“Imagine you have a rich millionaire boyfriend, and he is whisking you off to Paris for a long weekend,” my husband says from the beat-up couch we got via Brooklyn Freecycle. He is filling in my French visa application form. It’s a pretty October day, and I am four months pregnant. We have just booked tickets to fly to France over Thanksgiving weekend.
Right here, at the beginning of this story, I want you to know that this trip was not my idea. When we decided to do “something special” for this last Thanksgiving we would have together before a baby arrived on the scene, I was imagining a nice-ish Brooklyn restaurant, maybe some artisanal ice cream.
But when Rollo was twenty-one, he spent two months in Paris doing nothing. He didn’t go to a single museum. Every evening, he ate at a restaurant where the chef cooked whatever she wanted and guests played the guitar in the corner. He always says Paris as if the word was a demitasse of coffee and he was stirring sugar into it.
“What if my Advance Parole does not come in time?” I worried.
“Why wouldn’t it? We applied a month ago. Our documents are in order.”
This was the other big production of the year. We were in the middle of my green card application, and I was not allowed to leave the country until I got my Advance Parole letter from Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“How can we afford it?”
“Honey, this is what tax refunds are for.”
He was talking about next year’s tax refund. From the early days of our courtship, we had fallen into these roles—the spender and the saver. The spender thinks nothing of buying cheese at the Fort Greene farmer’s market, where it is three times as expensive as elsewhere. The saver soaks chickpeas overnight after buying them in bulk from the Middle Eastern grocery on Atlantic Avenue. The spender cannot pass by the bookstores on Court Street without acquiring a book or two. The saver has made a game out of “Walking Away”—from books, shoes, handbags, chocolate, unlimited ride MetroCards, air conditioners, antique wooden chests at the flea market. The spender thinks, “Let’s FedEx it”; the saver knows how to get a discount on Forever stamps. The spender thinks you can spend next year’s tax refund. The saver is too shocked for speech. The spender knows how to play to the saver’s weakness. He says, almost accusingly, “Also, do you realize that November is off-season? The hotels will be so cheap.”
Our immigration lawyer says yes, go ahead and make travel plans for Thanksgiving week because yes, sure sure, the Advance Parole will come through by then.
“Only if you can keep our round-trip tickets under a thousand dollars,” I say from the couch as Rollo hunts for fares. “Done!” he says. “Only a little more than a thousand.” Then he sweetens the deal by volunteering to do all the work for my visa application.
The last time I had to get a French visa, for a writing retreat in the south of France, I sulked and cried and almost gave up several times. And Rollo shrugged and said, “Why are you taking this so personally? It’s just paperwork.”
But how not to take it personally? The visa application is the physical manifestation of First World suspicion of Third World. Those of us with the wrong-colored passports are guilty, until proven otherwise, of the desire to immigrate and infiltrate and infect. And the French, in particular, have put the entire weight of their paper-loving bureaucracy into their visa application. I lie on the couch reading A Moveable Feast and practicing French with Pimsleur lessons while Rollo gathers copies of my freelance pay stubs, bank statements, income tax returns, our marriage certificate, passport-size photos that show my hairline and my ears. I hear him mutter, “This is so fucking meaningless. Why do they need all this stuff?”
But before we can hand in the complete visa application at the French consulate, I need my Advance Parole from the American government. Our flight is only a couple of weeks away now, but the Parole has not arrived. After several desperate SOS’s, we get a one-sentence e-mail from our lawyer suggesting we can expedite the process by getting a letter stating there is a family medical emergency.
That is, we can trick the system into coughing up my Advance Parole early if we get a letter from India saying one of my parents is dying and this is my last opportunity to see him or her. According to the lawyer, this is the most natural thing in the world. I cannot even imagine doing it.
My friend Jess, whose parents migrated to the United States from the same part of India where mine live, tries to persuade us.
“Do it. You know what Indian parents are like. They would rather announce they are dying than have you lose a few hundred dollars.”
This is actually true. I have inherited my penny-pinching directly from my mother, a woman who has washed out and saved every glass jar, every plastic container that she has met in her life.
“Would you do that to your dad?” I ask Jess.
She shakes her head.
