– Fiction by Omar Ramirez –
Honourable Mention in the Dreamers 2022 Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home Contest
It’s almost 3 p.m. and Carlos is enjoying the outdoor view from the arrivals corridor at Gate F65. The muted unrest on the tarmac against the snowy backdrop is a welcome respite from the holiday madness unraveling behind him at the US departure gates. One thick glass wall separates him from the departing passengers and for that he is thankful. He moves his back and stretches his legs trying to find a more comfortable position, but there’s no use. Most of the airport’s wheelchairs are falling apart. His flight should be here at any moment. As soon as he finishes assisting his passenger he will head directly to the lockers and rid himself of the polyester monstrosity Air Canada calls a uniform. If he’s lucky, he might even be able to clock out on time.
AC7626 from Boston arrives exactly at 3:05 p.m. By the time all one hundred and four passengers have deplaned, Carlos has the wheelchair ready for Mrs. Wilcox. He waits patiently as she says her goodbyes to the crew and politely assists her into the chair. Once all six crew members are gone, he proceeds to push her up the bridge and into the terminal, only stopping to shut the secure doors behind him. The whole time, Mrs. Wilcox tells Carlos how she was supposed to arrive on an earlier flight but gave up her seat, “Two hundred dollars! I couldn’t believe it—and only to arrive a couple hours later!” she says.
Carlos nods as he maneuvers beneath the rainbow skylight and into the Immigration and Customs Hall. It’s already packed, but the special assistance line is moving fast. After a few months of working at the airport, Carlos concluded that this room is a pressure cooker of emotions. In here you can smell excitement, longing, and fear, with a dash of petulance.
He usually prefers aloof passengers over chatty ones, but Mrs. Wilcox is the latter, and while they wait, she can’t help herself, “How do you like working at the airport? It must be fun meeting all kinds of people.”
“I find it quite enjoyable ma’am,” replies Carlos with a forced smile. He reminds himself that assisting passengers with mobility difficulties is one of the most gratifying parts of his job.
“Please, call me Edna. You look young. How long have you worked for the airline?”
“Well thank you, Edna. I’ve only been working here for a year and a half.”
“Are you married? Do you have a family? The schedules here must be crazy.”
“It’s just me,” Carlos cringes, but he thinks of his grandmother and hopes that people will treat her with dignity and kindness when she travels. “And the schedules are fine.”
“I can’t help but notice that you have an accent. Where are you from?”
Suppressing a smirk, he says, “Mexico.”
As they get closer, Carlos interrupts Mrs. Wilcox, who is now engrossed in a long monologue about how much she loves Cancun, to remind her to have her customs forms and passport ready. He does not want to be delayed.
When Mrs. Wilcox’s turn arrives, Carlos parks the chair in front of the Canada Border Services Agency counter and takes three steps back to stand behind the yellow line. Scanning the apprehensive crowd, he notices a young woman struggling with a crying toddler two counters to the left. She has a strong accent which Carlos immediately recognizes as Mexican. Her officer tells her to proceed to secondary screening, which Carlos knows is not good news. Suddenly, Mrs. Wilcox calls his name, he thanks the officer and as he pushes along, they come across the young woman who now looks disoriented.
“What a lovely girl!” Mrs. Wilcox tells her.
The woman smiles shyly and follows the officer who is showing her the way. Carlos intentionally avoids her gaze; Mexicans have a way of recognizing each other and acting as if they are the best of friends. He feels bad for one second, but when Mrs. Wilcox informs him she does not have any checked luggage, he proceeds to the exit with a spring in his step.
* * *
Marina is wide awake. It took almost an hour for Lily to fall asleep, but seeing her little chest moving up and down soothes her. She was relieved when they gave her a private room at the detention centre. The intake lady had been quite nice and understanding, and even went out of her way to get them ham sandwiches, bananas and apple juice. But right now, sitting in the dark, Marina still could not believe what transpired in the past twelve hours. The room is modest but comfortable, with two double beds and a private bathroom. Rattling noises from the electric furnace muffle distant voices and faraway steps. It’s almost 3 in the morning. In two more hours, she’ll have to wake Lily up and get her ready for the flight back to Mexico. She closes her eyes in an attempt to sleep, but instead, she remembers the first time she arrived in Toronto.
Not unlike yesterday, the ground was covered in snow and it was bright and sunny, like a Christmas card or the American movies she used to watch when she was little. Her friend Lucia took her to a nearby park and they made snow angels. She didn’t have proper winter clothes, only Lucia’s hand-me-down coat and boots, but that didn’t stop her from rejoicing. The crisp cold air filled her lungs with hope. Yes, if she had to describe that first day in one word, it would be hope.
She remembered how much she feared Fabian, with his snakeskin boots and silky Versace shirts, always drunk or, in hindsight, probably high, and always giving her lots of cash and very few explanations. It took two broken ribs and an overnight visit to the emergency room for her to see that as much as her husband “loved” her, he also loved giving her bruises. The sweet teenage boy she fell in love with vanished the day he heard his first narcocorrido.
