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March 19, 2019 Nonfiction

The Woman Who Wasn't There

Nicole Hamer

The Woman Who Wasn't There photo

What’s that on her leg, Mommy?  


My daughter and I stand beside my wife at the San Diego Airport en route to Boston. The check-in line is in zig-zag formation, as if someone forgot to mention the invention of vertical lines to the airport check-in staff. I cut my eyes, as my grandmother used to say, down the woman’s leg. Strapped beneath her snug pants cuff is an electronic ankle bracelet. It’s a small chunk, black and the size of a Tic Tac box. 

The ankle monitor interrupts my dreams of California sushi. Especially of the Tako Octopus sushi I plucked off a conveyer belt at Tenroku Sushi in San Francisco. I’m slow in response to my daughter’s question, as I remember a vacation moment laughing at the supreme oddness of eating tentacles among strangers. 

I raise my eyes hoping to connect the monitor bracelet to something in the woman’s face that will, I imagine, spare me no detail in revealing her story. Instead she greets me with, Hola and a smile. She rocks back and forth then folds a tattered Dora the Explorer blanket across the shoulders of an infant who swallows the sights around her with wide eyes, emits what sounds like a groan of delight, then flops back down onto her mother’s shoulder. Two more kids flank the woman on both sides, bouncing gently in play while taking turns smiling at me or my daughter. I can’t tell.  

The bracelet tells someone where she is, honey. But it doesn’t tell you why. I bend down to kiss my daughter’s soft cheeks, European style. She laughs. I am again distracted. She raises her eyebrows, looks me in the eyes and continues to play the role of an eight-year-old in an airport, standing in a Z-shaped line, under the wish of Godspeed. 

Echoes of a piano play in the background. The check-in line is still at a standstill. On her cellphone, my wife thumbs through vacation photos of redwoods in Muir Woods. I stare at the ankle bracelet, but suddenly I’m not sure where my eyes should be and if they should be on the woman, so I sink back into memories of the California vacation I left behind.   

Tourist me wants to meander in a week’s worth of vacation anecdotes. You know, like the one about the white rental car we all loved at first, but then hated because the windows on newer Range Rovers are the size of goat teeth, and if you want to see the waves crash against the cliffs along the Pacific Coast Highway’s tortuous curves, or view anything below the fog or clouds, you must lower your windows down, all the way. That’s what a vacation wants you to remember: the pools at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara in Santa Barbara, or the lobster ravioli you ate in Carmel-by-the-Sea that crushes any memory you may have had of good food past. 

We shuffle forward, or rather sideways in the check-in line, an inch. I return from my vacation memories and gaze over the length of the woman’s leg, landing again at her ankle monitor bracelet. I tilt my head sheepishly to try and catch her eyes. How do you file away the memory of a woman smiling while wearing a security monitor? How do you smile at detention or ICE or the hierarchy of travel? How do you travel in Trumpland? Where should your eyes look? 

Ankle monitors are built to be tamper resistant. The black box tune travels back to a monitor somewhere to tell truths and lies about its wearer to whomever needs to know. The woman looks up smiling, the baby shoots me a wild-eyed smile. The woman says Hola, once again.

I mouth an Hola of my own through a mouth full of awkward, whispered speech. She shifts her weight and the babies as well, back and forth in perfect metronome beats. Her silence, my silence echo so loudly we compete and grasp silently for air. 

We are two women of color. One brown, one black, shuffling through what is now Trumped America. I don’t know her life. All I can do is imagine her story removed from rumors others would ask us to believe. Perhaps she crossed a border with her three kids. Or perhaps she’s lived on some USA main street all her life. 

In my imagination, she’s moving. Moving, with one child sniffling from a cold and about to throw a fit. Perhaps she’s somewhere between Mexico and San Diego or maybe I’ve passed her in the frozen food aisle of our local grocer. She’s tense. Her neck throbs in pain from clutching the little one. She rolls her shoulders back in little circles. Her night was sleepless, mostly. Her face is flushed, but she can’t sweat that now. Perhaps her blood pressure is soaring. She’d stop, but she fears for her kids, so she doesn’t mind the too-tight shoes and a hungry stomach--either is better than the paranoia she feels at possibly being stopped by the police, or at customs, or by ICE. 