So we wait. And we pray. We check my immigration status online relentlessly and mindlessly. Always, my case status is “pending.” And just in case the website has not been updated, we check our mail twice a day. All the while, I think, “If only he had listened to me.” Perhaps every partner in every relationship has said words to this effect at one time or the other. But to me, this grouse seems also to reflect a fundamental gulf between our experiences. Surely only a white American man would assume that if you take care of your paperwork in time, life will sort itself out. The rest of the world knows that immigration statuses and travel plans can never be taken for granted. The rest of us have stood in lines and tried to placate stone-faced bureaucrats. The rest of us expect things not to go well.
One morning in my obstetrician’s waiting room, I hear a woman sobbing. The sobs are coming through the thin walls of the cubicle behind me. All of us pregnant women, leafing through magazines or eyeing the reality show on the TV, slowly become alert. We do not meet each other’s eyes. A nurse hurries over. “What is wrong, sweetie?”
“My baby died,” she says.
A collective spasm of horror passes through the waiting room. Our hands shake; our lips tremble. The sobs continue. Each one of us feels her grief, albeit in the diluted form that is accompanied by the selfish thought: “Thank god thank god thank god that is not me.”
In the spectrum of human troubles, worrying about whether I will go to France or not is a good problem to have. My unborn baby is healthy. My marriage is strong. My parents are alive. My existence can be summarized in these descriptions of privilege: healthy, strong, alive. I should be grateful. But.
There is yet another privilege, the most glamorous of all, and that is power. I am not powerful. Waiting for my Advance Parole and my France visa, calculating the money we will lose if the Parole does not come in time, I recognize this yet again. And even here, confronting my lack of power is also a way of reckoning with the privileges I do have as a traveler. I am not an undocumented immigrant living in fear of police. I am not a Palestinian who has to subject herself to inspection in her own land. I am not an innocent man in Guantánamo who doesn’t know if he will make it out alive. My own taste of powerlessness is only a tiny glimpse of the enormously lopsided world people with the wrong passports inhabit. An entire universe of people waiting for documents that may or may not come, now or never.
In the meantime, we have to continue making arrangements for Paris. Rollo books us into a hotel with a twenty-four-hour cancellation policy. Then he fakes a fax from the hotel because the French consulate needs proof of accommodation and will not accept emails.
We lie in bed, dreading the thought of canceling our tickets. What itches at me is the money, rescued from the jaws of student loans and Brooklyn rents only to disappear into the greedy jowls of the airline industry. I have heard that babies are expensive. And here we are, gambling on visas and tickets instead of saving for a bigger apartment. Or a new laptop. Or a decent mattress to replace our sagging, third-hand IKEA futon. All surrendered at the altar of some exacting travel god.
“Let’s just think of it as a dummy tax,” Rollo says. What matters more to him is that we may not go to Paris. Fall evenings on the Seine, bookstores on winding streets, café au lait—all that romantic crap. “If we don’t go to Paris now, we will never go,” he says. It feels like a death knell. Our studio apartment closes in around us.
I turn away and pick up a book from our nightstand. I am reading an essay by Faye Fiore about Elvis Presley. On a Sunday night in 1970, Elvis decides on a whim to go to Washington, DC, and meet President Nixon. ATMs are not yet widely available, but he manages to cash a $500 check at the Beverly Hilton. On the flight to DC with his friend Jerry Schilling, who is safeguarding the money, Elvis wanders off and meets a soldier, on leave from Vietnam, who is sitting in economy class. He comes back to Schilling.
“Hey, man, where’s the $500?”
“Elvis, we’re going to Washington. That’s all we’ve got,” Schilling cautions.
“You don’t understand. This man’s been in Vietnam,” Elvis says, then heads straight to coach and gives the soldier all their cash.
I want to be Elvis Presley. I want to be able to give away all my money to some stranger who needs it more. I want to have the bottomless faith that money grows on trees. I think of my brother, who hands out loans to anyone who asks without ever wondering if he will get it back. I cannot imagine Elvis worrying about losing money over an airplane ticket for a trip he could not go on.
Then, three days before the day of the flight, as I am teaching an afternoon class, I get a mysterious text message: “Your case status has been updated. Please check online.” I forward the text to Rollo. His reply comes back in seconds, in all caps. “APPROVED!”
The Advance Parole has been mailed out from a Missouri office. Will it reach us in time? It is Wednesday evening when we get the message, and the flight leaves on Saturday. The last possible day that I can get a French visa is Friday. In other words, the Parole has to arrive on Thursday.
The next morning, we call our local post office. “Sorry, there is nothing from Missouri for that address.”
I call the French consulate. “Madam, speak up, please. No Advance Parole, no visa. No. No. No printouts from the website. I don’t care if it has been approved. You cannot come late. We cannot wait for your mail, madam. What is that, madam? Speak up, please. You want to go to France, you must make Advance Parole.”
