©Luke McGuff, 2010

“Daddy? … Daddy, I can’t sleep.”

“Hmm? It’s ok, just put your head down on the pillow with me.” The father reaches around the tiny torso and pulls him a little closer.

Silence. For a while. And then, “Daddy, I still can’t sleep.” Tinge of concern in his voice?

“Don’t worry, Juanito”, He whispers, anxious not to waken the others, “Close your eyes softy and soon the night will be over.”

The father notices his son’s feet, squirmy under the cool sheet, twitching up against his shin, sure indication that no amount of soothing, whispery talk would put him back to sleep. He hears the breathing accelerate ever so slightly.

“Daddy, why can’t I sleep, it’s nighttime?”

Night, indeed, but out of sync. How do you explain to a young child that the big jet plane had changed their intuitive feelings for night and day? It is daytime in the little red house in California, but it is a few hours past midnight here in Spain.

“Daddy, can I color?”

In the dark confines of the tiny cot he wonders how coloring had come to his son’s mind. What to say? Confused by jet lag mixed with anxiety, the father lies quiet, immobilized, and distant even as he feels the boy’s chest expand and contract against his forearm.

“Daddy, can I color?”

Always patient but insistent with his requests, he is the little lawyer back home. How could he possibly imagine coloring something in the darkness? The slivers of light sneaking through the small, barred window are tempting his little son to consider ways to entertain himself.

The father reaches under the cot and carefully pulls out his mini coloring book and four fluorescent highlight markers that had come with it.

“You can color, ok? But be quiet, the other guys are sleeping, ok?”

The boy slips out from under the sheets and sits carefully on the cool tile floor, lays out the pens in the shadows and holds his little coloring book up the slivers of light to find the page he wants to color. The father admires the five-year-old mind at work; occupying itself and making things feel safe and familiar. He closes his eyes, not to sleep (impossible to sleep) but to plan, to figure out a way to convince the guards to let them out.

“Daddy?”

“Hmm?”

“Daddy, I can’t see what I’m coloring.” He taps the book against the man’s face as if to prove that he isn’t making things up.

“I don’t know what to do for you, Juanito”, he replies, perhaps responding to the bigger question in his mind rather than the more immediate coloring concern.

Silence. The father gently touches his son’s shoulder to pull him towards him.  “It’s night, Juan. Let’s try to rest here and wait to color in the morning.”

“There’s a light in the bathroom, Daddy, can I color there?”

Juan always has solutions. Even when not perfect, he makes square pegs fit into round holes. Now it is he gently, then not so gently, pulling his father’s arm out from under the sheet. “Come with me, Daddy, please.” At first resisting, as he often did with the many requests, then allowing himself to be swayed, either out of logic or pity or even guilt, the drags his bare feet over the hard edge of the cot, onto the smooth tile floor and stands up. The dim light from the window meets the faint glow from the bathroom at the other side of the detention hall about midway. The father could see the other three guys, all from Paraguay, each with their own reason why, according to them, they are being unfairly detained. They sleep silently.

The father holds his son’s hand and crosses the shadowy common room, towards the florescent lights of the bathroom. The doors to the other sleeping quarters are shut. “Just like a very cheap hotel,” he thought to himself. “Not a jail”.

They sit down at entrance of the bathroom. Juan pulls open his coloring book of fanciful figures. He looks up to his father, his almond eyes wide open and inquisitive. “Which one should I color, Daddy?” He shows him a cat with a top hat and spectacles on one page. On a facing one, a picture of a plump clown on his tiny bicycle. The father knows then what he has always known about his son: if he asks for your opinion, you had better have one.  He will not stop until you do.

“I don’t know, Juanito,” trying to sound thoughtful. “I like both of them. Maybe the cat, but why the glasses?” He squints down at the cat, absorbed by the implications of the question.

He pauses a bit then says “I don’t know, but I’m going to color them blue.” He grasps the marker in his right hand.  The father watches, fascinated and envious. He wishes that a coloring book could distract me as well.

Life comes fast and furious at times. Things change so quickly, like the paper under the marker.

It had been an auspicious beginning for their trip not even 24 hours earlier. At the airport they found that Iberia Airlines was over booked and offered them first class arrangements: Fully reclining seats, only two to a row, champagne with every meal and a video game and movie console for Juan. The father sat back on the plane, sipping champagne and thinking what great fortune had smiled down on them. This trip promised to be everything he hoped for him and his son.

