We’d been traveling so long that we lost track of which country we were in. It didn’t scare me at first. My husband and I were just lazy tourists, using up money from the jobs we’d quit, stuffing dirty laundry into expensive frame backpacks and using the corkscrews on our pocket knives to open wine. We were too old for hostels but we stayed in them anyway: rickety beds, college-age boys, ancient Internet terminals and sagging, stained couches.
It came to me one day that I truly did not know where we were, but I was too embarrassed to ask him. We didn’t talk anymore because every day we each saw the same things, had the same experiences. I’d point to a cathedral and he’d nod. We’d share our food at restaurants and smile at the flavors. This morning we’d gotten on a tram and fallen asleep, waking up in a sliver of the city that hugged the gleaming ocean. The street was filled with nothing but fish places and souvenir shops, so we wordlessly went into one of each: first a stand with baked fish and beer, and then a shop filled with knickknacks. In the shop, I thought, I would look at the magnets and T-shirts and see where we were, and feel stupid for losing track, and then find us on the fold-out map of the continent in our guidebook and start to think about the best route home. But the shop didn’t have the name of the country on anything it sold, only the name of the city. And the city wasn’t listed in the index of the book.
After a few minutes together, we split up and wandered among the shelves to browse. The shop was the type of place I’d loved as a child, lots of little animals made from seashells, beaded necklaces and bracelets, sticks of incense with carved soapstone holders. I’d grown up in a city by the ocean, and my family and I went to the beach exactly once each summer. After playing in the sand and gingerly stepping into the too-cold water, my mother would take me and my sister to the boardwalk to spend our money on the junk in these shops. Later, after I’d gone to college, my mother and sister made fun of me for taking on a new accent. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about. Nowadays I didn’t talk to them much, and when we did talk, we fought, so I decided to buy them gifts. For my mother I picked out a magnet with a picture of the cathedral we’d seen at the other end of the tram line. My sister got a little painted wooden elephant, supposedly a good luck charm. There weren’t any elephants on this entire continent, so the thing had to have been made far, far away.
I chose some incense for myself. As a teenager I’d always burned incense while writing poetry or casting love spells. Lately I’d been feeling nostalgic. I’d been wishing for a different, easier past.
When I brought the things up to the counter, the woman took the bills I gave her and waited. When I didn’t move, she smiled and said, “I need one more.”
One more what? Oh. Bill. I dug around in my wallet but it was empty. I called to my husband.
“I thought you had the last of the cash,” he said.
My heart fluttered. “What you mean, the last?”
My husband stared at me. We didn’t even have tram fare, let alone hostel money. Currency rates changed every day and it was impossible to keep track of how much we had.
The woman gave us a look that seemed practiced, perfected. She was older than us, at least ten years older, and she was lithe and pretty in the way that only foreigners could be. “If you’re out of money you can stay here tonight,” she said. “No one’s renting my spare bedroom. I use it at times like this.” She paused. “You’ll work in the store for a while, all right?”
She said it as if tourists ran out of money in her shop all the time. My husband and I looked at each other and agreed. After so many months of listless freedom, I found it a relief to be told what to do.
And that’s how we got the job at the store. Very much illegal, as it turned out, but we needed a place to sleep, and the little shop felt so nice. Besides, who in the world would care? We were just tourists who’d spent too much money.
Her cottage was tiny on the outside, but on the inside it opened up into a two-story house with five bedrooms. I thought it was magic until Mila—the shopkeeper’s name was Mila—pointed out all the little tricks of architecture and light that created the illusion. The whole city was like that: buildings looked little and quaint and even rundown on the outside, but they were huge and modern once you walked in the door. In fact, the city itself was bigger than it seemed. How else could we have gone so far on a tram? How could it sprawl for so many miles, stretching inland over a dozen hills and across two rivers, and not be listed in the guidebook?
But I was always underestimating these things. My period, for instance: whenever it came, I marveled indignantly at the ounces and ounces of blood that came out of me. How could my uterus hold that much blood? Where was it all stored? But my periods were irregular anyway, sometimes skipping entire months, so maybe there were chambers inside of me that I hadn’t yet found.
I was good at working in the shop, but my husband quickly foundered. He would get distracted, wandering away from lines at the cash register, dusting the same trinket over and over. Mila or I would have to rush to take over when he disappeared. Mila never seemed to mind.
