I won’t pretend I knew from girlhood that I was going to marry a man with an accent, but I will admit when I would hear about some daughter of a friend of a friend of my mother’s who had married someone from Scotland or Italy, I’d have a coal of envy inside of me that would ignite. When other young women were thinking about partners who would be good providers or who would support their careers or who would change the world, I was thinking more along the lines of: is he smart, can he make me laugh, and does his voice make my knees weak. I hit the jackpot with Z in all those departments.
His students who don’t know he is from Zimbabwe can never guess properly. They know it isn’t exactly an English accent, but they guess a variety of possible nationalities for him, some of which make sense (Australian) and others that make us scratch our heads (Belgian). Back when we were just friends, he knew I liked his accent, so if he was leaving for Christmas break or summer break, he would leave a message on my work voice mail. My favorite was, “I just called to say ‘banana.’” I’d save it for weeks. Play it for my friends. Sigh over it until he got back, and then hit delete.
Now, it is just Z’s voice. Friends will mention his accent and I think, “Oh, yeah. I do like that.” I barely even think of it unless he is razzing me about how my Midwestern pronunciations of “pin” and “pen” are identical. Then I have to remind him that he can’t say my Aunt Barb’s name without sounding like a pirate. (He tries and tries to stuff that “r” into her name, but inevitably it sounds like either “Aunt Bob” or “Aunt B’arrrrrrrb.” Kind of how Hagrid in Harry Potter speaks.)
But the minute we land in America, I realize that for three weeks I’ve been listening to softer versions of my native tongue from his whole family and set of friends. It’s jarring to hear Americans barking things at me over loudspeakers and shouting into their phones like they are walky-talkies. (Why do people DO that? Hold it to your ear—YOUR EAR—people We don’t need to hear the whole conversation.) My paisanos suddenly sound so loud, so harsh.
What’s worse, as we stand in the very slow immigration line for folks without a U.S. passport, like Z, I realize that accent of his has a price and it costs a lot of my own itchy, itchy time. This line is going nowhere fast. If anyone is watching me on a closed-circuit camera, they probably think I’m smuggling something illegal in my capri pants because I’m hopping from foot to foot, trying to secretly scratch my bites and it is impossible for me to stand still. Plus, I’m pretty sure if anyone really got a load of the nickle-sized red welts on my legs they’d assume I was bringing some plaguey kind of horribleness into the U.S. and put me in quarantine immediately.
The Americans get to go ahead of all the rest of us, and I want to cry out, “But I AM an American. I’m just standing here in this slow line because Z has an unfortunate passport and I’m being supportive!!” All I can think about is the bucket of ice water I’m going to plunge these mosquito bites into when I get to our apartment. Z tries to distract me with fantasies about the day when we actually bother to get him a the green card so the two of us can hold hands and skip through the express “Welcome Home to America” line, but it doesn’t help. Instead, I look at the grumbly Americans who have nothing to complain about zipping through the line I should rightfully be in. I can’t help it; for a minute, I hate them. What have they got to grumble about?!
Z’s scholarly specialty is intercultural communication, so he’s generally aware of the things people are saying directly and indirectly before mere mortals like me have even noticed that communication is happening. Over the years, we’ve discussed at length his particular intercultural focus, the re-entry process for people who move back from their host culture to home and the phases they go through as they re-adjust to their old lives. But while we stand in the insufferable immigrant line, I can feel the dreaded fingers of re-entry grabbing me by the throat and it is no abstraction. By the time we get to the immigration official, I’m starting to feel really annoyed with us for not applying for that card the day after we got married in 2009. In our defense, we were busy and also, I didn’t want to give anyone in my family who had any doubt about Z’s love for me the satisfaction of thinking he was only in it for better immigration status.
The immigration official looks at Z’s passport and at mine and then back at Z’s. Our last names are different, so we assure him that we are married, and what I want to hear him say is “Welcome home.” One of the delights of traveling abroad is that moment at passport control when one of your fellow citizens looks at you, acknowledges you as one of his or her own, and says, “Welcome home.” I’m not the world’s most patriotic person, but it’s one of those moments like casting a ballot in a general election that makes my chest puff up and tears threaten to drip from the corners of my eyes.
Instead, this official looks at Z , looks back down at his Zimbabwean passport—which needs a visa jammed into it so he can go basically anywhere on the planet that isn’t Zimbabwe—and with a thick, Eastern European accent the guy says, “If you are married, you really should apply for a green card. It’s so much better.”
Things I’m glad to have in America as we navigate the airport include lines that basically work in a linear fashion and are as efficient as they can be, running water in the restrooms, lights. Also, my cell phone works again and I can call my mother and tell her I have not been eaten by a crocodile, which she appreciates. It is four o’clock and no mosquitos are coming out here and when I go to bed I won’t need a mozzie net. Tonight, when we settle down in front of the TV as we try to regain some brain function, we’ll have more channels than French news in English to choose from. These are all good things.
Yet, as we pass a tiny fluffy dog in a quilted jacket and then later, an old man hollering into his cell phone while holding a giant walking stick with an eagle carved onto the top of it, I find myself missing Zimbabwe. I can’t even name what I’m missing, except the Americans around me seem ridiculous. For three weeks I’ve been missing people like me and now I’m amongst my own kind, and they seem so big and loud and self-important and unaware that they are blocking walkways or being rude. This is re-entry. It really isn’t them; it’s me. Re-entering your home culture is like putting your jeans on in the fall after you haven’t worn them all summer, and they constrict you in ways they didn’t before and the legs seem suddenly wider and more untrendy than you remember. For a moment, you suspect they aren’t even your jeans.
