I was wearing a crown the first time I heard the words, love child. The tiara, a rusted rim from an old paint can, wildflowers, and jeweled glass from a beach, teetered on my head while my young mother held coronation for me with her distinctive words. The syllables floated into my ears, extensively scarred by tubes bit in my an overzealous ear, nose, and throat surgeon: filtered by childhood’s dream catchers, the title—love child—arrived in my consciousness with a slight air of nobility and the abstract realization that I lacked a father, reigning simultaneously.
My mother was young, fashionable, and a waitress; she could work a room. In her absence, I was taught nationalism and history by my Canadian babysitter, Glennie, who, filled me in on differences of nations with milk in demitasse cups.
“Canada does not have Cold Wars. They are a neutral country.”
We chewed through hours, crumbed Lorna Doone cookies, folded paper airplanes, and drew flags of countries on the paper wings. I took special care when coloring in the English jack and remarked at its similarity to an unopened present. When my mother returned home with baby hairs fraying from her bun.
“What a gifted plane-maker you are. Help me pull off my boots. I might have a prize for you.”
And with a persistent pull, the boots and salty odor of an eight-hour shift fell away from her calve. A tin of Rose Pastille mints appeared in her hand out of her smoky purse.
I toured in a van with The Beatles. The van was a blue Chevy and my mother’s second vehicle; The Beatles were on a double 8-track tape. On long freeway trips, I would feign sleep and freeze my finger, pointing to the city names and mileage on the signs, hoping that fellow-travelers would think I was foreign, dazed into sleep by the spin of America, or, in the very least, from Broadway or Los Angeles.
My mother was the first person I heard swear. Staring at a porcelain plate on the bathroom wall, she fired the word, “bullshit” at my grandmother. Now, when I hear “bullshit,” I think about breaking ceramic, although I’m not sure whether or not she threw the plate. Words, my mother’s words, were sterling salvers that I banked and invested greedily. I swallowed them whole like the soap I had to eat what I said the bad ones.
My brother, sister, and I saw my grandparents on holidays, relaxing in the sanctuary of their presence, doing dot-to-dot books with red peel pencil, cracking and eating peanuts, listening to Johnny Cash records on a stereo that took up an entire wall. My grandfather taught me coins and stamps. American currency and postage lacked the joie de vivre of foreign countries. A casual observer could see the monochrome face of Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson paled in green to the Helvetica stamps of the Swiss. My grandmother donated leftover cake decorations for make-shift tea parties with my sister, let me peel carrots, and tried to teach me to sew.
On Christmas, they hired a Santa to entertain all the kids in the neighborhood with rounds of “Jingle Bells” and candy canes. This Santa was a professional. He even brought sugar-free candies for the one diabetic boy on the street. One year, Santa failed to show. As the hour grew late, the adults, merry with Christmas cheer, made a secret call and double checked their calendars. My grandparents huddled in hush tones.
“I thought he told me Thursday.”
“Damn it, Donna. I told you to write things down. We’ve eaten all the food. Even the vegetable tray is finished.” My grandmother shook her head.
My grandfather asked the kids, “Are you having fun tonight?” The kids, punch drunk, buzzed affirmatively. “This is so much fun, we’re going to do it again tomorrow night.”
On the Fourth of July, I swam in my grandparents’ pool, ate fruit salad, and drank cherry soda. My mother drank too. During the fireworks, I sat with my grandmother in the car, protecting my sensitive, over-operated ears, watching the explosions in the sky through windshield glass. Once the night had burned and blasted, my mother spoke in slurred speech, “You ready to go?” Standing in a red polka-dot bathing suit, my decade-old body shivered, craving the warmth blazing through the windows of my grandparents’ house as they stood on the porch.
With the knowledge of Nancy Reagan’s war on drugs and dozens of MADD and DARE assemblies behind me, I asked, “Can’t I just spend the night here?”
“No, we’re going home. Get in the car.” And, somewhere in the diluted smoke of the night air, I found that residual spirit of the foremost American holiday, the Fourth, a revolution, a spirit haunting only those who have decided that they are not going to give in, go back or pay.
“Mom, you’ve had too much to drink. I’m not riding with you. “ I watched my mother’s pretty face twitch, insubordinately, with each of the words, and looked to the porch, my grandparents’ arms were held across their chest. I waited for them to answer for me. My Mom did.
“Well, you’re not staying here.”
“I’m not getting in the car with you.” My two young siblings were already in the care, sunburnt, watching, and fogging up the windows.