But I did. One day, when he disappeared in the middle of his shift, I stalked into our bedroom to find him poring through a shopping bag on the bed.
“What’s all this?” I cried. “You’re supposed to be working!”
“Nothing,” he said. “Just shopping.”
“Shopping? What kind of shopping?”
“Nothing,” he repeated. But he picked up a paper-wrapped bundle and began to peel it open.
Fuming, I snatched it up. Inside the paper was a porcelain owl.
“What’s this?” I said.
“I liked it,” he said, his voice hard. “Mila paid us so I bought some souvenirs.”
“What do you mean, she paid us? I didn’t get paid.”
I took the shopping bag and emptied it out. Out fell bundles containing figurines, keychains, and shot glasses. Something metal glinted.
“What is this?” I asked, picking it up. It was a dagger in a sheath. The handle had the name of the city etched into it. “Is this real?”
“I don’t know! I just liked it!”
“It’s heavy!” I pulled the dagger out of the sheath and looked at the blade. It was sharp. “It’s real! Why would you buy this? How much did it cost?”
He grabbed it, almost cutting me. “Everything was cheap, okay? It’s not like Mila’s paying us anything anyway! Would you calm down?”
“I can’t believe you’d buy a knife when we’re trying to go home!”
“It’s just a letter opener,” he said. “And who said we’re trying to go home? I thought we were on a trip.” He got up and walked out. “God,” he muttered.
All my life I’d felt shyest around the people closest to me. I remembered the decay of my family, the tense silences after my father left and my sister started to get arrested. Sometimes I’d look at my family and feel as nervous as if I were giving a presentation in class. My mother began to tell me about terrible things my father had done, stealing from her and kicking the cat, and whenever he came to visit I studied him to try and figure out which of the things she said were true, but I never could.
I thought things would be different when I married someone but they weren’t. When my husband laughed at my jokes, I would think, Oh, drop the act. Then I would feel guilty, because what if his laugh was genuine and I was just being a jerk? What if there was something malformed in me, something that prevented me from getting close to people? There was a part of my brain that couldn’t receive what people extended to me.
Now I picked at my hangnails as I watched him wander toward the beach. I watched him leave his sneakers at the edge of the pavement and stroll out onto the sand. I watched him stand up to his knees in the ocean.
“It’s fine,” Mila said when I went back to the shop. She was wearing a long sundress, her hair in a loose braid. I wished I could dress like that for my normal job. “Men need solitude,” she said. “They need time to think and reflect. You can work an extra shift to make up for it.”
Said the woman who gave my wages to my husband.
“Are you having sex?” Mila asked. “Regularly? Pardon me if that’s a personal question. I ask because it’s good to have sex regularly, even if you think you don’t feel like it. The urge is like a garden. The more you water it, the more it flowers.”
I blushed. This place. “Why did you pay him and not me?” I asked.
Mila raised her eyebrows. “Why, I gave him both of your wages. Did he not give you yours?”
“No. He bought a bunch of stuff with it.” The dagger probably was a letter opener, which in a way made it even stupider.
“Well, I’m so sorry,” Mila said. “I’ll give the money to you from now on. But are you having sex regularly?”
I ground my teeth. A cultural difference. A misunderstanding. She probably meant well. “I guess,” I said. “I don’t know.” Sex was the last thing I wanted to think about. We never got private rooms at the hostels, which meant I’d been able to avoid sex for most of the trip. When we left home I’d confessed to him that I didn’t enjoy it anymore. Long ago I’d craved him, lain awake at night wanting him, but now that was gone and I was afraid I was frigid. Maybe I should go on medication, I said, or go to therapy. He looked uncomfortable. I don’t really like talking about that stuff, he said. What stuff? I asked. Sex? Yeah, he said, you know, stuff. Well, would it be okay if we just didn’t have sex for awhile? I asked. Maybe I just need to recharge. The idea of my sex drive as a battery was disconcerting, because batteries can’t recharge forever. They eventually need to be replaced. But it was the best I could come up with. Again, though, he cringed. I don’t want to talk about it, he said. You’re not supposed to talk about sex because talking about it ruins it. That was the last we’d said about it.
