By Ardain Isma
I spoke to her last night, trying one more time to erase the inconceivable thought that had been bewitching her mind. Still, she remained un-budged, unnerved, undeterred from my plea, my cry of desperation. Her mind simply fixated on a hopeless dream that everyone knew was impossible to realize. She wanted to get away, taking the giant leap to the unknown; and I was scared to death.
My name is Ronel, and her name is Mariette, but I lovingly call her Mama. We’ve been friends since childhood. We’re now in our mid-twenties. I’ve always liked her, and sometimes I even think of myself as being more than just a friend. I see in her existence, a gift from God—my other half that I can’t possibly do without. As for her, I’m not sure if our friendship means as much as it does to me.
I can safely say, however, that she always listens to my litany of advice, and no matter how heated our bickering—sometimes—could be, we would not go our separate ways without doing what good friends usually do: reconciling their differences to save the bottom line. Well, circumstances of life forced us one day to split apart. I moved to the United States to join my parents, and she flew to the Bahamas to also join her parents and siblings, who had been living there for many years.
As children everywhere facing similar circumstances, we’ve lost track of each other. After nearly ten years, what remained was some vague memories of a time long gone. Last year, I was in the lobby of my university library and, all of a sudden, a girl walked by, dressed in a tight blue jean, wearing a pair of leather boots and a brown overcoat. A pair of Chanel glasses adorned her flawless, nut-brown, oval face. My heart jumped to uncontrolled pulsations. My legs buckled, as I trembled out of emotions. “Mariette,” I called to her. She did not reciprocate. In the middle of the commotion, I thought she may have simply ignored the call. So, I chased her all the way to the Performing Arts Center where she was heading, walking in gigantic steps. When she reached the building’s front porch, she turned around, facing me. “Mama,” I screamed, almost out of breath.
“I’m not Mama, I’m Erica,” she muttered timidly while continuing her march towards the double doors. That episode had triggered an unforeseen awakening of childhood reveries. With the help of a best friend, I went on social media and, miraculously, I found her. In a dazzling moment, we were reconnected. I flew to the Bahamas to meet her.
She lived on an island near Bimini. I had to take a chartered plane to get there. As the plane landed, she was right there dressed in a pink madras, far different than the girl I met in the library. Her hair was combed in 3 pigtails designed purposely so that I could spot her innocent face as soon as I got off the plane. The second I was out of the plane, I could spot her silhouette waiting under the weight of a piercing sunray. We ran towards each other and started licking each other’s face like an old couple after a long absence. She was accompanied by few family members who became stupefied, witnessing such an event.
We spent the entire day, trying to catch up with the decade spent without seeing each other. In The Bahamas, she graduated from high school, but couldn’t go any further. Her status and that of her siblings were extremely precarious. Despite the fact they were well-versed in English, and could easily blend into the Bahamian population, there were times—she told me—they all had to sleep in the bushes, under the starry skies of a hostile environment, desperately trying to live another day in freedom.
I listened to those tales with great stoicism. I could see she was a different person—no longer the jovial character I knew when we were in Haiti. Living on the edge has completely changed her, morphing her into someone overwhelmed by gloom. One thing dominated her mind: getting away from what she called “the big prison,” by any means necessary. I told her that I shared her desire, but I disapproved of her risking her life to get away. I noticed she had an acute understanding of modern communication, and I admired that greatly. Her mother, who could not bear the pain of seeing her daughter living in hopelessness, was ready to make the sacrifice to send her off to faraway lands where she could find opportunities to grow and live a productive life.
Before I left, I promised to be back to help in the effort. She agreed. So, I thought. On New Year’s Day, we had a lengthy conversation about what we would like to accomplish in five years. I was in love. The next morning, I called her to tell her that I had purchased tickets to fly back to her Bahamian island to be with her. But I could not find her on the other end. The phone rang and rang and rang until her voicemail picked up, and I left several messages. She never replied. Luckily, I managed to reach one of her siblings who told me she went off overnight with a group of people, trying to reach the United States on a rickety boat. I was devastated. I knew trouble was afoot. Three days later, the dreaded call arrived. Her younger sister told me she and the rest of the group were apprehended off the coast of the Bahamas. They were all taken to a detention center in Nassau, where I managed to contact her.
Her voice was melodious, but her speech sent a message of a disengaging aloofness which ushered a feeling of mixed emotions. She never showed any remorse as we talked. Nor did she apologize for lying to me. I wasn’t sure if she understood the depth of my pain. Maybe she did, and she simply didn’t want to show signs of desperations, for now she was in the custody of Bahamian authorities. I was upset, but I wouldn’t dare show it. Who was I anyway to lay the blame on her? Her quest to get away was justified because no one with a sense of dignity would want to live in dehumanizing conditions.
In the push to be free, as she herself put it, she could not rationalize anything. She did not have the courage to say “no” when the boogeyman showed up at her front door New Year’s night to tell her mom that he was ready to take her daughter to Florida. At that moment, she recounted, the images of high rises, the vast open parking lots of university campuses, the nursing program she had always wanted to be enrolled in, all suddenly came as a river in fury, invading her troubled mind. She went into her room and packed her bag, and, in the heat of the night, she was herded down a pebbly walkway in the middle of thorny cacti. She walked through the night without a pause and, all along the way, others joined them as they kept on walking. Her feet got swollen and numbed. By three in the morning, they entered the bed of a thick pine forest. They were told to halt their march, for the shallow bay was within reach. So, they waited. Two days went by, and they were still there. On the third day at dusk, they were told to move about a hundred yards from the wave-beaten shoreline. A lifeboat soon came ashore, and the sea captain ordered all young men and women to get on board first. She managed to be in the first wave. The lifeboat took them to a vessel waiting in the distance.
Within about an hour, they were all boarded the vessel. Off to Miami they sailed. The man who came to pick her up from her mother’s house was nowhere to be found. Still, it didn’t matter to her. Miami was the prime destination, and she wanted to get there dead or alive. The following day at dawn, her dream unexpectedly unraveled. They didn’t make very far. Few miles off the coast, Bahamian coast guards stopped them.
She told me her story with an odd sense of resignation and a surreal form of careless attitude. I said nothing. My mouth puckered. Her story exacerbated my melancholy. Her heart was too broken to be patched with tenderness; and it is hard to imagine that a woman with a broken heart could be an honest partner in the trade of love and affection. Was I too naïve? I don’t know; I’m confused. Despite all this, I still love her, beyond belief. I want to take her place and set her free and also set me free from this seemingly endless pain that has been eating away my nights.
My mom warned me of the risk involved when a long-distance relationship reaches an impasse. Chasing a woman in a faraway land is like going to the grocery store to buy watermelon, my mother once told me. You never know what you get until it’s too late. My mom may be right, but I don’t think it’s too late. As she’s trapped in a Bahamian Detention Center, I’m weaving in a fog, thicker than the highest peak shrouded in mist. Love hurts!
Note: This piece is based on a true story. The young people involved have trusted Dr. Ardain Isma to write this story. Fictitious names are used to protect their identities. Dr. Ardain Isma is a novelist, a scholar and a college professor. He teaches Cross-Cultural Studies at UNF (University of North Florida). To order a copy of his latest novel Midnight at Noon, click here: Midnight at Noon. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org