“Last boarding call for Flight 31 to Moscow, Russia. Last call for Flight 31.” The JFK PA machine was loud and clear, not fuzzy like usual, and I felt pained as I acknowledged that it was time to say goodbye to Dad.
“Dad, promise me that you’ll take care of Mom and yourself. Promise me you’ll see the doctor about that repeating headache problem. Promise me you’ll be careful when driving and call me every day. Do you promise?” I demanded, as if I was a hundred-year-old woman having a nervous breakdown, instead of an eleven-year-old girl about to go on an adventurous trip. I bit my fingernails. Is everything I am saying going straight through him?
My father laughed a bit, but my glum stare forced him to stop. “I promise,” he swore, his tone grim and serious. The corners of his eyes were creased with concern and his face seemed to be asking me, “What about you? Will you be careful? Do you promise?”
“Agreed then,” I answered, matter-of-factly. “In return, I promise to be smart in Russia.”
I kissed him on the cheek and said, “See you in a month,” giddy with anticipation of my upcoming travel adventures. I headed towards my grandmother who was already showing the flight attendant our tickets. I could not believe that in less than ten hours I would be halfway across the world!
* * *
A month later, I was back in that same airport, getting off that almost-same flight—Moscow to New York. New York! I had missed this place too much. I thought of when we had traveled through Russia by boat. I remembered all those hours when I gazed at the serene, seemingly endless surface of the River Volga, in which the trees surrounding it cast their long, dark shadows. I felt the water spray from the fast-moving boat against my skin, heard the seagulls squawking in the air, smelled the soothing aroma of forest pines drifting through the breeze. Yet all I could think about was where my parents were at that moment and how gloomy I felt without them by my side.
How’s New York in general? Had the fireworks for Independence Day burst through the night in a flash of beauty? Were the lakes in Central Park beginning to cover with moss-green algae? Had the Con Edison workers finished the construction on Second Avenue? What new exhibits were on display at the Metropolitan Museum? I had wondered.
Most of all, I recalled that first homesick night in Moscow when I couldn’t fall asleep no matter what. I tossed and turned all night, looking out the stained, cracked window into the pitch-black street, where shadows fell like creepy ghosts, breathing in my ear, “You don’t belong here. You don’t belong here.” Grandma said I couldn’t sleep because of the jetlag, but I didn’t think so.
But my trip was far from being a weep fest. In fact, I had an incredible time. I saw the places where my parents grew up. I saw fascinating museums, the cobblestone streets where Catherine the Great took her morning strolls 300 years ago. I visited the building where all the Russian cosmonauts are trained. I walked through St. Petersburg at one o’clock in the morning during the spectacular White Nights. I stepped into abbeys built in the ninth century. Sometimes, walking from street to street, one memorable experience to another, I’d be too awed to even put my feelings into words.
Nevertheless, when I sat on that plane back to America, I was eager to get back to New York. I couldn’t wait to see Dad picking me up at the airport, telling me how much he had missed me.
Therefore, when we got off the plane, it was all a blur—I was too overwhelmed to notice anything. Not the swooshing of turning-on cell phones, not the comforting smell of freshly baked blueberry muffins coming from duty-free cafes, not the rough feeling of people pushing disrespectfully past you. I felt as if Dad was not more than an inch away, as if I could touch him already, as if I heard his voice directly above my head, as if all I had to do was reach up—and there he’d be.
“Come on. Come on!” I told Grandma impatiently. “Hurry up!” We squeezed through the crowds of people heading towards the big traffic jam—the customs inspection. I was still in my daze though—imagining seeing them: my parents and New York. I could almost imagine every feature of my mother’s face—and the structure of every tower that scrapes the sky above New York City.
“Next,” one of boundary inspectors called. “Stall 22, please.”
“Cool!” I whispered to Grandma. “That’s my lucky number.”
“OK, kiddo, let’s go,” she replied sarcastically.
We walked towards the stall. The man sitting in it had a shrewd, wrinkled old face with deep, wicked dimples in his smile. He sneered at us and ordered, “Documents,” as if he was an evil king and we, his helpless subjects. My grandmother dug through her purse for the passports and the declaration slips that were filled out on the plane. She handed them over to him. He snatched them from her as though the papers were a gun and poor Grandma was about to fire. He looked through the papers for so long that I began to wonder if he fell asleep. I wanted to ask, Is there a problem? but I didn’t. That would be rude.
At last, he sighed as if he could not wait to get off duty and said, “You need a document providing the permission of the parents.”
“Yes, yes, I have it,” assured Grandma. She dug back into her purse and fished out the neatly folded piece of paper. “Here you go.” He grabbed it so fast that I was sure it would rip—but it did not. He examined it thoroughly. As he looked up, I noticed that he wore an enormous amount of hair gel, and sweat covered his forehead—or were those gel beads dripping down his temple? I almost got a feeling that he took pleasure in the conversation that was about to take place, and I started to develop a slight hatred towards him.
“This is a copy. It doesn’t work. You need the original,” he uttered, his mind obviously elsewhere.
“The Russian consulate took the original, sir. This is the only one that we have. I assure you that there is an original, though. You can call the parents if you refuse to believe the truth I speak,” explained my grandmother, rather sternly. She always talks as if she is from the eighteenth century when she is nervous.
