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I am nearing completion of my first book, a memoir titled, Illegal.
In the wake of September 11th I turned to pacifist idealism and activism, but when the bombs fell anyway and the re-election of a self-proclaimed ‘war president’ coincided with my college graduation, I impulsively moved to South America to experience their revolutionary social movements up close. Two years later, when farmers opposed to a free trade agreement began to block roads in my adoptive home, Ecuador, I was on the front lines, working with radical students and sharing my bed with the charismatic daughter of a rising political star. When the revolution turned nationalist my visa was revoked, and I was arrested and deported—but I had found something worth fighting for. Colombian drug smugglers and corrupt police helped with my first illegal crossing; every time after that I did it on my own.
This is the current prologue:
Two policemen grab me by the shoulders and pull me away from the immigration counter at Quito International Airport.
‘¿Qué hice?’ I ask, my voice shaking.
I try to see their faces but the police turn from me. Each one jabs an arm in the space between my arm and torso, curls their elbow under my armpit and locks their hand on my shoulder. Facing the opposite direction from me, they march forward, pushing my upper body with them and forcing my feet to backpedal. A third officer walks in front, leading us against the flow of passengers moving toward passport control.
‘¿Qué hice yo?’ I ask louder.
The other travelers stare but the police keep dragging me. I turn my head and see a half dozen more officers standing under the staircase in the corner of the massive room, keeping an eye on us as we approach.
When we reach the larger group the two police holding me relax their grip. The one on my right takes a step back to face me. He’s young, about my age, and his crisp, olive green hat is too small for his head. He looks down to avoid my eyes and tells 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 pauses and lifts his head, though his eyes still avoid mine. ‘I’m sorry.’
I know his conscience could be a weakness. A mix of Ecuadorian families pushing over-packed luggage and Western tourists with expensive steel framed backpacks are streaming by us. They are walking down the stairs above us and continuing toward the immigration lines. Most pass without seeing us, but I know I can draw their attention. And I know the police don’t want a scene. It’s my only leverage.
‘Necesito ver mi novia’—I need to see my girlfriend. The words rush 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. She will have seen everyone from my flight pass through. Maybe she is already piecing things together. She still has a copy of my passport and instructions for whom to call if I’m 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 flashes between her two faces: one waving at me from behind the glass, smiling and excited; another sitting at arrivals, biting her lip like she does before she cries.
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 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 on every day to come.
‘I need to see my girlfriend,’ I say 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 now their attention has moved on. I can see people thumbing through passports, inching forward, oblivious.
‘I need to see my girlfriend,’ I say again, louder; loud enough for others to hear. I’m on the verge of screaming and can feel myself beginning to tremble. ‘I live here. I work here. And I need to see my girlfriend!’
Passengers walking past slow down and look on curiously. The police are not holding me anymore, but they form a perimeter around my body. When I shout again they all take a step in, tightening the circle. I can smell their cologne and sweat above the sterile monotony of airport disinfectant. Passengers stop and stare. Some already in line look back.
‘I didn’t do anything wrong! Please, I need to see my girlfriend.’
My mind races back to the argument we’d had the night before my trip, to the insults we threw at each other. It makes me that much more desperate to see her, to tell her that I still love her, that I will always love her.
A lot of passengers are watching. I lower my voice and stare at the officer in front of me, the one who led the two police from the counter. His dark brown eyes meet mine and stare back. He blinks and I can see tiny wrinkles branch out in fine lines as his eyelids shut.
‘What’s her name?’ he asks.
‘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 says.
I sit down on the cold, tiled floor and the remaining police relax. The passengers move on.
For the first time in my life I know exactly where I want to be. I have found my home in the shadow of an Andean volcano in Ecuador. I’m about to move in with the woman that I love, and I’m directly involved with a revolution that’s not just changing my adoptive nation but changing me. Now all of this is in peril.
How will I find another professor to cover my classes at the university? How can I get rent money to my landlord? A thousand prosaic, practical details rush through my brain but they always return to her, to Lucía.
I jump to my feet when I see her. I want to run to her but the uniforms close their circle around me again. I stand still and watch her walk towards me. Her eyes are red and she wipes away the tears when she gets close.
The police open the circle, allowing her to pass, then close it again, trapping us both inside. She puts her arms around me, creating a bubble. Nothing else is real, nothing else matters.
We are silent. My hands slide down her body and rest on the small of her back. My fingers pull on her shirt, bunching it into a ball inside my fist. We instinctively move our bodies up against each other; our legs intertwine and her breasts press against me. Our faces touch and I feel her warm skin against mine, our tears mixing on each other’s cheeks. I close my eyes and inhale; smelling her, remembering the taste of her neck. We lift our heads and touch our lips, opening, tasting each other’s salt. When we return our heads to each other’s shoulders we let the water run.
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 don’t streak into droplets; they flow down my cheek in a steady stream. Our mouths, next to each other’s ears, whisper ‘te amo’ over and over again.
I know the police will soon separate us. I know that everything will change. I know that I am losing all that I had. I feel helpless and overwhelmed, as if drowning in slow motion.
In her ear I whisper ‘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 steps back and pulls a camera from her bag. The movement, the loss of her body against mine, jolts me back into reality. The police are staring at us, peering into what had seemed such a private and intimate place just seconds before. Lucía hands one of our guards the camera and, for some strange reason, has him take a picture of us, freezing 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.
I had wiped away the tears before looking into the camera, but deep down, deeper than I would comprehend for months to come, there was no pretending.
‘We have to move,’ the officer with the dark brown eyes says. The same two police grab my shoulders and pull me away.
Thirty days before I meet the president; eight weeks before Lucía tells me her husband has put a price on my head and hired a hitman; three months before I walk away from the barricades and decide to fight against the revolution rather than for it; half a year before I give up – I am deported.