They arrived to Madrid the next morning, fresh and energized by the evening’s luxurious in-flight accommodations. The airport had just completed its major modernization campaign. It was a cacophony of angled columns shooting up and over them like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Elevators going up, escalator shooting down, walk this way, step over there, stay here. The father thought that this airport was a testament to artistic form rather than pragmatic function.

When it was their turn to cross the red line into the customs agent’s booth, he pulled out his passport he had carefully stuffed into his knapsack. He handed it to the custom’s agent.

“Where’s his passport?”

“He’s only five. He comes in on my passport. I have this notarized form and….”

“You don’t have his passport?”

“No, I don’t, but he doesn’t need one, he’s my son…”

“What did you think would happen without a passport for him?” The agent asked that with such a polite look on his face that the father thought he should answer. He completely missed the irony in the agent’s voice.

“Nothing, he is only a little child…”

“Come with me”. The agent closed the door and walked them across the shiny tile floor to another officer. They talked together far enough away that I couldn’t hear them.

Juan tugged at my hand. “What’s happening, Daddy?’

“We don’t have a passport, Juanito. The men are trying to help us. Can you be quiet right now, ok?”

“But you had a sapaporte, Daddy. I don’t understand.”

Neither did the father. Had he been to busy leading up to the trip to notice that children, even young ones, need passports these days? Can’t this be fixed here and now? It can’t be that big of a deal.

The second officer came over to us. He was polite, even friendly.

“Do you speak Spanish?” The father nodded. The officer continued “Look, there isn’t anything we can do today for you,” You have to understand that you can’t come into Spain without proper passports. But yours is a strange case, no? You were coming as tourists?”

“Yes, only for 3 weeks.”

“Well, I’m really, really sorry, but we cannot let you in. We’d like to, but we can’t. You’ll have to come with me.” He calmly showed the way into a very small and stuffy room with about 20 people in it. Everyone looked tired and glum. Some were crying. A few had children hanging on to them.

“I’m really very, very sorry, sir. We’ve never really had an American here before, only Sudacas and Africans trying to get in illegally. If there were anything I could do, I would, sir, really. Let me talk to my superior, though, maybe he has some idea. I’ll come back later.”

They waited for hours in that dingy room. More people were brought in ever so often. Everyone glum. The father realized that they were from flights from South America or Eastern Europe. In the corner were two Romanian young men. They were having small conversations with the people next to them.

“It was unfair, I had my papers. They took them away.”

“I just lost them, I told the man”

“My sister is going to get me out, I just have to call her.”

A young guy in bright green sweat pants and yellow t-shirt, Brazilian judging from his accented Spanish and his attire, was talking to everyone, calming them down, telling them that there were always ways to get out of this mess. He was smiling, positive with a true sense of hope emanating from him.

Two agents came into the room and several people crowded around them, pleading for the use of the telephone. The agents curtly told them to shut up, that the time had come to move them to the detention center and from there, back to their home countries on the next flight.

“But you don’t understand, sir, my brother…” pleaded one middle aged man.

“Did you hear me? No telephones! The detention center has a pay phone. You knew not to come here to Spain and you did it anyway. You don’t belong here, you know that. Tomorrow you will be sent back, so just get up and be ready to go.” The agent turned and noticed the father with his sleeping son in arms.

“Sir, you’re American, right?

He nodded; feeling embarrassed to be called out in front of these people, but was there some hope?

“Look, sir, I talked to my boss, he is looking into your case, maybe there is a way, but we won’t know yet. I’m sorry, but you’ll need to go with these people.” He looked around dismissively. The father stared at the floor, quietly wishing the agent to leave him alone now.

Everyone stood up, the Brazilian man in green sweats offered to help the father with his backpack as he carried his son in his arms. They went to a bus, the type used to move around in airports, no seats, just bars to hang onto. A couple of armed guards in crisp, baby blue uniforms got on with them, joking about some party one of them had gone to the night before. The father woke his son up and put him on his feet next to him. The little boy grasped the pole with both hands. The Brazilian guy smiled at him and asked his name and where he was from.