“You guess you’re having sex?” Mila said. “If you have to guess, I’d say the answer’s no! When you have sex, you know!”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, we’re having sex. Jeez.” The gift of hostel beds couldn’t last forever. Our first night in the cottage, my husband had wordlessly climbed on top of me and then given me a dopey smile when he was done. I wanted to say something. I wanted to remind him of what I’d thought was our agreement. But I knew how he’d respond. I don’t want to talk about it.
“If you have to think about it,” Mila said, “the answer’s no.”
That night, I felt my period coming on. My guts cramped in slow, tight waves, and my breasts took on their usual soreness. Except there was something different about it, something oddly methodical. It wasn’t the sloppy, wild pain that usually announced my periods.
It went on for two weeks, getting neither worse nor better, and then it stopped. I was disappointed. Until my period came, I had nothing with which to fend him off.
One day two men in tan uniforms came into the shop.
It’d been weeks since my husband put up even a pretense of working, yet Mila was still giving him all my wages. I couldn’t get her to stop. I had to take the money from his wallet to buy myself food. I could see him through the door as he wandered the beach with a purple ice cream, bought with money I’d earned. I was so absorbed in watching him and feeling self-righteous that I barely noticed the men until Mila took hold of my wrist under the counter. “Immigration officers,” she whispered. Then she smiled at the two men and asked if they needed help. They shook their heads and one of them picked up an alabaster egg that fit into an alabaster cup. The other gave me a long look.
I wasn’t worried. What was the worst they would do? Give us a free ride to the border? Still, my heart sped up. “I think we’re out of those rubber magnets,” Mila suddenly said. “The rainbow ones? Could you see if there are more in the back?”
I hurried to the back room and as I was searching for the right box, Mila appeared next to me. “They’re here for you,” she whispered. “Don’t panic.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “If they deport me, that’s fine. We’re trying to leave anyway.”
Her eyes widened. “Deport you?” she said. “Is that what you think happens?”
Whenever I turned on the TV, it was game shows and singing contests. I never searched for the news. For the first time, I felt a tingle of fear and wished I’d paid more attention. “Isn’t that what happens everywhere?” I said.
“No! Oh, no, I thought you knew! They don’t just put you on a train! Look!” She grabbed a little red box off the desk. When we’d first settled in here, I’d squealed in delight at the sight of that box: it was the same news delivery service that we’d had growing up. I’d never seen it in any other country until now. She opened it, flipped through a few cards, and pulled one out. “Look,” she said again, showing it to me. ILLEGAL ALIENS STARVE TO DEATH IN DETAINMENT CENTER, read the headline. Below it was the number to call for the story.
I swallowed. Thinking about it, I’d heard of these things—immigrants handcuffed in the streets, their children gifted to childless families. I’d never really taken notice. “Why?” I asked. “Why not just deport people? Why bother detaining them?”
“Because being illegal is a crime,” Mila said. “I’m so sorry, I should have warned you! It was just so nice having you here…” She put her hands to her head. “Someone must have heard your accent, tipped them off, I don’t know! Go back out and stay calm. If they ask, tell them you’re my niece from the south and you’re staying with me for the summer. Tell them your mother will send your documents if they need them. Tell them you forgot to bring them with you.”
Shaking, I went back out and found the officers standing at the counter. Each one was holding an alabaster egg. “You have to buy the cup, too,” I said. “They’re a set.”
“What an interesting accent,” one of them said. “Where do you come from?”
“The south,” I said. “I’m working for my aunt over the summer.”
“Where are your documents?”
I winced sympathetically, in the same way that I did when we were out of the Queen of the Sea incense. That scent always sold out first. “I left them at home,” I said. “I know, it was stupid of me. I can have my mother send them if you want.”
“Good,” the first officer said. “Yes, why don’t you do that? Might as well have them, right? How much is the egg?”
“You have to buy the cup, too,” I repeated. “They’re a set.”
That night, a strange thing happened. A heavy tiredness came over me, a fatigue so complete that I had to leave off packing my backpack and collapse into bed. My eyelids were heavy but I couldn’t sleep. I stared at the blurry ceiling for an hour. I wondered if I was getting sick.
My husband came home late and immediately climbed on top of me. “Wait,” I told him, the words an effort. “We have to leave. Immigration’s onto us and apparently they detain people, I don’t know, apparently we could die. We can hitchhike or something but we need to go.”
He fell onto one elbow. “Who told you that? Did Mila tell you that?”
“Yes!” I forced myself to sit up. “And she showed me a news card!”
