“Please take your children and go to that room over there,” the passport controller said. “Officer!” he shouted to a uniformed guard standing by a sign reading “Immigrations Detention Office.” The guard waved me towards the door as he opened it.
“This must be some mistake; I’m an American!” I said. “My father’s waiting out there for me.” I tried to swing the overstuffed diaper bag over my shoulder. It slid down my arm, almost hitting my boy. I grabbed both children by the hand and dragged them and the diaper bag behind me.
The guard stood aside and allowed us to enter. Low slung fluorescent lights and stifling warmth made me grit my teeth and exhale. Not a single window, no means of escape, not a chair or a table; only a judge’s bench atop a platform rose to an authoritative height at the front of the hall. Four judges hovered on the domineering panel. Hundreds of foreign-speaking families stood in four lines in front of the bench and awaited their verdicts. Mounds more huddled about the outer walls on blue airport carpet embedded with dirt from all over the world.
The droning ventilation made it hard to hear. My ears were still plugged from the descent. In spite of the fans, the air stood still. The flight had been eight hours long, and now the six hour time difference. My legs were wobbly. I knew I had to act now, lest I be kept here indefinitely.
“Please, Officer, can’t you help me? This is a mistake,” I said to the guard, trying to gain an ally.
I had a passport. What annoyed the passport controller was the children’s ID. Not only did the children have a different last name, they also had foreign passports and weren’t registered as aliens travelling to America. They would not be allowed to enter the country with me. I could not prove that I was the legal guardian. The children were to be detained and I was told I could choose to stay with them, or leave, however I wished.
Such formalities had never crossed my mind when I impulsively booked the flight last week to visit my father. I had been so homesick and desperate to hear my own language.
“Just get in line and wait your turn, Ma’am,” the guard said. He turned and left the detention office.
I needed to get to the front of the line, needed to talk to one of the judges. The glaring lights made me giddy and I saw stars. My mouth was dry. I was extremely thirsty. I sank involuntarily onto the carpet like a sack of flour and the moldy smell made me nauseous. My boy started to cry and I saw his pants were wet.
“Oh no, why didn’t you tell me you had to go?” I said.
He cried louder.
“Baby, I’m sorry. Look, I have dry pants in my bag for you,” I said and tried to smile. I rummaged through the diaper bag for a clean pair of pants. I found my boy’s teddy and he grabbed it out of my hand. I untangled the pants from a sweater and then stood abruptly, looking around the hall for a bathroom.
I rubbed my eyes, trying to focus. I was going to be sick. I knelt back down and pulled diapers and kids’ clothes out of the bag, throwing them on the floor, looking for my medicine. Oh, please don’t let it happen here, I thought. There’s our favorite book, “There’s a Cow in the Road.” I threw that on the floor, too. Where were those damn pills? My boy held tightly to my arm, whining through the pacifier in his sucking lips and I reprimanded him, immediately regretting my impatience. In the bag, I found two new pacifiers, in case one gets lost, but no sign of my pills. I sat back, put my head in my hands and willed myself to stay calm. Breathe. My girl sat down next to me, twisted her blonde braid, hummed to herself and rocked her doll.
The need to vomit heaved me forward onto all fours. I spewed and it hurt. Then the frame froze. It was like someone had pushed the pause button on a video. The world had stopped. I heard shouts around me, but saw no motion. Then time sped up and the last five years of my life passed at a dizzying speed; yes, before my eyes. I thought this time I really was going to die. Then darkness.
I opened my eyes and winced at the brutal lights. Were these the lights at the end of the tunnel? The faces of the paramedics came into view. They were bringing me away on a stretcher. An official-looking woman held my two screaming children back. I tried to get off the stretcher, but was tightly belted in.
“You’re no good to them like this,” the paramedic said. “You had a seizure.”
“I know,” I said and all went dark.
It was nighttime when I opened my eyes again. I had a view of the parking lot and the cars coming and going under the cold, orange glow of the street lamps. My face was swollen, my mouth parched and I tasted blood. I must have bitten my lip. A woman snored in the bed next to me and a machine peeped to the beat of my heart.
The door opened and I wanted to scream to the nurse but I couldn’t raise my head. I tried to whisper to her. The door closed but I could still make out her face, lit by the street lights, as she bent over me.