“Cuba” said Juan. He was always confusing his birth country with the United States, where he actually lived. Can a 5-year-old immigrant possible answer differently? The Brazilian looked up, perplexed while the explained that Juan was born in Cuba but was adopted by him and now lived in California.

The bus continued on a few minutes before arriving to a nondescript building at one corner of the airport. The guards ordered everybody off in single file and everyone went inside through a double set of doors and into a large room reminiscent of an American school cafeteria. In one corner sat an old television set and some plastic chairs. Round plastic tables were dispersed haphazardly around the well-lit room. People sat at some of those tables, a few watching a soccer game on television, several children running around playing tag. The father felt self conscious as they watched them walk into the room. The guards told everyone to find a cot in any of the many small rooms leading off this central one.

One of the guards came up to the father to offer them a room off in one corner. “This one is empty sir, so you and your son can rest in peace.” Juan entered the room and saw four empty cots with clean, white sheets. He sat down on one of them and noticed the bounce. He kept on bouncing lightly as the guard explained where the bathrooms and showers were. The father mumbled his thanks, not sure exactly why he felt the need to be polite while at the same time not wanting to lose hope that some arrangement could be made for his son.

It was early afternoon, Spanish time. The pay phone in the center of the large room started to ring. The Brazilian in green sweats answered it with such familiarity that I imagined he had been here before. He called out “Josefa? Is there a Josefa here?” A large woman came quickly towards the phone, talking very rapidly and somewhat hopefully with the caller. It felt awkward to be listening to the details of her conversations, so the father lay down with Juan on the cot and started to sing him a lullaby.

    • “Caballito blanco,
    • sacame de aquí,
    • llévame a mi pueblo
    • donde yo nací”

The phone rang constantly throughout the afternoon. Kids ran around playing tag. The father would have stayed on his cot if not for Juan, who, in usual fashion, incorporated himself into the games. The Brazilian man, forever the optimist, was making paper airplanes for the kids and they started flying them around. Two Spanish guards sat in their office. People were gathered around the television. It was the World Cup finals, France against Brazil. There was growing excitement about the game, with Brazil ahead, when the Spanish guards announced that dinner had arrived.

“Everyone, come over here to get your meals.” They were passing out Styrofoam containers with hamburgers, French fries and juice. The father sat with his son and picked out the tomatoes and lettuce he knew would be rejected anyway. Some of the detainees took their food towards the television to continue with the soccer match. One of the guards yelled “Get back over here. In Spain, we eat on tables, not on the floor like animals.” The Brazilian stepped up to the guard and tried to explain to that Brazil was winning the match, but the guard stopped him “Listen, you’re here by your mistaken ideas, not mine, so don’t say anything else, hear me?” The Brazilian’s smile just broadened, seemingly unperturbed by this guard’s impatient rant. He sat down at the white table with some of the other detainees.

Time passed slowly.  Some hours later, the same guard who seemed to offer some modicum of hope came to find the father. He said that he apologized profusely, but there was no way to allow my son into the country without a passport.

“You should know, sir, that if I could, I would let you into the country. These laws weren’t made for Americans or Spaniards, right? If there was any way, I would. I talked to the airlines and tomorrow morning you have a flight back to Miami. That was the best I could do.”

The father thanked the agent again for his help, still not sure where this compulsion to thank people for nothing came from. He did feel some relief that there was at least some plan to follow. He watched Juan and the other kids at a table opposite the television set.  Now the Brazilian was drawing pictures for them to color. He was singing some silly songs in a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese while also conversing to some women sitting along side them. Juan was busily coloring the dinosaur the guy had drawn for him. It had the look of some entertaining school activity.

It was getting late and although neither of them sleepy due to jet lag.  The father gathered his son up quietly and went to their room, which they shared with several other guys, including a young man with an ill fitting suit who told the father that the Spaniards had unfairly taken his passport and visa in customs. Juan told him that I had a “sapaporte” but that he did not, but he was not sure why. The man looked at the father strangely. He did not want to explain anything to anybody anymore.

The father laid Juan down with him on the cot and they both tried to sleep. He caught his breath. He remembered that he did not actually have his own passport nor the notarized authorization to travel his mother had signed. They had been confiscated when they were first pulled aside and in the confused belief that the customs officers could really help, he had not asked for them back.