And that’s how I feel, as we stand on the escalators, re-emerging into our American lives. I’d feel better, I think briefly, if one of these smiling faces here belonged to my family. Our existence out here on the edge of North America feels tenuous at a time like this. Who here would know if we never got off the plane and returned to our lives? No one. A few friends who would be hard pressed to contact our families if we both die of my mosquito bites. I have this urge to glare at people who are being welcomed by large families in particular.
Our friend Hudge, who is retired from the Army, comes and gets us, though while we wait for her, we get a little ratty with each other. We have been having fun and then suddenly nothing feels like fun. I’m annoyed with my highly sensitive body that can’t handle insect bites like a normal person, and Z has to be tired of my whining and snappishness. I’ve got my giant, swollen, bite-addled feet propped on the little strip of air conditioning that comes out of the floor. My leaking plastic bags of ice have dribbled a trail of water across the baggage claim area, and I don’t care. I move my legs from place to place, trying to find optimal ice cold air since my real ice has melted. My swollen ankles make me feel 15 years older than I am.
I am the lady with ankles that hang over her shoes now. Swell.
Mostly we sit in silence and wait and wish we’d just taken a cab home because we’d be half way to our building by now. I think things like, “I will never go anywhere without snow again.” I’m mad at myself for not having taken a fresh bottle of DEET with us to Zimbabwe because obviously being frugal and using three-year old DEET was ineffective. Z does not look as miserable as I feel, and momentarily I feel annoyed at him for having less delicious blood than I do. He could be sharing this burden if only the insects of his homeland had found him as tasty as me. At some point, I turn into Woody Allen and start obsessing about whether I’ll need to see a doctor and what this physical over-reaction to bites must mean about my immune system and how if I scratch them and one gets infected from something on this filthy airport air conditioning strip, I’ll probably lose my feet, and then how will I get to the grocery since we don’t have a car in Seattle. Will my insurance pay for one of those electric scooters, and what kind of brakes do those scooters have? The hills in Seattle are so steep. It goes on and on these voices in my head. I look at Z and he’s just sitting there, stoically. If I were him, I’d probably go sit at a whole other table away from my miserable self. Forget the green card. The man deserves instant citizenship for putting up with me when I am tired and itchy.
Hudge pulls up and we toss our suitcases into the back of her SUV. She hands us plastic containers with hot food she’s just cooked for us because she knew we’d be hungry when we got off the plane, with the added bonus of chocolate covered macadamia nuts that she got on a recent trip to Hawaii. Briefly, I wonder where the gift we got her is and immediately realize I’m too tired to try to find it. She’ll get it later.
I sit up front and the heat from the engine blows directly onto my feet and makes them feel as if there are a million tiny insects inside ankles and legs, all carrying micro-knives that they are using to liberate themselves from my skin. We are almost instantly in a traffic jam, and I’m picturing how the pothole filled roads of Zimbabwe were never this crowded. Why aren’t all of these people walking instead of driving, thus freeing up more road space for hard luck cases like me?
The entire drive is a pityfest.
Hudge is talking animatedly about everything she’s done since we’ve been gone. We’ve been to Zimbabwe but she’s out adventured us by weathering two weeks of vacation with her parents, a trip to Hawaii, and doing a stint at Burning Man. She’s well-rested and upbeat and ready to talk, and I feel like a caveman right after a bison hunt. I want to be a good friend and concentrate on the details of her trips, I want to be able to tell her the details of mine, but instead, all I can eek out is “It was good. We saw over 40 elephants,” because it takes that much energy not to scream about the itching and about the stupid Seattle traffic that stands between me and my feet’s date with ice cold destiny. When Hudge misses the exit to our house, I think I’m going to burst into tears. We will never get home. These bites will never stop itching. I am a bad friend. A bad wife. A big whiner.
Finally, we pull up to our building, unload our goods, wave goodbye to her and say what I hope sounds like a sincere thanks because I do sincerely mean it, I just can’t sound sincere because I might be dying of terminal mosquito bite. We knock our bags into half the walls of the hallway and I swear, like I always do, that next time I travel I will pack light. How stupid are Americans, thinking they need so much luggage? And also, why is Seattle warmer than Harare was? Is this city trying screw with me?
Z unlocks our apartment door and I strip off my clothes before he has it shut and locked. If we had neighbors at our end of the hall, they would have seen me starkers and I wouldn’t have cared. He looks at me like I’ve gone off my tree, but I know if I don’t get instantly into a cold shower and calm the crazy that is crawling up my feet, ankles and calves towards my brain, I will die. I’ve been through this before. It’s just exhaustion and moving my brain and body across time zones and cultures in a 24 hour span, and the pills I’ve taken to make the itching tolerable, and the intolerable itching. At this exact juncture I don’t like the city, I don’t like this tiny shower with the curtain that grabs me instead of Z-mas lovely big curtainless shower room, I don’t like our aloneness, or that we’ve missed tea with Skampy. I cry a little while the last traces of Zimbabwe wash off of me and swirl down our hundred year old Seattle drain.
When I emerge, slightly more sane, Z has three fans pointed at the sofa and a pan of water on the floor filled with ice cubes. He smiles at me like he loves me and I wonder if he’s suffering short-term memory loss. But this is how he is: he has patience and an accent and he’s taken me to one home and brought me back to another.
I might be itchy, but I know I’m lucky. So lucky.