“Oh, you’re awake. I need to ask you a few questions,” the nurse said.
“Where are my children?” I managed to say.
“Children? I don’t know anything about any children. Maybe you could tell me your name. We need to find out who you are.”
I tried to sit up. The machine peeped in protest.
“Or you could get some rest, Jane. You had a rough day. I’ll be right back. I’ll get you something to help you sleep.” the nurse said.
Sleep? I had to get out of here. I pulled the patches off my chest and the machine gave off one continuous drone that reminded me of the dreaded flat line. I looked up at the IV dripping from the bottle to my arm. I remembered doing this as a kid when I was in the hospital: I undid the tape and pulled the needle out of my arm, balled a tissue and secured it in the crook of my arm. I stood up, got dizzy and forced myself forward to the two locker-like closets to look for my clothes. Both were unlocked. I opened the first, but inside hung what must be my roommate’s clothes. In the other closet, my tee-shirt and sweater were crumpled in a ball and my pants were wet and soiled from being sick. I tore off the hospital gown and dressed in my roommate’s clothes. These clothes would have to do.
The nurse opened the door. Light from the hall streamed into the room and I stood and stared like a deer caught in headlights.
“What are you doing? You need to get back in bed. You’re not going anywhere,” she said. She walked towards me and the door slowly swung shut.
“I’m not sick. Where are my children? Where am I?”
“This is the University Hospital. The EMTs didn’t say anything about children. They couldn’t even find your ID. What’s your name?”
“My name is April Gray and I have to find my kids, damn it!”
“You have to calm down. Your EEG is a mess and we need to get you under control.”
A man in the hallway called to the nurse, she turned and reached the door in two steps. She stuck her head out of the door and I could hear them talking. “The female epileptic. The EMTs brought her from the airport. She’s hysterical. Something about kids. They said she was alone when they brought her.”
I had no purse, no money, no ID. I didn’t even know where the hospital was situated. I moved towards the nurse and seemed to have startled her. I pulled open the door and saw the two doctors she was talking to.
“Call the Immigrations Center at the airport.” I said. “They have my kids. They have my things, my passport.”
“Please get back in bed and I’ll make some calls,” the one doctor said. “Please take your medication and stay calm. This isn’t your fault. We’ll straighten this out.”
The nurse brought me a clean gown, gathered up my soiled clothes and took my shoes out of the closet. She watched me undress and took my roommate’s clothes as well. I felt I was making a tremendous mistake, surrendering my only disguise. I got back in bed, took the pills she handed me and swallowed, relieved to be off my feet. My head pounded. How could I just sit here? I had to act. Guilt kept me awake. How could I have left them there at the airport?
I’d thrown our favorite book on the floor. What if nobody thought to pick it up? What if his pacifier got lost? My girl couldn’t brush her hair by herself. At night I always made one braid down her back and in the morning I braided two. Would anyone make them their tea tonight? They loved fennel tea with honey. Where were they sleeping?
I so wanted to give into sleep’s seduction. I wanted to believe the doctors. I wanted to trust the authorities. I wanted to lay my head on the pillow and that was the last thing I remembered.
I woke and the sun shined in my room bright and crisp. In the night, they must have hung an IV on me again and I was wired to the heart monitor through those damned patches. My heart peeped. Doors slammed in the hallway. Nurses paraded in and out of my room. Another of the staff brought in two breakfast trays, clanked dishes and exchanged niceties with someone cleaning the bathroom. The decorating disguised the fact that this was a hospital at all. No white, sterile furniture. Oak imitation, I guessed. Only that biting smell gave it away. The walls were painted in a pale apricot and the floor-length window was trimmed in a darker, antique orange. Even the cleaning woman, now emerging from the bathroom, was dressed in a peachy uniform. I asked her for the nurse from last night, whose name I, of course, didn’t know.
“Shift changed at six a.m.”
“Did she say anything about me?”
“Only that nobody knows who you are.”
“My name is April Gray. She wanted to call the airport about my kids. They’re missing.”
“Your chart says ‘Jane Doe.’ Sorry, I don’t know nothing ‘bout no kids,” she said. She turned and steered her wheeled bucket with the mop out the door.
