“Nobody will stop a young blond girl, that’s the truth,” you said. This was when I grew angry with you, when I wanted to scrap our week-old friendship.
This was the rehearsed part of your speech, the only line from you that I thought came from somewhere other than your natural edge, your cool, that part of you that I saw in me—that small but strong propensity for risk, for chance, for the surf I was eager to meet. You held my baby while I practiced my paddle on the sand, and as your daughter taught my nephew, who was spending the summer with us, how to pop up on a board. You took me out to the water, told me to paddle harder, to wait, to go catch that wave.
I fell off the board many times, sometimes swallowing water or inhaling it, but you yelled, waist-deep in the water and holding my baby, “Get back on the board! Do it again!” I couldn’t quit because I knew you wouldn’t let me. I knew that you knew how to be hard on me, that you knew what a little push could make me do, how a little try could turn into a dare, a dare into an obsession, an obsession into an addiction. You knew this latent part of me, and you played it well.
It was sundown soon after my first successful try at getting my feet on the board and it was time for each of us to head home and make dinner, to do the dishes and laundry, to be mom again, to think of the waves as we fell asleep. I closed my eyes thinking of what a good day it was, how accomplished I felt, how I much I liked you.
I emailed you the next morning, asked if you would like to come over for tea, and you responded within an hour. When my phone buzzed, I sprang onto the couch to reach for my phone. I had never been this excited for a playdate or a mom-date because I had never met a white or Southern mom that I identified with as much as I did with you.
You came the following week, and between the email and your knock on the door, I thought of all that I wanted to tell you, how I would get you to tell me your truth. Did our proclivity for dangerous sports (before surfing, I snowboarded, repelled, open-water jet-skied, snorkeled with orcas, bungee-jumped, and played soccer so fiercely, I once headed a ball so hard that I almost went blind in my right eye) not mean that we each had a past?
You sat down in front of the cup of tea I had made for you, never drank it, and instead sipped the protein smoothie you had brought with you. “I’m trying to be healthy,” you said. “Healthier. Tryin’ to take care of my body after years of neglecting it.”
I watched you let the tea cool, your fingers teetering on the edge of the table then twirling and fidgeting with a tuft of your sun-bleached hair. You weren’t like this at all in the water. I started to think that this was wrong—maybe I didn’t really want to be your friend. I tried to think of something to say to ease us both, but you finally said, “Just ask what you want to ask.”
I had interviewed many people before you, in journalism school and for my first newspaper job in Georgia. But here I was, taking a moment before asking, “Who were you before you were a surf instructor?”
You smiled at me then looked away, out the window, your blue eyes shimmering in the light like the ocean. You opened your mouth but paused. I thought that you were trying to decide whether to give me the truth or your rehearsed lines, so I said, “I’ll tell you mine after.”
You smiled again, but kept your eyes off of me, and didn’t look at me until you finished your story. You began, “I was a drug delivery girl. I transported coke from the city to the beach, and back, and sometimes to anywhere between here and New York.” During our surf lesson, I had told you that I moved from New York, so I knew you were telling me this last detail to circle it back to me—to make sure I’d tell you my story.
“Was it always cocaine?” I said.
“Coke, Ecstasy, Xanax . . . whatever they pressed in their home labs, whatever they put in my beach bag, whatever I could hide in my bikini bottoms or boardshorts.”
“How’d you get into it?”
You told me that you were just a local surfer girl, a Betty, a cute blonde who didn’t want to go to college. You wanted to surf instead, to be like those locals who lived simply, had enough money for rent, food, and board wax; who waited tables at night and woke up to shred the gnar. It was going well until the beach and the city grew in popularity and the price of everything went up. You had tried coke just for the heck of it, because all the kids were doing it, but when an ex-boyfriend asked if you wanted to make money, you said yes. He hooked you up with a friend and the friend’s boss, and the next time you mounted your board onto the jeep, you were loading a backpack of goods, too. They also gave you some to keep, to sniff. You drove into historic downtown and up and down the coast high, euphoric, but most importantly, immune to getting caught.