“Go to sleep, Juanito. I’m going to the bathroom. I’ll be right back, ok?” He stepped out of the room and over to the security guard’s office. He was watching some game show on television. He told him about the passport dilemma. The guard nodded, unworried, and explains that all documents would be given back to them the following day. The father went back to the room and lay down with his son and tried sleeping.

Sleep did not completely come to either of them. After coloring several pages at the bathroom entrance, Juan yawns. The father carries him back to the cot. Sitting on the cool tile floor, he watches his son curl up in fetal position and fall asleep holding onto the corner of his pillow, as is his custom. He stays there until the first morning light comes through the barred window. People start stirring.

Around mid-morning, with Juan again playing with several children and the Brazilian man, groups of people are called over to the security guard’s office. Time to go. The father gathers up their stuff and walks over to gather up his son as well. The Brazilian man surprisingly hugs the man, saying that everything is going to work out just fine. The father smiles at his lack of words. As they step out the double doors, though, he realizes he had never thanked the Brazilian.

The father hopes that the same customs agent who had escorted them to this center and had expressed sympathy for their situation would be taking them to our flight. Instead, a large, surly man had taken his place. The father immediately asks for his passport and notarized letter. The agent hands over the passport, but says he knows nothing about a notarized letter.

“How can you not know?” the father asks impatiently. “I need that letter. How can I go back to the US without something saying he is my son? How?” The man says he would call his office. The father tries imagining his arrival to the Miami immigration control without any sort of documentation for his Spanish speaking son, adopted from Cuba under the dark cloud of the Elian Gonzales immigration folly just a few years earlier. He trembles.

The customs officer says that the people in the office are looking for the letter, but that they had to make their way towards the flight. They would meet us at the gate if they find the letter. “What do you mean, if they find the letter. I can’t leave without it, I won’t”. The father holds to Juan’s hand tightly. He looks down at his face, but he is looking off towards the children playing behind them.

“You’ll have to go, sir.  They’re looking for the letter. Let’s go”

They walk through the maze of columns of the airport, through the crowds and all the father could notice was the huge gun hanging off the agent’s belt. Juan notices it too, pointing at it with his finger, not out of fear, rather out of a little boy’s fascination with guns. The father avoids the suspicious glances from the people they pass on the way to the gate.

Waiting for them at the gate is the sympathetic agent from the previous day. He has the letter and apologizes profusely. With some flourish he explains how he decided to bring it personally. Iberia is sending them back to Miami in first class because those are the only seats available at the last minute. As the agent hands back the notarized letter, the only form of “official” recognition that Juan is the father’s son, he shakes the father’s hand and wishes them a safe journey. This time the father vows to go against his instinct and withholds the word “gracias”.  The custom agent escorts them to the gate, hands the tickets to the ticket agent and watches as they walk down the passageway to the plane in silence.

The father and his son settle in their fully reclining seat, Juan busily exploring the video game console and seat controls as the father drinks the champagne mimosa brought to him by a smiling young steward. All traces of suspicion and guilt dissipate like the bubbles at the surface of the drink.  Juan, busy watching Sponge bob Squarepants on his video screen, jokes about our time in Spanish jail.

“We’re the good guys again, right?” says Juan.

The father leans his head against the cushion, closes his eyes and wonders what he means.
©Glenn Kenyon, 2010

Glenn Kenyon is both a writing obsessed math teacher and a math obsessed writing teacher of adolescents in middle school. I am a newly minted BAWP fellow (2009) looking to convince that it isn’t the destination that matters, but the journey. I am a blue belt karate student trying to live the motto “feeling good and getting better”. I am and it is.

2 Responses to “Sapaporte by Glenn Kenyon”

  1. Judy Bebelaar Says:

    I loved your story. Would you like to read it – or other work at the Nomad Cafe Wednesday, July 28 with Nicholas Karavatos? I think you’d be a good match. I’ll send you his bio. He has a new book, political poems and loved poems. The Nomad is a small cafe at 65th and Shattuck. You can read more about it on the BAWP website. The readings are 4 to 6:30. I try to pair a BAWP reader (you) and a non-Bawper like Nicholas. My phone is 510-845-5430 if you want to call.

    Judy

  2. Outlook Says:

    this was a great portion cheers for the help.

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