“Then,” she said, “you can walk. Get started.” In disbelief and the dying hope that my grandparents would pull a sudden coup d’etat, I began the mile-long walk to my house in bare feet. I heard the car’s ignition start behind me. Headlights reflected onto the pavement, scarred from the night’s celebration of snakes, sparklers, and wildflowers. I walked faster, with the expectation that the car would pass and just leave me alone. It didn’t. The Cordoba with my intoxicated mother at the Corinthian leather wheel kept steady pace behind me, breathing down my neck. As I rounded the house on the corner, the thought of the second, more explosive, confrontation awaiting me at home brought about ideas of surrender, but dissipated into the raw spirit of the night. I pushed my feet harder and thought up every swear word in my vocabulary, willing them on the predator behind me. On my journey, I must have ran the gamut of bad words from the innocuous damn to the damnable fuck; however there was one work I always left out.
Bastard was a word I learned in middle school. It meant illegitimate, unlawful, unauthorized, irregular, improper, not genuine, not real, and spurious. I would write “deceased” on the father side of the enrollment forms that required parental background information at school. I imagined being the child of an important person: Marlon Brando, Albert Einstein, Bob from Sesame Street.
When my grandparents stopped paying for Glennie to babysit and share her special tea time nationalism, the scale of the child care budget slid down to my Mom’s wages, which were minimum with tips. The neighbor across the street, Wendy, took the job. She did not seem to know much about the finer points in life, but she sure loved Rick Springfield and a guy named “Kenny,” who bagged groceries at the local market. She even came up with a song mash up to honor her love for Springfield and Kenny: “I wish that I had Kenny’s butt.” Eventually, even Wendy was not as cost effective, so at about the age of 12, I became the caretaker of my two younger siblings while my Mom worked nights. When dinner time came around and the sun went away, so did my Mom. She would leave money on the table for us to do some shopping for the night’s meal. There was always the lingering scent of my Mom’s smoky velveteen purse on the ten dollar bill when I gave it to the cashier at the market for the ingredients for ABC stew: ground beef and a can of Campbell’s vegetable soup, usually with enough for money left over for some chewy Chips Ahoy or a 6-pack of new Coke.
Eventually, my Mom just let me take school lunch money out of the purse on my own. I started saving it to buy foreign magazines and travel guides: Face, Arena, Time Out, and City Limits. On prom night, I read about London nightlife: Heaven for gays, the 100 Club for jazz, the Hard Rock Café for squares. My virgin body walked with the gait of a kept-woman, head held high, through the corridors of school, carrying books by Carroll, Burgess, and Thackeray in the armpit: someone’s baby. I wrote love poems about Southwerk, Bath, and Birmingham, nightly scrawling and entangling myself in words and places that stirred nothing active in the broody cauldron of my reality.
At eighteen, I marched militantly into the Department of Vital Statistics, looking for my original birth document, hoping to find the truth on the father section. What I found was a thick, black, dotted line. So I bought a passport. I worked at the Weatherstone Café to earn money for a pilgrimage. I sold Soho sodas and saved Safeway receipts for a discount fare. I began spelling favour, behavior, and colour with a “U,” and referred to money as quid. When people asked what my future plans entailed, I’d answer, “England.” It became a seven-letter word answering all inquiries. At my going-away party, a co-worker made a toast: “love, peace, and England.” I raised my glass and imbibed.
Two weeks before I left America, I quit my job. I spent hours in Picadily, the discount store, finding the proper washcloths to clean my face in the English washbasin and closet. The only roadblock in the way of my destination was a layover in Boston, my last American stop. While buying a bag of barbecue potato chips at a vending machine, I passed a booth where a man was taking names, addresses, and donations for a liberal newsletter. As I signed my name to the list, he asked, “So, what does your father do for a living?”
“I don’t live with my parents.”
“Why? You just look so young.”
“My father, “ I said, setting the clipboard down, “does nothing.” The barbecue crisps and Boston left a bad taste in my mouth, too much paprika, I think.
I finally arrived at Heathrow Airport on a one-way ticket, armed with all of my worldly possessions: a high school diploma, aimless aspirations, and a teenage writing manifesto. Upon landing I looked out the window for artifacts of Englishness, but saw only yellow balls, possibly street lamps, glowing through fog. I felt a tremendous sense of fear and homecoming: I had come to stay forever, which I made more than clear to the officer behind the podium at Immigration, Miss Khan.
A young woman with hostility in her voice and an earring in her nose, Miss Khan interviewed me in English, my mother tongue. She questioned my one-way ticket, my plans, and the date of my departure.
“I hope to move here, eventually.” Miss Khan looked at me with blank, enigmatic eyes, as if they were coding the one answer I needed to get in and make her stop questioning. I was quickly served with a small piece of paper, adorned with a lion, a unicorn, and a crown, requesting that I submit to further examination. Miss Khan informed me that staying for more than six months, the legal limit for visitors, was against the law.