I hated hospitals. I spent enough time in them as a kid. Time ticked an artificial tempo, an unreal slow-motion. I had to fight the helplessness that swallowed me into this disinfected cage. Was anyone looking for me? Would someone get me out of here? Another nurse came back in the room with some more pills. She watched me put them in my mouth and when she turned to leave, I spat them back out. I was good at pulling the drip’s needle out of my arm. I tore the patches off my chest, too, and looked at the sleeping woman in bed next to me. I had an idea.
Her closet was unlocked and I looked inside and, yes, there her clothes hung, light blue polyester pants, a floral polyester blouse and a light blue sweater. She was a good 20 years older than me, but we were, stretching the imagination, somewhat the same size. I was not going to be choosy. This was my only way out. Her shoes would have to do, too.
I could hear so much bustling in the hallway; I could duck out if I didn’t run. They weren’t interested in me. I dressed and opened the door, looking for the universal sign for the stairway. What day was it? The time? I was completely disoriented.
My head was still pounding as I ran down the steps. I felt the few dollar bills in my pocket and guilt burned through me. Yes, her purse was in the closet and I nicked some money. I wanted to get back to the airport. Maybe get a bus or a cab. I desperately needed some bread or something dry to eat. I should have taken some from my breakfast tray.
Out on the street, I felt like an escaped convict, like everyone was looking at me. I should have brushed my teeth, I thought, making for the bus stop on Orange Street, right outside the hospital’s main entrance. I would get on the first bus I saw.
“Are you going to the airport?” I said.
The driver nodded and I paid, took a seat and pressed my forehead on the cool glass. The slant of the sun showed it was still early in the morning but the day seemed to be warming. I was grateful for the woman’s sweater. Another twinge of guilt made me consider mailing the clothes back to the hospital when this was all over.
Then I sat bolt upright as a nagging thought burst into realization. My father! I would jump off the bus and look for a pay phone. Was there still such a thing as a pay phone? Why didn’t I think of calling him from the hospital? Would he be at home? I had his cell number in my purse, not in my head. I looked more distinctly out the window of the bus and thought better of getting off. The neighborhood was neither residential nor inviting, rather industrial and cold.
As we approached Terminal A, I rehearsed umpteen conversations, arguments and scenarios. My face was burning, a manic out-of-control signal that I should slow down. I had spat those pills out this morning; I didn’t have my medicine. I needed a drink. First thing in the morning? With the time difference, I figured it was really like three in the afternoon for me, wasn’t it?
I got off the bus and ran into the terminal. Tears formed in my eyes, but I couldn’t cry. I tried to compose myself, think logically and find the best solution. Who could help me here? I wouldn’t get far in the airport without ID.
I saw a lounge on the other side of the terminal, looked closer at the bills in my pocket and found a twenty. I meandered through the early-morning travelers, around a group of students staring at the departures board, into the lounge and sat at the bar. The bartender, a dark man about my age, smelling of Egyptian Musk, asked me what I’d like and I dissolved into tears and gave him the run-down of the last twenty-four hours.
“I think I heard about this. What’s your name?”
“Here, drink this. Let me call someone, OK?” he said.
I sipped whatever it was–I think cherry brandy. Sweet and thick. He reappeared behind the bar.
“Someone’s coming for you. Look, there she is. Seems they’ve been looking for you all morning.” he said.
“So here you are, Ms. Gray,” the security woman said. “Sitting in the bar. We’ve been looking for you.”
I put my glass down and stood to leave. I reached in my pocket for some money but the bartender held his hand up and smiled–the universal sign for “on the house.”
My thoughts lightened and I smiled. Thank you so much, I continued saying to the woman. I wanted to shake her hand, hug her. Her expression gave me the impression that she didn’t want to be touched or otherwise sentimentally molested.
She drove the airport buggy to “Immigrations,” as she referred to it. I could finally relax, I thought. I’d call my dad. Maybe he was already here. Maybe he straightened out this whole mess. I couldn’t wait to get to our house, have a nice meal with Mom, a bath and then a nap with the kids in our room that Mom had definitely made all warm and cozy for us. Maybe she’d baked.