We call the post office again. When we explain our situation, the post office manager, a woman who will get a rent-stabilized corner apartment in heaven when she dies, asks us to come to the post office early in the morning on Friday so we can pick up our mail before our 10 AM interview at the French consulate.
The next morning, we arrive early at the post office. It hasn’t opened yet. We pace outside in the chilly fall morning, holding hands. At 8:45 AM, we walk up to the door and notice a very tiny sign saying the post office is closed for repairs. Parcels can be picked up from an address three doors down. We run there. The mailman is sorting packages.
“This is only for parcels,” he tells us. “All first-class mail is at Kosciuszko Street.”
“Where is that?”
“I dunno. Look, you guys are wasting your time. No one there will—”
Before he finishes the sentence, we are in a cab, Google-mapping Kosciuszko Street. We have never heard of this street, but within a year, when we are priced out of Fort Greene, our apartment-hunting will bring us back to this neighborhood. “Can you wait for us outside? We will need to go to the Upper East Side right away,” Rollo asks the driver.
At the Kosciuszko Street post office, the kind-hearted manager makes us sit down and goes inside the mailroom to investigate. Rollo puts his arm around me and kisses my cheek. A woman waiting in line shakes her head at us and laughs. I smile back. The post office manager walks toward us with a long envelope. I can hear the church bells ring at Notre Dame.
She comes to us, purses her lips, and shakes her dreadlocks. “I am sorry.” The envelope is not from the Department of Homeland Security.
Perhaps when she sees me cry, the woman in the line who just laughed at us wonders what terrible news, what intimation of death or disease, is inside the envelope we don’t even open. I weep all the way home. I weep for the money we will lose and for the city we will not see. We regret that we cannot be of assistance to you in this regard, the ticketing agent from Air France reads from a scripted apology after I cancel our expensive, non-refundable tickets. I hang up and weep for the person I cannot bring myself to be. Someone who would not be bitter and furious and murderous about losing $1,626.
Rollo calls from work a few hours later. “How are you, darling?”
“Great! It’s just money, you know,” I try.
“Do you still want to go to the Eid dinner?”
Of course, I have forgotten all about the Eid dinner. Eid-ul-Adha, the annual Muslim festival that celebrates sacrifice and generosity, had fallen the previous week, and we have made plans to attend dinner at a mosque near Times Square on Friday night. But after a sleepless night poring over my French visa application and a morning of running around, the thought of dressing up and dining out seems exhausting.
“We don’t have to go.” Rollo says. “The tickets were just twenty dollars each.”
“We can’t just keep buying tickets to things and not showing up,” I snap into the phone. “I’ll see you at six.”
So we go, with Elvis and my mother fighting for my soul. And though I have dragged us out only because money doesn’t grow on trees, I can’t help having fun when a gorgeous girl in a hijab runs a Jeopardy!-style game based on the Qur’an. A kind old lady insists I should take a second helping of baklava “for the baby.” I eavesdrop on a conversation about the best malls in the Middle East. (Bahrain. Really.)
As we are leaving the building, we hear music coming from the auditorium on the first floor. We peek in, and then, why not, we are sitting in the front row of a church open mic. The building houses various religious organizations, and a bunch of teenagers from the youth ministry are having a Friday Night Social. Etta James covers alternate with stand-up comedy.
“Our next musicians, I actually found them in Bryant Park busking and told them they should come to our open mic,” the emcee is saying. “So here they are: Jean-François and Augustin, from Québec.”
Jean-François has a shoulder-long mop of golden corkscrew curls and a colorful scarf knotted around his neck. He sets up his accordion while Augustin, lanky and shy, his cap obscuring a tiny bird head, plays a few tentative notes on his harmonica.
The moment they start performing, it is clear that these two have outclassed everyone in the room. The accordion keeps time with the complex melodies that Augustin is blowing into the harmonica, hopping now, mellow now, picking up the pace again. Stories tumble out through their songs.
After a couple of songs, Jean François pulls the mic toward him. “Er … Zank you.” His accent is so irresistible that we all laugh. And he laughs with us. “If you want to take us home, we have CeeDeez for sale. And if you really want to take us home, you can take us home because we need a place to stay tonight.” Then it is time for three teenagers to rap about heartbreak.