During that trip, Lucia convinced her to submit a refugee claim. They took the subway to Etobicoke in the early hours of the morning and waited outside the Citizenship and Immigration Canada office with a crowd of hopeful strangers. Inside was a maze of lineups and waiting rooms, culminating with a lengthy interrogation. She remembered an indifferent officer asking her, “Against which country do you wish to file a refugee claim?”
“México,” she stated, but as the words left her mouth and floated in the air, she was overcome with guilt. “Malinchista!You always were a malinchista.” That’s what Abuelita Carmen said when she told her she was going to Canada; that’s what she used to call her as a little girl when she caught her dancing to Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” or every time she bought a new pair of Levi’s. Abuelita Carmen, a proud Mexican woman, did not approve of the North American influence. And at that moment, Marina felt like a malinchista, “a traitor.”
Marina made a happy life for herself in Toronto, working as a server at El Trompo in Kensington, sharing a cozy two-bedroom apartment with Lucia on St. Clair West, and going dancing at Momentos in Yorkville on the weekends. It was there where she met the man who would be Lily’s father, Miklos. She never imagined she could feel so safe. Five years went by full of happy memories, the most precious of all being the birth of her daughter.
But Marina felt immense sadness when she remembered her refugee claim hearing; it was on the 4th floor of a dated downtown office building on Vitoria St. She was ushered into a teleconference room with Miklos and her lawyer. The stern-faced woman on the screen with the icy voice repeatedly asked her why she never filed a police report, explaining to her that since Vicente Fox was President, Mexico was a lot safer.
What does this gringa know about what it’s like to be a woman in Mexico? Marina thought.
It didn’t matter that she had provided several photos of her injuries, or that her family and friends had written letters corroborating her story. Just because she didn’t report her abusive drug-dealing husband to the corrupt Mexican police, she was told her claim had been denied. As the video conference ended, quiet tears poured down her cheeks. She felt very small as if someone had taken her voice away. The short time she had to sort everything out before leaving Canada was a whirlwind of emotions, full of sleepless nights and tearful goodbyes. Ironically, a few days after her hearing, Fabian had become another casualty of cartel crime. With that as comfort and Miklos’s promise to bring her and Lily back as soon as he was granted permanent resident status, she packed their bags and left.
Startled by the alarm clock, Marina sits upright on the bed and her eyes adjust to the darkness. The warm bundle nested by her right side and the musty smell of the sheets remind her of her crude reality. As she caresses Lily’s hair, a new wave of anxiety rushes through her body.
* * *
Carlos hates riding the “Vomit Comet” on a Saturday morning. There is nothing worse than being on a bus full of drunks when you are heading to work. The one-hour ride from The Village to Pearson Airport is an excruciating experience he has to endure every time he is scheduled to work before 7 a.m. With his headphones on, he stares outside the window focusing on his breathing in an attempt to alleviate the pain in his right shoulder.
As soon as he finished work yesterday, he rushed back downtown and made a stop at the Allan Garden’s food bank, then he ran to the Yonge and Wellesley Money Mart to get another payday loan before heading home. “What a waste! All that money we spent sending you to private schools so you can be poor in Canada.” His father’s words resonated inside his head as he put away the groceries from the food bank. After paying all his credit card bills online, all he had left was sixty dollars. That crippling feeling of uncertainty would plague him for the next two weeks. He hated stressing about money. He had a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and tourism management, and yet here he was in his mid-thirties making fourteen dollars an hour, living in a tiny bachelor’s apartment and full of debt. He opened a new tab and logged into the AC employee portal to see if he could pick up extra shifts. That’s when he realized that for the rest of the month he was scheduled to work gates. He despised being a gates agent. It was a huge responsibility to be in charge of boarding a flight. There were so many variables to consider: documents had to be checked, aircraft weight and balance had to be ensured, announcements had to be made, carry-on bags had to be monitored, and all of these had to be achieved in a timely manner. But he especially hated being assigned to this position during the holiday season, when every single flight was overbooked and so many passengers were on edge.
Soon enough, it was time to go to bed. He tossed and turned, worrying about money, and thinking about that sad-looking woman and her little girl. He could have said something, even just a quick “Hola.”
He despised himself for being a pocho, especially because when he was a teenager, he got a job at a Señor Frogs souvenir shop in Mazatlán’s golden zone, and he hated when pochos—”Mexican-Americans”—refused to speak Spanish to him. He made a promise not to be such a selfish asshole and be more compassionate. But his right shoulder was getting so tense from the aggravating knot that always appeared when he was anxious. Unable to control his self-deprecating thoughts, the pain spread over to his neck and right arm, and he felt his heart fiercely pounding against his rib cage until he could hardly breathe.
Now, Carlos can barely hear the lively murmurs happening all around him on the bus. He had been close to calling in sick last night after his panic attack, but having used all of his sick days, that was not an option. At least today’s shift was only five hours long. The bus arrives at 5:14 a.m. at Terminal 1. He has enough time to clock in, change into his uniform, retrieve his radio and personal digital assistant, and begin the long walk towards the international departure gates. He leaves his lunch bag at the employee lounge and with shaky hands, he rushes to print all the reports he needs to control AC1980 to Mexico City.