He mockingly rolled his eyes, the way bullies do right before they deliver the final blow. At this point, I was terrified and utterly confused. I didn’t understand what the problem was. Is he saying he is sending us back to Russia? I readied myself for the torturous news. He turned to me and asked, “What is your name?”
I was bewildered! What is my name? Why didn’t he just look at the passport? “Marie-Rose Sheinerman,” I answered. By the look in his eyes I could tell that he was wondering about the hesitation in my voice and whether or not I belong here. A horrible thought passed through my mind: I belong nowhere.
“Where is your father?” he asked suspiciously.
“By the baggage claim. He’s waiting for us!” I could not help but be irritated.
“And where is your mother?” he continued the questioning.
“At home,” I answered. That is so obvious! And why does it matter anyway?
“And when is your birthday?”
This was getting ridiculous! “May 28th, 2000, sir,” I hissed.
“And your father’s birthday?”
“January 22nd, 1971.”
He rapidly typed something into his computer and said, “Follow me.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “Where are we going?!”
He did not respond and just walked on, so I had nothing left to do but shuffle after him. I clung to Grandma’s arm. “What’s going on?” I whimpered. Although I was afraid and intimidated by this man, I could not help but be curious of our destination.
“I don’t know, but be quiet, or we’ll never get out of there,” she shushed me. Finally, the inspector stopped and motioned us into a room. The gray room. The isolation zone.
“Sit down over there and wait to be called,” barked the inspector. I clenched my jaw from the anger at him but said nothing. I glanced towards the room, planning to turn quickly around and ask the inspector why we were here, but I froze and stared at the desolateness filling the air.
The first thing I thought of when I saw it was grief. A woman with three little girls sat in the corner sobbing. Other people were just waiting to be called, their backs bent, their faces smudged from tears, their dignity dented from fear. On the opposite side of the room, customs inspectors talked with the “suspicious individuals.” One of the jailers yelled at a person, “Are you kidding me, you went to Cuba? Are you kidding me? Are you? Please tell me you are.” I was only to later discover that all Americans are forbidden to go to Cuba and this particular person probably had a good reason to be yelled at, but right then I just thought that the horrid inspector must have lost his mind to be shouting so viciously at another human being.
I turned around to ask the inspector how long the wait would be, but he was already gone—left to degrade another poor soul. I could still make out the clicking of his shoes down the hall.
Grandma and I sat down in the gray chairs of the gray room. They had scratchings, graffiti, and looked generally beat up, as though they were about to break. We waited for what seemed like forever. During that time, all I could think of were Mom and Dad. Hugging them and kissing them and the possibility of not being able to do that ever again. From time to time I looked up at Grandma desperately, maybe even expectantly, while she reassured, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. This is just a mistake. Don’t look so agitated—don’t, don’t cry.”
All of a sudden, I heard, “Marie-Rose? Marie-Rose Sheinerman?”
“Yes, yes, I’m here,” I called. I stood up and headed towards the bald man with a surprised smile across his face. The enthusiasm in my voice amazed even me.
I grinned—this man right away reminded me of the wizard that resolves all of the conflicts at the end of a fairy tale. Suddenly, I felt calm, I felt safe. He soothingly said, “I’m just going to talk to you a little bit, OK?”
“What school do you go to?” he inquired.
“I just graduated from P.S. 6 and will being attending East Side Middle starting September.”
“Oh, my kid goes there. That’s funny. Do you know Billy Stewart?”
Frankly, I don’t remember exactly what he told me, but I do remember the feeling of knowing that everything would be just how I wanted it; that soon, ten minutes from now, five minutes from now, right this second, I would see my father and mother and New York City.
“You can go,” he said in the end with a laugh. He must have been thinking that the inspector who brought me there hadn’t done his work too well.
“Thank you. Thank you so very much,” I exclaimed.
* * *
We’re out! I could hardly believe it! “Let’s go, let’s go, Grandma!” I shouted. We dashed through the crowds, all of which were rushing to the baggage claim. Dozens of people were waiting there, with signs displaying messages like, “Anybody need a limo taxi?” or “Welcome home, Clare Winston!” I spotted my father, standing in the front row, anxiously searching the diminishing crowds with his eyes, and I ran to him. I ran like I have never run before. Did I care that Grandma was falling behind, disappearing from view in the crowds? Did I care that alarmed people were tumbling out of my way? Did I care that everyone was staring judgmentally as I leaped into my father’s arms? Did I care the tiniest bit? Nope.
I rushed into his embrace and cried and cried. Tears rolled down my cheeks, pushing each other down, getting my father’s checkered T-shirt all wet. I cried and cried; I could not stop myself. From time to time I looked up to see his astonished face and stammered, “I missed you so much.” I continued crying as we got into the car. Grandma was bewildered by my reaction and I felt guilty for making her feel unwanted, as if I had not enjoyed myself with her, but there was nothing I could do to stop myself.
I sobbed as we passed all the wonders of New York, reliving the discovery of their beauty. I had never appreciated the everyday New York-ish circumstances as I did then. I realized that before I had taken everything significant in my life for granted. I thought about the customs officers. They didn’t do anything terrible. They were just doing their job—making sure that no criminal gets into my country. Why had the experience bothered me so much?
“Oh, the Brooklyn Bridge. Oh, the Chrysler Building. Oh, Uno’s Chicago Grill!” and tears kept welling and rolling without my will as I stuttered out exclamations. But most often I would falter—and this sentence brought the most tears and the most joy—