That night on the way to Brooklyn, when I offer them my MetroCard, Jean-François and Augustin hustle through the turnstile together after paying a single fare. Every frugal bone in my body is impressed. The next morning when I wake up, the two thin bodies are sprawled on our futon. Rollo is scrambling eggs.
“Where would you have stayed last night?” I ask them over coffee.
“We go to café and stay awake the whole night, and then in the morning, we sleep in the park.”
Jean François and Augustin are taking time off from their music school in Montréal to travel around the United States, playing songs and forming impromptu bands with other wandering musicians. They sleep on park benches, in McDonald’s, in living rooms they find on CouchSurfing.com. But New York has bewitched them, and they want to stay here through Christmas.
“What will you do till then? Can you get jobs?” I ask.
“To make music is our job,” Augustin says.
“It is also our passion, so it does not feel like job.” Jean-François flashes his killer smile.
I am immediately chastened. When people ask me how long I plan to take time off from the real world to write, I have never been able to answer with so much clarity and charm. These boys are not amateurs.
Jean-François picks up my Paris guidebook. “You go to Paris soon?”
After we finish telling them our tragic, twisted tale, it is time for the boys to go play music at the farmers’ market near our apartment.
“I want our child to be like these kids,” Rollo says after they leave.
“I want to adopt them,” I reply. “I want to arrange their marriages.”
We will be good parents, I think then. There are about ten years between the musicians and us. A whole decade of mistakes, chasing rainbows, growing out of annoying tics, heartbreaks and heart-fixes, switching cities, changing minds, learning again and again and again that life is not a plan, not a spreadsheet, not a neat box, packed with essentials. I look at my husband, a man who has performed on stage in an adult diaper, and I think, This will be good. Raising a child with you will be good.
A few hours later, Jean-François and Augustin knock on our door, having lugged their accordion up four flights of stairs for the second time in twelve hours. This time, they are also loaded down with vegetables. Broccoli, squash, potatoes, purple carrots, eggplants, brussels sprouts, beets. All the bounty of a farmers market in fall.
“We thought, since you cannot go to Paris, maybe we bring Paris to you. So we are going to cook you dinner and play music, and you can pretend you are in a bistro in Paris,” Jean-François says, eyes dancing.
“If you like.” Augustin adds prudently.
I feel a block of ice melting inside me.
Jean-François holds up two small yellow cylindrical objects. “Look, we got you candles. It will be very romantic, like Paris.”
I know these candles. They are beeswax candles from our favorite farmer. I bought one six months ago and have been saving it for Rollo’s birthday.
“I hope you guys didn’t spend too much money on this stuff,” I say.
“Ah, not problem. We made some money playing. And we sold three CDs.”
And so that night, when we should have been in Paris, we eat vegetables from upstate New York. Jean-François paces around our tiny kitchen, smelling herbs and spices, pouring in way more olive oil than strictly necessary, flipping the pan and making the vegetables dance, while Augustin cleans up as they go. They serve us on our own chipped, mismatched plates, inherited from generations of previous roommates. A layer of fresh dandelion greens, topped with crunchy, sautéed vegetables, and a cup of quinoa nestling in the middle. When we are done, Jean-François puts a strawberry-rhubarb pie in the oven and takes his accordion out. As the strawberry filling oozes out of the pie and fills the apartment with the smell of sun and butterflies and flowers, Jean-François and Augustin play French waltzes for us. And tango. And old jazz melodies. And klezmer music. And then French waltzes again, because, after all, this is supposed to be a Parisian evening. But it is not. It is, instead, the best kind of Brooklyn evening. We dance awkwardly, laughing at ourselves, our unborn child in between us, trying not to crash into the futon, hoping the finicky neighbor downstairs won’t come pounding on our door because the music is too loud, too abundant, too powerful.
It is the beeswax candles that melt my heart again and again and again. They are not cheap, these tiny yellow candles that burn so bright. They tip the scale and turn the generosity of the dinner into recklessness, extravagance. I wonder if our musicians counted the money they made that morning and decided there was enough for two beeswax candles or if they bought the candles first, before counting. I wonder if in their friendship, as in our marriage, there is a spender and a saver. The spender says, “Hey, let’s get these candles.” And the saver replies, “Do we really need them?” And the spender says, “You are right. We don’t. But look, aren’t they pretty?” And the saver, charmed by the jewel-like gleam of a flame that has not yet been lit, the sights of a city that has not yet been seen, but most of all, by the way a dream shimmers on a beloved’s face, says, “Yes, let’s do it.”