“She’s trying to get rid of us,” he said. “She wants us to go so that she doesn’t have to pay us for today.”
“What are you talking about?” I heard a noise outside and jumped out of my skin, convinced the officers had come back. “If you’re worried about money, why are you getting ice cream all day long? Why don’t you want to leave?”
“I like it here,” he said. “No one’s going to detain us. We’re not the kind of people who get detained.”
I knew what he meant. We had expensive backpacks and nice clothes. But for all the talk of illegal immigrants I’d heard today, I realized I’d never actually been able to identify one. There were rich-looking people and poor-looking people in the city, so maybe you could draw the line that way, but I’d thought I looked rich and they still came for me. You couldn’t tell me they went by accents alone. They’d have to trawl the whole city over and over again.
“Please,” I said. “We have to go.”
“Leave if you want,” he said, knowing I wouldn’t.
“You’re pregnant,” Mila said.
I was trudging around the shop, feeling lifeless. The only foods I could get down were potatoes and plain noodles. “No,” I said. “I’m sick.”
“Don’t drink any beer tonight,” Mila said. “No caffeine, either. No coffee.”
“I’m not pregnant.”
She folded her arms. “Caffeine and alcohol are bad for you when you’re sick, too.” I couldn’t argue with that. As if I could stomach caffeine and alcohol anyway.
I sat down and began to feel afraid. Afraid of the immigration officers, afraid of my husband tying me to this place. Afraid of leaving without him. Afraid of whatever illness I had.
Damn it! I’d wanted this trip to be pleasant and relaxing and safely adventurous. My husband and I had quit our jobs because we were afraid of hating them. We hadn’t traipsed all over the continent just to feel afraid again.
At first, the immigration officers didn’t come back, at least not while I was at the cash register. I felt an empty sort of relief. I started calling the numbers on the news cards and listening to the recorded stories. People were being shot dead at the border. I tried to remember our border crossing, whether there had been long lines or armed police, but the memory was pure haze. Maybe I’d fallen asleep on the train. I told myself that if they caught me I’d go willingly, husband or no, and tell them I’d been trying to leave. I told myself that but I couldn’t make myself believe it would work.
My husband and I settled unhappily into life by the sea. We walked along the boardwalk each day after I finished work. Food was expensive so we didn’t save up any real money. The city had an eternal summer: the sun sat lower in the sky each week, but the weather never cooled.
As much as I tried to ignore it, my stomach began to swell. My clothes became too tight. I finally had to work extra hours to buy a T-shirt from the shop. The first time I felt a movement in my belly that couldn’t possibly be me, I had to sit down because the room started spinning.
I cried. I could not grasp the enormity of what was going to happen.
Soon I was huge. My husband couldn’t see it, no matter much I insisted. I’d thought it took months and months for a baby to get so big, but I could swear it wasn’t even September yet. I was losing track of time as well as space.
Eventually the officers came back. “Still here?” said one. “Long summer, eh? You have any more sex on the beach?”
“Excuse me?” I said, appalled.
“The incense. You’re out.”
“Oh,” I said. “No, we don’t have any more. And the doctor told me not to travel.” I patted my belly. “I need to stay through the fall.”
“Where are your documents? You got your documents yet?”
I smiled. I was panicking.
“Is that an anchor baby?” the other said. “Are you trying to stay here?”
“I don’t need a baby to stay here. I live here.”
“Then where are your documents? Why can’t you show us your documents?”
“I’ve had my documents for weeks. I’ve been saving them for you.”
The first one spread his hands out, palms up, challenging me.
I smiled again, slipped into the back room, and ran out to the cottage, holding my belly. Mila was in the kitchen cooking some of the dark brown porridge they ate here, but I went straight to our bedroom and called for my husband. “We have to go,” I cried. “We have to go now! They’re here to take us!”
He wasn’t in the bedroom. For a second I couldn’t figure out why the room looked so strange—and then I realized that his backpack and all his souvenirs were gone.
Mila hurried in. “He’s been gone all day,” she said. “He said something about a new job.”
“What? The officers are back!”
She set her jaw, took a quick glance out the window. “Damn it,” she said. “I loved having you here.” She dug into her pocket and pulled out a couple of folded bills. “I don’t know why you let your husband spend all your money. Take the tram to the station at the second river, then take the train to the end of the line, and go north once you get off. Walk through the forest all night and you’ll reach the border. Don’t take your backpack, and don’t wear that shirt. Here—” She hurried out.