Her accent was scathing, authentic English. “You cannot just move here. So what do you intend to do?” She slammed her metal stamper on my passport like a crabby librarian with an overdue book. I imagined the stamp imprint reading, “reject.”
I walked alongside Miss Khan to Customs. Her authority was evident, as if sealed by the tight button of her lips, yet I still towered over her by an entire foot. My luggage was searched by an expressionless man. Hand lotion was taken out of the container; the toothpaste squeezed, all of my prized writings were confiscated. Miss Khan walked me to my private throne in front of the podiums at Immigration. My belongings were taken to a cubicle of men in Brooks Brothers suits. Sleepy-looking Immigration officers glanced at the passports of passengers, requiring no lengthy explanations from them. All were free to go, except me.
I watched the people in line, looking for a sponsor or a savior. Neither arrived, but Miss Khan did. She strutted over to my bench with a backpack, a fresh coat of lipstick, and a new vitality in her voice.
“I’m off duty now, so another officer will be handling your case.” She looked at me one final time in veiled disgust, then, turned away.
A tall, young, man with tousled hair approached. He looked like some avant-garde comedian who use a lot of profanity in his routine, dressed up in an expensive suit. In a lilting, non-comedic voice, he introduced himself as my new immigration officer, Mr. Udall. He returned my journals and diploma as a peace offering.
“You know, you’ve come into this situation pretty naively.” I smiled a compliant smile. He recited some paperwork and something about a right to an appeal. I was going to be deported.
I was taken to a small detainment room with one public telephone that accepted only English pence, a water cooler without cups, and a sleepy guard outside. The chairs in the room were connected by one monstrous metal framework. Three doors surrounded the perimeter of the room, like options available to a contestant on a game show. The first door led to a bathroom with archaic plumbing and no mirror over the sink. The second was a meeting room, in which an immigration officer yelled.
“You’ll go to Nairobi tonight!”
The final door was a back entrance way, where the officers came in sporadically with mean faces, asking the quintessential British question.
“Would you like some tea?”
Trapped in the room, I waited with quite a few Ugandans, a French-speaking islander, who made a bed of chairs, and the one man, who had convinced himself (but not the officer) that he would not return to Nairobi that night.
An airline representative braved the room to discuss my pending homeward voyage. He squatted on the ground, jotted down vital information: credit card number, name, and address I was given the child’s fare price for my ticket home and promised a bill for it. There were two hours before the next flight to San Francisco.
Mr. Udall brought in the remainder of my possessions.
“Were those something you worked on at university?” I nodded and smiled back in defeat. I had nothing to lose. “You should go back and continue your studies.” Standing vis-à-vis in a pause of silence with the man responsible for my banishment, I searched for truth in this face instead of his words, which were disguised in English and occupational duty. I thought to ask permission to step out of the airport terminal to see the city or breathe its air before leaving, if I promised to comes right back, but that thought melted under it’s own futility. A decision had been made; I was no part of it, but awaited, the main actress of its consequences.
Drowsiness and jet lag made lazy love in my mind, clearing the way for a sense of calm. I tried to decipher how I could possibly feel for things, places, words, that I had not felt or lived: how London had been everything.
A lady in a long, plaid skirt fastened with a giant safety pin entered the room with a metal trolley for my luggage. I felt handicapped, pushing the trolley piled high with my pilfered luggage past small flower peddlers and currency exchange kiosks. International travelers watched as I was escorted on the plane.
“They don’t call this Thief-Row Airport for nothing.”
“Must be something unlawful going on there.”
I glanced out the window for a final look at the United Kingdom. It barked a silent expression: “We don’t want you here. Go away!” Then, I read the final souvenir from Mr. Udall, which read, “In all circumstances I was not satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that she was a genuine visitor with the terms…” A flight attendant attempted to console me with a tale about a Dutch stewardess whose fate unfolded in a similar way; however, in all of her miles of travel, she had yet to hear of an American being deported. I was a unique case. She offered free movie headphones and a cheap navy airline blanket. I cuddled up to the blanket, clutching the officially stamped passport, the official documents declaring that I had arrived at my port of destination. Embracing the deafening sound of the plane taking off, my thoughts bent toward the independent colony.
Carrie Bailey has been teaching English and Humanities courses since 2006 in the Portland Metropolitan area. Her current editing projects include a book on parenting as an adult and a fictional work about an ancient perfume house that will come with its own accompanying fragrances. Carrie holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature from University of California at Santa Cruz, and a Masters of Arts in English from University of Notre Dame. Some of her shorter works can be found at Coldnoon and Adelaide Literary Journal.