Something in your soul sung Jamaica. But this is not palm trees, sun, and sweet breeze. When you had to choose between being locked up here or in a reform school in Utah with all the Mormons, you were hoping for a tan, at least, but this is insane. You cannot breathe.
“I can’t fucking breathe,” you say out loud.
In the tiniest space in a mothball corner of your imagination you know pissing your pants, passing out in the gutter, washing your clothes on panhandled change at the laundromat isn’t the end all be all. You don’t know that you will teach aerobic lessons to groups of girls in blue shorts and white button-up shirts you will all wash by hand in the sweltering tropical heat, that it will not rain but once in the ten months you are abroad, that you will eat dumplings and cornmeal pudding, listen to the clicking sounds from the throat of a portly Jamaican woman called “Mama” as she stands over you eating chicken bones from your soup. You do not expect chicken bones, or ox-tail, or fake orange cheese on raisin bun, or white bread for days.
You don’t know some days the powdered milk will be sweet. Ice cold. That it will come out of the kitchen in giant red coolers. That when it is you will non-verbally communicate without non-verbally communicating to the other girls by smiling big and staring into space as you taste it, because you won’t be allowed to non-verbally communicate, you’ll get a consequence. Too many consequences and you’ll end up in worksheets.
When you got on the plane in San Francisco, you believed your estranged parents that you’d be back in three months. You told your boyfriend on the phone you would escape, hitchhike to Portland, avoiding San Francisco. “At least I get to visit a foreign country,” you told him. In your journal, you wrote, “I’m sure Jamaica will be beautiful, but I don’t like these circumstances.”
When you looked at the ticket, the return date was next year in February. You planned to flee in Miami. When you finally got outside through the ‘50s-gold-veined airport the people outside were too tan. Their skin was wrinkled. They were wearing white. You bummed a slim menthol from an old guy, considered begging for a ride. You put the cigarette to your lips, inhaled until that first-second window was gone. After two cigarettes, you slowly turned around to face the up escalator. You got on it, standing in place, riding slowly to the waiting area to board your flight.
A fat security person stopped you, your maroon beanie hiding fried bleached-blonde hair. It must have been 100 degrees that April.
“Where did you go?” she demanded. “Your parents were in a panic,” she said. Breathing fast, her face knotted like play-doh. You looked at this overweight woman in her silly blue uniform, said, ”I went outside to get some air.”
“You were planning to run,” she said. You sigh. They called it AWOL risk at the mental hospital for children. If you weren’t so tired you would laugh. How the hell would I even, you thought It’s too hot out there. You let the security guard hired by your parents to assist with the kidnapping and transfer to a third-world country outside of U.S. jurisdiction take all the credit for getting you on the plane. Whatever. Never mind you bought a card for your boyfriend at the gift shop. One you were planning on sending once you got to the school.
When you got off the tiny plane you inhaled and almost choked on air. Humid didn’t encapsulate that feeling in your chest, like smoke from a fire. “I can’t breathe,” you said. You were actually scared.
Three months, said the psychiatrist. Three months, said your Mom, to get you on the plane. And now you are reading a letter from her in a cinder block building in the middle of nowhere. You will be there for two years, it says. She typed it on the computer, it lists the reasons. Her argument, she feels, is water tight. What is keeping you is the ocean on one side of the fence, green mountains for hours on the other.
On the plane, you wrote, “We are flying over a vastly endless crystal ocean. It is radiant and sparkling and stretches in all directions forever.”
You wrote, “I will soon be in Jamaica, finding out something. And I need to realize my expeditions of freedom share the same importance as the times of imprisonment, and in each part of life there is a knowledge to be acquired.”
You want to scream holding your mother’s letter, but that scream cannot cross the abyss between you and America. When you arrived, Jamaican staff clicked their tongues and stared at you. Quarter-sized bugs, spotted green, brown, flourescent yellow were everywhere. Some flying. Some crawling. All competing for the bulbs lining the narrow halls, the teeny rooms crammed with two bunker beds each.
You rode for hours in the van down one lane roads chu-chunking over potholes, cars flying toward you, body bracing, driver laughing. You were sweating, lying down in the back seat, when the driver asked you if you wanted McDonald’s. Feeling fat, you said no. Last chance, said your escort, a paste-faced man with blushing cheeks and blue eyes. You were wearing the tan cargo pants your grandma bought you, the maroon embroidered silk shirt. You didn’t know you would not have a fast food option again for ten months.
When you arrived at the airport in Jamaica the embassy took you to a side room to ask too many questions. You’re visiting, for school, you said, yes your escort is on his way, you said. They finally let you go. Slouching over, you waited on concrete steps for your escort, bummed a cigarette.