The security woman led me through a side entrance to the arrivals hall, slowly filling with the colorful contents of the last flight. Weary-looking tourists, a few hectic business-types, and families with kids lined up at the passport control booths. This is where this whole predicament started. We entered a small office next to the Immigrations Detention Office, a miniature room with an overhead fluorescent light, no windows, a large mirror on the left wall, a table and three chairs. A man stood tapping a pencil on the tabletop. The security woman took her leave and a policewoman closed the door, sealing us off from the sounds of the arrivals hall.
“Ms. Gray, is this your passport and your bag?” The man said and pointed to my things on the table. He wore jeans and a light-blue button-down shirt. A badge hung from his belt. Maybe he was some sort of detective.
“Where are my children?” I looked around the room–a rather silly move. The room was so small there was nowhere they could hide. The policewoman stood at ease by the door.
“Would you like to tell us what is going on?” he said.
“I’m visiting my family,” I said.
“Are you being honest with us?”
“Where’s my father? Isn’t he here? He’ll tell you.”
“Ms. Gray, they’re not your children, are they?” he said.
“Where are my children?” I could feel a cold sweat building on my forehead.
“Ma’am, we received a complaint from the German authorities,” the policewoman said.
“No, stop, this is a mistake! Call my father, please.”
“Don’t worry, ma’am, we checked all our sources and your father told us you worked as an au pair in Germany,” the detective said. His voice was gentle, almost pitying. “These children belong to a family called Ritscher from Munich. What can you tell us about them?”
“No! These are my children! Call my husband and ask him!” I was going to be sick.
The detective moved closer to me and said, “That isn’t your husband. He was your employer. Both he and his wife are very worried.”
“But he loves me, not her!” I said.
“Ma’am, you are under arrest for the kidnapping of the two Ritscher children, reported missing on the fifteenth of March,” the policewoman said and began to read me my rights.
“I wanted to bring my kids for a visit. They wanted to come to America,” I said.
“The Ritscher’s lawyers contacted US Immigrations to see if you were trying to enter the country with their children.” he said.
“No! They’re mine! I’m the only one who cares for them.”
“…can and will be used against you…” the policewoman continued.
“How did you manage to get them out of Europe?” he said.
“You don’t understand! I’m the only one who loves those kids! She’s not their mother. That so-called mother is never home, and when she is…” I said.
“…If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to you…”
“The kids have to stay in their rooms. Can’t make a sound when Frau Ritscher’s there. She keeps them like caged animals! I had to get them out of there.”
“Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?” the policewoman said.
I dove on top of the diaper bag and tore it open. I pulled out my girl’s doll. “Where are they? She would never go anywhere without this doll.”
“The children will board the next plane for Munich, leaving this afternoon. You will stay here in our custody,” the policewoman said.
The detective opened the door and left the room, spitting into his radio.
I pulled out a pacifier and my boy’s teddy. “He can’t sleep without this. I knew I couldn’t leave them for a night! He must have screamed all night long.”
“Ma’am, you need to calm down.”
“Calm down? I want to see them. Are they here? They must be if they’re flying out today. Ask them yourself. Ask them who their mother is!”
The detective cracked the door open and through the narrow slit I could see my two kids sitting on the buggy driven by another guard. I wanted to yell out, but the detective came in and quickly closed the door.
“Please remove any of your belongings from the bag, Ms. Gray. We’ll see to it that the children get their things.”
“They’re out there. Ask them! Ask them who their mother is!”
The policewoman silently consulted the detective.
“At least let me give them each a hug,” I said.
The policewoman nodded and the door seemed to burst open and both children came running in to the little office and hugged me around my legs. I squatted down and got both kids’ attention.
“Listen you two. Tell the nice woman I’m your mother. She doesn’t believe me,” I said.
My boy grabbed the teddy from the table and held my arm tight.
My girl spoke: “April, I miss you.” Her English was spiked with a thick German accent. It sounded so cute. I taught her to speak English.
“Go on. Tell her who your mother is,” I said.
“April…” she said and started to laugh. She hugged me around my neck. “April, you’re not my mother. My mother is horrible old witch, you say. You’re not horrible old witch!”
The door flew open and another detective rushed in. A very-official-looking woman click-clicking in high heels squeezed into the tiny room right behind him. I had watched enough TV in my life to realize they observed the whole scene from behind the mirror.
“Ms. Gray, I think we’ve heard enough. Take her away.”