“It was a gig, a job, then a lifestyle.”
Not once were you stopped or pulled over, you said. Not once did anyone suspect that you had something other than sunscreen in your waterproof sack. “Nobody will stop a young blond girl, that’s the truth,” you said. This was when I grew angry with you, when I wanted to scrap our week-old friendship.
“You’re right,” I said. “I’ve never transported drugs, never even done drugs, but I’ve been stopped and ID’d at all sorts of places.”
You finally looked away from the window and looked at me. “Your turn,” you said.
“I was undocumented for eight years.” Now I was the one looking away. “If you wanna know what that’s like, just think the opposite of your story. I had to live as quietly as possible, be low-key at all times, even though I’d never committed a crime. I’ve never even shoplifted or vandalized, not even as a teen. I couldn’t travel by plane or Amtrak, couldn’t even order a margarita without making up a whole lie about forgetting my ID at home. If there was a checkpoint at a subway stop, I’d walk home. I was in perpetual hiding.”
I told you of other instances when my identity was in question, when if I said the wrong thing or looked at the guard or the cop the wrong way, I could attract the wrong kind of attention, get ID’d and interrogated, get sent to a detention center, or get deported. In college, when I applied for paid internships, despite my grades and writing knowledge, I got turned down semester after semester because I couldn’t fill out a W-9. I accepted, instead, unpaid research or marketing positions or internships that didn’t fulfill university credits.
When my then-boyfriend, now-husband proposed to me, and we had to acquire a marriage license from New York City Hall, the clerk whispered to the other clerk, showed her my forms, and said, “Just a minute.” When they returned, they returned with a cop and the office director, asked my fiancé to wait outside and to hold my phone and purse, took me to a back room behind the copiers, and interrogated me. They asked me how I entered the country from the Philippines, and I said through adoption.
I said that my adoptive parent was a widow. You don’t need a man to give a minor a chance at life.
They asked me why I was adopted at sixteen, when I was old enough to drive, and I said that I’d been asking the same thing all my life—why did no one rescue me sooner? They asked me how I became undocumented after being adopted, and I said that their laws said I was too old to receive naturalization benefits, and that it took too long for our lawyer and the judge to file and stamp the hundreds of pages of required documents. They asked me why I didn’t have an entry for “Father of the Bride” in the marriage license application, and I said that my adoptive parent was a widow. You don’t need a man to give a minor a chance at life.
Finally, and I knew it was coming, they asked, “Young lady, how can we be sure that you’re not marrying this man as a mail-order bride?”
“Oh, we’re doing stereotypes now? I see!” I got up from the chair.
“Sit back down, young lady.” I didn’t sit back down and they didn’t let me out, not until I proved that I wasn’t purchased into the country. When I said that my fiancé was a graduate student with no money to buy a wife, that I had plans of attending grad school myself, the clerk finally took my application fee and stamped my form.
“Congrats,” the clerk said without a smile as she handed over the marriage license.
Half a year after the interrogation in Manhattan, I found myself defending my identity again—this time in Atlanta. I needed antibiotics for a UTI and the most convenient place to get the prescription was the CVS MinuteClinic. The nurse practitioner on shift that day was a low-voiced woman who only looked up from her clipboard when you didn’t answer quickly enough. After asking for my symptoms, and if I made the habit of peeing after sex, she asked, “That guy outside, is he really your husband?”
I showed her my ring.
“That don’t mean a thing, hon.”
“We’ve been married a few months. He was my boyfriend of four years.”
“You sure he didn’t pick you out of many at the airport?” She was referring to Atlanta’s reputation as one of the busiest ports for sex trafficking and mail-order brides. I told her again that all I needed was an antibiotic, thanked her for looking out for me, and reached out my hand for the pills. She handed me the bottle and said, “You girls just always conning people or people are conning you, is all.”