She looks into the face of her littlest and purses her lips into a lullaby, but her mouth tenses up and she quivers. She has a plan, but it seems difficult now. Or maybe she never had a plan because she never thought her country would turn so black and blue on her. And perhaps the money is never good enough, no matter how good she is at stretching it. Her worries stiffen her. It molds her into something she doesn’t remember ever being. The black box on her ankle is snug during morning rush hour, but by noon the edges begin to choke her ankle and swell, cutting into a tender softness. By evening her whole body feels raw. She stands in line at the airport counter, doing her best to float on normal time. She rocks the little one to sleep. She looks up at me. Not sure what to do, I smile. She says, Hola

In front of us, a stump of a man lays down his luggage and squats on its outer plastic shell. It cracks. I turn around and the woman white-knuckles a fistful of documents and a photo of herself staring vacantly into a camera.  She rocks back and forth with the baby and when she rocks my way I steal a peek and stare at the photo of her on her paperwork, a photo ID on a square blue background. Her eyes, hallowed and heavy, stare into a camera that captures and places her, I imagine, in a file somewhere for life. 

The man in front of us drags his cracked luggage off to security. We move ahead. The woman continues to move her hips and sway in motion to a quiet inner rhythm. Sometimes she dips her legs slowly as if catching onto a musical rhythm and holding onto the last few threads, like the last ripples of water beneath a nervous night sky. She is rocking herself now. Her rhythm and swaying don’t stop. Her ankle bracelet seems to have grown, or so I imagine. I want to put my hand on her elbow. I want to steady her. I wonder what she would do if I tried to hug her? If I tried to hug any of us here. I look away and resist the urge to comfort. 

My wife nudges me, Come on honey, she says. I grab my shoulder bag and begin to wheel my carryon towards the security gate. 

I look around me. We, the vacation denizens in formation Z, look at everything and see nothing except our own reflections; our vacation photos echoed to us from phones, the songs we know, the banged-out chords clash on the public piano, and the overhead speakers sending passenger information into the abyss. It’s possible our vacations are simply mirrors that do nothing more than pretty us up. 

And then the world goes off track. Engine number nine… loses its grip and ankle monitors appear, not out of nowhere, but like a preliminary attack that’s been coming for 300-plus years. I think of this because it is always there, but I also think of the lobster ravioli in Carmel-by-the-sea because it is so good and I don’t want to look up but I know I must. I know we all must. This vacation is over. 

And then I look up and run back to the check-in counter and snatch the microphone from the counter clerk. I want to scream Knock it off, to the person banging-out Piano Man on the public piano. No, we are not all in the mood for a melody! And I want to yell at my Z-formation line. But, I don’t. 

You’ve got the passports? My spouse always carries our passports, even on domestic flights. Perhaps she feels there will come a time when we might need to flee. The security line is shaped like an arrow and soon we kick off shoes and cringe at fingers squeezed between the heavy plastic of flat gray bins. I look back over my shoulder, where is she? 

We slog through a security bottleneck. I place my shoes and coat in a tray and push them forward to be x-rayed and released. But they aren’t released because I’ve forgotten to empty a water bottle. My daughter and wife sit down and chuckle at Mommy as we all watch my plastic bag held up and my panty-liners on display for show. I laugh, because really, it is funny. And then I check behind me to see if the woman and her family are also in line. Maybe she will laugh too and we can share a secret chuckle and then I wonder, will her bracelet alarm screech? Will she be detained? Will anyone care? 

Then something else catches my attention and briefly I remember a mudslide near Big Sur and the tree in the road that caused us to turn around. It may be untrue, but I believe many of us delight in this type of fear and discomfort. Sometimes I find it easier to stew than move. 

Come on mom, my daughter laughs. My spouse gently wraps her arm around my waist and gives me a kiss on the check. Don’t let it get to you. Glad you brought more panty-liners, she says. I look back past the line full of people grown weary and expect to see her, but the woman’s not there.  

image: Laura Gill