* * *
Looking at her beautiful daughter playing on the floor at the airport, Marina is ever so thankful to have Lily. She is the only reason why Marina had not been handcuffed last night when they were being transported to the holding facility on Rexdale Blvd. Still exhausted from the long journey the day before from Culiacan to Toronto, and emotionally drained from everything that ensued after they arrived, Marina takes comfort in Lily’s innocence. Her little girl now playing with her word book, happily pushing buttons, listening to a monkey say English words like banana, pear, and apple.
Sitting in silence, Marina tries to discern her feelings. At first, there had been confusion and fear, later she felt stupid and ashamed, and last night before falling asleep she felt great sadness.
“Why are you here?” the female CBSA officer had asked.
“To visit my fiancée, my daughter’s father,” she had replied with a smile. But the officer looked at both of them with disdain and began berating her loudly. Marina had been so nervous she couldn’t comprehend what the officer was saying,
“Do you understand me?” the officer asked several times. Of course, she understood the words. She spoke English very well, but she was confused as to what exactly was the problem. Finally, the officer made a quick phone call and before she knew it, she was being ushered to another area where they brought in an agent who spoke Spanish. He explained to her that after her refugee claim had been rejected she was not allowed to come back into Canada unless she asked for a pardon from the Crown. Marina did not remember being told this important detail. When Miklos consulted his immigration lawyer, he assured them there would be no problems for them to come over for a quick visit. She wanted to explain to the officer it had all been a misunderstanding. They were only supposed to be here for two weeks to be together as a family. Miklos couldn’t travel until his permanent residency was approved. Instead, they came to see him. She was not trying to get back into the country to stay, but Lily was crying, and she was terrified of saying the wrong thing. She lost track of time and suddenly she found herself with her daughter inside a waiting room, the same room in which they now wait before being escorted to their gate.
* * *
Boarding actually went very smoothly; Carlos was relieved when Pina and Marco showed up as his support agents. Pina took the station right beside him and oversaw that he didn’t screw anything up. By the time everyone at the gate was on board, they were only missing two passengers: one adult and one minor. Carlos grabbed the intercom and began to make his final boarding announcements in both English and Spanish. When he was done, the phone rang. It was a call from the CBSA office. He was told to hold the plane and wait for Marina Sulema Osuna Campos and Liliana Szabo-Osuna. He logged the time of the call on his report sheet. This way if the plane was delayed he could not be blamed. He said goodbye to Marco and thanked Pina profusely, then pulled up a chair to sit and wait.
Marina stands in silence on the moving walkway. Looking outside onto the tarmac, she holds Lily close to her chest. Dozens of planes and melting snow are sitting on the ground a few feet below, raindrops are accumulating on the glass panels, and grey clouds disguise the morning sun. The dreary weather is a reminder that she does not belong here, and all she can think of is how much she hates slush.
The CBSA officer hands Carlos the passports and boarding passes. He recognizes the woman and her child from the day before.
“Hola, que tengan buen viaje,” he says.
Marina gives him a forced smile and with that, they are gone down the bridge. Carlos is busy closing the flight in the system, but he can’t shake away the sad look on Marina’s face.
He remembers the anguish he felt the day he received a deportation letter; if it hadn’t been for his lawyer, he might have been sent back. His parents may not have approved of him moving to Canada to live as an openly gay man, nevertheless; they still sent him money to cover his lawyer fees and for that he was grateful. In total it had cost him almost ten thousand dollars to become a resident but at least he got to stay. As much as he loved working at the airport, this was another part of his job that he hated, seeing dreams being crushed and lives uprooted.
For Marina, it’s all extremely embarrassing; the officer gives the lead flight attendant their passports to hold until they land in Mexico City. She feels everyone on the plane staring at them as if they are criminals. Once they get settled in their seats, Lily is surprisingly calm. Marina thinks of her first spring in Toronto. She remembers the shock and betrayal she felt after seeing all kinds of disgusting things resurface from the snow once it all began to melt. Movies never showed that underneath that beautiful powder were hidden piles of cigarette butts and dog shit. Abuelita Carmen will be happy to see them back so soon.
Carlos secures the gate doors and proceeds to the employee lounge. He tries not to think what will be of Marina and Lily once they return to Mexico, instead he reminds himself that he only has two more flights and it’ll be time to go home. His phone beeps. He has a new email notification from his bank: his credit card limit has been increased. Suddenly, the knot on his shoulder is no longer bothering him. Perhaps he will start looking where to fly next using his discount passes. He is thinking Greece. It isn’t too expensive, and he could use some sun.
About the Author – Omar Ramirez
Omar Ramirez is a Mexican-Canadian writer who also identifies as gay. His writing is inspired by Latin-American magical realism and reflects the intersectionality of his life experiences. His poem Viva Kanada appeared in “Entrances & Exits” the inaugural issue of Living Hyphen. He currently resides in Toronto, where he is pursuing a Certificate in Creative Writing at U of T.
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**This story by Omar Ramirez received an Honourable Mention in the 2022 Stories of Migration, Sense of Place & Home Contest.
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