One Christmas, a cashier wouldn’t sell me Earl Grey tea and a bag of pretzels because I did not look like the name on my credit card. “You don’t look like a Barnes to me. This ain’t yours.” I asked her if she was looking for a Romero or a Gomez or a Lee, and all she said was, “We experience a lot of theft during the holidays, miss.”
I told you these stories, K.L., and I waited for you to say something, maybe apologize for how easy you could get away with crime. But you said nothing. Instead, you got up and walked to the sink to empty your smoothie tumbler and rinse it, and you walked over to the freezer for ice like you’d walked to it many times, like you’d been in that kitchen to cook or eat or laugh or cry, like you owned the one place that was mine. I was furious at you now, or I was furious at the idea of you, of who you represented: white women everywhere who could, like you taught me how to slip on and off the board, fluidly slip in and out of spaces, toy with danger, give danger a name, call it a gig, a job, a lifestyle.
“You didn’t drink your tea,” I said.
You just shrugged, because you had that power, that privilege, too. In my culture, in Filipino culture, you don’t turn down your host. You eat and drink what they serve you, you don’t stop consuming until they stop bringing you things.
I started hoping for the baby to wake up from her nap so I could retrieve her from the crib and make it seem like it was time for you to leave. But the baby stayed asleep. Must be the clouds, I thought. A storm was rolling in, which meant the baby was falling into a deeper sleep, which also meant you’d avoid driving in the downpour and stay. I had to think of something that could make our time together bearable, but I didn’t have to. You sat back down at the table with me, poured the now-room-temperature tea into your tumbler of ice, and took a sip.
“I’m not much of a hot tea kinda girl,” you said and took a sip again. “Baby’s sleeping well, that’s good. It’s good to get a break.”
“Yeah,” I said, “motherhood’s exhausting.”
“It is, but having a daughter made me leave all that shit,” you said, and this was when I started trusting you again, because what I hadn’t told you was that before I was adopted and became undocumented, I was living in an abusive home. When I got out, I dealt with my previous trauma by self-injuring with needles and blades, and by starving myself. I also slept around, even dated one of my professors. Nothing criminal, nothing that would hurt anybody else—just myself. That all ended when I found out I was pregnant. Like you, I let all that shit go when I became aware of a human growing inside me, swimming in my uterus, paddling in to join me in the come-and-go, to rescue me from drowning.
I looked up and you were in tears. You were crying into the tea. I reached for your hand to rub it and to tell you I was okay now, that was all over. And you said, “I’m not crying because of that. I’m crying because I thought you didn’t like me. I don’t have a lot of mom friends, I don’t fit in that world.”
“Neither do I.”
We hugged and you went home and we didn’t see each other again except for a chance encounter at the beach. You had told me what it was like to be you, and I had told you what it was like to be me. We couldn’t have traded places even if we wanted to. We were born into the skin we were in, destined for each of our circumstances. I can only guess that there was guilt on your part, an undertow of disdain on mine.
But still, I think of you, and I think of how I like you just fine, K. L. I even want to be you, live through you. I want you to keep surfing, to live dangerously, to be cool. I would like you even if you committed crime again, if you dared to go back to living so close to the edge. Why would it matter? You’d get away with it. Not me. I’m Brown, an immigrant. I’m forever clean. But you’d get away with danger. For both of us. For those parts of you and me that are just underneath, that are brewing, coming to a swell, like rip current backwashing from the shore, pulling to the deep.
Cinelle is a formerly undocumented memoirist, essayist & educator from the Philippines, and is the author of MONSOON MANSION: A MEMOIR and MALAYA: ESSAYS ON FREEDOM, and the editor of the New York Times New & Noteworthy book A MEASURE OF BELONGING: 21 WRITERS OF COLOR ON THE NEW AMERICAN SOUTH. She has an MFA from Converse College. Her writing has appeared or been featured in the NYT, Longreads, Electric Literature, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, Hyphen & CNN Philippines, among others. Her work is anthologized in A MAP IS ONLY ONE STORY. She’s a contributing editor, instructor & writer at Catapult.