a camera from her bag. The movement, the loss of her body against mine, jolted me back into reality. The police were all staring at us, peering into what had seemed such a private and intimate place just seconds before. Lucía handed one of our guards the camera and, for some strange reason, had him take a picture of us and freeze that moment in time.
In the photo we have our arms around each other, our eyes, red from sobbing, are looking right into the lens. That’s the moment I broke. Sure, I could will myself to wipe away the tears and look into the camera, but deep down, deeper than I would comprehend for months to come, there was no pretending.
When I moved to Latacunga, a wave began to build. Every morning I walked upstairs and looked past the red-tiled roofs of the colonial center and toward Cotopaxi, the 19,000-foot snow-capped volcano that dominated the landscape. Each afternoon I peddled my bike to the city’s edge to work in a converted prison. Before I had arrived, during the jail’s construction, locals had risen up in protest so forcefully that the government had no choice but to meet their demands. The walls were repainted and it became one of the first free universities in the nation, a radical concept that was growing quickly. At night, I laid down with Lucía and fell asleep to her heart beating against mine. I had wiped the water away for the picture but I could still taste the salt from the first splash of that wave breaking.
‘We have to move,’ the officer with the dark brown eyes said. The same two police grabbed my shoulders and pulled me away.
Thirty days before I met the president; six weeks before Lucía told me her husband had hired a hitman; three months before I walked away from the barricades and decided to fight against the revolution rather than for it; half a year before I gave up—I was deported.
Read the first chapter and pre-order the book here.