I spotted something on the dresser and frowned. It was the dagger. Why would he have left it?
Mila came back in with a blouse, and I took off the T-shirt. “What about my husband?” I said.
“He’s trash,” she said. “Garbage.”
You’re trash, I thought. You’re garbage.
I had a purse that I used when my husband and I had still gone out to restaurants, and I pulled it out of my backpack and ran to the tram stop. There I slipped onto a car before its doors could close. After the tram ride I boarded the train, falling into a seat as if I owned it.
The forest was green and dense and full of cicadas, not at all like the hot, salty coast. I had memories of playing in a forest like this one as a child, getting bug bites, poking deer poo, searching for fairies in the brush. I guessed which way must be north and began to hike. Soon the forest swallowed me.
In my purse I found the magnet and elephant for my mother and sister, and my incense, now stale. But how could that be? I’d never actually bought them.
A gift from Mila, I supposed.
I examined them, rubbing the paint on the elephant and squinting at the details on the cathedral. Then, abruptly, a memory surfaced: I’d bought my mother and sister gifts like this before. From a souvenir shop by the sea.
My breath left me and I had to sit on the forest floor. I’d bought them a magnet and an elephant exactly like these. How on earth could I have forgotten? It was right after my father went to live in the south. I’d bought these on the boardwalk and presented them on the beach.
But my mother and sister hadn’t liked them. “Why would I want a magnet of our own church?” my mother asked, chortling. My sister scowled at the elephant and said that she didn’t like elephants because they smelled bad. I knew she’d never smelled an elephant in her entire life.
When I finished high school, I went far away for college and never came back.
I stared at the souvenirs, my head spinning, and had the most disturbing thought. What if—oh, God—what if I wasn’t in another country at all? What if my mother and sister were only a few neighborhoods away, my father a quick drive up from the south? What if Mila’s store was the very one I’d visited as a child? What if, in all our spiraling travels, my husband and I had come home?
I looked down to check my T-shirt for the name of the city, to see if it was suddenly familiar. Then I remembered that I’d taken it off.
Could I go back? My stomach turned at the thought. I was an alien now, hunted. I knew that if they caught me, I would die.
That night I gave birth in the forest. It all happened within an hour, in the solid darkness after midnight. I felt my first contraction, a sick vice around my belly, and it felt like I’d barely taken five steps before I had to pull off my pants and let my insides pour out. I felt the baby’s head stretch me almost to tearing and some instinct made me reach down and catch her. She coughed and wailed. I collapsed, holding her against my chest, crying and laughing with a rush of love that was scary.
Through the trees behind me, I heard the voices of officers.
“Be quiet,” I whispered, and the baby quieted. I gathered up the placenta and ducked into some bushes and folded us into a tight little ball.
The officers crept around the wet spot, but they couldn’t see it in the dark or feel it through their boots. “I can smell her,” one of them said, and I gasped. It was my husband’s voice. Looking out, I could see him wearing a uniform. Now I knew why he’d left the dagger behind: he’d swapped it out for a tidy little gun.
I closed my eyes, stroked my baby’s sweet-smelling scalp. I’d expected her to smell bad from the amniotic fluid, but no, she smelled delicious. I held her tight and prayed and prayed that my husband wouldn’t find us.
He didn’t. In the end, they walked around for a bit, poked a bunch of bushes trying to scare me out, and then moved on, leaving me free to escape in another direction and loop around back north. Pathetically and predictably, I almost wished for him to find me. I knew that if I ran into him again and saw him face to face, part of me would mistake his ugly triumph for love.
I walked, exhausted. The ground began to slope upwards. I couldn’t see the top of the hill through the darkness and the trees, but my heart still pounded with secret knowledge of what I would find when I got there.
What would I do with the souvenirs? Now that I knew about them, they clinked and clinked in my purse.
My daughter smacked her tiny lips and it occurred to me that she was hungry. I put her to my breast and kept walking, wincing as she gummed me. Giving birth and hiding meant that I wouldn’t cross the border until after long after sunrise, but if I could keep away from the officers, then my daughter and I would be all right. We’d walk all over the world, loving each other, and when I couldn’t walk anymore I’d give her a push and send her off on her own.